Sun Protection Clothing Guide: Shield Your Skin without Sunscreen

Sun-protective clothing uses a special weave that blocks harmful UV rays, but is still light and comfortable in warm weather.

July 19, 2010
woman beach clothing

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Sunscreens should protect us from skin cancer, not cause it. But just this week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) revealed that the Food and Drug Administration has been reviewing studies that suggest a possible association between a popular sunscreen ingredient and an increase risk of developing skin cancer. "With the recent reports suggesting a possible link between skin cancer and a common chemical found in sunscreens, the FDA must act now to protect consumers in New York and across the nation," Sen. Schumer said. "Summer is here, people are soaking up the sun and the FDA needs to immediately provide guidance and reassurance to consumers. When it comes to the health and safety of the public, there is no room for delay."

In the meantime, we want you to know that there are very effective, chemical-free ways to protect yourself from the sun, too. And they may prove to be much safer than sunscreen alone.

THE DETAILS: The sunscreen chemical in question is retinyl palmitate, a common sunscreen additive—a vitamin A derivative—found in about 500 of the most popular sunscreens, or more than 40 percent of the sunscreen products, used in the U.S. Studies from both the the National Center for Toxicological Research and the National Toxicology Program have suggested a possible link between skin cancer and retinyl palmitate. In one study, tumors and lesions developed up to 21 percent faster in lab animals coated in retinyl palmitate-laced cream than animals treated with a cream that did not contain the ingredient.


But that's not the only sunscreen ingredient that has caused concerns of late.

In the U.S., there are two classes of sunblock to choose from: chemical and mineral. Environmental Working Group regards mineral sunscreens (zinc and titanium) as safer because they do not appear to fully penetrate the skin and they remain stable in sunlight. Still, many contain poorly-studied nanoparticles that some scientists believe can cause damage by crossing the blood-brain barrier. On the other hand, many chemical-based sunscreens are known hormone disruptors (oxybenzone is a big one), and have been linked to cancer and other health problems.

WHAT IT MEANS: It's not an all or nothing approach. In fact, the best approach may be to incorporate different types of skin protection. Sometimes, sunblock will be your best option. But many times, you'll find that sun protection clothing may be a better fit. And you may be surprised to learn that the International Agency for Research on Cancer recommends clothing, hats, and shade as a first-line of defense against UV rays. They agency even notes that "sunscreens should not be the first choice for skin cancer prevention and should not be used as the sole agent for protection against the sun." And many dermatologists and public health officials, although they likely won't tell you to shun sunscreen, agree that using a multi-faceted approach to avoid UV sun damage and skin cancer is key. The general rule of thumb is to avoid sun exposure when the rays are harshest—between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. "Stay in the shade during peak sun hours, and remember that ultraviolet radiation cannot be felt or seen," explains David J. Leffell, MD, professor of dermatology and surgery at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. "It is not equivalent to heat, so even on a hazy day, UV reaches the Earth."


Since it's not always possible to seek shade during that time, clothing and other accessories, like sunglasses, hats, and even parasols (they seem to be making a comeback!) can help effectively protect against harsh rays. And while most regular summer clothing doesn't offer ample skin protection from the sweltering sun's rays (a white cotton T-shirt, for instance, provides a measly SPF 8-level of protection), sun protection clothing featuring a super-tight weave can provide at least SPF-30 protection.

This type of clothing can be a bit pricey, but when you consider the actual cost of sunscreen (adults should actually apply 2 ounces to their skin every two hours) and the potential health affects of some of the ingredients, it may be worth your while to invest in a few pieces of SPF accessories and clothing that will last through hundreds of washings, according to the makers. It's important to note, however, that some sun protection clothing, hats, and tents are treated with chemicals or nanoparticles. Some are even impregnanted with harmful bug repellant chemicals. We recommend staying away from these items and instead investing in the type that uses only a tight fabric weave for full protection. And our panel of high-profile dermatologists recommends products like these to their patients often.

Below, some of our favorite pieces of sun protection clothing.

Start at the top…

Go for a hat-trick for part of your chemical-free sun protection routine. Dr. Robin Ashinoff, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University's Langone Medical Center in New York City, says a hat with a wide brim, shadowing your entire face, and covering your ears and neck, is your best bet. The brim should be at least 2 inches all the way around. This will help protect the nose, tops of ears, scalp, and back of the neck—some of your most sunburn-prone areas.


We like these:

• Titanium Fashion Umbrella, $34, Coolibar.

• Solumbra Sun Hat (4-inch brim), $52.95,

• Women's Ultimate Crusher (5-inch brim), $54.95,

If you're heading for the water…

Sunscreen chemicals, and even mineral sunscreen ingredients, have been shown to damage aquatic life, including coral reefs. So opting for protective swimwear will also benefit the environment when you're headed to the beach.

We like these:

• Solumbra Pareo, $67.95,

• Women's Water Jacket, $75

• Swim Capris, $60

• Solumbra Pullover Surf Shirt, $98.95,

If you're getting physical…

Sick of sunblock sliding into your eyes when you get sweaty during a run or hike, but don't want to be bogged down with dark, heavy, clothing to protect you from the sun? Manufacturers have perfected light-weight clothing with at least SPF-30 protection.

We like these:

• Chlorine Resistant Ultra Sport Hat, $38,

• Men's Rock Guide Shorts, $75,

• Men's Runshade T-Shirt, $39,

• Women's Ultra Athlete Pullover Shirt, $94.95,

• Unisex Active Pants, $64.95,

If you want an everyday look…

OK, so maybe the wrap-around-the-face sun protection hat isn't suitable for social affairs, because you're afraid someone will mistake you for a ninja or burglar. Don't worry! Cut sun protection clothing is on the market, too!

We like these:

• Women's Sun Shelter Shirt, $69,

• Women's Big Shirt, $79.95.

• Men's Safari Shirt, $79.95,

For your commute…

Saint Louis Uni versity School of Medicines researchers recent found that your commute may increase your risk of left-sided skin cancers on your face, neck, and arms. You can probably rig something up with something in your closet, but there are protective products on the market that kept commuters in mind, too.

We like these:

• Shade Sleeve, $31.95,

• Hand Guards, $29.95,

For the little ones…

"Remember to aggressively protect children from the harmful effects of the sun since the damage accumulates over time," says Dr. Leffell.

We like these:

• Kid's Super Active Shirt, $50.95,

• Kid's Wide Brim Hat,, $35.95.