All these years, I thought when I was outside wearing a T-shirt, I was “covered”—as in protected from the sun—but turns out, that’s a big ole lie I was telling myself and you need to know about it too.
According to dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University, you can get hella burned and sun-damaged, even while wearing a standard tee. “T-shirts have an SPF of about 5 or 6—very little. And the thinner and lighter color-wise the shirt is, the less SPF it has,” she says.
If you’re over here thinking, “Whatever, that’s not a big deal,” I’m not here to scare you, but I am here to set you straight: You could still get skin cancer if you’re only covered by cotton or any other light fabric. “I’ve had patients who have said they didn’t go to tanning booths, they were good about their sunscreen, and they’ve got freckles down their back—this is the only thing [their cancer condition] could be attributed to,” Dr. Gohara says. “T-shirts are not going to cut it.”
So…how do you know your clothing has protection?
Basically, it’ll say so. Regular sunscreen is rated on an SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, scale. That means it protects your skin from burning and can also block harmful UV rays. Protective clothing is rated on a UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor, scale, which is basically another way of saying it’s shielding you from the most harmful, cancer-causing UV rays. Clothing with a UPF of 50 or higher is great, but manufacturers also make clothing at lower UPFs. Often, you’ll find these indices on athletic styles, like leggings, or moisture-wicking zip-ups, and swimwear and rash guards often have it (although they don’t always). Day-to-day garments, like blouses and dresses, don’t typically come with a UPF rating.
What’s in UPF clothing?
It isn’t chemically treated or anything—it’s just fabric that’s been woven tight enough that light can’t shine through, according to Dr. Gohara.
The easiest way to tell if your clothing is actually protective is just to buy clothing with a rating attached—it should be easily seen on a label. Some fabrics, like denim, are generally woven tight enough and are thick enough to actually block UV rays. Go jeans!
What if you like the clothes you have already and want them to have a nice UPF index?
Good news! Some laundry aids can add extra protection to your clothing!! “You can add them to your favorite T-shirts,” Gohara says. These detergents add microscopic crystals to your clothing so that the rays can’t penetrate them.
Also, just a general PSA not to forget to wear hats, people!
Those have UPF indices too, and the wider the brim, the better, because you gotta protect those ears. “It’s not easy to apply sunscreen to the part in your hair, and that’s a place I’ve found many skin cancers,” Dr. Gohara says.
So now you’re armed with all the knowledge. Get out there and enjoy the sun, but be safe while you’re doing it, okay?