Search IconSearch

Does Sun-Protective Clothing Actually Work?

Apparel provides an easier and larger barrier against UV rays

Woman and children wearing UV protective clothes at the beach.

If you’re an active beachgoer, surfer or water baby, chances are, you’ve complained about having to lather on the sunscreen every other time you turn around.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

After all, it’s recommended to reapply sunscreen every two hours or so ― especially if you’re toweling off, swimming or sweating frequently.

And although this won’t solve all of your problems ― because it’s recommended to be used in coordination with sunscreen ― may we introduce to you sun-protective clothing?

Huh? How is it different from just regular old clothes, you ask?

Dermatologist Alok Vij, MD, explains how UPF clothing works and what other factors to consider when getting dressed for optimal protection.

What is UPF clothing?

Well for starters, Dr. Vij says that when talking about fabrics use the term “UPF,” which stands for ultraviolet protection factor. And with sunscreen, use the term “SPF,” or the more familiar sun protection factor.

“Most cotton shirts give you an equivalent of about a UPF of 5 when you’re wearing it,” Dr. Vij explains. “Most fabrics that we wear are a loose weave that lets visible light peek through and get to our skin. With UPF clothing, the weave is different and often is made from a special fabric to help form a barrier against the sun’s rays.”

UV light can penetrate through the micro holes in the weaves of regular clothes or can even travel directly through a light-colored shirt. With UPF clothing, the block is much greater, giving you more protection from the sun.

Most sun-protective clothing looks and feels like activewear or athleisure and comes in a variety of shirts, leggings and hats. And because of the higher thread count, it often feels a little more luxurious vs. your standard t-shirt.

What UPF rating should you look for in sun-protective clothing?

Look for a higher UPF rating number when purchasing UPF clothing. For example, 30 UPF means that the item will allow 1/30th or 3.33% of UV rays to pass through.

Any garment that allows less than 2% of UV rays will be labeled UPF 50+, the highest rating. 15 UPF is the lowest rating.

An item needs to have 30 UPF or higher to obtain the Skin Cancer Foundation’s seal of recommendation.

How long does UV protective clothing last?

What about the life cycle of sun-protective clothing?

Dr. Vij says like any other fabric, it will eventually break down with frequent use, but it’s reasonable to expect the apparel to last two or three years.

If an item uses a finish to get its UPF rating, make sure you check the label. The finish can start to diminish after each wash, so typically, the label will list how many washes the UPF rating is good for.

Besides UPF, what else you should consider?

Beyond making sure your clothing has UPF, here are a few other factors to consider.

Wear dark colors

If you’re headed outside, try dressing in dark-colored clothes. Those dark colors — black, brown, navy, dark green, burgundy — will prevent more UV rays from touching your skin.

Look for tightly woven fabrics

Items made with tightly woven fabric allow less UV light to pass through them. Items made of wool, denim and canvas are densely woven and can offer protection from the sun.

So, reach for thicker fabrics instead of thinner ones. A good rule of thumb? If you can see through the fabric, it’s not going to offer much protection from UV rays.


Opt for synthetic fibers

Don’t reach for that cotton T-shirt. Natural fabrics like cotton and hemp don’t do a good job of protecting you from UV rays.

Instead, wear clothes made with polyester and nylon.

Do you still need to wear sunscreen with sun-protective clothing?

For most people, it’s easier to toss on clothing rather than lather up with sunscreen every couple of hours.

A shirt, pants and hat can give you great sun protection coverage, but there are still areas exposed to UV rays, like your hands, neck and face.

This is where sunscreen still comes into play and can help prevent sunburn and skin cancer.

“Most sun-protected fabrics are UPF 50 or higher ― so better than your typical SPF sunscreen,” says Dr. Vij. “But it’s recommended for people to choose a mixture of both sunscreen and clothing to get the best possible protection.”


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Person grimacing while scratching an itch on their arm
July 19, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Why Am I So Itchy? Common Causes and How To Know if It’s Something Serious

Dry air, harsh soaps and even some medications can bring on an itch, but in some cases, itchiness can be a sign of an underlying condition

Caregivers holding toddler, playing in ocean
June 18, 2024/Infectious Disease
How To Stay Safe From Recreational Waterborne Diseases

You can reduce your risk by not swallowing water, and showering before and after swimming

Person in towel in front of bathtub, with shelves of lotions, holding jar of moisturizer, applying to face
June 17, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
14 Natural and Home Remedies for Psoriasis

Moisturize often, take oatmeal baths, use Epsom salts and follow a healthy diet to help reduce your symptoms

Person in towel standing in bathroom, with milk pticher on edge of bathtub
June 13, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Take the Plunge: 4 Reasons To Try a Milk Bath

Adding a little milk to your bath can leave your skin smooth, silky and refreshed

Parents applying sunscreen to their toddler at the beach
June 12, 2024/Children's Health
Sunscreen for Babies: When Can You Use Sunscreen and What Kind Is Safest?

Babies shouldn’t wear sunscreen before 6 months old, so opt for shade and cooler parts of the day for outdoor fun time

Blister on bottom of big toe
June 11, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
5 Ways To Avoid Blisters (and the Best Way To Treat Them)

Wear properly fitted shoes, break them in ahead of time and wear moisture-wicking socks

People biking, scootering and walking in a park
June 11, 2024/Children's Health
Cycle Smart: 8 Bike Safety Tips for Kids

Make sure their bike is the right size, find a helmet that fits properly and teach them the rules of the road

Older hands rubbing in lotion
June 10, 2024/Skin Care & Beauty
Have Crepey Skin? Here’s How You Can Address It

Topical treatments — and even some cosmetic procedures — may help reduce the appearance of this crinkled-paper look

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims