The amount of clothing many of us wear in summer is, understandably, inverse to the temperature. Matters of decency aside, that might not be a problem if we wore enough sunscreen, but most Americans don't.
Just 18 percent of adults in the United States slather up before they go outdoors, according to a U.S. sunscreen study conducted by Neutrogena this year, and just 48 percent of Americans who slather up reapply sunscreen when they are exercising or swimming outside, even though many dermatologists recommend reapplication every two hours. What's more, skin cancer is on the rise. It increased 10 percent from 2007 to 2009, according to the most recent procedures survey from the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.
"The best sunscreen of all is a hat and protective clothing and smart behavior," according to ASDS President Jeffrey Dover. The problem, of course, is finding anything fashionable. The market has long focused on children and athletes, but over the last few years, a number of companies have been working to expand options for the rest of us.
Regular apparel simply doesn't offer the same sort of UV protection as purpose-built, sun-protective items. And, though a tightly woven textile in dark colors is better than a loose weave in a light color, few Americans wear black turtlenecks in the summer. Clothing that is truly sun protective is marked with UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor, labeling, which is similar to the sun protection factor, or SPF, ratings on sunscreens and describes how much UV radiation a fabric blocks.
"I consider myself fashionable," said Sonja Gfeller, founder of Ayana, a UV-protective apparel line with the tag line "Skin care you can wear."
Gfeller, 45, was having a hard time maintaining her sense of fashion and also protecting her skin from the sun after moving from her native Switzerland to San Clemente in 2003. She was tired of continually applying sunscreen and she didn't care for the few items of sun-protective golf, tennis and hiking apparel she was able to find in stores. "There was nothing," Gfeller said.
Three years of research yielded fabrics from Japan and Taiwan that either wove zinc oxide, a UV blocker, into the textile or infused it into the fabric during the dyeing process. She started sewing those 45 UPF textiles into casual everyday items such as tunics, T-shirts, blouses, pants and skirts. This spring-summer season she expects to sell about 2,000 garments through her website (www.ayanashop.com) and at niche boutiques.
Ayana's garments are made in L.A. and, like most sun-protective clothing items, are effective for a limited number of washings — about 40. They also need to be worn in conjunction with sunscreen because clothes don't cover everything. There are still exposed bits of skin that are vulnerable to the sun.
Shannon Farar-Griefer has a lot of experience with exposed skin. The founder of the Moeben SPF clothing line is an ultra marathoner who runs 100-mile races that subject her body, and her skin, to long stretches in the punishing sun, leaving her with basal cell carcinoma on her chest and arm. In 2006, she started making UV-protective arm sleeves in leopard print and other patterns and has since expanded her line to include dresses, skirts, pants and bathing suits that are sold at running shops, such as Fleet Feet, as well as Fred Segal.
"I grew up with the baby oil and the reflector thing with all my girlfriends out by the pool in Palm Springs, completely unaware of the damage sun causes," said Farar-Griefer, whose 50+ UPF line is made in L.A.
"The boomers now, we're paying for it. We didn't think 20 years ago that we'd have to worry about wrinkles or skin cancer. There are great UV fabrics out there, so why not wear clothes that will give you a little protection?"
John Barrow was living in Australia when the country's government agencies were first warning residents of the skin cancer dangers posed by a hole in the ozone layer. Now a Minneapolis resident, he realized there was a need for sun-protective clothing when a Mayo Clinic dermatologist asked him to buy sun-protective garments whenever Barrow and his family returned to Australia.
Barrow started his Coolibar line of SPF clothing in 2003 and now does about $10 million annually in sales through his website (www.coolibar.com) and catalog, catering to baby boomers seeking classic clothing designs infused with sun protection.
"It's still a fairly pioneering concept," said Barrow, adding that sun-protective clothing has the potential to be five times larger than the $1-billion U.S. sunscreen market and is just beginning to go mainstream.
The key to that mainstreaming is boomers' growing awareness of sun protection intersecting with advances in technology that allow a greater breadth of style. Coolibar uses four types of fabric in its line — waterproof synthetics, lightweight weaves, travel knits and zinc-oxide-infused cottons, all of which are UPF 50+ even at the end of a 40-wash life cycle.
Though sun-protective clothing still requires the use of some sunscreen, wearing it is easier than using an SPF lotion or spray by itself. "Clothing is a high-compliance product," Barrow said. "You've got a much better chance of using clothing and a bit of sunscreen than all sunscreen."