While we all know the importance of wearing sunscreen to protect ourselves from the sun’s harmful rays, we often overlook the other lines of defense we have to protect ourselves. These include: using shade, sunglasses, hats and, importantly, covering up with clothes.
I always thought I could simply put on a t-shirt and be safe. As it turns out, that’s not necessarily true! Many of the shirts we wear – especially the lighter ones we prefer during the summer – do a poor job of keeping the sun’s rays out and protecting our skin.
In order to find the best sun shirts available, I began to research what was needed in a shirt to give it great protection. I also wanted to find sun shirts that both looked and felt great.
It’s no good finding an effective shirt if I don’t want to wear it or it’s uncomfortable!
So, after thorough research into the requirements necessary for a sun shirt to be effective, SimplySunSafe recommends Columbia’s Terminal Tackle Long Sleeve Shirt for men and their Bahama Long Sleeve Shirt for women. Please read on for a detailed buyer’s guide, comparison table and in-depth reviews of the top 5 sun shirts.
To make sure you get the maximum protection from a sun shirt, there are number of key features you should look for:
Broad Spectrum Protection
The sun can damage the skin anywhere on our bodies. It is vitally important that we are protected against all types of the sun’s radiation. That is, whatever protection you are using needs to be ‘broad spectrum’.
There are two kinds of ultraviolet light which can damage our skin: Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB). They work in different ways:
- Because it has a longer wavelength, UVA has the ability to get deep into your skin. It rarely causes the skin to redden. Instead, it damages a protein in your skin, elastin, which helps keep your skin looking healthy. Your body compensates for this damage by producing a series of enzymes which, over time, lead to uneven healing from UVA rays. Ultimately, this leads to wrinkles and premature aging.
- UVB harms the top layer of skin. When you think of sunburn, it is the damage caused by UVB you are thinking of: redness, blistering, painful and peeling skin.
Over time, both UVA and UVB damage can lead to skin cancer.
Whichever area of your skin you are protecting, it is important to make sure you are protected against both kinds of UV light.
If you are used to buying sunscreens, you may already know to look for ‘UVA/UVB’ or ‘broad spectrum’ products. As you’ll see, when it comes to buying the best shirts for sun protection, what we will be looking for will be slightly different.
Best SPF for Sun Shirts
The most widely understood measure for protecting ourselves against the sun is a product’s Sun Protection Factor (SPF). When we’re buying sunscreens, for example, it’s the single most important thing we look for. It’s not a perfect system and, as we’ll see, while it’s used to measure sunscreens, it’s used increasingly rarely to measure the protection offered by clothes.
When scientists first began developing sunscreens and other methods of protecting yourself in the sun, they were unaware of the damage caused by UVA. Instead, they assumed they needed to invent products to shield us only from UVB. As a result, SPF only tells you how much a product protects you from UVB rays. Even if it says it protects you against UVA rays, it doesn’t tell you how effective that protection is.
The SPF of, for example, a sunscreen theoretically tells you how many more times longer you can stay out in the sun if you wear that sunscreen without burning. For instance, if I normally begin to burn after two minutes, when I put on a sunscreen with an SPF of 15, I can stay in the sun for 30 minutes.
The problem is that things aren’t quite that simple! There are so many variables when it comes to SPF:
- How much did you apply?
- How intense is the sun?
- Did you reapply after two hours?
- Did you go swimming?
All these hurt the effectiveness of the product.
I used to spend extra money on products with an SPF of 100, thinking they would be much more effective than one with an SPF of 30. I was wrong. It turns out that SPF 30 protects you against 97% of UVB radiation. Anything higher than this is diminishing returns:
|SPF Rating||UVB Protection|
As I mentioned before, you may find some clothes listed as having an SPF, so it’s worth knowing about this system. However, SPF is not a great measure of the sun protection given by clothes. For this reason, a new standard for apparel was developed: UPF.
If you do see clothes listed with an SPF, dig a little deeper.
If it really does claim to have an SPF, make sure it’s not a typo for UPF. Be aware that a claim to have an SPF, this may just be an advertising ploy rather than something backed up by the rigorous testing that lies behind the UPF standard. That is, it may not tell you much about how protective the sun shirt you are looking at is.
