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What Chemicals are in a Rashguard or Swim Shirt to Create Sunblock? Best Options for Health

Updated on June 21, 2016
Swim shirts and rash guards provide UV protection, but beware of chemical additives applied to fabrics.
Swim shirts and rash guards provide UV protection, but beware of chemical additives applied to fabrics. | Source

In order to avoid chemical exposure to toxic ingredients in topical sunscreen, many people have opted to cover-up with some sort of UV protective clothing for protection from the sun. The most popular type of UV protective wear is the rash guard or swim shirt. These can be particularly effective in protecting skin from sun damage for all ages, and especially convenient for kids. However, UV protective fabric may be treated with chemicals in order to induce this protective effect. The good news is that chemical-free options do exist. See what is good for your skin.

Copyright © 2015 Melis Ann

UVA rays penetrate clothing and deeper into skin than UVB causing aging and cancer. UVA light does not cause a sunburn and is not easily blocked by topical sunscreen.
UVA rays penetrate clothing and deeper into skin than UVB causing aging and cancer. UVA light does not cause a sunburn and is not easily blocked by topical sunscreen. | Source

Sun Damage: Understanding the Difference Between UVA and UVB

All fabric has some level of sun protection; the evidence of sun damage being burn or tan lines. Exposed areas that have been burned show sun damage by UVB light. The areas protected by fabric seem like they have not been damaged, however, UVA light penetrates through clothing and deeper into the skin causing long-term damage such as wrinkles and skin cancer without causing a sunburn.

Those with medium to darker skin are naturally more protected against sunburn, but can benefit from protection against UVA rays and negative health effects.

Sunscreens are Inadequate Sun Protection

Experts agree that UV protective clothing provides a more thorough and reliable shield from the sun compared to sunscreen which has proven to be inadequate. It's just good for your skin to wear clothing that provides a complete block against UV rays.

In the past, sunscreens have been rated for protection from UVB light only. The SPF rating is based on prevention of sunburn. However, labeling requirements are changing to show sunscreen effectiveness for both UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreens that are effective in blocking UVA rays tend to be thicker since they contain blocking ingredients like zinc oxide. For this reason, many people don't like using them. With labeling being questionable and the desire to avoid chemicals in general, covering up with some sort of UV protective clothing seems like the easiest and surest way to avoid real sun damage.

What is good for skin is blocking damaging UVA rays.
What is good for skin is blocking damaging UVA rays. | Source

Fabric with UV Protection

Different kinds of fabric are more effective than others in blocking UVA and UVB light. The only way to know for sure if fabric offers UV protection is if it's been UPF tested (Ultraviolet Protection Factor). Here are some general rules to help determine how much sunlight clothing can block.

  • Tighter weave fabric blocks more light. By holding fabric up to light you can see how much light gets through.
  • Dyes in fabric absorb UV rays. It is not necessarily darker colors that are more protective, but more dependent on the type of dye used. Lighter colors reflect more light, but it's visible light that's being reflected, not damaging UV rays.
  • Weave of the fabric matters. Cotton is the worst rated protective fabric whereas synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon absorb more UV rays.
  • Thicker fabrics have a more protective effect.
  • Wet fabric loses protectiveness.
  • Fabrics that have more stretch tend to have less UV protection. As the fabric is stretched, space develops within the weave.

Protective Effect
UPF 15-24
UPF 25-39
Very Good
UPF 40-50+

What is UPF?

Based on the knowledge that specific fabrics are better at providing effective sunblock, companies are designing UPF rated clothing that is lightweight, comfortable and protective. UPF rating measures the UV radiation that penetrates fabric to reach and penetrate the skin. Some of these products are treated with a chemical additive to create the protective effect, but with innovations in fabric that can create this effect, this is an unnecessary health risk.

Rashguards and swim shirts for kids protect skin from sun damage by UVA and UVB rays.
Rashguards and swim shirts for kids protect skin from sun damage by UVA and UVB rays.

Chemical-Free Swim Shirts

If you're looking for a 'chemical-free' swim shirt or rash guard, then you will want the nature of the fabric itself to be what makes it protective. Tightly woven fabrics made of polyester or nylon are naturally nonabsorbent and quick drying without the need for chemical treatments to be UV protective.

