Research shows that just five serious sunburns can greatly increase a child's risk of developing skin cancer later in life. The hot summer months are a good time to take stock of how parents can best protect their children's skin.
One product getting a lot of buzz is sun protective clothing, which is also known as UV (ultraviolet) swimwear or UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing. Parents often wonder if UPF clothing works to protect the skin.
Nnenna Agim, M.D., Division Director of Dermatology at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, shares how sun protective clothing does work and tips for parents to keep their children's skin healthy all year long.
What is sun protection clothing and UPF clothing?
Sun protective clothing protects the skin from damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays and sunburn. It is manufactured by using a tighter weave or with thread that scatters UV rays and prevents them from hitting the skin.
Clothing is rated similarly to sunscreen, but by using a "UPF", which stands for "ultraviolet protection factor" instead of the more familiar "SPF" (sun protection factor) rating. UPF refers to how many UV rays can pass through clothing and reach the skin. For example, a shirt with a UPF rating of 70 means the clothing blocks 70% of the sun's ultraviolet rays.
"All clothing offers some level of protection against the sun, but sun protective clothing offers far more protection against UV rays," explains Dr. Agim. "A white, cotton shirt has a UPF rating of about seven, which means it only blocks out 7% of the sun's UV rays. Compare that to a shirt with a UPF of 70, or even 30, and it's easy to see how much better sun protective clothing can help protect the skin."
Does sun protective clothing work and how long does it last?
"Sun protective clothing, like UPF shirts, is very effective," says Dr. Agim. "It's just important to keep a few things in mind when wearing sun protective clothing and caring for it."
While UPF doesn't wear off like sunscreen, consumers should keep in mind that while wet, UPF is usually cut in half.
"A shirt with a UPF of 70 is still going to offer adequate protection when swimming in a pool or lake, but the protection is cut down by about half," she explains.
Dr. Agim also recommends parents read laundry instructions carefully to learn how to properly wash sun protective fabric and how long the garment will last. If the garment is not properly laundered and cared for, the UPF will likely be greatly reduced in a short amount of time.
How else can I protect my child from the sun?
Sun protective clothing is just one way to protect the skin. Dr. Agim recommends parents put as many layers between the skin and the sun as possible, and that starts with applying sunscreen.
"I highly recommend everyone wear sunscreen, even if they are wearing sun protective clothing throughout the day," she says. "Sun protective clothing creates one layer between the skin and the sun," she explains. "That means putting on sunscreen every day, wearing sun protective clothing, a sun hat and sunglasses, and staying in the shade as much as possible along with sun protective clothing, all contribute to a safer sun experience."
Dr. Agim and her team work exclusively with children, so they understand the challenges parents face when convincing kids to wear sunscreen. Her simple advice is something all parents should keep in mind. "Make putting on sunscreen part of your everyday routine," she recommends. "When wearing sunscreen is like brushing teeth, making the bed or getting dressed, then it becomes routine and quickly accepted and something they know they can't fight every day."
She encourages parents to set an example by also applying sunscreen each day. "When our children see us wearing sunscreen, they understand the importance even more."
Where can I find sun protective clothing for kids?
Sun protective clothing is becoming more widely available through major retailers and clothing brands, making it easy to find online. Some brands even offer sun protective accessories such as blankets.
"Sun protective clothing has come a long way in a few years," she says. "It looks more and more like standard swimsuits or clothes you would wear on a typical day."
Another way to boost sun protection is to add SunGuard, a laundry additive that can add UPF protection to regular clothes. The protection is temporary and usually comes out after 20 washes. SunGuard can be found online and at several major retailers.
Stay current on the health insights that makes a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.