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It only takes one bad sunburn for some to realize that sunscreen isn’t always enough — given the importance of protecting your skin (even while inside), any sunburn is one too many. That’s where sun protective clothing comes in — it gives anyone spending time in the sun a much-needed barrier between their skin and harmful rays. If you're looking for a new bathing suit for a socially distant weekend trip to the beach or to plan for a (hopefully open and safe) summertravel getaway, you might want to consider clothing with built-in UPF protection.
“Sun protective clothing adds an extra layer of defense from the sun and unlike sunscreen, it doesn’t necessarily fade with time,” said Anna Guanche, MD, FAAD, founder of Bella Skin Institute. Instead, it provides long-lasting, all day protection and “investment in sun protective clothing is less than the doctors’ visits and surgeries needed for skin cancers.”
The bigger the number, the better, but most UPF products stop at 50.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD, clinical professor of dermatology, University of Minnesota Medical School
What is UPF clothing?
Sun protective, or UPF, clothing works by blocking out the sun’s harmful rays. But when it comes to this type of clothing and accessories, there are two terms that people often confuse: SPF and UPF.
SPF stands for sun protection factor, a measurement of how long a sunscreen (and not clothing) will protect you from the sun before you get burned. “It's important to note that SPF measures only ultraviolet B, where UPF measures both ultraviolet B [UVB] and ultraviolet A [UVA] rays' blockage,” said Charles Crutchfield III, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
On the other hand, UPF stands for ultraviolet protection factor and measures the ability for fabric to block sunlight. It’s assigned to clothing — like UPF hats, for example — by how well it keeps out ultraviolet sunlight, both UVA and UVB. “With UPF, use the number as a denominator. So a UPF of 50 means it will allow only 1/50th of the sun's rays to penetrate the clothing,” he said. “The bigger the number, the better, but most UPF products stop at 50.” For clothing to be marketed as “sun protective,” the Skin Cancer Foundation requires it have a UPF rating of 30 or higher. According to Guanche, a UPF of 30-49 is considered “very good” protection and a UPF of 50+ provides “excellent protection.”
People often think a simple long sleeve shirt is just as effective as a UPF protective shirt. But this is simply not true, said Alissia Zenhausern, NMD, founder of NMD Wellness of Scottsdale. To put it in perspective, while many dermatologists recommend clothing that’s UPF 50 +, a normal T-shirt has a UPF of only about 5-6, she explained.
What to look for while shopping
In general, the experts we spoke to recommend looking for sun protective clothing meets some obvious properties — and some less obvious ones:
- UPF 30- 50+. Keep in mind UPF 50+ gives the most optimal level of protection, reminded Mohiba Tareen, MD, FAAD, a clinical assistant professor of Dermatology at Columbia University.
- Looser fit. Despite what you might think, something that fits looser is better for sun protection. “Ironically, tighter fit material actually stretches the fabric, allowing more sun in,” said Tareen.
- Tight weave. Despite the suggested loose fit, the tighter a fabric’s weave, the more sun it blocks out. Tareen recommends holding up your clothing to the sun and making sure not too much sun gets through for a quick visual check.
- Dyed and darker fabrics. Dark and bright colors absorb UV rays, helping prevent them from reaching the skin, said Naiara Braghiroli, MD, a dermatologist for Miami Cancer Institute
- Select materials. Unbleached cotton has natural fibers that absorb UV rays and fabrics such as shiny polyester or lightweight satin silks can be considered as highly protective, according to Braghiroli, as they help reflect the incoming radiation.
- Treated with sun protective additives. Some high-tech fabrics are treated with chemical UV absorbers or certain dyes that can also prevent UV rays from penetrating the skin, she noted. However, be aware that these can wash out over time.
- Full coverage. To maximize sun protection, Kemunto Mokaya, MD, a dermatologist in Tennessee, advises looking for garments that cover more of your body, like long sleeves, high collars and extendable cuffs.
