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UV-Protective Swim Suits and Swim Shirts: Are They Safe?



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. One brand I came across on Amazon, Sunbusters, advertised right on every product page: "chemical-free" UV protection. Given the much steeper price tag, though, 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 couldn't find a web page for the Sunbusters company, which was a little concerning, but I knew Sunbusters swim wear was manufactured by the Australian company Tuga. So I called a phone number for Tuga customer service 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. She also told me the Sunbusters website is being redesigned currently and the best place to purchase Sunbusters swim wear at the moment is Amazon.  

Pennybacker's article also mentions Tumblegum and UV Skinz as chemical-free UV-protective swim wear options. I couldn't find anything stating this on their websites, however. I would call the company to verify before purchasing these swim wear brands to verify that the fabric has not had sunscreen chemicals applied to or embedded within it. I also called Sun Protection Zone recently because their swim clothing was available this summer at Costco for a great price, but I couldn't find any information on their website about how the clothing is made UV protective. I asked how the clothing achieved UV-protection and the employee said through the weave of the fabric only with no chemical treatment.

After doing this research on UV-protective swimwear, I decided to buy new swim suits and swim shirts for all three of my children and retire the hand-me-downs we've been using. I spent well over $100, but considering the amount I spend on a tube of natural non-toxic sunscreen, I figure I should fork over the money for well-made chemical-free swim wear. I'm also really hoping the swimwear will be durable for many years and multiple children. In addition, my kids' new Sunbusters swim suits and shirts are very cute and very comfortable. My 4-year-old now wants to wear her swim shirt and shorts around the house all the time.

Non-toxic Sunscreens


Of course, even with UPF 50 swimwear, you still need some sunscreen, especially for long outdoor adventures like the beach.  Make sure your sunscreen does more good than harm by consulting a sunscreen guide, such as the annual guides published by Environmental Working Group and Safe Mama. Check out this recent interview of Safe Mama's Katherine Scoleri with Green Sisterhood to learn about why she publishes her annual sunscreen cheat sheet and how her guide differs from EWG's Sunscreen Guide

Our family has used Badger sunscreens for a few years. I choose Badger sunscreens because
  • the active ingredient is a physical sunblock (zinc oxide) 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

But the particular Badger sunscreen we've used does leave a kind of white ghost-like film on your skin. I've never cared much, but apparently lots of folks do and this year Badger has come out with several new "Daily" sunscreen options that are much less pasty (easier to apply) and leave no white hue, according to Safe Mama. We'll probably give one of these new formulations a try this year. Badger sunscreens also include "Active" and "Sport" lines more geared towards water activities or heavy exercise and lots of sweating.

I'll also be purchasing another Badger sunscreen stick. I love the stick for an easy and quick application to faces. For swim lessons at an outdoor pool last year, I used Badger sunscreen sticks to quickly rub sunscreen on noses, cheeks, foreheads, and chins and never had a burnt face. Note that although parents love sprays for their easy application, sprays should be avoided because of the danger of inhalation of tiny sunscreen particles. In addition, nearly all spray sunscreens utilize chemical sunscreens (such as the endocrine disruptor oxybenzone) as their active ingredient.

For general sun safety tips, please see my post Safe Sun Tips.

For additional information on safe sunscreens, check out these earlier posts:
Does Your Sunscreen Protect Against Skin Cancer?
Safe Sun Tips
Should I Use Sunscreen?
Of Sun and Sunscreen

Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. Your purchase via these links helps support my blog, which I very much appreciate. Read my full disclosure policy here.

2 comments:

  1. Are all "SPF rated" clothing items chemically treated? I always thought it was honestly sort of ridiculous; isn't the basic idea of, you know, WEARING CLOTH OVER YOUR SKIN to protect you from the sun something our ancient ancestors have known for a millon years or so? Isn't that where, like, tan lines come in?

    This I find a little freaky. Thanks for the post--I didn't even realize I needed to look into this more!
    --Jenn

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nope, some UPF clothes are UPF just based on the nature of the fabric. All clothing provides some protection, of course. And then some fabrics are manufactured a specific way (without chemicals) to provide greater UPF protection. Any dark fabric (which absorb light) and tighter weaves provides higher protection. Holding up your fabric to the light/ sun and seeing how transparent it is gives you a good idea. Apparently a fair amount of sun can pass through a light-colored T-shirt, for example, esp. if it's wet. I think regular clothes are usually sufficient for most of us for most activities. If you were going to be in the sun for 8 hours a day 5 days in a row you'd probably want something better. I would be happy to buy a swim suit and swim shirt that was a quick-drying fabric without any UPF rating, but those options don't even seem to be out there anymore.

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