When it comes to seeking shelter, we've been conditioned over the past 200 years to focus on having a roof over our heads. What's less obvious is that “shelter” in some cases may consist of a broad-brimmed hat or, less conspicuously, the pants and shirts we wear. Especially in dry, arid climates, simply covering your skin will instantly drop your temperature to something approaching tolerable.

And even when it's hot and humid, protecting your skin from the sun's rays will help you stay outside longer and maintain your endurance.

Clothing with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor rating is specifically designed to shield your skin from the sun's rays. It may incorporate a dense weave, thicker fabric, and/or special color dyes that help prevent transmission of ultraviolet rays through the fabric. UPF ratings range from 1 to 50, although the numbers don't correspond to protection in a straight-line manner, as you might think they would. The higher the number, the greater the protection:

  • UPF 1: All UV light is transmitted to the skin
  • UPF 25: About 4 percent of UV light transmitted
  • UPF 50: About 2 percent of UV light transmitted

Keep in mind, all clothing provides some level of UV protection. A white cotton T-shirt may provide a UPF rating between 5 and 8, while dark jeans provide protection much greater than 50. However, a denim jacket might not be the most breathable or comfortable garment when you're on a daylong hike or getting out of Dodge as the sky falls. For this reason, when shopping for UPF-rated shirts, you want to focus on products that provide a UPF rating of 30 or more while remaining breathable, quick-drying, and providing good range of motion and flexibility.

Rated S for Scientific

The UPF system was first standardized in Australia in 1996 and is now used worldwide. It was developed in part because the Australian government saw consumers purchasing swimwear and outdoor active wear under the assumption certain garments provided maximum solar protection, when in fact they didn't. They sought to provide a uniform, easy-to-understand labeling system so consumers could easily identify which garments would provide suitable skin protection from the sun.

In the United States, three primary guidelines are used to specify laboratory testing and labeling standards. The guidelines are produced by ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) and the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC). These groups are non-government associations and have no role in enforcement, although governments and manufacturers rely on them to produce referenced standards.

1. First, ASTM D6544 specifies the process where textiles are washed and dried repeatedly 40 times to simulate repeated home launderings. The fabric is then exposed to 100 hours of UV light to simulate long-term use.

2. After this wear-and-tear simulation is performed on the textile , AATCC Test Method 183 spells out how to place it between an artificial light source and a light measurement device. At this point, the amount of light passing through the fabric can be measured and recorded.

3. Finally, ASTM D6603 describes labeling requirements, basically what manufacturers can (and can't) put on the tag. You should be aware that clothing companies are not routinely audited to check on their testing results. Unlike an FDA-regulated product, the standard only requires companies to self-report their results, therefore a little bit of trust and knowledge of the manufacturer is helpful.

Doctor's Orders

To learn more about the state of the art in protective clothing technology we spoke with Dr. Neil Fenske, professor and endowed chair of the Department of Dermatology & Cutaneous Surgery at the University of South Florida. This skincare expert recommends UPF-rated clothing instead of sunscreen wherever possible.

“I actually prefer UPF-rated clothing over sunscreens,” he said, “because you don't have to apply chemicals to your skin. Also, the clothing's protection won't wash off when it gets wet like sunscreen can.”

Dr. Fenske added that the older technology sun protective clothing from the '90s and early 2000s lost some of its protective value when it got too wet or sweaty. Also, it had a bad habit of taking forever to dry. By contrast, the use of new textile technologies, including perforated fabric, is providing us with gear that usually does a better job of getting dry and staying that way.

With this in mind we set out to perform our own field evaluations of five of the latest offerings. We tested these UPF shirts on long road-trip drives, while working outside, and while exploring some blazing-hot swamps and prairies in South Florida. We're happy to report that our skin did not get so much as red or even pink under the areas covered by these fabrics.

By contrast, we repeatedly slathered sunscreen on exposed areas (like our hands and neck) throughout the day, but they still got burned. Apparently the sunscreen just couldn't keep up with the rigors of hiking, slapping bugs, and sweating all day.

So right off the bat, all of our shirts were winners in the department of protecting our skin. As we mentioned with the denim jacket, however, modern textile technology has come so far that we now expect more than just sun protection &mash; a lot more. We hope this guide helps to inform your purchasing decisions when shopping for your own skin-shelter. That way, when you really need your clothing to perform, your shirt will have your back in more ways than one.

UPF Shirts

  • Clothing Arts Pick-Pocket Proof Travel Shirt

    Make & Model - Clothing Arts Pick-Pocket Proof Travel Shirt
    UPF Rating - 30+
    Materials - 12-ounce 100-percent nylon
    Colors - Dark gray, light blue, tan (shown), white
    MSRP - $70
    URL - http://www.clothingarts.com

    This shirt is designed to blend into an urban setting, yet be perfectly at home in the outdoors &mash; and the execution absolutely nailed it.

