UPF Clothing Is the Sun Protection Your Skin's Been Missing—a Derm Explains How It Works
Sunscreen isn't the only thing you should be wearing to protect your skin.
We all know that slathering on sunscreen is crucial every single time we step into the sun. But, if we’re all really honest for a second, there are days we just, well, don’t. In fact, there are entire winters you don’t, entire springtimes you don’t, and even hot and humid summer days when we all forget to reapply.
But what if we told you there was an easier way to help protect your skin? What if we told you coming home looking like a lobster was a thing of the past—just by picking out the right clothes? Yes, this is a reality, and it’s known as UPF clothing.
But just how much can we depend on clothing to protect us from the sun’s harmful rays, which can cause everything from early aging to skin cancer? We asked Rita Linkner, MD, a dermatologist with Spring Street Dermatology in New York City, about what she recommends for skin care for sunny (and cloudy) days—and how she personally and professionally feels about UPF clothing.
What Does UPF Stand for—and How Does It Differ From SPF?
Like a sunscreen’s sun protection factor, known as SPF, clothing comes with its own sun protection too. It’s known as UPF, which stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor. Like SPF, UPF measures just how effective a piece of fabric works while shielding your delicate skin from the sun.
Even better, UPF is a more reliable form of sun protection than the SPF found in sunscreen, according to the Environmental Working Group. That’s because people typically don’t apply enough sunscreen in the first place and rarely remember to reapply throughout the day, after a sweat session, or after taking a dip in the water.
Does UPF Clothing Really Work?
“Clothing with UPF is a great way to protect your skin from UV exposure, especially if you’re active outdoors,” says Linkner. While Linkner says a good SPF tells you the “interval time frame for which a sunscreen will prevent you from developing a burn from UVB light,” it won’t protect you in the long run like UPF clothing can.
But—and this is an important but—clothing cannot completely replace your sunscreen routine. It’s still crucial to use both an SPF sunscreen and UPF clothing for optimal sun protection.
“The most important thing to remember is that, while wearing clothing with UPF provides some protection from the sun, it does not replace sunscreen use, it only further protects you by adding another layer so you should pair UPF clothing with SPF on your skin for the optimal amount of sun protection,” Linkner says.
Here are the sunscreens and products Linkner recommends.
The Best UPF and SPF Products
Linkner says she throws on a rash guard from Billabong each and every time she hits the shore. That’s because the company uses a silk touch fabric with a UPF factor of 50, meaning that only 1/50, or about 2 percent, of UVB light, can penetrate through the clothing. “It’s especially great for kids in the pool where it's hard to reapply sunscreen,” she adds. “It also dries quickly, which is a plus.”
Linkner recommends her patients always go for broad-spectrum sunscreen products containing SPF level at or around SPF 50. She says to think of it this way: An SPF 15 filters out 93 percent of UVB light while SPF 30 filters out 97 percent of UVB light, which gets you at least a little bit closer to full protection.
Why 50? “[SPF 50] is the magical number where you’re maximizing UVB protection while using a formulation that’s easy to rub in, making it easier to use the right quantity of sunscreen, liberally.” As SPF levels increase beyond 50, she explains, the formulations tend to be thicker and leave a chalkier appearance, so most people will under compensate to avoid that white chalkiness by not using the right amount of sunscreen with each application.
In addition to paying attention to SPF level, seek out bottles that read “broad spectrum”—that means it blocks both UVA and UVB light. “UVA is responsible for aging skin,” Linker says. “UVB light is responsible for burning the skin.” So, without both you and your aren’t getting all the protection you absolutely need.
And, Linkner takes it one step further by explaining she applies mineral-based sunscreens, instead of chemical ones (that absorb into the skin), as well as physical sunscreens (that sit on the skin’s surface and reflect the sun’s rays). For a mineral-based sunscreen that won’t leave you with a chalky residue, try these seven sunscreens that leave a streak-free finish.
Ready to try UPF clothing for yourself? Here are seven more sun-blocking clothing items dermatologists swear by.