Sunburn through clothes - what you need to know

As the weather starts to warm up, it’s time to turn your attention to skin protection. Most people understand the need to wear sunblock or SPF protective moisturiser. But did you know you can also get burnt through your clothes?

You may feel that by ‘covering up’, you’re protecting your skin. In some cases, this is true, but many materials actually don’t protect you nearly as much as you might think. 

The development of sun protective clothing means that now your clothes too can be an effective defense against skin cancers, melanoma and premature skin ageing. 

Skin cancer is described as Australia’s ‘national cancer’ but it is also the most preventable. So, here’s what you need to know to help you make the right decisions about protecting your skin.

SPF vs UPF 

The sun protective rating for clothing is called UPF, which stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor. This rating system measures the ultraviolet (UV) protection provided by the fabric. It is very similar to the SPF rating system used for sunscreens, which most people are familiar with. 

Many people are shocked to learn that a standard t-shirt or hat, may have a UPF rating as low as 5, which is roughly equal to wearing sunscreen with just SPF5.

The highest sun protective rating for fabrics available currently is UPF50+. This is almost the same as wearing SPF50+ sunscreen all day long without the need to reapply it. Clothes with UPF50+ block about 98% of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays.

What can impact the UPF rating of fabrics?

There are many different things that affect the level of UV protection in clothes. These include:
  • Weave density: the tighter the knit or weave, the better. If the sun can penetrate your clothes easily, it’s not protective, no matter how much clothing you wear. 
  • The type of fabric: Not all fabrics can protect you from UV rays so some fabrics are more effective than others at blocking UV radiation. Some synthetic materials like acrylic, polyester, nylon and lycra or rayon tend to reflect more UV and are therefore more protective.
  • Colour: the darker the better. You might be tempted to wear light colours in hot sunny weather, but the UPF rating is higher for darker colours because they absorb more UV rays, compared to the same fabric in a lighter colour.
  • Thickness and weight: the thicker and heavier the better.
  • Tension or stretch: the less stretchy the better.
  • Moisture Content: When fabric gets wet, it tends to reduce the UPF of the fabric. For example, a thin white cotton t-shirt with a UPF of 5 may only have a UPF of 3 when wet. 
  • Fabric condition: As clothes age the fabrics are likely to deteriorate and this will also reduce the UPF rating.

The UPF rating of the fabrics is important, but so is the amount of skin that it covers. When looking for sun protective clothing, it’s important to remember that the more skin you cover, the better. A long sleeve t-shirt covers more skin than a short sleeve t-shirt, especially if it has a collar or a high neckline. Long pants or leggings cover more skin than shorts, and a broad brim hat provides more protection than a baseball cap.

If you're worried about older loved ones, learn how to protect ageing loved ones in the heat.

SOLBARI is an Australian brand which specialises in UPF50+ sun protective clothing, swimwear, sun hats and accessories. Bupa has formed a partnership with SOLBARI, allowing Bupa Members an exclusive 15% discount code, which can be found on our Member Discount page. 

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