Sun Protection in the Garden: The Benefits of UPF Clothing

Sun Protection in the Garden: The Benefits of UPF Clothing

How to Stay Protected from the Sun While Gardening: The Benefits of UPF Clothing 

Sunlight is fantastic for growing plants and warming our spirits. There are few things quite as  good as basking in those warm spring sun rays after the chilly winter season. But like all good  things, there can easily be too much of it. Ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted from the sun can lead to sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancer. While the risk of sun exposure seems almost unavoidable, here are some facts about sun exposure and ways to protect ourselves that will keep you safe while gardening outdoors.

What this article will cover:

What UPF is and what it can do for you  
What types of materials have the best UPF protection 
What can be done beyond UPF protection  
Why skin protection is so crucial

    Sometimes being in direct sunlight while gardening outdoors is difficult to avoid, but with the use of sun hats, sunscreen, and clothing designed for sun protection: Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF), controlling exposure to the sun is possible. First and foremost, understanding UPF and utilizing its potential is a significant asset in fighting off those rays. 


    So What Is UPF?

    UPF is a rating scale that indicates how much UV radiation a fabric allows to reach the skin.  For example, a fabric with a UPF 50+ can block 98 percent of the sun’s rays or more. This type of protection blocks both UVB and UVA rays.  

    What UPF Can Do For You

    Everyone can benefit, but kids and older adults are the most vulnerable. People with darker skin pigmentation are just also just as vulnerable but don’t have the benefit of seeing the damage done as quickly through reddening from sun exposure. 

    Due to the nature of gardening, there tend to be periods that require prolonged exposure to UV rays—some tasks can’t wait until the sun goes down. So when considering how best to protect oneself against sun damage, UPF fabrics should be the first line of defense. Unlike sunscreen, UPF fabrics provide protection that keeps on protecting, with no need for reapplication.

    UPF protective clothing


    Factors That Enhance UPF Ratings in Fabrics

    All fabrics, in essence, have some level of UPF, but not all fabrics are created equal. Understanding the factors that go into UPF rating helps us differentiate between fabrics and ultimately choose the best option.

    Okay, so it has the rating, but how did we get there?

    The significant three factors that contribute to the enhanced benefit of UPF protection:

    Dorie Chevlen, in her NYT Wirecutter article explains that the denser and thicker the fabric, the better. But while thick fabrics may be a viable solution in the short term, working in the garden often requires long stretches of sun exposure. This is where synthetic fabrics really shine.

    In contrast to thick fabrics, with less breathability—often leaving us sweaty and uncomfortable—synthetics like polyester and nylon blends allow the same protection, or greater, in a lightweight, moisture-wicking material.

    Fiber type:

    Synthetics like nylon and polyester work best. Natural fibers like wool and silk work  moderately well, while cotton and hemp are often far less effective at reducing UV  transmission.  


    Fabrics with darker colors generally absorb more UV rays. Another factor to consider is  hue: brighter hues outperform paler ones for UV protection.  

    Those are the factors that enhance UPF, but what diminishes it? 


    With most fabrics, wetness causes the UPF rating to diminish. Although, some studies suggest that polyester's protection is unchanged or even enhanced when wet. 


    As fabrics age from continuous use, becoming worn and faded, they also lose  effectiveness at blocking UV light. This makes another case in using polyester and other synthetics in sun protection, as they tend to hold up better against continuous wear. 


    While a tight-fitting fabric assists in UV protection, a garment fitting too tightly starts working against UV protection. 

    Caring for UPF fabrics is also critical in the role of maintaining protection. Washing clothes at the recommended temperature with detergents will keep them clean and prolong a fabric’s protective capability. 


    Sun protection clothing

    The Difference Between UPF and SPF 

    UPF measures the amount of UV radiation that can penetrate fabric and reach your skin. Sun Protection Factor, or SPF, is based on the time it takes for UV-exposed skin to redden.

    Another significant distinction is that UPF measures both UVB and UVA, while SPF measures only UVB, making UPF fabrics protection more encompassing. 

    Sun Protection: Beyond the Clothing 

    Having a wide range of defenses against the sun is the safest bet when digging in the garden. To combine sunglasses with UV protection, wide-brimmed hats, UPF clothing, and sunscreen applied where fabrics can’t cover is essential. 

    While UPF clothing ranks better in protection, there’s still the need for sunscreen where clothing often doesn’t reach. 

    Sunscreen works well when applied correctly—applying sunscreen 30 minutes before entering the sun and reapplying sunscreen every two hours while outdoors is necessary for maximizing the effectiveness of SPF.  


    With SPF, one thing to keep in mind is that the level of protection varies among individuals. The  number associated with SPF (15, 30, 50) represents the amount of time it would take for  someone’s skin to become reddened multiplied by that number.

    Studies suggest that if it typically takes you 15 minutes to burn without sunscreen and you apply an SPF 10, it will take ten times longer (2.5  hours) to burn in the sun.

    While this is heavily researched and studied science, there are many variables at play, so keeping a high level of SPF on with regular reapplications would be the best bet.  

    What Type of Sunscreen to Use 

    For gardeners, a heavier, water-resistant sunscreen is the way to go. Face moisturizers with  SPF don’t often hold up against the elements quite as well. But keep in mind, it will still need to be reapplied every couple of hours but should hold up against perspiration and the occasional wiping of the face.

    Another thing to consider is that things like the marine layer and puffy clouds won’t protect skin from sun damage. Up to 40 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays reach through the clouds. And if possible, avoid sun exposure between 10 AM and 2 PM, when sun rays are the strongest.

    Because SPF application and other variables associated with its efficiency allow for a significant degree of susceptibility to sun exposure, UPF is the more surefire safeguard between the two; it should be considered as the primary deterrent when choosing UV protection.

    Why Skin Protection is Crucial 

    While minimal exposure to sun and the complications of minor sunburns don’t seem like  formidable foes, these slight damages add up significantly, causing severe health  consequences. Also, when gardening outdoors, the combination of sun exposure and allergens on the skin can intensify allergic reactions. Understanding UPF and getting the right gear to block those harmful UV rays is a huge asset in beating the sun when gardening outdoors. UPF protective fabrics are the best bet to fight off damage caused by UV rays; there’s no need to reapply—once it’s on, it’s on. A protective sleeve and neck gaiter will keep doing its thing while you do yours, all day long.