Most of us only apply sunscreen to our skin that is directly exposed to the sun. We assume that the clothes we’re wearing protect us from the sun’s harmful UV rays, so there’s no need for sunscreen on covered areas. But could we be making an incorrect assumption? Maybe – not all clothes block out as much UV radiation as you may think.

The main factors influencing the protectiveness of a piece of clothing are the type of material from which it’s made, how tightly it’s knit, and the colour. Clothes made from polyester, lycra, nylon, and acrylic offer more protection than clothes made from cotton. Also, shiny, semi-synthetic fabrics reflect more UV radiation, offering more protection. Clothes that are dyed dark or vivid colours absorb more UV radiation than clothes that are light-coloured or pale. UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor, is a ranking similar to SPF for sunscreens that is used to indicate the amount of sun protection offered by clothing.

Choosing a clothing style

It might seem obvious, but the more skin your clothing covers, the better protected you will be. A short kaftan with a plunging neckline might seem like the perfect stylish beach cover up, but it will leave a lot of skin still exposed to the sun’s UV rays.

You don’t need to sacrifice the glam, however, just choose a dramatic statement piece instead of an itsy bitsy sundress. Don’t just focus on clothes when it comes to covering up, a hat and sunglasses to protect your head, face, and eyes are just as important.

To protect as much skin from the sun as possible, choose clothing with long sleeves and a high neckline that covers as much of your legs as possible.

The right hat

When it comes to choosing a hat, it’s important to select one that is going to give you proper sun protection as well as looking good. Hats with a larger brim will obviously offer you more protection, so choose a wide-brimmed hat rather than a baseball cap. Hats that have a loose weave, such as a crocheted wide-brim hat, may still let in a significant amount of UV light due to the holes in the fabric. Headwear is an area where less is never more, unless you want to end up with a sunburnt neck or a patchy red face.

Fabric matters

There’s no point in covering yourself up from head to toe if you haven’t picked clothing in a material that will protect you from the sun. Looser weaves of fabric will give you lower protection against the sun’s UV rays, as the gaps in the weave let the rays through. The type of thread, weave style, and even the finish of a fabric will all affect how much UV is reflected or absorbed by it.

Threads such as twill, that are used to make tweeds and denim, are pulled very tightly and offer a lot of protection. Light, sheer fabrics and fabrics that have been knitted rather than woven offer much less protection against the sun’s potentially harmful UV rays. Elasticated threads offer very effective sun protection, as the elastic pulls the threads tightly together, reducing gaps in the weave. Synthetic fabrics (think polyester, Lycra, nylon, acrylic etc.) offer a lot more protection than things like bleached cotton, which lets in more UV rays.

To put it into perspective, clothes with a UPF of 50 blocks out 98% of UV rays. A white T-shirt has a UPF of only 7, while a long-sleeve dark denim shirt has a UPF of 1700. Denim is said to be a “complete sun block”.

The finish of the fabric also matters, as a shiny fabric such as rayon will reflect the sun’s rays and offer more protection than something like linen, which absorbs the UV and allows some to reach the skin.

Picking Your Colours

Most of us pick our clothing based on what we think is most attractive or what suits us best, but when it comes to sun protection there are other factors to take into consideration. The first hints of sunshine have many of us reaching for the whites and pastels in our wardrobe, but these actually offer the least UV protection.

Darker colours usually absorb more UV rays than lighter colours, although bright colours like red are also effective absorbers. Colour is less important than weave when it comes to sun protection though, so if you simply can’t forgo your summer love of all things pale, just be sure to choose fabrics with a tight weave.


Like sunscreens, clothing is rated in a way that helps you work out how much sun protection it offers. Although assessing clothing by eye is a good way to estimate how much protection it offers, we can only see light, which is not the best indicator for UV radiation levels.

If you want to be sure of exactly how effective your clothing is at protecting you from the sun, choose a garment with a UPF rating on the label. This is different to the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) that you will find on sunscreens, which indicates the amount of time you can spend in the sun without it damaging your skin.

UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor, tells you how effectively a garment shields you from UV rays, something which does not deteriorate over time like SPF.

A shirt with UPF 50 offers very good protection, allowing just 1/50th of the sun’s UV rays to reach your skin. A thin white cotton shirt, however, will have a UPF of around 5, allowing a massive 1/5th of the sun’s UV rays to reach your skin.

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