Best UPF for Sun Shirts
When it comes to clothes, there are two main problems with the SPF standard.
Firstly, SPF only measures UVB and not UVA. Secondly, SPF is a measure of how long skin can be exposed to the sun before it burns. This is fine for a sunscreen – a product that becomes less effective as the day progresses. However, a shirt retains its effectiveness all day long.
So, in Australia back in the 1990s, the new standard for clothing was developed: Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF).
The most important distinction between SPF and UPF is that UPF measures how much radiation across the ultraviolet spectrum (i.e., both UVA and UVB) is blocked by a fabric.
|UPF Rating||UV Blocked|
|15-24||93.3 – 95.9%|
|24-39||96.0 – 97.4%|
|40-49||97.5 – 97.9%|
So, a UPF of 25 lets you know that fabric will allow approximately 1/25 of UV rays through. That means about 4 percent will get through the fabric.
At first glance, this appears similar to the SPF rating, doesn’t it? After all, an SPF of 30 gives you 97% protection, which is right around what a UPF of 30 gives you.
Don’t forget, though, that the UPF is a more complete protection and is also just as effective at 3 p.m. as it was at 11 a.m.
Not only that, remember SPFs are generally less effective in the real world than in laboratory conditions. As we’ve seen, this is because of a whole series of environmental variables.
On the other hand, when they test fabrics for UPF, they always test the worst-case scenarios. For example, they will direct the UV light to always go through the weakest points in the fabric.
In the real world, then, while SPF is the upper limit of how effective a sunscreen is, the UPF is the lower limit of how effective a fabric is. Often, the real world UPF is higher than its advertised UPF.
As a rule, look for clothing with a higher UPF rating. Clothes with a rating below 15 are not regarded as providing effective UV protection. Anything above 50 should give you confidence that you have excellent protection against the sun even in the sunniest of regions.
Best Fabric for Sun Shirts
So, slipping on a shirt and covering up has its advantages over putting sunscreen on exposed skin. Most importantly, it can be effective all day long. However, the protection you get from your shirt depends on what it’s made of.
At one end of the scale, a standard white cotton shirt typically has a UPF of 5. That means it will allow approximately 20% of UV light to pass through it, and so it does not provide much protection. At the other end of the scale, denim has a UPF of around 1,700! That means it essentially blocks everything.
Both the T-shirt and the denim in these examples are made from cotton. What makes the denim have superior sun protection is its dense weave. There’s no space between the threads in denim, so no UV can pass through it.
The obvious downside to denim is that it’s a thick, heavy fabric. Not something you’d want to wear on a sunny day.
Fortunately, there are many lighter fabrics available with a UPF of 50+. The table below shows the results of tests conducted by ARPANSA (the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency). As you can see, modern man-made fabrics tend to provide the best sun protection. Over 90% of samples of Lycra they tested had a UPF of 50+, compared with only 60% of samples of cotton.
|Fabric||Samples Tested with UPF 50+|
One advantage of Lycra is that it is a lightweight fabric, ideal for wearing in the sunshine without getting too hot. As we look into the best UV shirts available, fabric will be a key factor in our choices.
Best Color for Sun Shirts
Another factor affecting how protective a sun shirt is, is its color. Darker colors absorb more UV radiation than lighter ones, giving them a higher UPF. Bright colors can also help absorb UV. For example, a shirt in a muted red would be less protective than the same shirt in a vivid red.
How shiny a material is can also affect its UPF rating. One of the reasons Lycra is so effective is that, as well as having a dense weave, its glossy sheen reflects more UV light than cotton.
When selecting a shirt for sun protection it’s important not to choose one that fits too tightly. The more a fabric stretches on your skin, the less effective it is at protecting you. This is simply because when you stretch a fabric, there is more space between the threads which allows more UV radiation through.
Therefore, pay particular attention to how a shirt fits on you. Focus especially on your shoulders. Typically, this is not only where shirts stretch the most, it’s also an area of the body frequently in direct sunlight. For this reason, some sun shirts will have a double layer of fabric in the shoulder area.
How old is it?
