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What is UPF clothing and does it work?

You wear sunscreen, stay in the shade when possible and avoid the sun when its rays are the strongest (from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). But have you tried UPF clothing to protect your skin?

David Harvey, M.D., a Piedmont board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon, explains how UPF clothing works, why it’s beneficial and how to use it to protect your skin from sun damage.

What is UPF clothing?

UPF stands for ultraviolet protection factor. UPF determines how much ultraviolet radiation (including UVA and UVB rays) your clothing’s fabric allows to reach your skin.

For example, if you have a shirt rated UPF 50, it will allow 1/50th of the sun’s rays to penetrate the fabric. This means the material will block 98% of UVA and UVB rays.

This much protection significantly reduces your sun exposure, which helps protect your skin. In contrast, a white t-shirt has a UPF rating of about 5.

UPF clothing is made from densely woven materials that absorb the sun’s rays and prevents sunburns and skin damage. UPF clothing and accessories can include:

  • Tops

  • Pants

  • Jackets

  • Wraps and scarves

  • Dresses

  • Hats

  • Rashguards

UPF clothing vs. sunscreen

If you wear UPF clothing and accessories, do you still need to apply sunscreen?

“I think a synergistic approach works best,” says Dr. Harvey. “UPF clothing can be utilized in those areas that are difficult to apply sunscreen, such as the back, back of arms and back of the thighs. UPF clothing is also great for kids. But be sure to apply sunscreen of at least SPF 30 to all exposed areas, such as your ears, face, hands, feet and scalp.”

Don’t forget to reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or sweating.

Does UPF clothing work better than sunscreen?

“Not necessarily, but to use sunscreen effectively, it needs to be reapplied every two hours,” he says. “Many of my patients forget to do this. We all get busy in the garden, working outside or playing golf, and don’t always have good access to sunscreen. In these latter instances, the UPF clothing may be a better choice for protection.”

When to wear UPF clothing

Dr. Harvey recommends wearing UPF clothing during outdoor activities like:

  • Swimming

  • Biking

  • Fishing

  • Golfing

  • Jogging

  • Tennis

  • Skiing

What to look for in UPF clothing

Dr. Harvey recommends choosing UPF clothes and accessories that:

  • Are in darker or brighter colors, which reduces UV penetration

  • Are made of polyester or satiny silk fabrics because they reflect light more than other fabrics

  • Are made from high-tech fabrics treated with chemical UV absorbers and dyes

  • Are loose-fitting since tighter clothes can stretch more easily and allow in more UV rays

  • Cover as much skin as possible

Also, an item’s UPF rating may be affected when it gets wet, so check the label or online product description for more information.

“Have fun this summer,” he says. “And remember to treat your skin with care.”

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