Wash and Increase Protection
Not sure about sun-protection clothing? Well, you could increase the protection that your clothes give you by just washing them. Experts say that washing your clothes with brightener-contained detergents makes the clothes whiter and cleaner because they act as dyes. Repeated washing can, thus, increase UV ray absorption of the fabric.
The harsh rays of the sun can wreak havoc on unprotected skin causing it to sag, tan, and wrinkle, and have even more serious effects like skin cancer. While most of us use protection from the sun in the form of SPF lotions, there could arise a need for stronger protection. The primary tool that we can use for protection against harmful UV rays is clothing. What we wear often acts as the first layer of defense against any form of sun damage. And while our normal clothing may offer a slight degree of protection, most flimsy, light-colored, lightweight, and loosely woven summer clothes do nothing much to protect our skin. In fact, there may be a possibility that they do more harm than good.
This is where sun-protective clothing comes into the picture. Made of fabrics that are rated for protection from UV rays, these clothes are designed to protect you from harmful radiations that the sun emits. In this article, we give you a brief overview of how these clothes work, what their defining characteristics are, how they are rated, and other important tips that you will need to keep in mind when wearing them.
Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) Garments
Ultraviolet rays are of two types - UVA and UVB, both of which can wreak havoc on your skin. While UVA rays are much less powerful, these can cause long-term damage in small doses. UVB rays on the other hand, are the more dangerous of the two and are the ones that cause sunburn. While sunscreens with SPF do provide a certain amount of protection, they still allow a lot of harmful UVA radiation to penetrate your skin. Most doctors recommend that if you are constantly exposed to the sun, you use head-to-toe protection.
This is where sun-protection clothing comes in. It is specifically designed to shield the skin from the sun by covering a maximum amount of skin and is made from a fabric rated for its level of ultraviolet or UV protection.
Laboratory tests have shown that many typical cotton T-shirts and light-weight fabrics allow 50% of harmful UVB rays to pass through to your skin when dry, and 10% to 20% more when wet. Sun-protective clothing keeps out more UV rays than a sunscreen. For example, if a clothing item is rated UPF 50, then the percentage of UV radiations that are blocked are anywhere between 97.5% to 99%. The measurement of UVA protection in clothing offers an improvement over the traditional SPF rating of sunscreens, which blocks only UVB radiation, while UPF blocks both UVA and UVB. SPF or Sun Protection Factor rating is used for skin applications, while UPF or Ultraviolet Protection Factor is the standard technique for measuring the protective value of fabrics.
Testing and Ratings
A study published in 1998 concluded that washing UPF-rated clothes at home with a regular detergent, OBA (optical brightening agent) included or not, does not reduce fabrics effectiveness. In fact, they remain as efficient for at least 20 washes.
As with SPF, the higher the UPF, the better the protection that the fabric offers. Fabrics that absorb anywhere between 97% and 99% of UV rays are simply labeled UPF 50+. When we say absorb, what actually happens is that during the interaction of the radiation and the textiles, the energy of the UV rays is changed and converted to heat. This process causes the rays to become harmless. The first UPF testing procedure was developed in Australia and the original rating system laid down a condition wherein no fabric with a rating below UPF 15 could be marketed as sun-protection fabric.
So how is the rating assigned? UPF-rated fabrics undergo tests during the process of which UV rays are passed through the fabric, which are measured by either a spectrophotometer or a spectroradiometer. This helps in calculating the ability of the fabric to absorb UV light, and a UPF value is assigned. Some companies which manufacture this fabric also wash the clothes repeatedly and expose them to sunlight, after which they do the UPF test again. They do this to test the durability of the fabric's protection. There are three categories of UPF protection:►
A UPF between 15 and 24 in which 93.3% - 95.5% radiations are blocked provides Good
A UPF between 25 and 39 in which 96.0% - 97.4% radiations are blocked provides Very Good
A UPF between 40 and 50 in which 97.5% - 99%+ radiations are blocked provides Excellent
A self-regulated industry in North America, manufacturers and retailers follow either the AATCC (American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists) method or the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) method of testing.
The sun protection provided by a fabric depends on several factors, which include the weave, the color, the weight, the stretch, and the wetness. Clothes that offer protection from harmful radiation of the sun also have enhanced UV protection levels, thanks to UV absorbers that are added at various points during the process of manufacture. Let us now take a look at the factors that affect the protection ability of the fabric in a little more detail.
- The denser the fabric and the tighter the weave, the better. If there are fewer holes or gaps in string like in canvas, twill, and denim, then it will provide better protection. Loosely woven fabrics like mesh, voile, and crepe are on the other end of the spectrum.
- The darker the color, the more protection it provides. Since dark colors use more dye, they absorb more UV radiation, and therefore, provide better protection. While light colors reflect visible light, UV radiations just pass through the fabric to your skin.
- Thicker fabrics which are also heavier, like denim and corduroy, tend to shield you against the radiations of the sun better.
- Fabrics tend to stretch out with age and this increases the size of the gaps between the strings, making clothes ineffective against the sun.
- If the fabric is wet, then chances are that the protection may reduce. This does not hold true for fabrics like silk and viscose though, which tend to get more protective when they are wet.
- While a natural fabric like cotton can feel like a God-sent in summers, it doesn't provide great protection. If it has a UV finish though, it can be extremely protective. On the other hand, synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, etc., often have UV absorbers, which boosts sun protection.
Unknowingly, you may already own clothes that provide you with sun protection and never have realized it. Close-knitted or tightly-woven fabric like denim, wool, polyester, nylon, Lycra, polypropylene, and natural or synthetic indigo dyed denim and canvas are excellent choices. Compared to these materials, polyester crepe, viscose, knits, undyed/white jeans, worn/old fabric etc., provide lesser protection from the sun as the gaps between the strings are larger. But studies show that if not UPF rated, most of these clothes will only provide a UPF of 5 - 10. Also there is the issue that most clothing designed for the summer tends to show skin rather than cover it, so the surface area that is exposed is increased tremendously. This is the reason why sun-protection clothing has become such a rage.
The most common concern that manufacturers like Coolibar, Solumbra, REI, etc., face is an inherent block against wearing anything that covers you up fully in the warm summer months. But most companies ask you to take into account traditional clothing of people who live in deserts. Lightweight, loose-fitting clothes that cover you from head to toe are a given. Taking into account prejudices though, companies use modern technologies to create clothing that is not only highly breathable but also moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and extremely comfortable.
While it is not possible to create a wardrobe fully packed with sun-protection clothing, having these clothes in your cupboard to wear during warm and humid temperatures or in situations when there is prolonged exposure to sun's rays may be a good idea, to protect yourself from harmful exposure.