Move over Coppertone Girl, casual clothing makers have seized on protection from the sun's cancer-causing rays as their next big product enhancement.
Unlike SPF lotion ratings, UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor, is a sunblock rating for clothing. It's spreading fast from premium-priced, specialty outdoor gear — fishing, camping, diving and surf shops — to moderately priced retailers selling what doubles as kick-around-the-house grubbies.
Coaxed on by tests in kids clothes and women's swimwear last summer, stores this spring branched into new UPF lines for men, women and children.
Skin doctors, whose warnings to cover up have been widely ignored for years, are overjoyed.
"I can finally tell my melanoma and skin cancer patients they don't have to dress like a hermit to enjoy the outdoors," said Bruce Fuller, a St. Petersburg dermatologist.
In Sun Belt states like Florida where sun worshipers put their skin doctor on speed dial, retailers see a marketing opportunity.
"We think it's going to be the biggest thing in men's since wrinkle free," said Ariana Wood, a men's sportswear buyer for Beall's Department Stores, which shifted 90 percent of its Columbia Sportswear selection to UPF 30 to 50 in January.
Columbia tripled its UPF-rated collection this year to 181 styles. UPF ratings and explanations now dangle from tags on performance wear from Nike, Adidas and Under Armor. Lands' End, the big direct mailer that also sells at Sears, features its own expanded line of UPF-rated Sun.Life casual wear on the cover on its spring catalog, which hits mailboxes this week.
"We're making this a mainstream product that sells at moderate prices," said Michelle Casper, spokeswoman for Lands' End in Dodgeville, Wis. "And we're doing it with popular styles and vibrant colors, even stripes and plaids, not just khaki or dark green."
One big selling point: Tests found the ubiquitous white cotton T-shirt can offer little protection against the sun. In fact, in one study in Switzerland, a third of apparel items tested — all of them cotton or linen — rated less than a 10 on the UPF scale.
"Hold a T-shirt up to the light and, if you can see through it, the sun can, too," said Neil Fenske, chairman of the dermatology and cutaneous surgery department at the USF School of Medicine in Tampa. "And once a T-shirt is wet, the holes stretch."
To be sure, trusty ol' T-shirts that don't carry UPF ratings can do the job just fine. Just know they act more like a filter; dark colors block more than white. Thicker-weave fabrics do, too. A T-shirt with a UPF of 5 offers as much protection as SPF 50 sunscreen. A UPF of 50 is the equivalent of an SPF of 500. Long sleeves, hats and fingerless gloves also play a role in sunproofing.
Lands' End research found plenty of demand among women, who control about three-quarters of family apparel spending. One survey found 87 percent of moms worry about sun exposure, 60 percent limit their own daily time in the sun and 74 percent avoid going outdoors too frequently.
While sunscreen ratings propelled the tanning lotion business for decades, apparelmakers ignored the business after the government deregulated textile standards in 1996. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigates only bogus health claims in apparel.
By 1998, however, an Australian manufacturer came up with a science-based UPF rating system that by default has become the U.S. industry standard. The system considers a UPF rating of 15 as the minimum protection but suggests 30 or more, which blocks 97 percent of ultraviolet A and B rays.
"UPF ratings are becoming part of everything we make," said Ron Parham, Columbia investor relations director.
The company supplies lesson plans and classroom materials to teachers interested in spreading the word of the ratings that have been embraced by the Skin Care Foundation.
Manufacturers use many techniques for a rating: denser weaves in cotton-polyester blends that feel more like cotton; yarn filaments chemically embedded with ceramic particles of brighteners and reflectors; shirts and pants made more breathable with venting to cool heat-absorbent synthetics.
Prices run from $15 for a T-shirt to $44.50 for women's poplin pants at Lands' End.
The fabrics can be treated to keep out more than the sun. For instance, Columbia's new Blood and Guts line of $69.99 Black Bonefish shirts is touted to repel food spills and fish entrails, too.
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.