UPF and protective clothing: what to look for

Protective clothing can be one of the best forms of sun protection, particularly if it covers a large percentage of your skin.  However not all clothes are equal when it comes to sun protection, and it is easy to think you are protected but in fact the level of protection is much lower than you realise.

The weave of the fabric can play a big part in the level of sun protection provided. If the weave is tight, then the chance of UV radiation reaching your skin is greatly reduced.  However, if the material has an open weave or a sheer texture, then there is a good chance that a decent amount of UV is making it through to your skin and is causing damage.

Understanding this issue, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) created a measure that lets you know how much protection from UV radiation your clothing is giving you.  This measure is referred to as the UV Protective Factor or UPF.

Like SPF ratings on sunscreen, UPF works in a similar fashion.  With sunscreen if unprotected skin takes 10 minutes in summer to burn, correctly using a sunscreen rated SPF30 will give you 30 times the 10 minutes before your skin will burn, or 300 minutes of sun protection.  UFP works on the same basis so a UPF50+ shirt will provide you with 50 times the 10 minutes before your skin will burn, or 500 minutes of sun protection. Five hundred minutes of sun protection equals over 8 hours sun protection.

High UPF clothing is considered a great way to protect you in the workplace from UV radiation.  Unlike sunscreen which can rub or sweat off, a shirt provides consistent sun protection.  You are either covered or you are not.  However, even UPF clothing can reduce in its effectiveness when it becomes aged and the fabric is less dense.  When worn and washed regularly the fabric can become thinner and more transparent, resulting in less than UPF50+ protection.  For this reason, we advise to replace your work clothing one or twice a year.

Yet even though long-sleeved 50+ work shirts provide great protection from UV radiation, it seems that many people still choose not to wear them.  One reason is because they are concerned that they are too hot during the summer.  This concern is valid and work shirt manufacturers have taken this feedback into consideration in their designs.  Below are some tips on what to look for when buying a work shirt for summer:

  • Make sure it is rated UPF 50+ on the labelling
  • Cotton allows your body to breathe, so make sure the shirt and vents are 100% cotton
  • Look for shirts that are made from no more than 125gm fabric
  • Rip stop fabrics can be lightweight but also hard wearing
  • Darker fabrics absorb more UV but can make you hot, so look for something in a lighter colour but is rated UPF50+
  • Look for shirts with lots of well-placed venting. This will allow greater airflow and can help reduce your body temperature.
  • Looser shirts may be cooler to wear, but make sure it is not a safety hazard in your workplace
  • Long sleeved shirts are ideal, but short sleeved shirts are still much better than a singlet or no top at all. If you opt for a short sleeved shirt just make sure you put lots of sunscreen where the shirt does not cover.

Wearing a shirt is an easy and cost-effective way to protect your skin from UV radiation, and can even be tax deductable. By understanding what to look for in your work shirts you can make a simple choice that could save you from getting skin cancer later in life.

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UV level
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Very High

UV observation courtesy of ARPANSA

UV readings from around AUS
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