Another factor to bear in mind when thinking about the UPF of a sun shirt, is that it becomes less effective at keeping out UV radiation over time. This is the result of the natural aging of a piece of clothing: over time, those bright colors may fade, the fabric may begin to fray, or it may begin to wear through.
Once you see signs of a shirt’s aging, remember that this will reduce its UPF and it may be time to consider getting a replacement.
What does it cover?
No matter how great the fabric of your sun shirt, it can only protect the skin it covers! It goes without saying that a long sleeve shirt will protect more than a short sleeve one.
When looking at the best sun protection shirts to buy, pay attention to the clothes’ details.
For example, does it contain ‘thumb loops’ on the wrists? These are holes in long sleeve shirts designed for you to put your thumbs through, and so makes sure the shirt covers not only your whole arm but also your wrist and lower hand.
What is the neckline like? Does it have a collar that shields the back of your neck, or does it leave skin exposed? Remember that the neckline is a common area for skin cancer to develop, so protecting this area is important.
Remember to use a great sunscreen on any areas you’ve left exposed. Your sun shirt is just one component you can use in protecting yourself from the effects of sunburn.
What happens if my sun shirt gets wet?
Most fabrics become less effective at protecting you from UV radiation if they get wet.
Remember that white cotton shirt I mentioned earlier? When it’s wet, it drops from UPF 5 to UPF 3. This is true for most fabrics, although polyester sometimes actually increases its UPF when wet.
This is particularly important if you are active in the sunshine. If you wear your shirt while swimming, for instance, bear in mind it will probably become less effective in the water. If you sweat on a sunny day – and who doesn’t? – that, too, will reduce a fabric’s effectiveness.
When choosing a sun shirt, there are several things to look for. Does the shirt have vents or another ventilation option that will help you, and therefore the shirt, stay dry? Is it loose fitting? If so, it’s less likely to get immediately wet. Is it made of a quick-drying material? If it is, then it will be able to return it its full UPF rating faster.
What about style?
It’s important to consider what you’ll look like in your new sun shirt. I have discovered sun shirts fall into three main style groups:
- Sports clothing. This is by far the most common type of clothing to find with a high UPF. During a sports competition, you may find yourself in direct sunlight for prolonged periods, and so this kind of clothing is essential. These clothes tend to be stylish and can be worn by anyone on a casual occasion.
- Practical clothing. For people looking for a more practical or classic look, you can find shirts and blouses with a high UPF. These clothes look great and may be worn in any situation; however, they don’t tend to be super-fashionable.
- Fashionable clothing. So, you want to look stunning and not get a malignant melanoma? It can be hard to find UPF-rated clothing in this category. However, there are some great options for you, especially if you are a woman.
Is it possible to increase the UPF of your current wardrobe?
It is possible to improve the UPF rating of clothes you already own. When you first buy a shirt, wash it a few times. This will shrink the garment slightly, reducing the gaps between the threads. Also, some detergents contain brighteners. These may help slightly increase the UPF of a garment.
There are even products you can use including Rit SunGuard which treat your clothes with a chemical to improve their UPF.
However, SimplySunSafe does not recommend relying on these approaches to give you high-UPF clothing.
Firstly, even if these processes work, you will never know the effective UPF of your clothes. Secondly, in some instances, washing clothes may decrease a fabric’s UPF. For example, if a shirt relies on its sheen for its UPF but that sheen fades in the laundry, it will become less effective.
We recommend buying sun shirts which have been tested and have a clear UPF rating. Follow the garment’s cleaning instructions carefully, and note if the manufacturer says whether the product is only effective for a certain number of washes.
Best Sun Shirts Comparison
|Columbia Terminal Tackle Long Sleeve Shirt||UV Skinz Half-Zip Ruched Sun Shirt||Lilly Pulitzer Skipper Popover||Coolibar Travel Shirt||Speedo Easy Long Sleeve Rash Guard|
|Material||Polyester||Pique (cotton)||96% Cotton & 4% Lycra||51% Nylon & 49% Polyester||Polyester|
|Men’s and Women’s||Yes||Yes||Women’s Only||Yes||Yes|
5 Best Sun Shirts
After careful research which combined discussions with customers, looking into customer feedback, examination of manufacturer specifications and participation in sun protection forums, SimplySunSafe has chosen the 5 best UPF shirts.
