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SAVING FACE: How to protect our skin from the sun

Clothes That Are Made to Give Shade


Sunscreen? Check.

Sunglasses? Check.

Hat? Check.

Think that's enough to stave off harmful rays?

Not necessarily, say the makers of sun protective clothing, a growing category of sportswear for the UV-wary. Marketed under such names as Solumbra, SunSkins and Shades, the specially fabricated garments reportedly block out most of the rays linked to skin cancer.

Although skeptics may wonder if this is just a way to scare money out of the sun-sensitive, some experts believe these special pants, shirts, hats and jackets may benefit people eager to heed warnings about exposure.

Of course, all clothing offers a degree of protection--plain old denim, for instance, is effective. But it's not as comfortable in hot weather as this new generation of lightweight fabrics.

Skin cancer is the most common and rapidly increasing form of the disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This year, about 1 million new cases of basal and squamous cell cancers will be detected. And doctors will diagnose some 40,000 cases of potentially deadly melanoma.

Shaun Hughes knows these statistics well; at 26, he was treated for melanoma.

Now, 14 years later and cancer-free, he runs Sun Precautions, an Everett, Wash.-based clothing catalog that he founded five years ago. Its line of sporty separates for men, women and children includes an Ultra Sun hat ($49.95), a kids' mid-sleeve T-shirt ($28.95) and a Super Sport shirt ($84.95). There are even hand flaps to be worn while driving ($24.95).

Styles tend toward the roomy, with such features as extra-high shirt collars, vented back yokes and underarm ventilated gussets. Colors range from pastels to brights to whites.

Hughes soaked up information at medical symposiums and consulted with doctors and textile experts before coming up with Solumbra, a patented "nylon-based fabric." He claims that its extremely tight weave, fibers, and finishing and dyeing processes combine to block 97% of UV-A and UV-B rays and offer a sun protection factor of 30 or more. And he markets the clothing as a medical device.

"There is a new awakening," Hughes says, "and I think people have become more sun sensible, and they're thinking it's time to be even more sensible about their dressing habits."

Americans have become savvy about applying sunscreen. But water, perspiration and failure to reapply the lotion can undermine its effectiveness. And keeping children properly protected is especially challenging.

That's why Petaluma, Calif.-based Biobottoms introduced the Shades line of nylon clothing to its children's wear catalog this spring. Some of the items, including a zip-front surf suit ($18 and up), an anorak ($28), shorts ($24) and a baseball cap ($12.50), have been out-selling comparable cotton styles.

"We have a big concern about protecting our children from the elements," says merchandising manager Liz Vial. "Children are often out in the sun for prolonged periods of time, in and out of the water, and while lotion will wash off, we know the fabric is consistent."

In product tests, the Shades fabric reportedly stood up against chlorine, perspiration and saltwater, through 50 washes, and still screened out 89% of UV-A and UV-B rays.

After the Stork, a children's catalog with a smattering of adult sizes, offers SunSkins, chemically treated nylon garments designed to block 97% of UV-B rays. Items include a kids' golf jacket ($29.50), a hat with neck-covering flaps ($16.50) and baby coveralls ($26.50). The catalog describes SunSkins as essential outdoor equipment.

"I think there's still a certain level of education that needs to go along with this," says Kathy Batson, vice president of merchandising for the Rio Rancho, N.M., company. "My kids don't ride a bike without a helmet, or go roller-blading without wrist guards and knee pads. This is also a device that can save your life."

SunSkins are made of Solarweave, a fabric manufactured by Solar Protective Factory in Wilmette, Ill. The woven nylon Supplex yarn is treated with a chemical similar to those in sunscreen, says company Chairman and CEO Harvey Schakowsky, who developed the product after a business partner battled skin cancer. Solarweave products are also carried by Travel Smith, Orvis and L.L. Bean.

The sun block additive "takes away that level of uncertainty people have," Schakowsky says. The treatment survived launderings, abrasion, and heat and humidity testing, offering at least 95% blockage of UV-B rays after extended use. And no consumers have reported allergic reactions, the company says.

The Food and Drug Administration regulated sun-protective clothing and fabrics until 1995, when the agency passed the responsibility along to the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. (The exception is Sun Precautions, which maintains its link to the FDA because of implied medical claims.)

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