How to dress to protect yourself from UV rays

Applying sunscreen is only the first step.

woman sitting on the grass with dog looking at the sea
A hat is a good start, but dressing in loose, dense fabrics would be better, and sunscreen must be applied on all exposed skin. That includes your dog.Alvin Balemesa via Unsplash

It might sound obvious and probably you’ve heard it a million times by now, but protecting yourself against the sun’s UV rays is very important.

If the rising rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, doesn't convince you to wear sunscreen (both indoors and outdoors, all year round), vanity might. After all, UV protection can reduce the number of wrinkles you get as you age, and may prevent dark spots on your skin, according to Adewole Adamson, a dermatologist and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas at Austin.

Considering some of us choose to forgo sunscreen all together, and most don’t apply it thickly enough to provide the protection values advertised on the packaging, the answer might be hidden elsewhere. Maybe in our closets. “I would be much more comfortable relying on textiles for sun protection than just sunscreen,” says Dr. Stuart Henderson, a scientist at the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency.

You don’t need to buy an entire wardrobe of expensive UV-rated clothing. With a little understanding of the science of sunlight, you can build a summertime capsule wardrobe that will help to keep you healthy.

Why not sunscreen?

person wearing sunglasses hat and sunscreen on nose
Scientists insist further research is needed to determine if and how the chemicals in sunscreen affect our health.chezbeate via Pixabay

A study published in the journal of the American Medical Association in May, showed that 4 active ingredients commonly found in American sunscreen (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule) are absorbed cumulatively into our skin and end up in our bloodstream. The finding might deter people from wearing sunscreen, but the study's authors are adamant on the need of further research to determine if and how these chemicals affect our health.

But this is only one of the concerns surrounding sunscreen. After preliminary research showed that oxybenzone could damage coral, sunscreens containing the chemical were banned in Hawaii and Key West, Florida. Mineral sunscreens containing the only two ingredients currently ruled as safe and effective by the FDA—zinc oxide and titanium oxide—are marketed as a greener alternative, but testing by Consumer Reports shows that they "consistently underperform" compared to so-called chemical sunscreens, and can leave a chalky film on the skin.

If you’re wary about sunscreen or you just want to compliment your strategy against UV rays, thinking about what you wear and when, could make a huge difference.

How to choose the right clothing

woman at the beach with scarf on her head
People wear scarfs and tunics in arid desertlike regions not only to protect themselves from sand, but also from the sun.Amber Kipp via Unsplash

As much as you may plan to run for cover when the sun really starts beating down, sometimes this is simply not an option. If you’ll be outside for several hours in a high-UV environment with no shade—because you’re surfing, hiking, or at a sporting event—you should definitely invest in clothing that is rated as UPF 50+, the highest rating. (UPF is like SPF, but for textiles.) The protection doesn’t come from fancy chemical finishes on top of the fabric, but from the density of the threads in the fabric, Henderson says. So don’t be lured into spending more on clothing coated with titanium dioxide or Tinosorb, or laundry products which promise to coat clothing with UV protection. They can [wash away in the laundry] (https://cen.acs.org/content/cen/articles/90/web/2012/07/Clothing-Leaches-Little-Titanium-Dioxide.html) anyway if not effectively incorporated into the fabric.

If you don’t want to wear hiking gear or a rash guard, there are attributes you can look for as you build your wardrobe. Henderson says clothing or hats made of tightly-woven, dark-colored fibers tend to block rays more effectively. Choose loose layers and avoid wearing garments that are too tight, as stretched fabric provides less protection. If you’re trying to decide between two shirts or figure out which hat will protect you best, an easy trick is to hold them up to the sun and see how much light gets through.

The UV Index is your new best friend

woman in sunglasses sunbathing
Yes, the sun is great. You know what's not great? A UV index of 15 that will fry your skin in minutes.Marcin Jozwiak via Unsplash

“Most of the time it’s hard to get burnt through clothing unless you’re in a very high UV environment,” Henderson says. But it can happen. Henderson himself was once thoroughly toasted through clothing when he was watching a cricket match in Australia for 4 hours midday.

You might not have noticed this, but most weather apps include the UV Index. This tells you the intensity of the sun’s UV rays on a scale of one through 15, in which 11 or more is “Extreme”— that means your skin can burn in a matter of minutes. Henderson estimates the UV Index was above 12 on the day he got burned through his light cotton shirt.

If you have to be outside for more than a half hour, check the UV Index to determine what kind of protective clothing you should bring. You can also check expected UV levels at your vacation destination to help you pack. And make no mistake—the lower range of the UV Index only means fewer rays are getting through, but they are still there.

If you're going to the beach, keep in mind that sand reflects 15% of UV rays back at you, while seafoam reflects about 25%. That's why you seem to burn faster at the beach, and could even burn under an umbrella if the UV index is high enough.

Don't become a vampire

Woman sat on the beach under the shade of a tree
A little sun not only will not hurt you, it's good for you. Don't worry—It's not like your skin will suddenly start sparkling.Joshua Newton via Unsplash

Different kinds of skin need different kinds of protection, and you should take that into account if you are going to fight the sun with UV-rated garments. Melanoma is [20 times more common] (https://www.cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/about/key-statistics.html) in white people than black people, but that doesn’t mean the latter can’t get it. When they do, it’s in places that aren’t regularly exposed to the sun, like the palms of the hands and between the toes. This has led experts to conclude that sun damage isn’t a factor when melanoma is diagnosed in people with darker skin.

Something else to consider is Vitamin D production. Vitamin D helps us absorb calcium, and the human body produces its own as a result of sun exposure. The darker your skin, the longer you'll need to be exposed to produce what your body needs, the University of Texas' Adamson says. People with darker skin living in northern latitudes, people who don't get outside enough, and those whose skin is always covered (such as the members of some religious groups) are at risk for Vitamin D deficiency.

If you think supplements are the answer, know that evidence for the benefits of Vitamin D supplements is decidedly mixed, so it might be more effective (and definitely more affordable) to get the recommended weekly dose of five to 30 minutes of direct sunlight on your arms or legs—and even more if you have darker skin, though there is no research to determine how much longer.

On the flipside, those with lighter skin living in places with a lot of sun, such as Australia or southern California, are at high risk of skin cancer. If that sounds like you, your focus should be on protecting yourself and keeping your weekly sun exposure under 30 minutes.

And sorry to say, you won’t be able to avoid sunscreen completely. You’ll still need to apply it to your face, hands, and anywhere else that remains exposed to the sun after you get dressed, including your ears and neck if you’re wearing a baseball cap.