These 5 sun shirts all provide broad spectrum protection through a high UPF. Our recommendations take into account fabric, color, sizing, coverage and how getting wet affects the garment.
Columbia Sportswear was founded in Portland, Oregon in 1938 and today is the largest seller of ski apparel in America. They describe their aesthetic as ‘no-nonsense’ and designed to keep you protected.
They have expanded to lines of clothing beyond skiwear. For instance, their Men’s Terminal Tackle Long Sleeve Shirt was designed with anglers in mind. However, it’s a great general-use shirt if you’re out in the sun.
It’s made of 100% polyester in Columbia’s own ‘Omni-Shade, Omni-Wick’ fabric. It protects you with a UPF 50 rating. It is designed to be breathable, wick away moisture quickly and dry fast – this helps on those hot summer days when you are highly active. Swimmers have noted how quickly this shirt dries after being in the water.
It has a classic t-shirt design, loose fitting and with long sleeves. It doesn’t have a collar, so you would need to make sure you have sunblock on exposed areas of skin and to wear a hat.
Despite this, it provides excellent UV protection. Columbia also produces a variety of styles of UPF 50 shirts, including a polo, although that has short sleeves.
The material lightweight feels even on sunny days, sometimes feeling cooler than wearing a regular t-shirt. As is typical for Columbia Sportswear apparel, sizes run large. This is good in that you can be sure it won’t stretch when you wear it and, so, reduce its UPF protection.
Columbia also produces a wide array of sun shirts for women, including their Women’s Bahama Long Sleeve Shirt. The shirts are well priced and represent great value for money. Although the men’s shirt does not have a collar, it is a great choice among the best t-shirts for sun protection.
- UPF 50+
- Low price
- Covers arms and neck
- Great for everyday wear
- Men’s shirt does not protect neck
UV Skinz is a clothing company dedicated to producing high-quality clothing all of which has a UPF of 50+. Back in 2001, Rhonda Sparks lost her husband to skin cancer. He was 32 years old. Rhonda made it her mission to help educate people about the disease.
Her company, UV Skinz was born from this tragedy. She realized most sun protecting clothing at the time was uncomfortable and not very fashionable. She sought to address both these issues. Today, UV Skinz produces a whole array of clothes for the entire family.
Their UPF 50+ Women’s Long Sleeve Half-Zip Ruched Sun Shirt is a great example of this. It’s a good looking and practical sun shirt. It’s made of pique, a kind of closely woven cotton, and it provides great coverage with its a mock turtle collar and thumb hoops in its arm-length sleeves.
The pique fabric is quick drying and lightweight. That the base material is cotton helps the shirt stay breathable on even the hottest of days. However, some wearers have felt the material is a little heavy for very hot days. It may be better for days by the sea, where there are high winds, or in cooler climates.
The styling is cute but not super-chic. This shirt comes in a variety of colors including pink, blue and black. Perhaps the most thoughtful detail is that the zipper pull is UV sensitive and changes color in sunlight.
For the men, UV Skinz UPF 50+ Active Sun & Swim Shirt is a great choice. With a sporty look, mock turtle collar and long sleeves, it looks sharp and provides great protection. Wearers have commented how comfortable this shirt is.
- UPF 50+
- Covers arms and neck
- Thicker material may be too warm for hot days
Lilly Pulitzer was a famous fashion designer and socialite of the twentieth century. In 1959, she became president of her own fashion house aged 37. Based in Florida, Lilly’s clothing company became famous for its bright patterns and chic designs. She only ever produced clothes designed for warmer months. ‘It’s always summer somewhere,’ she would say.
Lilly passed away in 2013, but her label lives on. Today, they produce a range of UPF 50+ sun wear. These clothes follow true to Lilly’s original desires. For instance, the Lilly Pulitzer Women’s UPF 50+ Skipper Popover comes in a variety of brightly colored patterns as well as navy blue, and white. It’s a piece you can dress up to look incredible or dress down for a more casual look.
