Can Cotton Protect You From the Sun?

Can Cotton Protect You From the Sun?

In short, no. The average cotton t-shirt will provide some protection from the sun with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of around 5-7. However, especially when wet, the protection level drops to about UPF 3. This rating can expose you to UV radiation that can be harmful to skin. That’s why it’s best to continue wearing sunscreen, or to wear a swim shirt that offers ample SPF protection. Let’s dive into clothing material and see how it can impact your skin and overall health.

 Best Fabrics for Sun Protection

Thankfully, there are plenty of fabrics out there that provide protection against the sun’s harmful UV rays. One of these fabrics is UPF “Ultraviolet Protection Factor” clothing. According to the Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, UV light can penetrate through micro holes in the loose weaves of most fabrics, and can even travel directly through a light-colored shirt onto the skin. With UPF “Ultraviolet Protection Factor” clothing, like UV protection shirts, the shield is much greater. The weave is different, and oftentimes, is made from a special fabric to help form a barrier against the sun’s rays. UPF shirts also work when wet, however, UV rays transmit better through water than they do through air. So, when garments get wet, they let more UV rays through than when they are dry. Most sun protection clothing looks and feels like activewear or athleisure, and it comes in a variety of types like shirts, leggings and hats. Also, because of the higher thread count, it often feels a little more luxurious compared to your standard cotton t-shirt.


Between UPF and SPF, the concept is essentially the same. They both are measuring how something  protects your skin from ultraviolet radiation. What SPF is to lotions, liquids and serums, UPF is to fabrics and clothing. Most sun protected fabrics are UPF 50 or higher―so they’re better than your typical SPF sunscreen,” says Dr. Vij. “But it’s recommended for people to choose a mixture of both sunscreen and clothing to get the best possible protection.”

 Wearing UV Swim Shirts

A lot of people ask if a swim shirt will protect you from the sun or not. The answer is—that depends. It depends on the UPF rating for a particular swim shirt, and whether or not it has a high enough UPF to protect skin from the sun. Our exclusive swim shirts and rash guards, available in long and short sleeve options, provide a UPF 50 and the fabric stays cool even on the hottest days. Check them out if you’re looking for a reliable, safe sun protection alternative to cotton. And, if you need more reasons to wear a swim shirt all season, read our blog for more information.

Overall, it’s safe to assume that a plain cotton t-shirt will not provide the sun protection you need for a day at the beach or pool. You’ll need something that provides more SPF and UPF coverage, or preferably a mixture of both. Your best bet? Wear a quality swim shirt over a generous layer of sunscreen for maximum protection. For more about sun protective clothing, check out our blog for the best clothes that keep you safe from the sun. Or, visit the Skin Cancer Foundation’s website for helpful information on how to keep you and your family safe.

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