Being outdoors and soaking up the sun is one of the greatest joys in life. Unfortunately, this great joy also comes with great pain, whether it be a bad sunburn or skin cancer.

Usually, when we think of sun protection, the first thing that comes to mind is a highly rated SPF sunscreen. We often overlook UPF-rated sunscreen fabric, which can offer better protection for the outdoor adventurist.

If you're reading this article, it's because you're wondering which is the champion in the battle of UPF vs. SPF protection. Or, you're wondering what's the difference between the two. Keep reading to find out more about what they are, how they work, and which one offers better sunburn protection.

UPF Vs. SPF: What's the Difference?

Every day, we're exposed to Ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. It doesn't matter whether we're enjoying a morning run, a day at the beach, or driving to work. The sun is there, reflecting off of surfaces and beaming down on us.

The overexposure to UV light—Both UVA and UVB—can lead to sunburn, premature photoaging, sun damage, and skin cancer. UV rays don't discriminate either, which means everybody is at risk.

Luckily, there are several forms of sun protection out there. From clothing to accessories to sunscreens to avoiding the sun altogether, there's something out there for everyone. Of course, if you don't know how sun protection works or the proper way to use it, it won't do you any good.

The most popular form of protection comes in a bottle, labeled with an "SPF." A relatively new type of sun protection on the market is known as "UPF"—but it doesn't come in a bottle.

Both UPF and SPF get thrown around when talking about sun protection. They're also often used interchangeably, which doesn't necessarily work. However, they do have one thing in common: a rating system in which they measure sunburn protection.

Let's dive in:

What Is SPF?

SPF stands for "Sun Protection Factor." It's the standard way to measure the effectiveness of sunscreen. SPF gauges the amount of time it takes for exposure to the sun to burn your skin.

Here's how it works:

The average person begins to burn within 10-20 minutes of sun exposure without protection. The amount of SPF in a given bottle of sunscreen will dictate how much longer you can stay outside past your "burn" time. So, if you burn within 10 minutes of unprotected sun exposure, and the bottle states, "SPF 15," that means you stay in the sun up to 15 times longer.

For example, 15x10 equals 150 minutes of protected sun exposure before it's time to reapply or seek shade.

The recommendation is always a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30. A broad-spectrum sunscreen will filter out both UVA and UVB rays, compared to the standard sunscreen that only filters out UVB rays. This is important because many people don't realize that UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin's dermis, contributing to premature signs of aging.

On the other hand, UVB rays are primarily known for burning the superficial layer of the skin. However, both types of UV light can cause long-lasting damage to the skin as well as cancer.

The number 30 is also important because anything beyond that number is false advertising. The only difference between SPF 30 and 50 is that SPF 30 filters out 97% of the sun's UV rays while SPF 50 filters out 98%. Regardless of the number, you should still be applying your sunscreen every two hours.

What Is UPF?

UPF stands for "Ultraviolet Protection Factor." It sounds precisely like Sun Protection Factor re-worded; however, it's used for clothing and fabric. The UPF rating is an indicator of how much of the sun's UV radiation can penetrate certain materials and reach the skin.

Of course, you won't find a UPF rating on just any piece of clothing. The rating is typically associated with clothing specially designed for sun protection. The ratings go from 15 to 50, and they indicate the fraction of the sun's rays allowed to penetrate the fabric.

For example, a UPF rating of 50 means that only 1/50th of the sun's UV rays can pass through. 1/50th of the sun's UV rays equates to 98% of the rays being blocked. That leaves only 2% allowed to pass through the fabric. This reduces your skin's exposure significantly.

Additionally, clothing with UPF ratings is tested by spectrophotometer equipment, whereas SPF ratings are tested on human subjects. UPF fabrics also filter out UVA and UVB rays, whereas only broad-spectrum SPFs filter out both.

Which Works Better?

According to Dr. Joshua Zeichner of the Skin Cancer Foundation, "clothing is the single most effective form of sun protection, even more than sunscreen." Part of the reason is that UPF clothing offers a physical barrier between the sun's rays and the skin.

The other part of the reason is that most people just aren't diligent enough about reapplying their sunscreen. They forget that sweating and swimming dilute the sunscreen's effectiveness, even if the bottle says "sweat" or "water-resistant" up to a certain amount of time.

The real, concrete difference between UPF vs. SPF is that 1% of protection. Of course, the conveniences of UPF shirts and accessories give it an even greater advantage. With UPF fabric, you don't have to worry about reapplying sunscreen while you're out paddle boarding. Additionally, you won't have to endure a chemical burn from sunscreen mixed with sweat dripping into your eyes—or staining your expensive activewear during your tennis match.

UPF clothing may not be ideal for wearing to the beach or a pool party, but it's good to bring along for those times you need a break from the sun.

Protect Your Skin

Regardless of which side you're on in UPF vs. SPF's contest, it's incredibly important to protect your skin from the sun. It is crucial to wear sun protective clothing and sunscreen for UV protection. Limit your sun exposure whenever possible, and check in with your dermatologist from time to time. To learn more about sunscreen's risks and benefits you can check out the Ultimate Consumer Guide to Sunscreen.

Feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions regarding UPF clothing and accessories. You can browse our online shop too!

January 13, 2023 — Gabriella Lowell