Sun Protective Clothing Review: Cover Up and Get Out of the Sun?

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To sun, or not to sun, that is the question.

When I asked companies to partner with me on this sun protection review project (see the natural sunblock review as well), they had no idea I was not only reviewing their products, but the idea of sun protection itself.

I find myself dangling between the two extremes. I applied sunscreen daily when I put on my toddler’s clothing a mere four years ago, but I am now rather deep into the traditional foods world, and with it a body of people and research that is generally skeptical of chemicals and highly in favor of natural Vitamin D from the sun. Many advocate zero sunscreen use and claim that with a proper diet, particularly healthy fats, along with a modicum of shade during the heat of the day, one should not get a sunburn. They would scoff at the big hats and full coverage swimsuits and sun shirts we’ve been testing the past month.

Is the sun dangerous or helpful? I'm all about the balance and find a use for sunwear to cover, sunblock to protect, and full sun for Vitamin D with shade in the midday. When I first put a short-sleeved, short pant suit on my toddler daughter and slapped a hat on her head, I had an uncomfortable feeling. Does it look like I’m afraid of the sun? Is this geeky? Is it over-cautious? Or am I an awesome parent doing the safe thing?

I pondered the sun danger question over and over in my head as we played outside this summer. How much skin should show? Should I encourage shade? How often to use safe sunblock and how often to skip it? Is there a place for sun protective clothing at all, or is it just fear inducing?

Often I waffled, thinking one day that I’m covering my kids too much and then when a hint of pink shows up on their cheeks, getting anxious and feeling thankful that I have hats for them.

I think I’m landing staunchly in the middle of the issue: there is a place for all of it – sunblock (as safe as possible), sun protective clothing, and unprotected exposure to the sun, especially if you can balance shade and time in the sun and be smart about what time of day you’re outside.

Traditional Amount of Vitamin D?

If we need the sun to help our bodies make Vitamin D, and we need sufficient Vitamin D for good health, then clearly we need the sun to touch our skin. But how much skin needs to be showing to make proper amounts of Vitamin D? Must we bare tummies and backs just to be healthy?

I tried applying the traditional foods paradigm to sun exposure and protection and wandered down an intriguing path: How did God design our bodies to work with Vitamin D? Was His intent that we all frolic naked in the Garden and get perfect doses of Vitamin D each day on the full expanse of our skin, or would He prefer us to be modest and only get sun on our faces, arms, and maybe lower legs?

I have a hard time believing that humans were designed to need sunshine on our entire bodies just to manufacture an essential vitamin. Even though Adam and Eve didn’t wear clothing, God knew that the Fall was coming, and quickly, so it makes sense to me that a modest exposure to the sun ought to be sufficient. (No, that’s not research-based. I bet there’s research out there. Maybe you can find some for me?)  😉

Why I Love Sun Hats and Shirts

Advantages to sun protective clothing include:

  • When you’re already getting burned (or are burnt), you can hide.
  • Easier to carry with and have kids put on than sunscreen
  • Uses less sunscreen (less time to apply and less money spent)
  • They’re cute!

The number one reason to have some sun protective shirts at your house is for the rock-in-your-stomach feeling when you realize that your child has already been out in the sun too long and is beginning to look a little pink. At this point, you know a reapplication of sunscreen isn’t going to do any good, but you want to stay at the beach/pool/water park a few more hours. Having the swim shirt saves you! (Your child’s skin, actually.)

The Modesty Bonus

Tell someone they should wear a modest swimsuit instead of a bikini and you’ll likely get an eye roll and a bikini. Tell someone the sun is going to give them cancer and they should limit their exposure, and it’s pretty easy to get them to wear a sun shirt, which just happens to be incredibly modest! The trend toward sun protection also caused more manufacturers to produce modest swimwear under the guise of coverage from the sun rather than roaming eyes, so there are more attractive (darn cute!) options out there if you’re shopping for modest bathing suits.

I am very pleased to have worked with five companies for this review, two of which manufacture their own products (Coolibar, Nantucket Sun) and three resellers (Alex & Me, Sungrubbies, Solartex).

Here is our family’s little runway show of the products we got to test out:

Is the sun dangerous or helpful? I'm all about the balance and find a use for sunwear to cover, sunblock to protect, and full sun for Vitamin D with shade in the midday.

Men’s rash guard from Coolibar Is the sun dangerous or helpful? I'm all about the balance and find a use for sunwear to cover, sunblock to protect, and full sun for Vitamin D with shade in the midday.

