Sun Protection, It's for Everyone!

UPF outdoor clothingDid you know that sun-protective clothing is very much a thing? And if you aren’t wearing it during your time outdoors, you may be putting your skin (and health) at risk.

You may be wondering “what the heck is UPF clothing, and why do I need it? Isn’t my clothing good enough?”

What is UPF Clothing?

You’ve likely heard of SPF. In fact, we really hope you have if you spend a lot of time outside. SPF stands for “sun protection factor” and it’s a measure of how effectively a sunscreen protects your skin from ultra-violet rays from the sun, which harm your skin. In addition to simply burning your skin, exposure to UV rays can cause dark spots and premature aging in addition to more serious effects like a seriously increased risk of skin cancer.

An SPF rating represents a fraction of the number of harmful rays that will hit your skin; for example, SPF 5 means that ⅕ of those damaging rays will hit your skin. An SPF rating of, say, 30, means that only 1/30th of the harmful rays will be absorbed by your skin.

Kuhl Moab Sun Shirt

How Does it Work?

Well, a UPF rating is the exact same thing, only for fabric. You may be surprised to learn that most fabrics, like cotton and linen, don't do much for your skin: they have UPF ratings of about 5. And unlike SPF, UPF applies to both UVA (longer wavelengths) and UVB (shorter wavelengths.) Without getting too technical, UVA rays hit the earth (and thus your body) in greater amounts than UVBs, but they’re both quite harmful to your skin. Wearing clothing without UPF protection is akin to going out all day with just an SPF 5 sunscreen on your torso, rear, chest, and other sensitive areas: not a good idea.

Fortunately, for consumers, you don’t need much technical understanding at all to shop for UPF clothing.  It’s easy to understand since there’s a universal rating system.

Columbia Montrail long sleeve running shirt

What Level Do I Need?

What level of UPF protection do you need? Well, that’s up to you. As a general rule of thumb, the higher, the better. Just as a SPF 70 sunscreen will protect your skin better than an SPF 30, so too will a UPF 50 shirt be better than a UPF 20. Some brands determine UPF ratings by activity.

For example, Colombia makes fishing gear like the Columbia Terminal Tackle PFG Hooks Long Sleeve Shirt, which is rated to UPF 50, since anglers are subject both to UV rays from the sun and reflections off the water.

Clothing designed for travel or casual outdoor wear will have a lighter rating; Kuhl makes some excellent travel shirts, like the Kuhl Ezra Long Sleeve Shirt, which is closer to the UPF 20 rating. Running and general outdoor clothing is often somewhere in the middle, with brands like Montrail commonly offering options at the UPF30 mark, with options like the Montrail Trinity Falls Long Sleeve Running Shirt.

Fishing sun shirts Columbia PFG  

What Are the Downsides?

The only real downside to UPF clothing can be the cost, but if you’re able, spending a bit extra on a shirt is far less expensive than the long-term cost of sun damage. It’s also a matter of convenience, as having UPF protection means you don’t need sunscreen, which is often quite helpful if you’re out hiking all day and don’t want to carry around a bottle. Of course, that only goes for your skin that’s covered; be sure to still apply sunscreen on exposed skin.

UPF clothing generally doesn’t require any special laundry care, though the gentler you are on it, the better. Thinner clothing will be less effective when it comes to blocking the sun, so you may want to line dry or wash on your UPF items on gentle cycles - but you don’t have to. However, some garments have a finish or coating on them to create their protective qualities, which occasionally may limit their effectiveness to a certain number of washes. It should clearly say on the tag (or the online description) if this is the case. Darker colors generally do a better job of absorbing UV rays than lighter colors, so opt for darker colored pieces if you want to ensure your clothing will protect your skin for as long as possible.