Are UPF Shirts Worth It?

Although this is a fairly vague question, it’s one we get asked often. If you are considering buying a quality UPF shirt with sun protection and asking if it’s worth it, our answer is always a resounding ‘YES’. Exposure to UV radiation is harmful to your skin and can lead to cancer, you should always do your best to stay protected.

However, our reasons why depend largely on what you are looking to get out of your UPF shirt. For example, whether you are buying it to stay safe from harmful UV rays, save money, or possibly both.

Health Benefits and Value

Doctor showing health benefits of sun protection

Alternative: Standard shirts

The primary function of a shirt for sun protection is to do exactly that – protect you from the sun. The reason UPF shirts exist at all is because the average cotton shirt has very little protective qualities. While it depends on a variety of factors, a standard shirt may have an average UPF rating of anywhere from 1-5. Although UPF is a little different from SPF, this is like protecting yourself with sunscreen having an SPF of anywhere from 1-5. That is certainly not a sunscreen you would use to protect yourself, therefore a shirt with that value is not something you should wear when outdoors. 

All Rayward Apparel products are UPF 50+. This provides ‘Excellent’ protection, allowing less than 1/50th of the sun’s harmful rays to penetrate the shirt. In summary, if you are often outdoors and want to prioritize your health a quality shirt for sun protection is certainly worth it. 

Alternative: Sunscreen

On the other hand, lets say your alternative is to simply stay shirtless and use sunscreen. From a skin protection standpoint, if you are using an SPF 50 sunscreen you are receiving the same protection as a UPF 50 shirt (make sure the sunscreen is always ‘broad-spectrum). However, to stay completely protected you need to make sure you re-apply your sunscreen at least every two hours. This time frame is even shorter when swimming or exercising. Sunscreen naturally fades and washes off, so reapplication is critical to maintain the proper level of protection. 

Alternatively, a shirt with sun protection is always going to be broad-spectrum, never needs re-application, and the UPF value will never wash out. The downside is obviously that you need to wear a shirt, especially if it’s an extremely hot beach day. Luckily, while most sun shirts are extremely protective, they can also be lightweight and breathable allowing you to stay comfortable even on the hottest of days.

Cost Benefits and Value

UPF Shirts with Sun Protection Equal Cost Savings

From a cost perspective, a shirt for sun protection might appear to be more expensive up front, but you need to consider the long term benefits. 

Let’s say for example you play tennis, volleyball, or some other outdoor sport every Saturday. Let’s also say you are outside for a total of four hours each time. The recommended amount of sunscreen to cover your entire body is 1 ounce, and even the cheapest sunscreen can cost $1 – $2 per ounce. Assuming you are sweating, you will likely have to apply three total times to maintain a proper level of protection throughout the four hours. This would equate to using around $5 worth of sunscreen every Saturday.

Instead, A UPF protective shirt may cost you a total of $50 up front, but it will keep you covered for years to come. That means after about 10 times wearing a shirt with sun protection, or 2-3 months of only wearing it once a week, it will recoup its cost and then start saving you money moving forward. Keep in mind you will still need a minimal amount of sunscreen to protect any exposed areas. This will not only save you money, but a ton of trips to the convenience store as well. 

Does All Clothing Have UPF?

Variety of Clothes, do they have UPF?

UPF stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor, the degree to which a fabric protects you from UV rays. All fabrics have some level of protection, but without proper testing it’s impossible to know the exact UPF rating. Continue reading to learn the role of UPF ratings in UV protective clothing.

How Do I Know If My Shirt Has a UPF Rating?

Generally speaking, if a fabric has been tested to determine it’s UPF rating you will see it somewhere on the fabric itself. It may be fused onto the inside of the shirt, or on the tag. In addition, you can also quickly look it up online to see if the UPF rating is listed in the description. If you’ve checked all of those areas and still cannot find the UPF rating, it’s likely it was never tested. While most UV protective clothing goes through the extra steps of verifying it’s rating, it’s a costly process. Most clothing without UV protection in mind will not have the fabric lab tested, and thus will not have an official UPF rating.

