There is well established evidence that exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun can lead to skin cancer. Clothing is a very effective method of sun protection when used with a combination of other protective measures.
Health effects from solar UVR
ARPANSA and other national and international health authorities, including the World Health Organization have assessed that continuous exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun causes harmful effects on the skin, eye and immune system.
The more skin you cover the better off you are as far as protecting yourself against sunburn, tanning and other skin damage that can ultimately lead to skin cancer. Choosing clothing with collars and long sleeves and long pants gives full body coverage and consistent protection. An Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating allows you to make an informed choice when buying outdoor clothing.
UPF rated clothing
Often sun protective clothing will have been tested and will have a UPF rating that provides information about how much UVR will be blocked by the clothing and how much sun protection it will provide. The current Australian/New Zealand Standard has three major protection categories shown in the table.
UPF ratings and classifications
Never rely on clothing alone for sun protection. During the times when sun protection is advised (when the UV index is 3 and above) use a combination of the five sun protection measures. Covering up is important, particularly at places where there is little shade, such as the beach.
What factors affect the amount of UV protection provided by clothing?
Most fabrics will provide some protection from the sun. A number of factors determine how effective clothing is at reducing the UV reaching the skin. These factors include:
- Weave density. How much of the fabric is solid fibres and how much is space between the strands is important. The tighter the weave, the less space there is between the strands for the UVR to pass through.
- Construction of the fabric. Most fabrics are either woven or knitted and the construction determines whether the amount of open area in a fabric changes when tension is applied.
- Fabric thickness. As fabric thickness increases, the measured protection increases.
- Tension. Stretching a knitted fabric will normally cause a decrease in the UPF rating as the spaces in the fabric open up.
- Colour. In general darker colours and higher dye concentrations absorb more UVR than do lighter colours.
- Additives. Some chemical compounds such as optical brightening agents and UV cutting agents can be added to fabrics to increase their UVR absorption. This can be done as part of the manufacturing process or be added later as wash-in additives.
- Condition. Often the UV protection of garments made from cotton-based fabrics increases after the first washing. However, after numerous washes the garment may gradually fade and wear reducing its UPF rating.
The Cancer Council Australia provides further protective advice through national, state and territory Sunsmart programs and activities.
- Clothing and fabric testing manufacturers – find out how to get your clothing tested to Australian standards
- World Health Organization – provides international advice on sun protection
- Cancer Council Australia – provides advice on preventing cancer in Australia
- Australian Standards – AS/NZS 4399 Sun Protective Clothing – Evaluation and Classification