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What is UPF clothing and do you need it?

Recently, I was with a group of guys for a few days who I hadn’t met before. A good friend called Matt invited me away on a long weekend to Spain with a small group of his friends. It was actually a music pilgrimage to hear some incredible DJs but on top of that, it also gave me one final glimpse of summer in the Mediterranean before winter set in.

Naturally, we all got to know each other and what everyone did for a living. After 24 hours of being together, one Spanish guy asked me if LifeJacket had changed my behaviour in the sun. He said he’d noticed me get out of the sea and put a shirt on straight away. At the time of the conversation, I was the only person sitting in the sun with a long-sleeved t-shirt on.

I’m not particularly ‘preachy’ but if somebody asks me about sun protection, I’m happy to share what I know and have learnt. I hate the thought of sounding self-righteous so I tend to just do my own thing unless asked. Like in this situation.

So, what’s changed?

The truth is I do now practice what I live by.

And that’s a complete U-turn compared to what I did in my twenties. I used to love being tanned and did whatever I could to be in the sun.

Now, in my late thirties, I put on a facial moisturiser with SPF 30 after showering every morning. All year round.

When directly in the sun, I’m more focused on shade than sun and religiously apply SPF 50+ to any exposed skin. I’ve also been known to wear a hat despite having wicked hair (for my age)!

And as my new Spanish friend noticed, I also tend to wear clothing when possible or practical, to provide a physical barrier for my skin.

Now, I’ll be honest with you…

For me, my change in approach is probably driven by vanity first and health second. We know that 90% of ageing, wrinkles and lines are caused by ultraviolet light. In the back of my mind and at the same time, I also know I’m doing all I can to help reduce the risk of getting skin cancer.

Is clothing overkill?

One of the most surprising factoids in my locker is that a white cotton t-shirt provides the equivalent protection to an SPF 5 sun cream. If the sun was strong enough on a given day, your skin could burn through that particular t-shirt. Worse still, if the t-shirt gets wet, the protection level drops even lower. All of this is according to The Skin Cancer Foundation.

The reason is that fabrics are made of tiny fibers that are woven or knitted together, like a grid. Under a microscope, we can see spaces between the fibers through which ultraviolet radiation (UV) can pass directly and reach the skin. The tighter the knit or weave, the smaller the holes and the less UV can get through. Denim for example is a tightly woven fabric. Jeans have a UPF rating of 1700 but they’re not so practical in 30 degrees heat. Open weave fabrics like linen provide much lower protection.

An agency in Australia spotted this in the late 90s and standardised the concept. They created a measure for clothing or fabrics and called it Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). This is a measure of how much UV can pass through a fabric.

To be clear, all fabrics and clothing will have a UPF measure of some kind. But to claim that an item of clothing offers UV protection, the fabric must be tested in a laboratory to provide absolute confidence and safety to consumers.

OK, but what does UPF actually mean?

More numbers and abbreviations in the world of sun protection is not what people need but that’s where we are.

So what is UPF?

Essentially, UPF is to fabrics what SPF is to lotions/liquids/creams. It’s a measure of how effectively the cream or fabric protects your skin from UV. In the case of UPF, the measurement quantifies how effectively a piece of clothing shields your skin from the sun’s rays, depending on factors such as the fabric’s content, weight, colour, and construction.

There is a very subtle difference between SPF and UPF. SPF measures how effective a sunscreen is at blocking UVB rays only. For sunscreens, there is a separate measure for UVA. It makes me angry how complicated this all is. UPF measures how effective a fabric is at blocking both UVA and UVB – so in that respect, it’s more holistic.

Also read: What the SPF? Sun Protection Factor explained.

So putting words to one side, here are the numbers :

  • A white, UPF5 t-shirt allows 1/5th (20%) of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays to reach the skin.
  • A UPF50+ shirt allows 1/50th (2.0%) of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays to reach the skin
  • Another way to think about it is if 50 units of UV hit the fabric, only one would pass through

We know that UVA and UVB are responsible for just under 90% of skin cancers so keeping exposure down is critical. Personally, I think that’s particularly important around the trunk area which accounts for about two-thirds of UK skin cancer cases in men.

Honestly, why would I bother with UPF as well as SPF?

I actually think clothing is the ultimate in sun protection because it provides a physical barrier.

There are times where I can’t be bothered to apply sunscreen, I don’t want to or it just isn’t practical.

If I know I am going to be outside, in the sun for a long period of time e.g. a long walk, hike, climbing, lunch in the sun, sitting on a boat, and so on, I turn to UPF clothing.

How easy is it just to throw on a t-shirt after all?

As I’ve mentioned in the journal before, not enough people use the correct dosage of sunscreen. Each body part requires one teaspoon of sunscreen to deliver the stated SPF on the bottle. Use any less and the effectiveness of the sunscreen is diluted. You don’t have that problem with UPF fabric. Once it’s on, you’re good.

Is UPF clothing all rash vests and wet suits?

I don’t want to mislead you and tell you that UPF clothing is readily and cheaply available in a range of styles, cuts and colours. It isn’t. However, it has evolved from the thick rash vests of old.

Although the uptake is slow, brands like Under Armour, Nike, Patagonia and Lululemon produce the odd UPF item. There are also UPF specific clothing companies around like Solbari and Coolibar.

And then (of course) there’s the LifeJacket range of clothing with our characteristic branding. Why would I miss the opportunity for a right hook?

We spent years sourcing and testing fabrics so that we comply with European standards and can proudly label our clothing range as UV protective wear.

Many fabrics in this world are treated with chemicals to block the sun. This treatment wears out after a certain number of washes. Our fabrics, by contrast, are UPF 50+ thanks to the technology of the weave and the specific threads we use. They will always protect you regardless of what you do to them. Our fabrics have also all been tested in laboratories so you can be confident the fabrics offer UPF 50+.

The t-shirts are light, moisture wicking and extremely comfortable. I live in them when I’m outdoors, on the beach, by the pool, at lunch or when exercising outside.

Sales pitch over. But they’re great. Really.

For the sake of convenience, vanity and health, I think this is a pretty moderate investment. It’s all very well covering up with other fabrics but if the sun goes right through them, they’re not much use. Remember that sun damage is cumulative over your lifetime. It doesn’t matter if the damage has been in different spots, it all adds up. So, to put it simply, the more skin you cover, the better.

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