Can You Tan Through Clothing

If there is one thing that ultraviolet rays are great at, it is penetrating through different materials, regardless of what they are – except a few. You might think that cotton shirts and dresses can protect you from the ravaging effects of sunburn even when you are walking on the beach, but the truth is that you are always at risk of sunburn, even when you are fully clothed – as we are sure you can relate to in some way.

This brings the question: can you tan through your clothes? The simple answer is yes. Even though materials making up the fabric are different and have various properties, you should never rely on them to protect your skin from UVA and UVB rays (the sun rays that are responsible for sunburn). In fact, UVA rays are capable of penetrating almost every clothing material, even the ones that UVB rays cannot.

Keep in mind that most clothe will give your skin protection of about SPF 4 to 7, but this is only for a short time – it cannot last for extended periods depending on the intensity of the sun’s rays. You  do not want to end up with annoying tan marks after sun exposure, but the good news is that there are better ways of ensuring your skin is always under proper protection, even when you are wearing clothes and going outside in the sun.

Most clothes will guard against UVB, not UVA

Imagine that you are sending your children to go outside and play with their friends on a hot summer afternoon, and they are wearing cotton t-shirts and pants. According to you, you might think you are protecting them from harmful sun rays, but the truth is that they are still exposed to harmful UVA rays if you do not apply some extra guarding measures.

When you wear a t-shirt and go out in the sun, for instance, the chances of getting sunburn are not exactly there – even if you spend longer periods outside. You will only notice tan lines on your arms, so your assumption is that the shirt is protecting your skin, even when that is not the case.

Clothing Tips to Protect your Skin from UV Rays

Wear matte fabrics

Instead of wearing shiny synthetic fabrics, which have a bad track record of skin protection, it is better to wear matte fabrics. The shiny rays will tend to reflect the rays of the sun instead of absorbing them, which does not help in any way to reduce your exposure to these rays.

Choose Synthetic fabrics

It might come as a shock to you, but synthetic materials give you better protection than natural fabrics. This is mainly due to the layers of the fabric – because synthetic ones tend to have tighter weaving or knitting present, that means that less UV radiation is penetrating your skin.

Select clothes in fabrics such as polyester, lycra, nylon and acrylic, instead of silk or cotton. In case you are unsure, check the Denier rating of the fabric to confirm how thick it is and the tightness of the weave.

Wear clothes in layers

This can work very well on a cold day – however, it still works on a hot day, especially if you can cope with the heat. Consider wearing a few layers of clothing, even if they are seemingly light, which will help you to minimize the exposure of the skin to the skin while remaining cool.

Make sure the clothes are dry

Did you know that wetting clothes can reduce their UPF protection significantly? Always make sure the clothes are as dry as possible to reduce the skin exposure levels.

Wear Wider Hats

Here’s the thing you might not know: just because a hat looks cool, does not mean that it guarantees high levels of skin protection. This is particularly true for the facial and neck skin, which is particularly sensitive and prone to damage from prolonged sun exposure.

The wider your hats are, the more you can protect these areas, as well as the skin on your back and neck. Baseball caps will only protect the forehead, and nothing else.

Wear Darker Colors

Say what? Science has taught you that you should avoid dark colors when heading out on a hot, sunny day, because they tend to retain heat. However, they actually provide more protection to the skin compared to whites and pastel colors.

This is because darker colors absorb more radiation from UV rays, which in turn, reduces your exposure levels. Notice all the sun-protective clothes; they all have darker dyes instead of lighter ones.

How Does Tanning Through Clothes even Happen?

After establishing that it is true you can get sunburns through your clothes, it is now important to know the process of tanning through clothes and why it happens in the first place. Since the protection levels of different fabrics are different, some will give you greater levels of protection compared to others.

Here are some factors that determine the protection levels of fabrics:

  • Construction – as mentioned earlier, the Denier rating is the easiest way to figure out whether a fabric is suitable for sun protection. However, as a general rule, you will get better protection from heavier fabrics such as canvas, denim and wool, compared to lighter fabrics like silk and cotton. In case you want to check the safety levels quickly, hold up the fabric against light; if you can see through, then the protection levels are low.
  • Content of the fabric – this will matter more than you might think. For instance, when you wear a dress made from unbleached cotton, it has natural lignin that will act as absorbers of UV radiation, and will give you higher protection than bleached cotton. Some lightweight satiny silks are also high in protection because they will reflect some radiation away from the skin, as well as some high-tech fabrics that have been treated with dyes or chemical UV absorbers.
  • The fit of the clothes – it is better to wear loose clothes than tight ones. This is due to tight fabrics stretching, which spaces out the weaves and reduces the protection levels of the fabric as more UV radiation passes through.
  • Coverage – it is much better to wear clothes that cover more skin compared to less, because they will give you higher protection. Whenever you can, opt to wear long skirts or pants, as well as long-sleeved shirts instead of sleeveless tops or short-sleeved shirts.
  • UPF rating – in some cases, the manufacturers of clothes will indicate UPF labels, which are indicators regarding the sun protection the clothes will give you.

