Why UPF Might Just Be a Fashion Industry Marketing Ploy

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It is no fun having to be cynical. Yet cynicism is often the most effective way to protect yourself from being fooled. Cynics question things. They do not necessarily trust that people who claim to have their best interests at heart really do. The best among them can be cynical about anything, including UPF clothing.

The UPF acronym stands for ‘ultraviolet protection factor’. It is similar to the sun protection factor (SPF) applied to sunscreens and tanning lotions. A garment with a high UPF rating ostensibly blocks out ultraviolet light. You can buy all sorts of UPF clothing.

Unfortunately, understanding just how fabrics block ultraviolet light suggests that UPF ratings may be nothing more than a marketing ploy. That may sound cynical, but it is worth considering. If you are paying extra for clothing simply because it has a UPF rating attached, you might be paying for what amounts to a little bit of ink on a label.

Textile Composition Is What Matters

You might expect that UPF has to do with the properties of a given fabric. That is true to some degree, but it’s more a matter of composition than the actual threads that make up the fabric. This is to say that polyester is not necessarily more protective than cotton. UPF protection is more closely related to how garments are manufactured than the threads that make up the fabrics.

According to a New York Magazine article published in early August 2020, UPF protection is about three things:

  • Fabric color
  • Fabric weight
  • Fabric weave.

Darker colors block out more UV rays because they block out more sunlight in general. The same is true for heavier garments. However, the real kicker is the tightness of a fabric’s weave. A tighter weave doesn’t allow as much light to penetrate. That explains why you can wear loosely woven clothing and still end up with a sunburn in the middle of the summer.

The New York Magazine article mentions the fact that wearing a pair of jeans will protect your legs from sunburn. Why? Because the weight and weave of the fabric blocks out both visible and UV light. Jeans offer nearly perfect UPF protection even though they are not labeled as such. That brings us back to labeled UPF clothing.

Clothing You Won’t Die In

None of us wants to wear jeans and long sleeved shirts to the beach despite such clothing pretty much guaranteeing maximum UPF protection. Clothing manufacturers know that, so they set about designing fashions people will wear during the summer, fashions they will not die in due to the summer heat.

Salt Lake City’s The Stockist clothing boutique offers a full variety of casual summer wear for men and women. They explain that summer fashions are all about light and airy. Lighter colors reflect sunlight rather than absorbing it. Lightweight fabrics encourage breathability.

The question is this: can you make summer clothing that offers enough UPF protection without sacrificing comfort? That depends on who you ask. No light colored bathing suit made from breathable fabric can compete with jeans and a long sleeved shirt in terms of blocking out UV rays.

Interestingly enough, the writer of the New York Magazine piece wrote it after experiencing a pretty nasty sunburn. She asked the experts to explain UPF to her. In the end, she never did determine whether or not UPF clothing actually works. So it appears as though a UPF label is just a label. If you can find two pieces of clothing of similar color, weight, and weave, do not let a label impress you.

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