Should You Wear Sunscreen Under Your Clothes? A Dermatologist Weighs In

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I love summertime, but with ultra fair skin, I have a love-hate relationship with the sun. That's why I recently found myself going down a bit of a rabbit hole researching UPF clothing. While I like to buy sun hats and swim wear with UPF, I struggle with finding affordable, every-day clothes made from UPF fabrics. Even when I do, the clothes are not what I would call "on-trend." So the obvious next question I'm wondering if should I be wearing sunscreen under my regular clothes?

Sure, I may sound a bit neurotic but it turns out that clothing is not the barrier you might think it is. Even if you are covered up, the sun's rays can still penetrate the fabric of your clothes. "Most fabrics let small amounts of sunlight pass through, especially fabrics that are loosely woven such as a lightweight cotton t-shirt," explains Dr. Debra Jaliman MD, an expert in the field of cosmetic dermatology as well as medical dermatology, in an interview with Romper.

With that in mind, I decided to compare the protection you'd get from a UPF 50+ beach shirt with what you'd get simply by wearing a t-shirt over your swim suit. For those unfamiliar with UPF clothing, it stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor, which "indicates what fraction of the sun’s ultraviolet rays can penetrate the fabric. A shirt with a UPF of 50, for example, allows just 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation to reach the skin," explained the Skin Cancer Foundation. In contrast, a regular cotton t-shirt, not made from UPF fabrics, only provides an SPF of less than 15, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

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I know that it's a bit confusing comparing UPF with SPF (Sun Protection Factor), but really the only difference is that UPF is for clothes and SPF is for sunscreens, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation article. So if you have a favorite cotton shirt you like to wear bumming around in the summer, make sure you slather on additional SPF underneath it to boost the amount of sun protection you're getting up to an UPF-50 level.

If your morning routine is too frenzied to apply adequate sunscreen before getting dressed and leaving the house for the day, don't worry. There are a few additional ways to improve your sun protection. It turns out that certain color fabrics do a better job protecting against the sun's UV rays than others. "Scientists are reporting that the same cotton fabric dyed deep blue or red provide greater UV protection than shades of yellow," according to Science Daily. (Note to self: time to start stocking up on all things navy!)

Another interesting thing to point out is that the amount of protection you get from wearing a basic t-shirt can vary depending on how many times it's been washed — really! The more times you run it through the laundry the better. "[J]ust about every fabric becomes better at protecting against the sun after multiple washings; in one study, researchers found that just five trips through the wash with a detergent containing a bleaching agent like Tide With Bleach upped the sun protection of a cotton knit shirt by 506 percent, from a UPF of about 13 to 68," reported Outside.

It's a lot of information to take in but it seems like the best way to protect your skin is to wear high-UPF clothing. Yet if you're not finding a style match with the UPF options currently available, wearing sunscreen under your clothes, opting for darker fabrics and/or washing the hell out of them, is a pretty solid back-up plan.