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Is your activewear sun smart?

19 December, 2019
 A woman jogging

Exercise is good for us and exercising outdoors in nature brings added benefits. But what about our clothing? When we’re clad in on-trend lycra running through a park, heading home from yoga or just getting coffee at the local cafe, can active leisure wear offer any real protection from the sun?

The fabrics that offer the best protection

A group of scientists at the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency set out to answer this question. They tested thousands of items of clothing for their resistance to radiation (sunlight is a form of radiation, which is why nuclear scientists did the ultraviolet (UV) testing).

They concluded that the best fabrics for blocking UV rays to the skin were lycra, elastane, plastic, nylon and polyester. And yes, those are typically the main fabrics used in activewear.

Does that mean you can ditch the sunscreen?

No. You’d have to be wearing a full body suit made of lycra and, even then, your face, neck and hands would still need protection.

Skin that shows through any trendy cut-outs on active wear still needs protection, like the lower half of your legs if you wear cut off-leggings, your midriff on crop tops or exposed patches between back detailing on an exercise top. It’s easy to forget those areas and assume you’re covered.

How can scientists tell what protection clothing offers?

Just like the sun protection factor (SPF) on sunscreen, scientists came up with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) factor for clothing. This is an internationally recognised system and offers added reassurance if you’re searching for sun-protective clothing. A UPF rating of 50 is recommended for anyone who works outdoors or takes part in outdoor activities.

Why are synthetic fabrics so good?

The weave on synthetic fabrics is generally tighter than on natural fabrics. That prevents light penetrating. A word of warning though. If the fabric is stretched so thinly that the weave opens, it lets more light through and increases the chance of skin damage. So, avoid an overly snug fit.

Isn’t natural fabric better for you?

It may feel more comfortable to wear, but a simple white cotton t-shirt only offers the equivalent of SPF 5. White or light colours easily scatter UV rays – it’s like how you might find yourself sunburnt after a day at the snow. If you love wearing white cotton, always team it with sunscreen.

What happens when you sweat?

Active leisure wear is generally made of synthetic material that’s designed to ‘wick’ moisture away from your body. What this means is the fabric doesn’t absorb sweat so it stays drier. Cotton, on the other hand, absorbs moisture so it feels wet after exercise sometimes. Wet clothing gives less protection from UV radiation than dry clothing.

What about colour?

The weave of the fabric matters more, but colour also counts. Dark colours like black and red absorb UV rays, which means the rays are less likely to penetrate your clothing. White clothing scatters UV light, so you’re more likely to be affected by the bouncing light. Dark loose clothing is ideal.

Cap or hat?

A wide-brimmed hat offers far greater protection than a baseball cap. The Cancer Council recommends a brim of at least 7.5cm for adults, 6cm for children. And think of colour again. Light-brimmed hats can bounce sunlight back into your face so go for something darker.

Cover up

The more you cover up in appropriate clothing, the better protected you will be. If you have to be out all day, why not follow the example of an Aussie lifeguard at the beach? They wear long sleeved tops with a UPF of 50, wide brimmed hats and UV filtering sunglasses. Plus, they always have easy access to shade, especially at the hottest times of the day. 


All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified Health Care Professional.

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