For some people, no amount of sunscreen feels like enough protection from harmful ultraviolet rays.
So when they're ready to hit the shore, they can slip into a long-sleeved, thigh-length Sarasota ZnO Beach cover-up ($68) and matching full-length ZnO Beach drawstring pants ($54) from Coolibar, a Minneapolis-based maker of "sun protective clothes." Or, if they actually want to go in the water, Sun Precautions of Seattle offers a high-neck, long-sleeved swim top ($98.95) and waist-to-ankle "water legs" ($82.95) from its Solumbra line.
"It's light, it's cooling — it's wonderful," said Dave Stouffer, who wears Solumbra garments when he exercises outdoors. The 64-year-old Irvine resident, who recently retired from the securities industry, learned of them a year ago from his dermatologist and makes regular trips to the company's Santa Monica store to peruse new designs.
Long considered a niche product line, sun-protective clothing has been slowly catching on with consumers like Stouffer over the last decade, according to Textiles Intelligence, a British market research firm. Some forecasters predict that shoppers will one day expect all of their outdoor attire to have UV protection built in.
Sun-protective clothing offers some obvious advantages over sunscreen. It's not greasy, there's no need to worry about leaving hard-to-reach spots exposed and it never needs to be reapplied.
"No matter how hard we try, none of us really follow the rules with sunscreen," says Dr. Ellen Marmur, the chief of dermatologic and cosmetic surgery at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "If we are good enough at applying it every time we go out, we don't reapply it enough, and sunscreen gets used up as more light hits it."
Ultraviolet radiation is recognized as a carcinogen by both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization. The rays damage the DNA in skin cells, causing the mutations that lead to melanoma (the most dangerous type of skin cancer) and basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, which are usually treatable. More than 2 million people in the U.S. develop these cancers each year, according to the American Cancer Society.
The idea of weaving UV protection directly into fabric originated in Australia, where two-thirds of people are diagnosed with skin cancer by age 70, according to the country's Institute of Health and Welfare. Australia's proximity to the ozone hole hovering over the Antarctic contributes to its having the highest rate of skin cancer in the world.
Clothing can block UV rays, though it doesn't always do a very good job of it. An average light-colored cotton T-shirt scores a seven on the ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF, scale; that means one out of every seven UV rays penetrates the fabric. If it gets wet, more than half its protective capabilities are lost.
Darker colors are more effective at keeping light out. So are fabrics with tight weaves that leave fewer opportunities for sunlight to reach the skin. Tight weaves also do a better job of retaining their shape after multiple washings instead of stretching out, creating bigger holes for sunlight to penetrate.
Nylon, polyester and tightly woven cotton blends are often used to make sun-protective clothing because of their inherent protection capabilities. Some Solumbra items are made with a custom nylon blend that is "more three-dimensional" than regular fabric and helps to block out rays, says Shaun Hughes, president of Sun Precautions.
Fabrics can also be infused with chemicals to maximize their protective qualities. UV blockers reflect incoming rays off the body, acting almost like a mirror, while UV absorbers collect and dispel ultraviolet rays.
UV blockers are an essential ingredient in Coolibar garments, said company President John Barrow. Pellets of the blockers are woven into the filaments that are turned into the yarn that is woven into fabric, he said.
"It's like if you cut a carrot cake open and saw the pieces of carrot in there," he said.
The end result of all this engineering is a high degree of UV protection. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, fabric that has been manufactured to be sun protective typically has a UPF of at least 50, even after two years of use. That's high enough to earn an "excellent" rating from ASTM International, an organization that developed standards for sun-protective clothing in 2001.
Now companies across the globe are manufacturing UV-protective blouses, slacks, bathing suits, workout wear, shawls and scarves. The clothes tend to be more expensive than average summer fare. Shirts typically range from $50 to $100. Hats, which are among the more popular items, start around $30 and go to about $50.
Marmur says that she regularly recommends the clothes to her patients and that clients of all ages are willing to try them out.
"I have a lot of patients who are in their early 20s who are incredibly good about sun protection," she said. "It's no longer terribly geeky to wear sun protective clothing on the beach."
Designers have had a hand in that, working hard to make the clothing fashionable while still ensuring it covers as much skin as possible.
"There's not much point in having a highly protective garment if it's only covering 5% of your body," Barrow says.
But long sleeves and pants aren't the trendiest look on scantily clad beaches, so Hughes says the key is to make sun-protective clothing look "normal." (To that end, he says, the company will release a zebra-print shirt this summer.)
In order to endure the heat of summer in styles that keep skin under wraps, it's essential for the fabric to be airy and comfortable. According to Marmur, most companies do a good job of it.
"It's light and silky and breathable," Marmur says. "My whole family wears it."