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UPF vs SPF: Understanding the difference

When it comes to UPF vs SPF, do you know the difference?

Both refer to sun protection, but for two very different products — UPF refers to sun protective clothing, while SPF refers to sunscreen. While you might like to spend time in the great outdoors, the sun carries various dangers, including serious consequences like skin damage. Determining what kind of sunscreen or sun protection you need helps you understand your options and how to utilize them to your advantage.

A primer on sun damage

While you enjoy spending time outdoors, it’s so important to know how to protect yourself against the sun. While most people grasp  the risk of a painful sunburn, many do not recognize the other common consequences of sun damage. 

UVA and UVB rays

The sun produces natural energy with shorter wavelengths than the human eye can process. While you cannot see UV rays, your body can feel them — and they can cause serious damage to the skin. The two types of UV radiation to worry about are UVA and UVB. UVB, which  has shorter wavelengths, is what causes sunburn. UVA, on the other hand, is associated with premature aging.

UVB and UVA rays both damage the skin. Additionally, ultraviolet radiation affects the eyes and can lead to  eyelid cancer and cataracts.

Sunburn Damage

Most people have experienced sunburn at some point in their lives. All of us can relate to the telltale signs of red, inflamed skin that’s warm to the touch. Generally, the first signs of sunburn appear within a few minutes or hours of being outdoors.

Any amount of exposed skin can be vulnerable to sunburn — even your lips and earlobes. In addition to inflammation, you might also experience tenderness, pain, itching and swelling.

In severe cases, your burn may start to blister. Likewise, you could experience fatigue, nausea and fever — sometimes referred to as “sun poisoning.” The skin should begin to heal in a few days, though the more severe the sunburn, the longer the recovery time. Sunburns can also come with complications, including infection. To heal, the body peels the top layer of the damaged skin. If your sunburn refuses to heal or you have severe side effects, you may require immediate medical attention. Often, severe sunburns are associated with dehydration.

Premature aging

As we age, our skin tells the story of our lives. We develop fine lines, pigmentations, and wrinkles. However, the speed at which you age depends on the amount of sun damage you experience over the course of your life. UV light is responsible for about 90% of all skin aging.

Your skin has three layers, including the epidermis, dermis and subcutis. As the UV rays hit your epidermis, the cells try to produce melanin in response to prevent further DNA damage. The tan that you get from sun exposure comes from your skin producing melanin in a bid to block the radiation from penetrating further into your skin.

Further down, the dermis houses collagen and elastin. Your skin remains smooth and plump because of the collagen and elastin within your skin. The UVA rays are longer wavelengths and can penetrate deep into your skin. As the light penetrates your skin, it may damage the collagen fibers. To rebuild the collagen, your elastin increases and produces enzymes (called metalloproteinases) to rebuild the damaged collagen.

Unfortunately, the abnormally high level of enzymes often don’t work as intended, and degrade the collagen instead. As a result, the skin does not rebuild correctly — and the incorrectly-built skin may form wrinkles, coupled with lesser collagen stores that cause leathery skin. In distinguishing between UPF vs SPF, you can learn how to prevent premature aging.

Skin cancer

Skin cancer is one of the most frightening types of sun damage. Generally, skin cancer occurs because of sun exposure—which can occur on cloudy days or by the sun coming through your window. The riskiest timeframe for UV exposure is  between 10 a.m and 4 p.m.

Skin cancer is the abnormal growth of cells. When UV light penetrates and damages your skin, it can damage the DNA in your cells. The change in DNA causes the skin cells to grow abnormally.

Generally, cancer develops in areas where you receive the most exposure, including:

  • Scalp
  • Eyes
  • Ears
  • Neck
  • Chest
  • Arms
  • Hands
  • Lips

Despite there being common places to find skin cancer, it can also grow on any part of your body that has skin. Cancer may look like a waxy bump, a flesh-colored lesion, a bleeding sore, a flat lesion, a red nodule, or a large brown spot with darker speckles. If you have moles or any other marks on your body that look unusual or have changed, you should have them checked by a doctor as soon as possible. Sudden changes to your skin can indicate that you have a deeper, underlying issue, like skin cancer.

UPF vs SPF: What is SPF?

If you purchase sunscreen, then you’ve seen SPF on the bottle. SPF measures how much UV radiation will produce a sunburn while the sunscreen is on your skin. There are various numbers associated with SPF, so how do you know if you’re getting the best protection?

