A fisherman wearing a UPF-rated shirt casts his rod into the blue ocean with the sunset in the background. 

What is UPF Clothing?

Learn about the benefits of sun-protective clothing and how to wear UPF-rated fabrics
For many, the sun is the best part of being outdoors. When it’s shining, it’s hard to stay inside. Not only does the sun provide us with much-needed vitamin D, it gives us an energy boost and injects us with feel-good vibes. But prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation can cause sunburn, skin damage, and potentially even cancer, so it’s important to protect yourself (which is true any time you’re outside, even on cloudy days).

Traditionally, sun protection has revolved around sunscreen. Now, advances in sun-protective technologies have resulted in specialized UPF-rated clothing that can protect your skin as well. In fact, a recent study published in the journal Cancers found that UPF-rated clothing works better than sunscreen —and it doesn't have that sticky, oily, “sting-your-eyes'' feel. Not only that, you don’t have to reapply it regularly for proper protection.

To help you better understand what UPF clothing is and how it works, we reached out to Haskell Beckham, Columbia Sportswear's VP of innovation, who answered the most commonly asked questions related to sun protection and UPF-rated clothing.
A woman wearing a UPF-rated Columbia Sportswear Silver Ridge shirt hikes through a high desert landscape with a man in UPF clothes trekking behind her. 

1. What does UPF stand for? 

UPF stands for ultraviolet protection factor. According to Beckham, it’s a measure of “how much a material protects against exposure to the sun’s UV radiation.” The higher the UPF rating, the more UV radiation that material will block. So a UPF rating of 30+ is good, for example, but 50+ is better. More specifically, UPF 30 blocks all but 1/30th of the sun’s rays, while UPF 50 blocks all but 1/50th (allowing just 2% of UV radiation to reach your skin).

2. Is UPF better than SPF?

UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) and SPF (sun protection factor) are two different ratings. UPF is a measure of the amount of UV light that reaches your skin through any material. SPF is a similar rating, but only applies to cosmetic products like sunscreen. According to recent head-to-head comparison studies, UPF-rated clothing was shown to provide superior sun protection to sunscreen overall and “should be considered the cornerstone of UV protection.”

3. What is UPF clothing?

UPF clothing (or UPF-rated clothing) is any clothing that’s constructed from materials that have been tested and assigned a UPF rating. These special fabrics are designed to absorb and scatter UV radiation, protecting the wearer from sunburn and skin damage. To help make it easier for consumers to shop for sun-protective clothing, the Skin Cancer Foundation grants a Seal of Recommendation for products that carry a minimum UPF rating of 30. A rating of UPF 50+ is considered “excellent” sun protection.
A woman in a UPF fishing shirt sits on a boat on a beautiful sunny day. 

4. How does UPF clothing work?

UPF clothing works by blocking the sun’s harmful UV rays via the fabric itself rather than adding a coating to the top. “When it’s hot and humid out, clothing can be uncomfortable,” explains Beckham. “The challenge is to design and construct clothing that is as light and breathable as possible, while still blocking enough of the sun’s harmful UV rays to protect the skin.” That is accomplished by engineering material from fiber to yarn to fabric. Therefore, the sun protection is part of the fabric, creating a longer-lasting alternative to sunscreen.

5. What are the best UPF fabric technologies?

Omni-Shade™ is Columbia Sportswear’s original sun-protective apparel as well as the fabric used in the OHSU study that was found to be superior to sunscreen. “We also just recently updated that technology with the introduction of Omni-Shade™ Broad Spectrum,” says Beckham. That technology adds broad-spectrum protection to the existing UPF-rated technology.

6. Can you describe in more detail what broad-spectrum protection is?

The sun’s UV radiation is made up of both UVA and UVB. For a long time, the focus of sun-protective technologies was protecting consumers from UVB, which is what causes sunburn. “More recently, the importance of protecting against both UVB and UVA has been embraced, which is what is called broad-spectrum protection,” explains Beckham. “Omni-Shade fabrics have always provided some degree of broad-spectrum protection, but the new Omni-Shade Broad Spectrum does this even better.”
A man wearing an UPF shirt puts his arm around a kid and smiles with a scenic river in the background. 

7. Does UPF clothing wick moisture or help keep you cool?

UPF-rated fabric doesn’t address wicking or cooling by itself; however, Columbia Sportswear offers many lines of clothing that combine UPF technologies with moisture-wicking technologies and heat management for better comfort and protection. The Silver Ridge™ Collection, for example, combines sweat-wicking Omni-Wick™ with Omni-Shade Broad Spectrum protection. There are also lots of shirts, pants, shorts, hats, and other apparel that uses both cooling technology like Omni-Freeze Zero™ or Omni-Freeze Zero Ice™ and sun protection technology.

8. Does UPF clothing work in water?

Yes, UPF clothing works great in water. In fact, it works better in the water than sunscreen in many ways because it won’t wash off, making it ideal for kayaking, rafting, fishing, or paddleboarding. This also makes it a more eco-friendly choice than sunscreen. “Wearing sun-protective apparel is better for the environment, especially in the water where some ingredients in sunscreens have been shown to damage aquatic ecosystems,” Beckham explains.

9. How long does UPF clothing last?

UPF clothing will last the entire lifetime of the garment. “It’s engineered into the fiber, yarn, and fabric structure of the product, so UPF sun protection won’t wash off, rub off, or wear out,” says Beckham. “It’s there to stay, protecting you and your skin season after season.”
A trail runner wearing UPF-rated clothing runs down a path with a woman jogging behind him. 

10. Do you still need to wear sunscreen with UPF clothes?

While UPF clothing reduces the need for sunscreen, it doesn’t completely eliminate it. “Sunscreen will always be needed to protect those areas of the body that are tough to protect with clothing,” Beckham says. The face is one of those key areas, as well as places like the hands and feet. UPF hats do an excellent job of protecting the scalp from the sun, but they can only partially shade the face.

11. Who should wear UPF clothes and when?

Everyone can benefit from UPF-rated clothing, especially in situations that increase exposure to UV radiation such as hiking at higher elevations or spending time near reflective elements like water or snow. And for those with fair or sensitive skin, sun protection is all the more important, especially in high-UV conditions. Beckham recommends making UPF clothing an essential part of fishing, hiking, trail running, and pretty much any other activity “under the sun.”

12. Is UPF clothing only needed in the spring and summer?

While the sun’s rays are definitely strongest in the spring and summer, even winter adventures can lead to serious sunburns, especially if bright sun and a reflective snowfield are involved. The season or time of year is just one of several factors that affect the amount of UV radiation exposure and the importance of sun protection. Here are some others:

  • Proximity to the equator: The closer you are to the equator, the more intense the UV rays.
  • Altitude: Higher altitudes mean you’re closer to the sun, which means more intense UV radiation.
  • Stratospheric ozone: The closer you are to the Earth’s poles, the thinner the ozone layer and the stronger the UV.
  • Cloud cover, smog, and smoke: While these can block UV radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface and reduce UV exposure, some types can actually increase UV radiation, so it’s always best to be well protected.
Ready to get out and enjoy the sun? Check out Columbia’s selection of UPF clothing.