The amounts of UV radiation that your clothes will allow to pass will determine the extent of damage your skin will suffer. Because of this, it is not advisable to go out without applying extra sun protection such as a good sunscreen, since the clothes will only protect you to a certain extent.

Also Read

Best Sunscreen to Prevent Tanning

Keep in mind that just because you are wearing clothes, you are not immune to tanning or sun damage. With that, there are some extra things to know about clothes and sun protection:


Many people tend to confuse these two, but they are very different from each other. UPF, also known as Ultraviolet Protection Factor, is the system of rating different materials or fabrics and the protection they offer from UV rays. On the other hand, SPF, or the Sun Protection Factor, is the system of rating different sunscreens and the protection they offer your skin.

When you are looking for the clothing protection factor, always look at UPF, not SPF.

Always stocking on protection mechanisms

If you happen to spend quite some time in the sun, probably due to unavoidable circumstances or just wanting to go out regularly, then you need to invest in clothes that have high levels of sun protection. The UPF of these clothes should be as high as possible, even up to UPF 50, and this will reduce the sun rays that penetrate into your skin when you wear them.

The good news is that there are plenty of options you can explore when it comes to sun-protective clothes, as certain brands cater their products to people that need extra protection when they are in the sun. the common aspect these clothes share is their tight weaving, as well as being extensively treated with UV-reduction ingredients that help them become more effective.

Things to keep in mind

When you go to buy sun-protection clothes, keep in mind that greater skin coverage means that the skin is less exposed to the sun, leading to less tanning and sunburn. For instance, a full-body swimming suit will protect you much better than a bikini.

The structure of the clothes and the dyes used will also play a major role in the protective levels of the clothes, which also explains why many protective clothes will come in dark colors such as indigo and black – the most effective colors at absorbing these harmful rays.

All the best sun-protective clothes will have mechanisms that allow you to wear them in warmer conditions, such as having antibacterial properties and being well-ventilated. These will help in case the clothes get wet, or when you are sweating. They also remain as effective even when you wear sunscreen If on your skin – you should wear sunscreen at all times, even if the fabrics you wear have high UPF ratings.

A Background on UV Rays

UV rays come in three forms, and this is dependent on the energy that they have. The higher levels of energy they contain, the more they take on the form of ionizing radiation (similar to radio waves). This means that they have sufficient levels of energy to remove electrons from molecules or atoms, resulting in changes to the molecule or atom into an ion.

Thanks to this ability, they eventually damage the structure of DNA molecules in the cells, and this leads to cancer and other illnesses. However, since higher-energy UV rays cannot penetrate deeper levels of the body, their effects will be present on the skin – in the form of skin cancer, premature wrinkling, skin aging, and so on.

The forms of UV radiation are:

  • UVA rays – are always termed as a ‘silent killer’, because their effects are not apparent. UV rays are in two forms, the UVB (short wavelength rays) and UVA (long wavelength rays). Since UVA rays have longer wavelengths, they can penetrate more materials, even clouds in the atmosphere – and yes, that means even on a bitterly cold or winter day, UVA rays are still present. These rays can also reflect off surfaces such as sand, water and snow, they can penetrate through glass and fabric (glass is too thick for UVB to pass through).
  • UVB rays have slightly more energy than the UVA rays, which is why they will not penetrate as many materials. However, they can still cause significant damage to the DNA in the skin cells, and they are the rays that are directly responsible for sunburn and most skin cancers.
  • UVC rays have more energy than the previous two. This is advantageous because they cannot penetrate the ozone layer, so they will not reach the ground along with sun rays. However, some man-made sources can produce UVC rays, such as mercury lamps, arc welding torches, and UV sanitizing bulbs that are used in killing germs and bacteria on various surfaces and materials.


How will I make my clothes more resistant to UV rays?

The good news is that it is possible to do so. You can use off-the-shelf detergents, which increase the UV protection levels. These detergents are sold in the form of additive UV-absorbers or additive optical brighteners.

Is it possible to tan under beach umbrellas?

The short answer is yes. Even though these umbrellas are comprised of thick weave material that does not allow UV rays, they do not protect against diffused or scattered UV rays, which are in plenty.

Regardless of whether you wear sun-protective clothes or not, always apply sunscreen – your skin will eventually thank you for it, and you will avoid tan lines and painful sunburn.

Further reading

What to Wear During and After a Spray Tan

Do clothes protect you from sun – UPF Clothing

Skin cancer awarnesss during winter – UPF Clothing