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Sun Frocks and Sunscreens: Dressing for Skin Cancer Prevention


Karen Barrow

Medically Reviewed On: November 13, 2013

The idea that you need to protect your exposed skin from the sun while lying on the beach makes perfect sense. You can always find mothers and fathers setting up sun umbrellas for their children to play under and tubes of sunscreen in every beach bag. Yet many people don't know that some of the clothes they wear offer more protection from the sun than even sunscreen.

If you spend a lot of time outdoors in the sun, well-selected clothing can protect your skin from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays, which can, over time, increase the risk of skin cancer and cause painful burns, especially during the hot days of summer. Dr. Susan Weinkle, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of South Florida, explained some simple rules that can make your clothes sun-safe at a conference of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Be Finicky About Fabrics
In general, the darker the fabric and tighter the weave, the better protection certain clothing will provide. For example, a white cotton T-shirt, a standard summer staple, has at most a sun protection factor (SPF) of 10, while a dark denim shirt may have an SPF of 1,700. (Meaning you can safely stay out in the sun 170 times longer in the denim shirt). If you don't want to wear a heavy denim shirt on a hot day, shiny materials, such as 100 percent satin, silk or polyester, offer protection by reflecting light away from the skin. Some fabrics even have added absorbers to help mop-up harmful light before it hits your skin. These additives can be found in some laundry detergents—look for the ingredient "optical brightening agent" (OBA) on the label—which can temporarily clog the pores of a fabric and raise its SPF value. Some clothing manufacturers are now making super sun-worthy clothes, however, there are no official standards yet in place.

Wet, stretched out, threadbare or tightly fitting clothes offer less sun protection because the weave loosens, allowing more light to get through. One good way to gauge how well a fabric shields out the light is simply to hold it up to a lamp: the sheerer the fabric, the brighter the lamp will appear.

Accessorize It!
Hats and sunglasses should also be a part of the sun-protection wardrobe. Wide-brimmed, cotton or polyester hats are better sun shields than straw hats or baseball caps. Straw hats allow small beams of light though, potentially resulting in a patterned sunburn, while baseball caps leave your neck and the sides of your face totally exposed. A good hat is especially useful for people with extra-sensitive skin who can't use a strong sunscreen.

Although you can't see the damage immediately, sunlight can cause your vision to deteriorate over time. A close fitting pair of UV-protective shades helps stave off age-related vision problems, such as macular degeneration and cataracts.

"Teach children early to wear sunglasses during skiing, snowboarding and other sports where sunlight is abundant," said Weinkle.

And even though it's summer, and your wool mittens are stored away, don't forget to wear gloves to protect your hands when you golf, fish or garden for long periods.

Looking Your Best, But Being Safe
Dressing for maximum sun protection may seem like a drag as tank tops and shorts finally come out of winter storage. And while sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher is highly recommended to protect your exposed skin from the sun, it cannot give you total protection.

"You can still look fashionable while being sun sensible," said Weinkle.

By taking extra precautionary measures with the right sun frocks you can protect against skin cancer and always look your best.