Why Scientists Say UPF Clothing Is Better Than Sunscreen
A first-of-its-kind study authored by Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) has found that UPF-protective fabric works significantly better than sunscreen when it comes to its overall UV-protective capacity. According to the research, sun lovers can—and should—consider UPF clothing to be the “cornerstone of UV protection.”
“The big take-home of this study is that UV-protective clothing works so much better than sunscreen,” explained Dr. Elizabeth Berry, an OHSU dermatologist who led the study. “The data really supports it. If you look at all the UVA- and UVB-blocking protection that clothing provides, it exceeds sunscreen in all measures.”
The study, titled “Slip versus Slop: A Head-to-Head Comparison of UV-Protective Clothing to Sunscreen,” pitted two types of sunscreen lotion against four different types of UPF fabric. In all cases, the sun-protective clothing outperformed the sunscreen.
“That's not to say I'm a sunscreen hater or that we shouldn't use sunscreen,” Dr. Berry said. “There are areas that you cannot cover with clothing. But it's changed the way that I counsel patients because I think clothing is much easier to wear. It doesn't rub off. It doesn't wash off.”
The science behind the study
The researchers found that all four UPF fabrics managed to block more than 99% of UVB rays (the type of ultraviolet radiation that’s most associated with skin cancer) while the sunscreens only kept UVB rays out at a rate of 76% to 94%.
When it came to UVA rays (the type of radiation that is also linked to skin cancer, but more commonly associated with wrinkles and aging), the UPF fabrics offered rates of protection at around 96% to 98%. By contrast, the sunscreens performed at considerably lower rates of roughly 54% (SPF 30) to 82% (SPF 50).
According to OHSU Chair of Dermatology Dr. Sancy Leachman, who col-led the study, UVA can be particularly insidious for sun lovers because it doesn’t turn your skin red like UVB rays do.
“One thing that’s important [to point out] is that neither UVA or visible light can cause sunburn at outdoor exposure levels,” she explained. “So if you're using a sunscreen that's failing in those areas, your skin is being damaged, but you will never feel it because you won't get a telltale burn.”
This is problematic because that’s how your body tells you there’s a problem, Dr. Berry added, noting that sunburns are your “warning signal.”
To learn more about how UPF fabric works you can check out our article on the Science of UPF Fabric.
An unsurprising discovery
“Dermatologists have always known that clothing is really better than sunscreen for protecting the skin and for staying on,” Dr. Leachman said.
“But we've never really had good data that compared it head-to-head like this study does. Now dermatologists have data that they can show their patients that demonstrates that clothing is an essential part of photoprotection and should be used as widely as possible.”
“I've been saying that for years, by the way,” she added. “Before this study ever came out. I tell all my patients that,” with the caveat that it doesn’t mean sunscreen should be eliminated completely.
“You can't put [clothing] everywhere,” she said. “You've got to have good sunscreen, too, to put on the places that you can't cover with clothing or that are impractical.”
She noted, however, that sun-protective accessories like UPF gloves and UPF-rated neck gaiters can increase the amount of skin that can be covered with UV-blocking fabrics. Plus, advances in fabric technology have made them cool and breathable so they're more practical to wear in the sun than they once were.
UPF-rated sun hats are another great tool, according to Dr. Berry, because your hair only offers sun protection comparable to an SPF 5 sunscreen.
“I find a fair number of skin cancers on the scalp,” Dr. Berry said. “Hats are really important for the same reasons that clothing is important.”
The challenges of sunscreen
On top of being applied evenly, it must be applied thickly. You have to cake sunscreen on for it to work properly, which most people don’t want to do for cosmetic reasons. The majority of people choose to rub it in completely, which reduces its effectiveness.
“Very few people apply sunscreen correctly,” Dr. Berry said. “Most people rub in their sunscreen a little too much.”
According to Dr. Berry, in order to be in compliance with the 2 milligrams per square centimeter that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends for proper use, you need a full shot glass of sunscreen to cover your entire body. Not only that, it must be reapplied every two hours.
“If you're going to be at the beach and you need to put that on every two hours, that's like a [full] bottle of sunscreen,” she said. “Almost nobody is able to apply it that way.”
“Some have raised concerns about the impact of certain sunscreen components on coral reefs,” she said.
Although there’s debate over how much sunscreen is to blame for the damage, the concern is strong enough that Hawaii recently banned all sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate, the chemicals thought to potentially cause harm
Additionally, a 2020 FDA study. demonstrated that the active chemicals in sunscreen can be absorbed into your bloodstream, prompting a debate over possible health concerns. It’s still unclear if those concerns are viable, but Dr. Berry said more research is definitely needed.
The advantages UPF clothing
One key advantage, he said, aside from better UV-blocking performance, is that UPF clothing is often more comfortable too.
“[UPF] clothing is not sticky,” Dr. Beckham said. “It doesn’t block sweat pores.” Not only that, a lot of today’s UPF clothing and accessories are made with special cooling technologies such as Omni-Freeze Zero™ or Omni-Freeze Zero Ice™ that have the added benefit of heat mitigation and cooling enhancement.
“Evaporative cooling from sweat-containing fabrics can cool more effectively than if no clothing were worn at all,” Dr. Beckham said. “This is especially true if you’re wearing Omni-Freeze Zero™ or Omni-Freeze Zero Ice™ , which are engineered to enhance this cooling mechanism.”
Activities such as hiking, fishing, trail running, paddleboarding, rafting, and kayaking are all great opportunities to use UPF clothing for sun protection, he said. Water-based activities are an especially good fit because you don’t have to worry about sunscreen washing off.
“By wearing UPF-rated clothing in the water, you only have to reapply sunscreen to the smaller areas of exposed skin,” Dr. Beckham explained.
“I’m a 100% redhead,” she said. “I often say that the only hope of a tan I have is connecting my freckles. I've spent my life bathed in sunscreen in order to be outdoors.
“Not having to worry about severe burns in random missed spots and not having to reapply greasy sunscreen on top of sweaty skin is amazing.”
She added, “I have a UPF hoodie that I’ve worn for every single activity I participate in outdoors: mountain biking, hiking, spring skiing, and playing at the beach with my toddler.”
Given all of the advantages of UPF clothing, Dr. Berry recommends that people who spend a lot of time in the sun adopt a UV-protection strategy that begins with UPF clothing and includes sunscreen to fill in the gaps.
“You've got all this baggage that comes with sunscreens, whereas clothing is pretty easy to put on and wear,” Dr. Berry said. “For the typical beachgoer, our recommendation now is to just cover as much as you can or are willing to with clothing, and then put sunscreen on the rest.”