As recreation restrictions have eased around the country, we’ve slowly been getting back to outdoor adventures for the first time in months. A lot has changed. Days are longer, skies are clearer, and intensity of solar radiation has almost doubled over the past 2.5 months. Hopefully we are all keeping sun protection in mind, as there are few things more painful than a pasty spring PNW body getting toasted from every angle imaginable on a high alpine glacier.
Sunscreen is great, but it’s easy to rub, sweat, or wash off. For those of us that are out from sun up to sundown, apparel-based sun protection seems especially convenient. But not all sun protection is created equally, and it’s important for customers to be educated about their options, so here’s a little 101.
Method of protection
The biggest complaint I hear about UPF apparel pieces is about the cost. Polyester base layers are dirt cheap, so why are these hooded ones suddenly $60-80 a pop? It’s actually an upcharge due to titanium dioxide fabric treatment. Titanium dioxide is the same chemical compound found in many sunscreens, and it’s applied in a way that survives long term wearing and washing. This allows garments to be thinner than your standard white t-shirt, yet 7 times more protective. It’s a chemical treatment, but generally seen as safe. Whether in clothing or a lotion, it doesn’t get absorbed through the skin, which makes it a particularly great option for sensitive skin (compared to chemical sunscreens that do absorb). Titanium dioxide does make the list of possible carcinogens, but this is limited to dust form. If you’re not grinding your hoodie into a powder and snorting it, you should be fine. You should be much more concerned about it in any cosmetic powders with SPF, like these. Titanium dioxide has also been found to pollute beaches and affect marine life, but sunscreen lotions are by far the worst offenders, not the permanent treatment on your clothes.
Titanium dioxide is by far the most popular UPF option used by major manufacturers, but there are a few alternatives. Thicker fabrics with tighter knits naturally offer higher levels of protection, and intricately designed knitting structures can maximize the amount of protection for a given fabric weight.
There are also garments washed with Tinosorb FD, a chemical wash-in that provides protection for roughly 20 washes. Over the past 10 years, it’s become more popular as an at-home laundry treatment instead of a selling feature for new garments and brands trade into titanium dioxide.
Level of protection
The UPF ratings for sun hoodies ranges from 15 to over 50. Garments must hit at least a 15 UPF rating to be marketed as protective, but the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends at least UPF 30. Their reasoning is that a UPF 15 item may prevent sunburns, but those pieces are still transmitting enough radiation to damage the skin. Not all skin damage will result in a sunburn.
UPF also diminishes when fabric gets wet, stretches, pills, and wears, so higher rated garments have more of a buffer to remain protective if you’re sweating your ass off, or relying on a piece with heavy use.
I am rarely a brand loyalist, but I would strongly recommend choosing a hoodie produced by a major, trusted brand name. Sun protection claims were originally enforced by the FDA, like sunscreen, as a medical device. As they’ve grown in popularity, they were shifted over to the FTC in the early 2000s. They haven’t really done shit. The standards are voluntary. They mandate that items must be UPF 15+ to be marketed as protective, but they don’t require a standardized test or proof of results to get there. There are also 0 cases, press releases, or reports on UPF claims (compared to 46 on false health claims made by tanning bed companies, or 430 on how to make compensation disclosures as a social media influencer). There’s no evidence that the FTC is monitoring or taking action against companies making false claims. Good Housekeeping Research Institute did their own testing in 2017, with 15 pieces across 8 brands. 4 passed, but the other 4 had all or some pieces that did not test to their claimed UPF.
In other words, if you found the scarf below, at $0.50 and with see-through, chiffon, and you thought the UPF 50+ claim was clearly bogus, there is no one to report it to and no one will force the company to either prove it or remove it.
The EU has much higher standards and tighter regulation for UPF clothing, with items needing to be UPF 40+, measured through a mandatory, standardized lab test. Columbia, Mountain Hardwear, Arc’teryx, and Patagonia all have sun protection garments that are widely carried and marketed for sun protection and are all safe bets. (Outdoor Research’s Echo Hoody is not included since it has a UPF of 15. There’s little doubt that it hits those numbers, as synthetics like polyester tends to be moderately protective without topical treatments.
Anti-Odor Treatments: The majority of skin-protective layers are treated with silver antimicrobials for odor control, since they’re all synthetic and at a higher risk of permastink. I personally think it’s poor antimicrobial stewardship, where the medical community wants to reserve antimicrobial use or when it’s truly needed in order to protect their potency (I’ve written more information about it here). Currently, Patagonia uses an alternative to antimicrobial odor protection, but has been phasing silver salt treatments back into their line. The Columbia PFG Tidal Hoodie and Mountain Hardwear Crater Lake Hoodie do not feature odor treatments at all.
Stretch Methods: Some sun hoodies include Spandex/elastane in their fabric, but the majority rely on “mechanical stretch.” This is where yarns are either crimped or highly twisted to create stretch and recovery. Over time, mechanical stretch will stop recovering, or it may need to be laundered to fully recover. (If you ever notice pants that get looser throughout the day, that’s mechanical stretch). An elastane blend is considered a more elevated fiber over 100% polyester. It’s not a huge make or break for a sun hoodie; stretch decreases the level of UPF protection, so ideally you’re able to find a slightly relaxed fit and the fabric isn’t generally under tension.
Some rants and raves
Black Diamond Alpeglow Hoody: Way overpriced at $85. Almost twice as heavy as the other options on the market, which means twice as hot. Great option for spring ski touring when temp swings are wild, but I’d get something else for the summer. Pills fairly easily. Sizing has a history of being inconsistent between seasons. But on the upside, the patterning is exquisite and it really moves with the body well. I also kind of hate mine because the color 100% matches seasick Grimsby from The Little Mermaid. It didn’t look like nausea green online.
Bight Gear Solstice Hoody: Wrote a full review here. They’ve made improvements, but I still feel strongly that staple fibers (creates that t-shirt-y texture vs. slick polyesters) creates major pilling issues, which is bad news bears for a sun hoody.
Mountain Hardwear Crater Lake: They did a great job on the men’s one, with a simple cut and smartly designed hood. And then in classic outdoor apparel fashion, they fucked it up for the women. The hood design leaves it more likely to fall down. And what is going on between these terrible patterns and terrible drawstring, and especially terrible pocket that looks like it’ll fall right under your hip belt?! But for all the guys out there, it’s a really nice value with one of the lowest prices across major brands.
Outdoor Research Echo: They offer 70% less protection than the other major options on the market, but cost just as much. They’re also the least relaxed fit on the market. It is insanely light if you’re looking for something really breezy and willing to sacrifice a lot on sun protection. But nothing drives me more batshit crazy than this style getting recommended left and right when people are looking for true sun protection.
Patagonia Tropic Comfort Hoody: This is another spot where the men’s and women’s versions are distinctly unique, but unlike the MHW piece, the women’s Tropic Comfort has a raglan sleeve, which makes it move with the body more easily. It also has an adjustable toggle for the hood compared to a button on the men’s. My only gripe is that the women’s version is $10 more due to a chapstick pocket and more rounded seaming. This allows the garment to be more fitted without being restrictive (the women’s version is a “standard” fit while the men’s is “relaxed”). But to me, an upcharge of 17% between the two feels steep.