What Is the UPF of a Cotton Shirt?

As mentioned previously, without proper testing it’s impossible to provide an exact number. There are a lot of different factors that impact a shirts UPF rating, so every shirt is different. However, a good rule of thumb for a fairly standard cotton shirt is to assume a UPF rating of about 5. UV protective clothing has a minimum rating of UPF 15, so 5 is far below anything professionals would consider ‘protective’. The following video provides a great summary of the difference a UPF rated shirt can provide versus your standard cotton shirt:

What Is Considered a Good UPF Rating for UV Protective Clothing?

The ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) sets the standard for the different UPF ratings in the United States. They published the below chart, which determines the ‘protection category’ of different fabrics based on the UPF rating:

UPF RatingProtection Category% UV Radiation Blocked
UPF 15 – 24Good93.3 – 95.9
UPF 25 – 39Very Good96.0 – 97.4
UPF 40 – 50+Excellent97.5 – 98+

In summary, anything below UPF 15 does not even receive a protection category and is not considered UV protective clothing. At Rayward Apparel, we only sell apparel that has a UPF 50 rating or better, ensuring our customers are properly protected. 

You may be more familiar with SPF, as it’s the rating given to sunscreens. As far as the actual rating number is concerned, they represent the same level of protection. So a UPF shirt provides the same degree of protection as an SPF sunscreen, but there are some differences which you need to be aware of:

Is UPF The Same As SPF?

Umbrellas, UPF vs SPF

UPF is the rating given to fabrics, whereas SPF is the rating given to different sunscreens. The number itself is the same, it determines the protection factor in which it blocks UV rays. However, there is one major difference which is important to keep in mind: UPF is inherently broad-spectrum – it blocks both UVA and UVB rays. SPF on the other hand, only rates it’s effectiveness against UVA rays. So when buying UV protective clothing, no need to check for a “broad-spectrum” statement. But, when you are buying sunscreen make sure it’s labeled as “broad-spectrum” so you get full protection. Both UVA and UVB rays are linked to skin cancer, so you should definitely be protecting yourself from both.

Does UPF Wash Out Of Clothing?

Will UPF wash out? Washing Machines.

So you’ve gone ahead and bought some UPF 50+ clothing, but what happens when it goes through the wash? Will any of that sun protection value be ‘washed out’ or will it keep protecting you at the same level? 

Depends On How The UPF Value Was Initially Achieved

The two most popular ways different apparel companies achieve a UPF rating are through 1) Properly constructing and designing a shirt with sun protection in mind and 2) Using a chemical on the clothing or threads with a chemical to boost it’s UPF rating. At Rayward Apparel we always recommend the first, the chemical free option, as it is not something that can ever ‘wash out’.

Design

The fabric design and composition plays a big part in the UPF rating. Some of these factors include the shirt weight, fabric blend, color, fit, and more. But ultimately, you want to make sure you are buying a product that has achieved it’s UPF value through these means, versus using chemical coatings to achieve it’s rating. If designed correctly, UPF 50+ clothing will always maintain that value and will not wash out of the product.

Chemicals

Gas Mask, Chemicals Impacting UPF

There are a variety of different chemical and oil infusions that can help boost a fiber’s UPF value. At Rayward Apparel, we generally disagree with this strategy as we think it opens a whole new set of potential issues:

  • Bad for the environment
  • Depending on the chemical, it’s possible it washes out of the fibers
  • Introduces more possibility for allergic reactions depending on the individual wearing it

Product Quality

As mentioned above, a lot of factors go into the design of a sun protective shirt to ensure it keeps you protected from harmful UV rays. Some of these factors include the shirt weight, fabric composition, color, fit, and more. But at the end of the day, the quality of the shirt plays a big part in maintaining its UPF rating – especially if it’s being worn and washed often. 

