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, options have expanded for the rest of us.
Regular apparel doesn't offer the same UV protection as purpose-built, sun-protective items. 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 protecting her skin from the sun after moving from her native Switzerland to San Clemente, Calif., in 2003. She was tired of constantly 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.
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 she sells through her website (ayanashop.com).
Ayana's garments, 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.
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.
"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 available online at moeben.com.
"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 took the advice of a Mayo Clinic dermatologist who asked him to use 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 (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.