Sunscreen history

Sunscreen has been around for a long time. Ancient people used to use different methods to block the sun. Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians used plant extracts, olive oil and rice bran. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that we began to see sunscreen similar to what we have today. In the 1930s, an Australian chemist worked in his kitchen to produce a cream that would prevent sunburn. Then, in 1938, a Swiss chemistry student started developing sunscreen after suffering from a bad burn.

In the 1960s and 1970s, tanning was popular and many products were geared toward helping a person tan more. People did not recognize that they were also harming their skin. Chemical sunscreens, however, did exist. Through the 1980s and 1990s, scientists continued to study UV rays and found that UVB rays had a connection to skin cancer. The realization caused more sunscreen products to flood the market.

SPF numbers

One thing to note about UPF vs SPF is that both have numbers attached. SPF is the sun protection factor. The higher the number, the more UV radiation it would take to produce a burn, relative to if no sun protection were used.

To determine the SPF, scientists perform tests on human subjects. They expose the subjects to a light spectrum that mimics the most intense rays. Some subjects wear sunscreen and others do not. They then compare the amount of light that causes redness in both groups.

When it comes to SPF, you must consider how often you need to reapply. SPF 30 and SPF 50 are equally effective, but SPF 50 may protect you a little more if applied (and reapplied) the same way.

Sunscreen types

When it comes to sunscreen types, you typically have to choose between chemical and mineral. The chemical sunscreens are absorbed into your skin. When UV radiation enters your skin, the sunscreen absorbs the rays and protects you. However, mineral sunscreen reflects up to 15% of the UV rays from the surface of your skin, and absorb the rest.

Both types of sunscreen are equally effective and choice can be based on your own preference

UPF vs SPF: What is UPF?

UPF is a textile rating system. It tells you how well your clothing and accessories protect you from sun damage. UPF is short for ultraviolet protection factor. The major difference between UPF and SPF is that if you wear clothing with a high UPF, you have protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Unless you have broad-spectrum sunscreen, you do not have protection from both.

UPF number

Like SPF, the higher the number, the more protection you gain from the fabric.  If the clothing is rated UPF, in general, it does not matter what the fabric density, construction, color, and fibers are — they are tested in a lab to protect you up to that level.

Sun protective clothing

When choosing sun-protective clothing, you have various options. Look for clothes that cover as much of your skin as possible. Choose fabrics you cannot see the sun through when you hold them up to the light. While the weave should be tight, the clothing should be loose on your body.

Instead of thinking about UPF vs SPF, consider how UPF can help complement SPF. If you want to spend time in the water, you might also consider a swimsuit with a high UPF. The most protective swimsuits with a high UPF tend to be long-sleeved swim shirts (sometimes called a rashguard) and swim tights. The swim clothes are comfortable, flexible, and just as easy to swim in as a traditional suit.

Another popular piece of sun protection is a hat. Look for hats with wide brims that protect your face, neck, shoulders, and eyes from the sun. Be careful with hats that allow light to pass through, such as straw hats. Sunglasses are also important to protect your eyes from damage — while adding to your style!.

UPF vs SPF: Other ways to protect from the sun

Protection against skin cancer, sunburn, and other forms of sun damage requires you to use various methods to ensure your protection. When it comes to UPF and SPF, you do not want to choose between one or the other. Instead, you want to use both throughout the day. The advantage of UPF is that you do not have to reapply anything. However, unless you plan to cover your entire body with UPF-rated clothing, you still have areas of skin that are vulnerable.

Try to apply sunscreen as much as possible to your skin before you dress during the day. Additionally, keep sunscreen on your person or in your car so that you can reapply as necessary. Fortunately, there are various ways to keep yourself from developing sun damage.

Find shade

Shade is one of the most important elements of enjoying a warm, sunny day. If you want to engage in outdoor activities, make sure you always have adequate shade. Choose a place to hang out where you have tree cover or shelter. If you spend the day on the beach, bring an umbrella to stay beneath when you are not in the water.

When camping or spending time on your back patio, consider an awning. In addition to considering UPF vs SPF, you can create your own shade as extra protection. An awning can extend over your patio to allow you and your guests to avoid too much sun exposure.

Avoid the sunniest time of day

While it might be tempting to go outside during the brightest time of the day, try to limit your time outside. Make plans to stay in the shade as much as possible between 10am and 4pm, and go outside when the sun is less intense and less likely to cause extensive, long-lasting damage.

UPF vs SPF: Protect your body from the sun’s wrath

Learning to distinguish between UPF and SPF can help you determine the type of sun protection you need at any given time. When choosing how to protect yourself, consider combining different methods. While you can apply sunscreen everywhere, it helps to have clothes that protect you so you do not have to waste sunscreen on your entire body.