Sun-Protective Clothing: Worth It, or Just a Pricey Trend?

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You may have noticed a trend in clothing stores: garments labeled with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) numbers.

Clothes with this added benefit can be expensive. I wondered: Are they worth the splurge? How much better are they at filtering out harmful solar rays?

You probably know that it’s important to protect yourself and your children from ultraviolet radiation.

Acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris D. Lushniak says the number of melanoma cases has nearly tripled in three decades — to 63,000 new cases diagnosed annually. It causes 9,000 deaths a year. Skin cancer is a “major public health problem that requires immediate action,” he said.

But how much protection you need depends on many things — your skin type, where you live, whether you’re near snow or water, the time of day, and whether you have a history of skin cancer, for just a few examples.

Fabrics with built-in protection

All clothing protects your skin somewhat. Think about the traditional clothing of people who live in desert climates. Often it covers them from head to toe. Clothing, “chosen and used correctly, (is) the best form of sun protection you can find,” says the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Some fabrics are better than others, though. The Mayport Mirror in Florida reports:

Factors [to consider] include construction (density and tightness of the weave), fiber type (synthetics like polyester and nylon are superior to cotton, rayon and hemp), color (darker is generally considered better than lighter because it contains more dye), stretching (more space between yarns), wetness (dry clothes are better than wet, though the reason for this isn’t clear), and general wear and tear (causing fading, thinner fabric, etc.).

Some fabrics used in sun-protective clothing are treated with chemicals, titanium dioxide and Tinosorb (more on it below) are two, that block UV rays.

Either way, the American Melanoma Foundation says, a UPF label means that the clothing should have been made to:

• Undergo 40 simulated launderings.
• Be exposed to 100 fading units of simulated sunlight (equivalent to two years of light exposure).
• And, if intended for swimwear, exposure to chlorinated water.

The higher the number, the better the protection. You’ll get “excellent” ultraviolet protection from clothing labeled UPF 40, 45 or 50+, the Melanoma Foundation says.

A voluntary labeling system has been in place since 2001. Manufacturers’ advertising claims are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission.

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How crucial is UPF clothing?

You don’t have to buy specially made clothing to get sun protection. “Some items of clothing, such as denims and corduroys, are among the most sun-protective of all garments, UPF labels or not,” the Skin Cancer Foundation says.

The New York Times quotes Dr. Naomi Lawrence, head of procedural dermatology at Cooper University Medical Center in Camden, N.J.:

“When it comes to sun protection, you really can’t beat a dark shirt with a tight weave and a good hat,” she said. “There is a lot you can do and not spend a lot of money.”

But clothes specially made with UV protection in mind can be lighter and more comfortable, especially for outdoor activities. “A specially made high-UPF shirt, say, with long sleeves and a double layer of fabric at the shoulders — a high UV exposure area — might be constructed with a lightweight material that gives the wearer superior comfort and coolness as well as added sun safety,” the Skin Cancer Foundation says.

6 ways to find the best prices

UPF clothing is often on the higher-priced end. It is becoming more stylish, but most is on the sporty side. You’ll see plenty of unclear-on-the-concept items like sun-protective clothes that are sleeveless, or that have short sleeves. Sunscreen bikinis and bathing suits are not uncommon. (A better idea: Wear a long-sleeved sun-protective rash guard over a bathing suit.)

You can find lower prices if you:

1. Keep your eyes open. The best deals may be the ones you stumble on while shopping for something else.

2. Shop off-season. You’ll pay more in high season (spring and summer). Prices are better off-season, although the selection can be narrower. I recently learned that Uniqulo, the trendy, lower-priced retailer, has a line of UPF clothes called Uniqulo UV Cut. I was late to the party, though. When I searched, in late July, most items were out of stock.

3. Search online.

  • A general Web search for “UPF clothing” turns up stores offering specialized lines.
  • Use your search engine’s shopping tool and sort by price.

4. Check these stores for sales. Use UPF as your search term and look for discounts at:

  • REI
  • Sierra Trading Post
  • Patagonia
  • Coolibar
  • LL Bean
  • Amazon
  • Uniqulo

5. Check specialty shops for sales. At least two stores sell nothing but sun-protective clothing:

  • Sunday Afternoons
  • Sun Precautions

6. Use a laundry additive. Some sun-protective clothing relies on an infusion of chemicals like titanium dioxide or Tinosorb. You can buy a Tinosorb laundry additive called Sun Guard to use at home on clothes you already own. “When added to a detergent, it increases the UPF of the clothing, and this protection lasts through 20 washings,” says the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Sun Guard is made by Rit. It doesn’t work on polyester or acrylic fabrics. Amazon sells a box that contains enough for six laundry cycles for $20.47.

Have you used UPF clothing? Do you think it’s worth paying extra for? Tell us in the comments below or on Money Talks News’ Facebook page.

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