- Quick-drying fabric. Wetness can reduce the UPF of certain clothes so it’s best to invest in quick-drying material, she added — think of adjacent running gear.
How to shop for the best UPF swimwear
Although UPF-rated clothes can be more expensive than regular clothes, they are more than worth your investment in the long run. “Think of how much you can save by not having to apply sunscreen multiple times a day to a body part covered by a good quality outfit with a high UPF rating. And think of what you'll save by not having skin cancers,” Mokaya added, noting that, “on average, it costs over $1,000 to diagnose and treat skin cancer.”
Best UPF swimwear
There’s one brand that stands out among the rest to our experts: Coolibar. And as you shop, you can easily confirm a piece of clothing’s safety and effectiveness by looking for the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Seal of Recommendation. To help guide you to the best sun protective swimwear for the entire family, we compiled some of the best options out there, across price points and styles.
Best UPF swimwear for women
Best versatile swimwear for women: Land’s End
Be ready to go from a hike to a swim (or wherever else the day brings you) in this stylish tankini with built-in support for up to a DDD cup size. The top-rated swimsuit has UPF 50+ and it’s made from more than 20-percent Lycra spandex, which the brand claims will last 10 times longer than garments made from regular spandex.
Best overall swimwear for women: Coolibar
Whether you’re looking for full coverage swimwear (and everything in between, from swim tights to water jackets and shorts), our experts recommend Coolibar as worth the investment. This high-neck swimsuit’s fabric is chlorine- and saltwater-resistant, equips UPF 50+ fabric and has received The Skin Cancer Foundation’s Seal of Recommendation.
Best splurge swimwear for women: Patagonia
Not only does this mock turtleneck rash guard have a focus on sustainability but it’s also protective with a rating of UPF 50+. The long-sleeve, quick drying top is made from 83% recycled nylon and was created in a Fair Trade Certified safe working environment. The practical design also features gussets along the lightweight material to help keep seams off of wet skin and causing irritation during activities.
Best budget-friendly rash guards and board shorts for women: Kanu Surf
This UPF50+ short sleeve rash guard comes in an array of 12 colorways at a reasonable price point. With elbow-length sleeves, a high neckline and breathable quick dry material, it’s no wonder why this style is also an Amazon favorite. And if you’re looking for board shorts for extra coverage, this style comes in 34 quick dry prints at an equally affordable price.
Best swimwear coverup: PrAna
You can go from the beach to an outdoor dining-appropriate outfit by pairing this long sleeve UPF 25+ shirt from PrAna with your favorite bottoms. The Odea sports shirt is made from 91-percent recycled polyester and gets its 4-way stretch from the 9-percent of spandex. It features a kangaroo front pocket and is available in two colors: Atlantic and White, both of which are discounted 50-percent off.
Best UPF swimwear for men
Best budget-friendly rash guard for men: Kanu Surf
Keep your skin protected as you hit the beach chairs or water in this UPF 50+ rash guard at an affordable price point. This shortsleeve, crewneck top is machine-washable, lightweight and quick drying. More than 9,900 reviewers left it a 4.5-star average rating. There are 13 colors available, ranging from neutrals like Black and Charcoal to attention-grabbing shades like Neon Yellow and Red.
Best overall swimwear for men: NRS
Not only does this UPF 50+ long-sleeve rash guard feel smooth against your skin but it also offers water-sports lovers friction-free paddling and movement under your arms. Plus, there’s a loop at the hem where you can thread your shorts’ drawstring to prevent it from riding up and exposing your unprotected skin during activities.
Best swim shorts for men: Cabana Life
From the on-seam pockets and interior mesh lining to the colorful UPF 50+ material and matching rash guards, Cabana Life’s swimwear makes a splash. But as an added bonus, these sun protective swim shorts are part of their Daddy and Me collection, which includes similar options in the same style for boys. These shorts are available in eight preppy prints like Orange Octopus, Aqua Citrus and Cabana Stripes.