  • KÜHL Airspeed Long Sleeve Shirt

    Make & Model - KÜHL Airspeed Long Sleeve Shirt
    UPF Rating - 30
    Materials - 2.5-ounce to 4.7-ounce cotton/nylon/polyester blends
    Colors - Agave green, carbon (shown), khaki, natural, pirate blue, sky blue
    MSRP - $85
    URL - http://www.kuhl.com

    This KÜHL shirt was the most expensive of the garments we tested, but every detail of its design and performance testified to money well spent.

  • Mountain Khakis Men's Trail Creek Short Sleeve Shirt

    Make & Model - Mountain Khakis Men's Trail Creek Short Sleeve Shirt
    UPF Rating - 40+
    Materials - 2.9-ounce polyester
    Colors - Blue ridge, cornflower plaid (shown), firma, freestone plaid
    MSRP - $65
    URL - http://www.mountainkhakis.com

    This generously cut, lightweight polyester shirt looks plain vanilla on the surface, but has some hidden features.

  • Royal Robbins Painted Canyon Plaid Long Sleeve Shirt

    Make & Model - Royal Robbins Painted Canyon Plaid Long Sleeve Shirt
    UPF Rating - 25+
    Materials - 2.8-ounce 100-percent cotton
    Colors - Marmalade, Oceania, olivine (shown)
    MSRP - $58
    URL - http://www.royalrobbins.com

    Though this Royal Robbins long-sleeve has the lowest UPF rating among the tops we tested, we didn't so much as get a suntan in the areas it covered

  • Under Armour UA Sunblock Short Sleeve Shirt

    Make & Model - Under Armour UA Sunblock Short Sleeve Shirt
    UPF Rating - 50+
    Materials - Polyester
    Colors - Absinthe green, black, blackout navy, blue marker, smash yellow, white
    MSRP - $45
    URL - http://www.underarmour.com

    This is a function-forward T-shirt, focused squarely on doing a single job really well: helping your performance during athletic pursuits no matter how sunny it is outside.

Don't Shrink It and Pink It

Whether you're looking to buy a gift for the adventurous lady in your life or you're a female survivalist yourself, trying to find a shirt that's both functional and cut to fit a woman's frame can be as daunting as finding fresh water in a drought. Far too often male-centric manufacturers simply “shrink it and pink it” &mash; make a smaller version of a man's shirt and offering it in bright colors. This patronizing practice usually results in a low sales, which leads to less R&D in female-dedicated garments and gear, which leads to low sales &mash; can you say vicious cycle?

Fortunately, some companies are changing that standard by crafting apparel specifically for women's requirements. The following are just a few of the brands offering UPF-rated shirts for outdoorswomen. Maybe there's one that'll fit your or your loved one's summer needs.


Make & Model:KÜHL Kiley
UPF Rating:50
Materials:Three fabric blends, including cotton, spandex, Tencel, and polyester.
Colors:Ash, charcoal, denim blue


Make & Model:Mountain Khakis Women's Equatorial Long Sleeve Shirt
UPF Rating:45+
Colors:Cirrus, lilac (shown)


Make & Model:Royal Robbins Expedition Chill Stretch Tunic
UPF Rating:50+
Colors:Aster (shown), nasturtium, navy, white

When Shirts Aren't Enough

Protective clothing like UPF-rated long-sleeve shirts will help against the sun's harmful rays, but your hands, face, and neck may still be exposed and in need of protection. Besides the suggestion to wear a broad-brimmed canvas hat, Dr. Neil Fenske gave us these tips for selecting a sunscreen to use in combination with our UPF-rated shirts:

  • The most important thing when buying sunscreen is to look for “Broad Spectrum” protection on the label. This means it shields you from both UVA and UVB rays, thus providing much better coverage. (UVA causes melanoma and wrinkling and UVB causes other types of skin cancer.)
  • Don't bother buying higher than SPF 30. An SPF 30 sunscreen blocks 97% of the sun's rays. Spending additional money (and adding more chemicals to the mix) for an SPF rating of 50 or higher is not usually justifiable, unless you have pale sensitive skin or are working in an extreme environment, like the White Sands Missile Range.
  • For even greater sun protection than sunscreen alone, consider using an antioxidant serum applied first under the sunscreen. Apparently the antioxidants help quench free radicals and block infrared rays, which might seem like a marketing gimmick but is, in fact, science.

About the Author

Andrew Schrader is a licensed professional engineer and an urban search and rescue (USAR) consultant. He deployed to Steinhatchee, Florida, last year in support of SAR operations following Hurricane Hermine, and recently assisted the U.S. Department of State in developing post-earthquake rescue and response protocol for their Italian Consulate. His company, Recon Response Engineering, teaches technical rescue teams, state and federal government agencies on the subject of structural collapse.
Instagram: @reconresponse

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