For many travelers headed to the great outdoors, it's second nature to carry sunscreen. But growing numbers are also packing protective clothing, including a new breed with a built-in sun protection factor (SPF), especially if they are traveling to locations of intense sun exposure and have a personal or family history of skin cancer or skin sensitivity.
Travelers going to high altitude regions or areas near the equator should be especially careful to cover up. Ultraviolet levels increase 2% for every 1,000-foot increase in altitude. And ultraviolet exposure is more intense at the equator, said Stephen Ullrich, associate professor of immunology at the University of Texas--M.D. Anderson Medical Center, Houston, because the sun's rays fall more directly and there is more sunlight than at other locations.
Nearly a million Americans are affected each year: More than 800,000 learn they have highly curable squamous cell or basal cell skin cancers; about 38,000 will learn this year that they have the most serious form of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, according to the American Cancer Society. Since 1973, the incidence of melanoma has risen about 4% per year, according to cancer society figures.
Factors that increase the risk include overexposure to ultraviolet radiation, fair skin and family history.
Experts recommend wearing hats, long sleeves, long pants and sunglasses (to help prevent cataract formation). In terms of colors, lighter colors will reflect heat, but "as far as ultraviolet rays, it's the tightness of the weave that blocks out rays," Ullrich said. The tighter the weave, the better.
While liberal use of sun block in combination with good coverage by regular clothing can reduce absorption of ultraviolet rays, it will not block light as much as sun block used in combination with the new special fabrics in sun-protective attire, studies suggest.
The protective attire aims to block UVA and UVB radiation, which experts say both play roles in development of skin cancer. UVA has also long been associated with skin wrinkling.
A sampling of what's available:
Sun Precautions Inc., offers a line of adult and children's active wear made of Solumbra, a fabric with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30. (The sun protection factor indicates effectiveness in preventing redness. For example, if unprotected skin gets red in 30 minutes, an SPF of 15 would theoretically protect it 15 times longer.) Solumbra fabric blocks 97% of UVA and UVB radiation, according to company claims.
Sun hats with a four-inch brim run $35 to $49; women's and men's shirts, $50 to $90; pants, $60 to $70. A child's polo shirt is $35; pants are also $35.
Another company, Koala Konnection distributes a line of children's swim and active wear that has been sold in Australia for the past seven years, said company spokeswoman Jacqueline Tihista. "The lightest color tested 112, but we say it offers an SPF of 100." Hats cost $14, shirts, $13, and a two-piece shirt and shorts outfit, $47.
A company named After the Stork introduced SunSkins, a line of sun protective clothing for children and adults this year. "It blocks 99% of UVB when dry, 96% when wet," said spokesman Marc Benjamin. The average UVA blockage is more than 90%. An adult jacket sells for $38; children's shorts for $15 to $17. Children's pants run $19 to $21; adults, $26. T-shirts are $14 to $16. The fabric used is Solarweave, a specially treated form of nylon, Benjamin said.
How effective is clothing made with the special fabric at deflecting damaging rays?
In a study commissioned by the clothing manufacturer, After the Stork, and conducted by an independent laboratory, a 100% lightweight cotton blocked 50% of UVB when dry, Benjamin said, and only 35% when wet, compared to Solarweave, which the company claims blocks 99% of UVB dry and 96%, wet.
In another study, partially funded by the manufacturer, Julian Menter, a research professor of medicine at Moorehead School of Medicine, Atlanta, compared an untreated fabric with the Solumbra fabric used in the Sun Precautions' line. "We tested the ability of these fabrics to retard skin cancer." Over a three-month period he exposed laboratory mice to simulated sunlight. He placed fabric--either treated or not--between the light source and the animals.
Those in the regular fabric group contracted skin cancer, but none in the special fabric group did. "It actually retarded skin cancer," Menter said.
How much protection untreated fabrics provide, Menter said, depends on a number of factors, such as the weave and whether fading has occurred. "Wetness takes away sun protection factor," he said. "Some people say white would reflect [ultraviolet radiation] better. I don't think it makes much difference."