As your clothing starts to age it naturally becomes a little worn down. So you may not be ‘washing out’ the sun protection rating of your UPF 50+ clothing, but it’s possible the rating drops as  the shirt ages. This is especially true with a low quality shirt.  Depending on the durability of your clothing the fabric composition may be compromised after only a couple washes. In other words, as the threads thin out it allows more UV light to pass through. So while the UPF does not necessarily wash out, if you have a low quality shirt the UPF protection rating will start to drop over time. Higher quality shirts and more durable construction are designed to withstand the harshest environments and maintain a UPF rating for the life of the shirt – as is the case with all Rayward Apparel products. 

Simple Recommendations to keep your UPF 50+ clothing lasting as long as possible:

Clothes Line with UPF 50+ Clothing
  • Don’t wring out your sun protection clothing, this can permanently stretch the fibers which can lower the UPF rating.
  • Do not bleach. Even you are bleaching a white shirt and won’t cause any discoloration, it’s possible it damages the fibers. Bleach is great, however it’s a fairly harsh chemical on clothing. It’s best to keep your UV protective shirts intact. 
  • Wash your clothing in cold water. Warm and hot water is more likely to shrink your fabric which could in turn shorten the lifespan of the UPF clothing.

Does UPF Clothing Really Work?

UPF Clothing Effectiveness People Walking

Most people believe that as long as they are physically covered by a fabric, they are protected. All clothing has some UPF value. However, what most people don’t know is that the average t-shirt generally has a UPF value of 1-5. Does UPF clothing really provide that much more protection than everything else? The short answer – yes.

10x The Protection Compared To The Average T-Shirt

UPF clothing is designed specifically with sun protection in mind. If you compare a UPF 50 long sleeve shirt to a standard cotton long sleeve shirt you’d be surprised how differently they function. They might fit the same and cover the same amount of skin, but the UPF 50 shirt only allows about 2% penetration of damaging UV rays. An average cotton shirt at UPF 5 allows 10 times the UV penetration of the UPF 50 shirt.

Consistent, Reliable UV Protection

Washing Machines, UPF Clothing Longevity

Unlike sunscreen, a sun protective shirt will keep you protected for as long as you are wearing it, no reapplication needed! If you purchase from a reliable company that makes quality sun protective apparel, it will also last for years to come – saving you a lot of money in the long run. The cost savings are even higher if you are wearing a UPF 50 long sleeve shirt instead of a short sleeve shirt, keeping you from having to apply sunscreen on your arms every time you go outside. One quality UPF shirt can save you from buying dozens of bottles of expensive sunscreen.

With all Rayward Apparel products, we don’t use any chemical additives and the UPF value of our shirt will last the life of the shirt, although that’s not always the case with all UPF products in the marketplace – so make sure to do your research. There are two general ways to achieve a UPF value in clothing: Through chemical additives (not recommended) or through effective shirt design (recommended). 

One of the major reasons chemical additives can be concerning is because when you put the shirt through the wash it’s possible some of that chemical washes out and the UPF value drops. As the chemical is washed out of the shirt, it becomes less and less protective. Overtime this makes it difficult to know the exact protection value you are receiving.  

If the UPF value is derived from effective design rather than a chemical additive, it will never wash out. This is often achieved through a combination of factors such as the fabric weave, blend, composition, weight, etc… These are things that remain constant through the life of the shirt. For more on the UV protective qualities of different fabrics, click here.

Even With The Best UPF Clothing, Sunscreen Is Still Needed

Even with a high quality UPF 50 long sleeve shirt parts of your body are still exposed. The back of your hands, neck, and face will still need protection. A long sleeve shirt will help provide maximal coverage and reduce the amount of sunscreen needed. However, you still need to pair your sun protective shirt with a high quality sunscreen. This is critical to make sure all areas of your body have proper protection. 

When purchasing a sunscreen, make sure you are getting the right one. ALWAYS make sure the sunscreen is broad-spectrum to protect you from UVA and UVB rays. Also check on statistics like it’s water resistance rating and whether it’s a spray or lotion. If you are going to an area that requires reef-safe products ensure that it meets those requirements as well. If you need more help choosing a sunscreen and want to learn more about the chemical makeup of the different options, the video below is a great summary:

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