It has great coverage, with a collar and long sleeves. It’s also slightly fitted so looks great when you wear it. With its French terry weave of 96% cotton and 4% lycra, women have commented on how comfortable it is to wear and that it’s breathable and not too heavy, even in hot weather.
One thing to be aware of is that some women feel the sizing runs a little large. This may indeed be the case, or it may be that it’s designed to be layered over other items. In any case, be aware of this when you make a purchase.
It’s also worth noting that this top is designed for casual, day-round wear. It isn’t designed for athletic activity. French terry, although very comfortable, is unlikely to dry quickly if you break into a sweat!
Perhaps the only downside to Lilly Pulitzer is they only make clothes for women and girls. There are no options for men. Also, the Skipper Popover is at the higher end of the price range of the sun shirts SimplySunSafe recommends.
- UPF 50+
- Covers arms and neck
- Stylish and fashionable
- Lilly Pulitzer only produces women’s apparel
- Not fast drying
Coolibar was founded in 2001 by Australian John Barrow with the intention of bringing sun protection clothing to a wider market. In 2009, they became the first apparel company to be recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. All of their clothes are rated UPF 50+.
Their design aesthetic is to focus on elegant, classic designs which can be worn in a variety of settings. For example, their UPF 50+ Women’s Travel Shirt has a simple, clean look and comes in a variety of colors. It offers great protection with its long sleeves and collar.
It is made of 51% nylon and 49% polyester and is woven in Coolibar’s own ‘3D Dri Suntect’ weave which not only provides excellent sun protection but also uses a 3D grid pattern to help wick moisture away quickly.
To help keep you cool, there are almost invisible ventilation panels under the arms and along the sides of the shirt. It is also loose fitting which helps improve its UPF. Wearers have commented on how cool they feel while wearing this shirt.
Coolibar produces a full line of sun shirts for both women and men. For example, their UPF 50+ Men’s Sun Shirt is very similar to the women’s travel shirt.
While Coolibar produces sun shirts for a wide variety of situations, including shirts great for sports, their clothes tend towards a timeless look. If this is what you prefer, rather than a super stylish sun shirt which may look dated next year, Coolibar is a great company to try. It is worth noting, too, that their products lie on the more expensive end of the scale.
- UPF 50+
- Well designed with ventilation panels
- Timeless styling
Speedo is well known as one of the world’s leading swimwear brands. Founded in Australia in 1928, it has gained a reputation as an innovator in high-performance fabrics. Speedo also produces a variety of sun shirts.
The Speedo Men’s Easy Long Sleeve Swim Tee is what’s called a ‘rash guard.’ Originally developed to provide surfers with protection against the sun when it was too hot to wear a wetsuit, rash guards are now worn for all sorts of activities, not just watersports.
With long sleeves and a loose fit, this sun shirt provides UPF 50+ protection. In fact, the sleeves are designed to be extra long and so cover part of your hands. It has no collar and does not protect the neck. It is made of 100% tightly woven polyester to maximize sun protection.
The material feels lightweight to wear and dries quickly if you get wet. As it is polyester jersey, it should not lose too much of its sun protection when it gets wet.
It is a looser fit than most rash guards. Speedo explains that this is to improve its UPF rating when worn. This fit means it can also be worn as a casual T-shirt when you are out in the sun.
Speedo produces a range of women’s UPF 50+ sun shirts as well, including the Speedo Women’s UPF 50+ Rash Guard. Unlike the men’s shirt which is loose fitting, the women’s version is fitted and includes Lycra as part of its weave. While still a great sun shirt, the women’s shirt is obviously a sports shirt and so is less versatile as an item of clothing. Nonetheless, both the men’s and women’s shirts are strong candidates for the best long sleeve sun protection shirt.
- UPF 50+
- Great coverage
- Quick drying
- Shirt does not protect neck
I wrote this guide to help you when looking for the best sun shirts available. Hopefully, you have found it useful and know what to look for when searching for shirts with great sun protection.
That said, all our sun shirt recommendations will fulfill your needs when it comes to protecting yourself from sunlight. As we are all different, it may be that one of my other recommendations works better for you!
If you have a sun shirt you love that I haven’t mentioned here, let me know in the comments below. I’ll investigate it and may even add it to the guide!