Better Than Sunscreen: Dress Your Kids in UV Protective Clothing
By Holly Daniels Nelson
May 23, 2018
Updated Nov 17, 2023
5 min read
Keeping your baby out of the sun and older kids from getting sunburned can make summertime stressful for parents. It’s not easy to apply and re-apply sunscreen to wiggly kids, and inevitably one of them will get sunscreen in their eyes and end up in tears. But protecting your children from the sun’s damaging ultra-violet (UV) rays when they’re young will significantly reduce their risk of skin cancer later in life.
Dermatologist Dylan Alston, DO, at Intermountain Riverton Hospital, recommends dressing kids in UV-protective clothing to make sun protection easier for parents. He tells parents to check the clothing label to make sure it has a UPF or ultra-violet protection factor rating of 50+ and reminds parents not to forget to apply sunblock on any parts of the body that are still exposed.
“A sunburn before age one more than doubles your risk of melanoma,” says Dr. Alston. “Short-term, high-intensity sun exposure during childhood poses the greatest risk for getting skin cancer later. But more importantly, sunburns in babies can be a medical emergency that causes dehydration, fevers, blisters, and even heatstroke.” He adds, “Babies are more likely to become seriously ill from sun overexposure and are more prone to develop sunburns because of their delicate skin.”
Dr. Alston shares three reasons:
Babies under six months should be protected from the sun’s ultra-violet rays by using a physical barrier. They’re too young to use sunscreen or sunblock; these products haven’t been tested on babies under six months old.
SPF (sun protection factor) is for lotion. UPF (ultra-violet protection factor) is a broad-spectrum measure for fabric that rates the amount of UVA and UVB radiation that penetrates a fabric and reaches the skin. Clothing with a UPF of 50 blocks 98 percent of UV radiation. Clothing brands that cite SPF don’t offer full-spectrum protection.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, a dry, white cotton shirt provides a UPF of only 7. When it’s wet, the protection level drops to about UPF 3. Compare that to a UPF of 50 for UV-protective clothing. That can be extremely helpful when children are out in the sun for hours at a time or if they’re fair-skinned and sunburn easily. Wearing UPF clothing is a smart health habit to prevent skin cancer. It’s not too late for parents to try it too.
Coolibar, UV Skins, Land’s End, and Under Armour. Some stores such as Target, Old Navy, and Scheels also sell UPF 50+ clothing. Here's a complete list of brands recommended by dermatologists.
Sunscreen and sunblock can be used on babies six months and older. “Sunblock is a physical blocker and reflects sunlight off the skin. Broad-spectrum sunblock that contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide is most effective because it works on both types of ultra violet rays — UVA and UVB,” says Dr. Alston. The new sunblocks are invisible and aren’t like the old zinc oxide products that stayed white after application.
“Sunscreen allows a certain amount of sunlight through, so it doesn’t provide as much protection as sunblock. Sunscreens often contain ingredients that can sting the eyes and cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, or acne breakouts in sensitive skin,” he adds. That means sunblock makes sense not only for babies, but children and adults as well.
Some products are both a sunscreen and a sunblock. To help protect your family from harmful UVA and UVB rays, use a broad-spectrum sunblock product with an SPF of 30 or higher, which will protect skin 30 times longer than wearing no sunblock. Re-apply often, especially if you’re in the water.