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The sun protection clothing industry began in Australia over forty years ago when the Anti-Cancer Council of Victoria started working on finding fabric that would effectively block out the sun. They borrowed the concept of the surfer’s “rash shirt” (worn to protect against skin burns that result form lying on the surfboard) and began marketing the first sun protective swim shirts. The shirt was followed by “neck-to-knee” swimsuits, which look very similar to wet suits.    Alas a billion dollar industry was born. However, there were no industry standards to evaluate the quality of sun protective garments.

Again Australia took the lead, when in 1992 the Australian Radiation Laboratory, developed regulatory standards for garments claiming to be sun protective. Garments were now rated according to UPF or Ultraviolet Protection Factor, a rating system similar to SPF. UPF ratings provide the consumer with information regarding the degree of protection provided by a fabric against both the tanning and burning rays. UPF is a similar concept to SPF (Sun Protection Factor). If a fabric is rated UPF 30, then it is absorbing or blocking 29 out of 30 units of UVR, or 97%.

In 1998, the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorist (AATCC) adapted the Australian UPF standard for use in the United States. Later, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) developed standard for simulating a sun protective garment’s life cycle and for labeling a garment claiming to be sun protective. Now, in the United States several million garments are tested each year using the AATCC and ASTM standards.

Once these standards were introduced, scientists began creating better fabrics to protect the skin. Some of the most innovative fabrics include ZnO SunTect® which has zinc oxide embedded into every fiber of the garment to safely deflect UV rays. Another is fabric made with all natural, cotton bamboo fiber that is both soft and durable while still providing UPF ratings of 50+. Chlorine and water resistant fabrics are made for swimwear with high UPF ratings. Ultra thin polyester microfiber, which is flexible and completely breathable, is used for sun protective gloves, hats and face guards.          

Good sun protective clothing is carefully designed for comfort and maximum protection. In addition, the cost of buying sun protective clothing is ultimately far less expensive than buying sunscreen over time. One sun protective shirt can last many seasons and maintains its UPF rating after thousands of washings. This specialized clothing can be found at local retailers or specialty shops. Steep discounts are often found online in the winter.

Dermatologists and other skin specialists highly recommend the use of sun protective garments because they provide the fastest and most effective method of sun protection. These garments are more effective than sunscreen because the degree of protection is constant and it is not impacted by human error including improper application, lack of reapplication, outdated product, etc. Health care providers also recommend slathering a water-resistant, SPF 50 sunscreen on all unprotected skin at least every 2 hours.

We must always remember that skin cancer prevention requires a multi-pronged approach and vigilance. Be safe, Be SunAWARE!

Maryellen Maguire-Eisen RN, MSN

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