May 21, 2019

UPF vs. SPF: The Scoop on Sun-Protective Clothing

Sun-protective clothing sounds a little unnecessary, until you consider the statistics.

Sorry to be a downer, but according to the American Academy of Dermatology, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with about one in five Americans developing it in their lifetime. Some types are not that serious; others, like melanoma are extremely dangerous. The scariest part: Severe sunburns during childhood are associated with increased risk of melanoma later in life, so protecting your kiddos from burns is extra important.

Sunscreen, of course, is essential, but SPF only goes so far: It rubs off easily, is a pain to reapply over and over, and it’s tough to make sure you’ve covered every spot of skin. “I’ve been wearing sun protective fabrics—called ultraviolet protection factor or UPF fabrics—for years,” says top dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD, who just partnered with Cabana Life to launch a beachy UPF collection for women and girls.

Dr. Bowe said she’s been shocked to find out how few people know about UPF fabrics and their benefits, so we asked her to help us break it down.

If you’re like me, your first question is going to be: Can’t I just throw on any T-shirt for sun protection?

The problem is that while plenty of clothing that isn’t specifically marketed as UPF fabric will protect you from UVA and UVB rays, plenty of it won’t—and it’s hard to know which is which. For instance, the Skin Cancer Foundation says that “as a rule, light-colored, lightweight and loosely-woven fabrics do not offer much protection from the sun,” and whatever poolside cover-up you’re packing probably falls into that category. Darker, heavier fabrics are better; they recommend a long-sleeve, dark denim shirt. Sure, wear that to your next beach day.

Clothing that is specifically designed to be something you’d want to wear on a hot, sunny day that comes with a high UPF makes sense, then. “Just like SPF is a measure of how effectively your sunscreen blocks certain UV rays from damaging your skin, UPF is a measure of how well your fabric blocks UV rays,” Dr. Bowe explains. “I always recommend a UPF of 50+, which is the highest rating available. If you see that UPF 50+ on the label, it means the fabric has been tested in a lab setting, and has been shown to block up to 98 percent of UVA and UVB rays.”

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