The very phrase ‘sun shirt’ is a shade oxymoronic, no? I, for one, would rather be bare-chested in the summer sun. Unfortunately, the rewards for going shirtless are agonizing sunburns, increased risk of skin cancer and refusal of service at all of my favorite restaurants. Not exactly worth the fleeting feeling of freedom. Sun shirts are a necessity. And while they vary in style, weight, stretch, cut, fabric and intended use, they all have a single common goal: to protect the skin from ultraviolet rays.
Understanding UPF Ratings
You’ve probably come across the acronym ‘UPF’ by now, and if you want to skip the schooling and get straight to the product recommendations, feel free to jump to the bottom of this article where I’ve detailed nine of the best sun shirts available right now. Otherwise, welcome to UPF 101.
“UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) is a standard that measures the effectiveness of sun protective fabrics,” explains Corey Simpson, Patagonia’s Communication Manager of Product and Sport Communities. “It is a specific standard for fabrics. SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is a standard specifically for sunscreens.” It’s easy to get those similar acronyms mixed up, but it’s crucial to distinguish between the two. In a paper for the Skin Cancer Foundation, researchers Peter Gies and Alan McLennan point out that a UPF rating denotes how much ultraviolet light penetrates through a fabric. And unlike SPF ratings, which only measure for harmful UVB light, UPF ratings consider UVA and UVB, both of which can contribute to skin cancer.
When shopping for sun protective clothing, you’ll find that UPF ratings range between 15 and 50-plus. A UPF rating of 20 is decent — it means that 1/20th (five percent) of UV rays pass through a fabric. 50-plus is generally the highest rating you’ll see used with regards to outdoor clothing and it references a permeability factor of 1/50 (two percent) or less.
Gies and McLennan detail how fabric density, type, color, weight and thickness are key in determining these UPF ratings. A classic white cotton t-shirts score a measly five on the UPF scale, dropping down to three when soaked. On the far end of the spectrum, jeans earn a whopping 1700. What’s more, they point out that initial UPF ratings can change over time: washing a garment can actually shrink existing gaps in the fabric weave, henceforth curtailing the percentage of UV rays that can pass through. Excessive wear will do the opposite, as fabric weakens, tears and stretches over time. Unsurprisingly, UPF ratings can also drop when fabrics are wet.
A Note on Care and Sunscreen
While experts still recommend the use of sunscreen in conjunction with protective clothing, sunscreen can actually be detrimental to your sun shirt over time. “Our UPF garments do not require any special care,” says Simpson. “But we do recommend washing them to keep any body oils, sunscreens and other contaminants out of the fabric in order to get the most out of the garment.”
How We Tested The Best Sun Shirts
Over the past month and a half, I’ve been wearing sun shirts every single day — and most nights, too. I’m a firm believer that if a shirt is comfortable enough for me to sleep in, I’ll like it just fine during the day. I’ve been wearing these sun shirts while hiking, scrambling and fly fishing in the foothills of California’s Sierras. Of the fourteen shirts I tested, I picked my nine favorites. A few elements helped these sun shirts stand out as winners including hoods, lightweight and sweat-wicking fabrics, plenty of stretch and quick-drying in the water.
Here are nine of the best sun shirts available right now.
Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Hoodie
The amphibious, quick-drying Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Hoodie is tailored to multi-sport summer days that switch from trail to river and back again. Not only is the relatively affordable UPF 50+ hoodie treated with odor-obliterating Polygiene, but it’s also knit from Bluesign-approved recycled polyester and stitched in Fair Trade Certified factories. This was my favorite sun shirt from the entire batch.
Black Diamond Alpenglow
For the climbing crowd, it’s hard to beat Black Diamond’s Alpenglow Hoody — the UPF 50+ sun shirt is crafted from a Polygiene-treated, polyester blend called ‘BD.cool,’ which minimizes stink and keeps you from overheating on long days in the desert. The under-the-helmet hood was the best of the test: it offers sufficient neck coverage without strangling the wearer and the durable fabric provides welcome coverage without cloying weight.
Outerknown H2OK Tee
Though stylistically similar to any high-end crew-cut t-shirt, Outerknown’s H2OK has a waterman’s DNA, which is no surprise, as this ocean-ready hybrid tee comes directly from the labs of surfing’s undisputed GOAT: Kelly Slater. The UPF 30+ sun shirt is crafted from a 100-percent polyester blend with a quick dry finish and the hem has a couple of subtly stitched holes for you to tie in your board shorts if the waves are pumping.
Orvis Tech Chambray
You don’t need to be a fly fisherman to love Orvis’ UPF 30+ Tech Chambray Long Sleeve — though it certainly doesn’t hurt. Best-in-test pockets, a covert sunglasses wipe and stretchy, quick-drying fabric solidified this piece as our favorite hoodless shirt for long days on the river, while the casual button-down vibe means you don’t have to swap out of your nerdy fishing duds once the rod’s put away.
Toad & Co. Debug Lightweight LS
Toad & Co.’s UPF 20+ lightweight Debug Long Sleeve boasts Insect Shield technology, an anti-bug treatment that keeps pests at bay for 70 wash cycles, yet is unnoticeable to humans. Although the thumbhole-equipped Debug is admittedly on the heavier side for a sun shirt, the jersey material is also hands down the comfiest in this round-up thanks to a polyester blend spiced up with an unexpected ingredient: recycled coffee grounds.
Mammut Mountain Longsleeve
Mountain Longsleeve is an adventure-ready chameleon disguised as a run-of-the-mill flannel, one equally at home at semi-casual gatherings and semi-rad escapades in the sun. An oversized plaid pattern as well as smart cuffs and buttons bring style to the forefront, while the stretchy, Polygiene-treated, UPF 40+ polyamide blend fabric is more than prepared for a little perspiration.
Icebreaker Cool-Lite Compass Short Sleeve
Natural sun protection (averaging UPF 30) is on tap with the featherweight Cool-Lite Compass Short Sleeve, which blends Icebreaker’s go-to merino wool with tencel and lycra for a stretchy, soft and breathable button-down. Ready for a backpacking trip to the tropics or a muggy camping trip stateside, the Cool-Lite earns points for versatility and style—the only blip is that the price is tough to swallow.
Outdoor Research Astroman
A longstanding lightweight favorite designed with climbers in mind, the Astroman is stitched from an ultra-thin nylon and spandex blend — at 5.4 ounces (size large), the Astroman short sleeve is so compact that it’s our top pick for adventure travel, backpacking, etc. The UPF 50+ button-down offers even more protection than your average sun shirt, as the collar flips up, snapping into a bizarre-looking turtleneck that’s actually blissful on sun-soaked adventures.
Columbia PFG Terminal Deflector Zero
Columbia equipped this UPF 50+ angler’s essential with an internal mesh neck gaiter, which helps keep both bugs and reflecting rays off of the face. Deflective points on the fabric exterior (Omni-Shade) and sweat-reactive rings on the fabric interior (Omni-Freeze) suggest that the Terminal Deflector Zero Hoodie be omnipresent on both your saltwater and freshwater fishing trips.
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