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Sun-Protective Clothing: Do You Need UPF Clothing?

Construction workers often spend a lot of time working outdoors, exposing them to the sun’s hazardous ultraviolet (UV) rays and increasing their risk for skin cancer and heat stress. That’s the reason behind the LHSFNA’s Sun Sense Plus campaign.

LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

“Launched every year in May to coincide with Skin Cancer Awareness Month, the Sun Sense Plus campaign raises awareness of the risks that come with workdays spent outdoors,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “The campaign provides products and educational materials related to sun protection and heat stress directly to Local Unions and signatory contractors for distribution to LIUNA members.”

Skin cancer is the most common and most preventable of all cancers, a message we’ve covered in previous Lifelines articles that stress the importance of sunscreen and sun-protective clothing and what can happen when sun protection isn’t used. In the U.S. alone, more than five million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed every year.

If you’ve recently looked for clothing to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays, there’s a good chance you’ve come across clothes with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating. While many new pants, shirts and other items come with UPF ratings, they can be expensive additions to a wardrobe. The good news is you probably already have some clothing that’s just as good at protecting you from the sun. Before you go out and buy new sun-protective clothes, check to see what’s already in your closet.

What Does That UPF Label Mean?

The UPF label tells you how effective a particular piece of clothing is at absorbing and blocking radiation, thus shielding the skin from the sun’s UV rays. The higher the UPF number, the greater the protection the garment provides. For example, a shirt with a UPF rating of 50 allows only 1/50th (about two percent) of the sun’s UV rays to penetrate the fabric. A white cotton T-shirt, which has a UPF of about five, allows 20 percent of these harmful rays to reach the skin. And that’s when the T-shirt is dry. If it’s wet, for example from sweating, the UPF decreases, allowing even more UV rays to pass through the fabric.

How Can I Tell If My Clothing Is Sun-Safe?

When examining your clothing with sun protection in mind, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends considering these factors:

    • Weave and texture: Tightly woven or knitted fabrics, such as denim and corduroy, have smaller holes between the threads and keep out more UV rays than fabrics like thin cotton. However, tight weave does not mean snug-fitting. Clothing that can stretch exposes more skin to the sun. An easy way to judge if a fabric can protect your skin is to hold it up to the light. If you can see through it, it means UV rays are also going to pass through the fabric and reach your skin. Choose something else to wear.
  • Type of fiber: Synthetic and semi-synthetic fibers like those found in tech tees and other lightweight sportswear such as polyester and nylon offer the greatest sun protection (in addition to being “breathable” and “sweat-wicking”). Glossier fabrics reflect more sun.
  • Color: Bright colors like orange or red absorb more UV rays and provide more protection than white or pastel shades. That’s because the more UV that gets absorbed, the less UV that reaches the skin. Dark colors like black and navy also absorb UV rays well, but these colors may be too warm or uncomfortable on a hot day.

What Else Should You Do?

Don’t forget to protect your head and face. Non-melanoma skin cancer has a higher risk of coming back or spreading when it occurs on the head, face or around the eyes. And melanoma, the most lethal of all skin cancers, can develop in unexpected places like the eye and scalp. Wear a wide-brimmed hat (not a baseball cap) when working outside and UV-filtering sunglasses that wrap around the face to reduce the risk for all of these cancers. The LHSFNA makes a limited number of neck flaps available to LIUNA members each year as part of its Sun Sense Plus campaign. For more information, go to and click on Sun Sense Plus Campaign.

It’s also important to be familiar with your skin so that you know the moles, freckles, blemishes and other body markings that are normal for you. The American Cancer Society recommends examining your skin at least once a month. It’s also a good idea to have a yearly exam performed by a dermatologist, though you may need more frequent checks if you are at a higher risk for skin cancer. The American Academy of Dermatologists provides free skin cancer screenings. Go to to search for a free skin cancer screening location near you.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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