Best swim tights for men: Solbari
Give yourself an added layer of protection during water sports with these UPF 50+ swim tights that come in two colors: Navy and Black. From surfing to waterskiing, you have the option to rock these under your favorite pair of swim trunks and stay comfortable thanks to the elastic waistband and internal elastic drawcord.
Best sustainable swimwear: Prana
Prana is known for their sustainable ethos and stylish-meets-functional garments. These printed swim shorts are made from more than 90-percent recycled polyester and offer UPF50+ protection. The moisture-wicking boardshort has adjustable waistband and pockets to store your beach tech. If you want a longer short opt for the 10-inch model or for a slightly shorter option there’s an 8-inch version as well.
Best UPF swimwear for kids
Best overall swimwear for kids: Coolibar
The brand’s multiple appearances might be standing out: Coolibar is dedicated to offering a diverse selection of UPF 50+ swimwear and it has parents covered, too. Their wide selection of UPF 50+ water products range from full coverage surf suits to rash guards, shorts, tights and skirts — they all come in a chlorine- and saltwater-resistant fabric with a four-way stretch. Coolibar also sells 25 women’s plus-size UPF swimwear pieces, like swim capris and swim jackets.
Best budget-friendly swimwear set for girls: UNIFACO
Whether mermaids and flowers or felines and butterflies are their thing, little girls will make a splash in this affordable UPF 50+ swimwear. The two-piece set comes in 25 vibrant print options and features a long-sleeve rash guard top with a matching ruffle bottom. This highly-rated swimsuit set is made for girls between ages 2 and 8.
Best budget-friendly swimwear set for boys: SINOLY
It doesn’t matter which of the seven prints your kiddo rocks, it won’t fade quickly thanks to the chlorine- and salt-resistant fabric. But, perhaps more importantly, the quick drying material is UPF 50+ so it will help keep kids skin protected from the sun while they enjoy the lake, pool or beach. The brand’s highly-rated UPF swimsuit is available in sizes one to eight-year-old boys.
Best budget-friendly one-piece swimwear for girls: Kanu Surf
This machine-washable, lined UPF 50+ swimsuit is ready for nonstop water adventures. With a matching rash guard and board short available, you can get the sun-safe coverage your kid needs at a price point parents should appreciate. Plus, the one piece swimsuit is available in 28 fun patterns like Janie Coral, a pink to orange ombré, and Ruby and Navy Chevron, a green and dark blue print with white detailing.
Best UPF swimwear for babies
Best overall swimwear for babies: Coolibar
The pros we consulted agree, when it comes to the skin of little ones, check out Coolibar’s swimwear products to help keep it safe. “This brand has the lightest fabrics and their materials stand up to sweat, salt and chlorine for a lifetime,” said Tareen. “And that’s particularly important if you have five kids like me and pass down clothing over the years.”
Best budget-friendly swim and hat set for babies: upandfast
This UPF 50+ infant sun protective swimsuit set isn’t just adorable — it’s also a great value. In addition to the full-coverage suit, it also comes with a matching waterproof hat to keep your baby shielded from harmful sun rays, from top to bottom. The sunsuits are available in sizes three to 36 months and come in fun patterns like the pink and purple Stripe Shark and the blue and yellow Sailboat.
Best budget-friendly swimwear set for boys: Simple Joys by Carter's
From nautical anchors and sharks to whales and crocodiles, this two-piece rash guard set comes in six adorable prints that leave both little ones and their parents equally happy. But it’s the UPF 50+ fabric, comfortable fit with an easy tie and affordable price point that has parents raving, according to product reviews. More than 12,550 reviewers on Amazon left this swimsuit set a 4.9-star average rating.
Best one-piece swimwear for girls: RuffleButts
Get your newborn to three-year-old ready for some outdoor fun while keeping her shielded from the sun with this long sleeve UPF 50+ swimsuit. The zipper back and quick diaper change snaps make getting in and out of this one-piece a breeze while the ruffle and side tie details add to the sweet design. Choose from 20 vibrant prints like Saltwater Stripe, Fab Flamingo and Bouncing Blooms.