Experts Question Effectiveness of SPF Clothing

Experts say many summer clothes don't totally block dangerous ultraviolet rays. Now a company says you can sunproof your wardrobe by washing it with a $2 box of chemicals, but not everyone sees a benefit to washing in additional UV protection.

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Sunscreen and a cotton shirt might seem like plenty of protection from the sun, but experts say many summer clothes do not totally block dangerous ultraviolet rays. Now a company says you can sun-proof your wardrobe by just washing it with a $2 box of chemicals. NPR's Nell Boyce reports on whether you can really wash in sun protection.

(Soundbite of washing machine)

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Laura McIntyre(ph) is doing a load of laundry, just regular cotton clothes.

Ms. LAURA McINTYRE (Gaithersburg, Maryland): I've got a tube top and then a white tank top, couple of Polo T-shirts.

BOYCE: But today, McIntyre has added a packet of white powder called SunGuard. It's made by a company called Phoenix Brands and it promises to make regular cotton clothes the equivalent of sunscreen rated at 30. That's really appealing to McIntyre who lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. About a year ago, she learned that she had a medical condition that makes her very sensitive to the sun. Now she's got a closet full of sunscreen and a few big shirts made from fabrics specially designed to block out the sun.

Ms. McINTYRE: They're nice, they're functional, but I don't want to live in a potato sack, you know, all summer 'round. Prior to this medical situation, I was out in the sun, in my bikini, in my, you know, summer clothes, and I don't want to give that up.

BOYCE: She heard about the SunGuard powder through magazines and Web sites aimed at people who have skin cancer, lupus or other conditions that make them vulnerable to the sun. She worries that the cotton clothes she likes are a weak link in her defense and some experts agree. They say a cotton T-shirt has only an ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF, of about five. Bill Schmidt(ph) is vice president of research and development for Phoenix Brands.

Mr. BILL SCHMIDT (Phoenix Brands): So if you had T-shirt on, you could be out for two and a half hours. But you go beyond that, and many people do when they go to the beach, you're going to get a burn.

BOYCE: Schmidt says by using just one box of SunGuard, you can boost that protection substantially, up to 30 or more.

Mr. SCHMIDT: You can transform everyday clothing into sun-protective gear for an entire season with one wash.

BOYCE: But before you go out and buy this stuff, you should know that some other experts say your clothes may already be sun-protective gear. Patricia Crews is a textile scientist with the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. She recently did lab tests on all of her family's old T-shirt.

Ms. PATRICIA CREWS (University of Nebraska at Lincoln): To my surprise, there was not a single T-shirt from my husband, my son or myself that had a UPF rating of less than 30. Most of them were in the 50 or higher range.

BOYCE: She says her clothes did so well because they'd been washed numerous times with ordinary detergent which usually contains whitening agents. These make clothes look brighter by changing the way they reflect light. Crews has found that washing cotton fabrics just 20 times with detergent can boost its protection factor tenfold.

Now the chemical in SunGuard is based on the same kind of old-fashioned laundry whiteners, but the brightening molecule has been tweaked, to make it even more UV protective. It can offer quick turnaround protection for new summer clothes. But Patricia Crews says that SunGuard is probably not necessary for old favorites.

Ms. CREWS: The old cotton T-shirt probably already has as high a level of protection as they'll get afterwards. It'll do no harm, but people don't need to do that.

BOYCE: Several studies of common summer-weight fabrics have found that over half have protection values of 15 or greater, but Crews says that if people are sun-sensitive or if they're planning to spend hours and hours in the sun, it's probably safest to buy clothes that have been tested and labeled.

(Soundbite of washing machine)

BOYCE: But Laura McIntyre says many of the clothes she likes haven't been tested, so she's using SunGuard and will keep sunscreen lotions as an important part of her wardrobe.

Ms. McINTYRE: It's important for people to remember there is a lot of skin that is not protected by clothes and there's nothing like, you know, slathering on the SPF. The need for that will remain.

BOYCE: Especially when she wears the blue bikini that she's just pulled out of the washer.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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