UV rays and sun-safe clothing: How to protect yourself from sun damage with your fashion choices
Here comes the sun
With our modern hyper-awareness of UV damage, looking back on mid-20th century snaps of tanned-to-a-crisp celebs can be a little cringeworthy. The sun, it appears, has never been as fond of us as we seem to be of it. Nevertheless, we're biologically hardwired to enjoy time spent outdoors in its full glare, making sun protection vitally important. As research on the topic continues to grow, we now have more sun-safe clothing options than ever; for your convenience, we've listed the key considerations — with their attendant benefits and tradeoffs — to take into account when shopping for UV-protective fashion below.
WHAT IS UPF?
A garment's ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) is inversely proportional to how much UV radiation it allows to pass through. A UPF 30 item, for example, allows 1/30 UV rays to penetrate, and is more protective than a UPF 5 item, which allows 1/5 UV rays to penetrate. A variety of factors, some of which are explained below, contribute to an item's overall UPF; generally speaking, a rating of at least UPF 30 is required of sun-safe clothing.
This one needs little explanation. Just as scissors always beats paper, a long-sleeved rashie will always beat a bikini in the same fabric. Just don't veer into Tutankhamun-cosplay territory — everything in moderation, after all.
The denser and tighter the weave of your fabric — think sturdy canvases and denims — the fewer and smaller the gaps for UV rays to penetrate. Elastic fabrics, counterintuitively, also minimise gapping by pulling fibers closer together, although excessive stretching will reduce its protective efficacy. The downside of tightly-woven textiles? Poor breathability, which necessitates moisture-wicking and antimicrobial (ew!) countermeasures.
Satins, wet-look fabrics and the like have reflective (read: UV-deflecting) qualities; we'll take this as Mother Nature's invite to be as shiny as we want, all day, errday, 'til the end of time.
Darker pigments naturally absorb more light — including UV radiation — than lighter ones, but one can compensate for this with colour saturation. Simply put, it's best to eschew pale or pastel shades for intense navy blues, blacks, and even reds and oranges; thankfully so, for any beach would look depressing if everyone were dressed like a murder of crows... at least once the novelty wears off.
Depending on the textile, wetness can significantly decrease the UV protectiveness of a garment, by expanding its fibers and allowing more UV rays to penetrate. If you're immersing yourself or caught in the rain, there's not much to be done about this, but oh well — knowledge is power!
FABRIC TREATMENTS AND NANOTECHNOLOGY
Currently, augmenting fabric's UPF with additional UV absorbent/reflective substances (as Uniqlo has done with its UV Cut collection, see below) is a popular practice. Such surface treatments may wear away with successive washes, however, and there are concerns about particle runoff; embedding protective nanoparticles into fibers at the earlier weaving stage is being explored, to prolong lifespan and reduce environmental risk.