[Updated May 2016]
Whenever shopping for hats and other outdoor clothing products, I've always steered clear of products with a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) rating because I've been concerned that the UV-protection might be through the application of chemical sunscreens. Chemicals sunscreens such as oxybenzones are often endocrine disruptors and other undesirables.
This year, however, I needed to purchase a swim suit for my 4-year-old daughter. And it is difficult if not impossible to find a swim suit or swim shirt for children these days that does not advertise a UPF rating. In the past my kids have mostly worn hand-me-down swimsuits and swim shirts. I'm also willing to use second-hand swim shirts purchased at thrift stores. Although I vaguely understood that these hand-me-down and second-hand items most likely were UV-protective I didn't worry too much about it. Now, shopping for swim clothes online, I was confronted again and again with products advertising their UPF rating, so I decided to do some research into how clothing is made UV protective before making a purchase.
What Makes Fabrics UV Protective?
Surprisingly, I found very little information online about this, and none of my green blogger friends seemed to know much on the topic, but I did find a couple of useful articles by reputable sources. A New York Times article about a growing number of products promising UV protection (including laundry treatments and shampoo) states that UV-protective clothing "add protection by infusing fabric with chemicals that absorb UV rays, like titanium dioxide or Tinosorb" (source). And in an article on Whole Living Daily, Mindy Pennybacker (a well-respected and experienced environmental researcher and writer) writes the following about UPF fabrics:
Some of these (but not all) are coated or embedded with sunscreens. Some use synthetic chemicals such as benzophenone, which is classified as toxic by the Environmental Working Group. Others are “embedded” with the natural minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Not so natural, though, is the reduction of these minerals to controversial nanoparticles, which you probably really don't want floating around in your body. (source).
Pennybacker also notes that while these chemical sunscreens most likely do not rub off readily onto skin, as the fabric ages the coating could more readily wear off, releasing their chemicals into ecosystems and onto sensitive skin.
Chemical-free UPF Fabrics
Luckily, chemical treatments are not the only way to create UPF fabrics. Fabric can be UV protective simply by the nature of the weave. The following brands, according to their product pages and websites, contain no chemical treatments and achieve UV protection solely through the weave of the fabric. One huge benefit of this type of swimwear is that the sun protection never washes out, as happens with chemically treated swimwear.
Read on for additional details about how I discovered and researched these brands.
How I Identified Chemical-free UPF Fabrics
The first "chemical-free" swimwear brand I came across on Amazon, Sunbusters, advertised right on every product page: "chemical-free" UV protection. Given the much steeper price tag, I wanted to verify this claim and make sure there was no greenwashing involved. [For example, sometimes manufacturers claim flame resistant clothing has no chemical application, just because the flame retardant chemical is integrated into the fabric during the manufacturing of the fabric itself and not applied afterwards to the finished clothing product.]
I called Sunbuster's parent company Tuga and talked to a real live person who confirmed that the Sunbusters fabrics have no chemical treatment and are UPF solely based on the weave of the fabric. (At the time I was originally researching swimwear, this information was not available on the website.) The Tuga website now clearly states that "we use fabrics that are made specifically, both through the knitting and dying process, to meet the 50+ UPF standards of blocking 97.5% of UV rays (both UVA and UVB) while still being chemical free and great for sensitive skin. Tuga is always made from chemical-free, comfortable, lightweight, and quick-drying fabrics."
- the active ingredient is a physical sunblock (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) not a chemical sunscreen
- there are no nano-sized particles
- they do not contain vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), which breaks down to carcinogens in UV light
- inactive ingredients are all-natural
*Note: I have written sponsored posts for Goddess Garden but now purchase their sunscreen with my own money and continue to use them because I have found them to be safe and effective.
What are your favorite brands of non-toxic swimwear and sunscreen?
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