The clothing will likely still be processed using dye and color setting chemicals so the term chemical-free refers to the product being free of chemicals to induce the UV protective element. Even with that said, claims that swimwear is chemical-free may just tell us that the item is not processed with chemicals once it's made, but still may have some sort of treatment to help with the UV protectiveness in early stages of processing the yarns, especially for lighter colors.

Be careful of misleading claims ~ online searches for chemical-free swim shirts will result in ads that claim their swimwear is chemical free, when they are just referring to the swimwear as an alternative to chemical sunscreen.

Why Avoid Chemicals like Optical Brighteners?

It's difficult to discern exactly what chemicals are being added to create a UV barrier to make protective clothing. Optical brighteners, also known as brightening agents, optical whiteners or fluorescent bleaches, are one type of chemical used on swim shirts. EPA states that optical brighteners are potentially toxic to humans, suspected of causing adverse reproductive and developmental effects.

Optical brighteners are a type of dye that absorbs UV light, reflecting back blue visible light, tricking the eye into making colors seem brighter. Note that this ingredient is also present in many laundry detergents to make whites seem whiter and brights seem brighter, without actually making them cleaner.

Just as optical brighteners bind to fabric, they bind to skin. This can't be good for skin. Coupled with the fact that optical brighteners break down when exposed to sunlight, photo toxic skin irritation or photo allergy can develop. Many sensitivities that are blamed on dyes or fragrances may actually be due to optical brighteners. Long term safety testing has not been performed.

Environmentally, optical brighteners are not friendly. They are toxic to fish, algae and other plants. They can bioaccumulate in larger fish and are not readily biodegradable. Optical brighteners have even been shown to cause mutations in bacteria. Pollution caused by optical brighteners through laundry and treatment of UV protective clothing is detrimental to water quality and water habitats.

Protect skin from an early age with proper UPF and UV protective clothing without optical brighteners.
Protect skin from an early age with proper UPF and UV protective clothing without optical brighteners. | Source

Who Is Most Vulerable to UV Skin Damage?

Vulnerability to skin damage by UV radiation varies based on several factors. The following increase your risk.

  • light/fair skinned
  • proximity to the equator
  • higher elevations
  • activities involving reflective surfaces such as water, sand or snow (up to 85% of sun's damaging rays are reflected back by these surfaces)
  • younger ages ~ accumulating exposure during early years is most damaging

Example ~ Fair skinned individuals living in Australia and participating in water related activities have a high level of risk and have such been pioneers in using sun protective clothing.

Where to Buy Chemical Free UV Protective Swimwear - My Research

I contacted several companies to find out the details. Based on my research, here are the companies where I would shop to purchase chemical-free UV wear. The following carry products for the entire family from swimwear, hats, clothing and other accessories.

Disclaimer: Note that this website portrays my opinion. I want to help others consider a new or different view. Any action taken based on these opinions is the responsibility of the reader.

Copyright © 2015 Melis Ann
Original content written by Melis Ann published only on HubPages at the following web address: http://melisann.hubpages.com/hub/What-Chemicals-are-in-Rashguard-and-Swim-Shirts-to-Create-Sunblock

What is Good for Your Skin? Best Sunscreen

Regardless of your skin type, UV protective clothing is your best method for protecting your skin from damage by UV radiation. Find swim shirt and rash guard fabrics that are made specially to protect you from the sun without added chemicals, such as optical brighteners, which can be harmful to health. Even if it's difficult to figure out if the UV clothing is actually chemical-free, choosing a tight weave, dark-colored, synthetic material from a company who claims that the item is not treated with chemicals is your best bet. Worst case is that you are avoiding exposure to sunscreen lotions that are not reliably providing full UV protection. Swim shirts and rash guards with high UPF ratings are good for skin and better for the environment.



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    • Melis Ann profile image

      Melis Ann 2 years ago from Mom On A Health Hunt

      Hello RTalloni - you are welcome. I hope you can make some good decisions based on the chemical content of sun protective clothing with this information.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 2 years ago from the short journey

      So appreciate this post on safe clothing that provides sun protection.