The sun may be 94 million miles from Earth, but that great ball of fire is sparking a fashion trend. Sun-safe clothes--including cute jumpsuits for kids, surfer wear for teens and beach cover-ups for grown-ups--are finally coming out of the shadow of their drab image.
Talk about sunny delight: functional and fashionable clothes for close encounters with the sun. With more and more health concerns about sun exposure, many worry that slathering up with SPF 50 sunscreen may not be enough protection against those rays.
They are turning to clothes and hats made from fabrics, such as Solumbra and Solarweave, because they are lightweight, dry quickly and are more comfortable in the heat than more cumbersome everyday clothes. The fabric, which is supposed to block the sun, has a dense weave designed to reflect UV beams. Many fabrics are infused with a sunscreen or UV chemical blocker or absorber.
These clothes are becoming widely available in stores, with prices ranging from about $25--for a child's shirt--to $110--for a woman's dress.
What sun protection do these clothes actually provide? That is difficult to measure because no uniform standards exist in the U.S.
"It is a rather confusing industry for the public right now. There are no guidelines on what really is sun-protective clothing," said Mary Buller, executive director of the American Sun Protection Assn., the ASPA, which has 60 members. Five years ago, there were only three manufacturers of this type of clothing.
The Food and Drug Administration first tried to regulate the clothing in 1994 but the only company to be certified was Sun Precautions Inc. of Everett, Wash., which manufactures Solumbra clothing.
"The main problem is that they [FDA] haven't been able to do tests very carefully. We tried to get the FDA to regulate it, but they couldn't cope with the cost," said Dr. Nick Lowe, a Santa Monica dermatologist and clinical professor at UCLA who worked with the agency in the mid-1990s. The ASPA is currently working with the Federal Trade Commission to develop standards, which are scheduled to be release in the fall.
For now, many clothing firms are using standards developed by Australia, which was the first country to come out with sun-protective clothing and where skin cancer is the No. 1 killer. Th ASPA certifies products that meet the Australian standard.
Some companies self-certify by doing their own testing through private laboratories using a device called a spectrophotometer. A range of wavelengths of light is shot through the fabric to measure what passes through the other side. The reading that comes out is called a UV Protection Factor, or UPF, which is the international standard. A UPF of 20 would correlate to blocking 92% of UV, a UPF of 30 equals 95% of blockage, and a UPF of 40-50 would mean 98-99% of blockage.
The SPF--Sun Protection Factor--used in the United States involves testing on humans. To come up with an SPF rating, Steve Goldberg, owner of Mysterioso, tested his products at a private lab on three people with different skin types. Each was exposed to different levels of UV rays and that is how he determined that his clothing line has an SPF rating of 25. He anticipates with the new regulations coming in fall that the clothes will need further testing.
Consumers can get a sense of how sun-protective their regular clothing is by holding it up to a bright light. If light comes through the fabric, then UV rays will as well, according to Buller. She also says that darker fabrics provide better protection than lighter ones because they absorb infrared light.
"There are three things to look for: the weave, the color and the construction," said Buller. "Obviously, halter tops, tank tops and bikinis don't cut it."
Professor Julian Menter at the Morehouse School of Medicine conducted a study, comparing regular clothes to sun-protective clothing. He put hairless mice in regular T-shirt fabric and others in Solumbra fabric, which was endorsed by the FDA. After exposure to intense UV rays, the mice with regular T-shirts started showing signs of skin cancer while the ones wearing Solumbra fabric showed no signs of reddening.