Saturday, February 24, 2018

Color Affects Sun Protection

May 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 10.03.27 AMDid you know that sunscreen is only one of multiple ways you can protect your skin from the sun, and that the color of your clothing can actually be a factor in how much sun exposure you’re getting?  As skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S., boaters and others who enjoy time in the sun need to shield ourselves from its effects.

Albert Lefkovits, M.D., and Associate Professor of Dermatology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, has found numerous melanomas on the skin of boaters.  “The ears and the back of the neck are areas we often forget to apply sunscreen to, and for men with thinning hair, the scalp is especially susceptible to sun damage.  You have the reflection of solar radiation off the water as well as off all the white fiberglass,” says Lefkovits.  “You can tell boaters to wear long pants and long sleeves but if they’re uncomfortable, they’re not going to do it.”

The color of clothing boaters wear is also important to the doctor. “Bedouins in the desert always wear black,” he notes, “because it gives less reflection back on to the face.  But it also absorbs the light, making us warmer.”  Dark colors have been shown to actually protect skin, allowing less of the sun’s harmful rays to penetrate through the fabric.  Lighter colors allow the sun to pass right through, giving little or no protection to skin beneath.

Ultraviolet Protection Factors (UPF) is a measurement used in Australia that is now appearing on clothing in the U.S.  It’s similar to SPF (Sun Protection Factor), the rating system used for sunscreen products. UPF indicates how effectively fabrics shield skin from ultraviolet (UV) A and B rays; the higher the UPF number, the greater degree of protection a garment offers.

Scientists in Spain have found that the same cotton fabric dyed deep blue or red provides greater UV protection than shades of yellow, and according to the American Chemical Society, scientists using computer models have calculated and measured the UPF of fabrics dyed red, blue, and yellow shades. Fabrics with darker or more intense colors tended to allow less UV rays to pass through the fabric (also called absorption). Deep blue shades offered the highest absorption, while yellow shades offered the least.

That white t-shirt you throw on over your swimsuit when you feel your skin burning provides only moderate protection, with an average UPF of 7 (it may be even less if it is lightweight and loosely woven as well as white). Common cotton tees and other light-weight fabrics, such as bathing suit materials, can allow 50% of harmful ultraviolet rays through to your skin when dry and up to 20% more when wet.  In contrast, a darker tee could have a UPF of 10-15, and a thicker dark fabric such as denim might measure 50.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, only clothes with a UPF of at least 15 may be labeled as sun-protective. There are four categories of UPF protection: 15 – 24 provides good UV protection, 25 -39 provides very good UV protection, 40 – 50 provides excellent protection, and 50+ is considered ultimate in sun protection.

Consumers should not just look for a UPF rating when judging the protective nature of clothing. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, some clothes can protect your skin from the harmful rays of the sun if they are the correct weave, weight, or material, as well.

A challenge for sun protective clothing designers is how to combine comfort, style, and protection into one garment.  Some apparel companies offer more dark color options for tops, hats, bathing suits, cover-ups, and rash guards, while others add chemical UV absorbers or diffusers into their fabric manufacturing process.  Newer fabrics are also being designed for better ventilation.

Another new way to increase sun safety is with a laundry additive.  Sun Guard contains the sunscreen Tinosorb.  When added to a detergent, it increases the UPF of the clothing, and this protection lasts through 20 washings. Whether or not clothing purchased for its protection has an additive washed in, sun-protective clothing is known to lose its effectiveness once it becomes stretched out, laundered multiple times, or when wet.

A number of companies are now offering specially made sun protective clothing.  Check out,,,, and If you’d rather avoid paying premium prices for special clothing, start increasing your sun safety by simply thinking of blue and red, rather than white or yellow, when getting dressed to head out in the sun.  And heed Dr. Levkovits’ advice to his patients: stay under a boat’s canopy, apply sunscreen frequently, and wear a hat.

By Patricia Knap

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