Child’s Chlorine Resistant Bucket Hat from CoolibarIs the sun dangerous or helpful? I'm all about the balance and find a use for sunwear to cover, sunblock to protect, and full sun for Vitamin D with shade in the midday.Women’s Dakine Rash Guard and Toddler Platypus Sunshirt from Alex & Me

Is the sun dangerous or helpful? I'm all about the balance and find a use for sunwear to cover, sunblock to protect, and full sun for Vitamin D with shade in the midday.

Solartex hat and suit

Is the sun dangerous or helpful? I'm all about the balance and find a use for sunwear to cover, sunblock to protect, and full sun for Vitamin D with shade in the midday.

Solartex hat and Coolibar hat

Is the sun dangerous or helpful? I'm all about the balance and find a use for sunwear to cover, sunblock to protect, and full sun for Vitamin D with shade in the midday.Nantucket sun two-piece suit, Tunga Bucket hat from Sungrubbies

I don’t have a picture (note to self: take picture!) of the sun sleeves from Nantucket Sun that our family tested, but here’s the idea from their website:

Is the sun dangerous or helpful? I'm all about the balance and find a use for sunwear to cover, sunblock to protect, and full sun for Vitamin D with shade in the midday.

To Be Continued…

In the true spirit of the lazy days of summer, why call a week a Monday through Friday thing? Sunshine Awareness week at Kitchen Stewardship has sort of been moseying along, and it makes sense that it will cross a weekend. Plus, it’s very typical for me to make you all wait in suspense for something!

I’ll be back Monday with the inside scoop on what I thought of each product, company, and fabric!

Part One: Two U.S. Companies


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22 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Mary says

    I am glad that you are giving yourself permission to breathe. Remember, it is summer and we ALL want to enjoy it. Some of us even take vacations from electronics, either while on vacation or not.

    Thanks for all your research and your family’s cooperation!

  2. says

    I’ve been taking a calmer approach this year. I don’t use sunscreen while the kids are outside playing. If they put on bathing suits, my son wears a rash guard shirt that he loves. My daughter refuses to wear one, so she gets a one time light coating of one of the safer sunscreens. So far this summer, I’ve applied it only 3 times. The both have nice light summer tans and are healthy as can be. I just wish I could get my daughter to wear the rashguard!

  3. says

    I live in very hot, very sunny Central Florida where you can get sunburned in about ten minutes if you aren’t careful. I have not used sunscreen once this summer yet on either myself or my children. No sunburns either (and we have a couple of blue eyed blonds in the house too) and we go to the pool many days. I see sunshirts on these kids and I just want to rip them off. These kids are highly likely to be extremely deficient in vitamin D. Most kids are and it is a terrible thing for their health. I actually think sun is more important than diet in many ways. Having adequate vitamin D levels makes up for LOT that is failing in the diet.
    .-= Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist´s last blog ..The Sport of Life =-.

  4. Jill says

    We have the Coolibar long sleeved, long pants rompers for toddlers and babies. LOVE THEM!!! best prices on ebay or coolibar clearance.

  5. says

    I’ve been wanting to try one of the shirts, but have worried that they would be really hot and make you sweat. How comfortable did you find the clothing?
    .-= Jendeis´s last blog ..70-000 =-.

    • Katie says

      Jendeis,
      I didn’t try long-sleeved shirts, but I really did like the short sleeved one. My husband and son never complain about being too hot. See the individual reviews for more! :) Katie

  6. Andrea says

    Thanks for doing all this research – it’s been so helpful! Love the idea of sun shirts both for modesty and sun protection.

    Spending lots of time unprotected to soak up Vitamin D is a nice idea in theory…not so nice when you’re extremely fair-skinned. Thanks for presenting both options.

  7. says

    We bought the Coolibar romper for our one-year old in anticipation of a week long beach trip. We were able to stay at the beach all day most days and no sun burn! It was great to only have to sunscreen the exposed portions of her body, a real blessing with a wriggly one year old. The snap crotch also made it easier to change her diaper than if we had to wrestle her out of a wet bathing suit. My husband had a short sleeve surf top from L.L. Bean and I had a long sleeve one. I know they work because my husband ended up with a short sleeve shirt tan, in spite of using sunscreen. At home, I don’t always use the romper though, when we are using the baby pool in the late afternoon in a shady spot in the yard, I’ll let her just play in her swim diaper.

    • Katie says

      Melanie,
      Would you believe a random note I wrote to get some cod liver oil and write a post about it popped up this week in my calendar? I don’t think that’s a coincidence!

      Coming in the fall, I guess!
      :) Katie

  8. Dawn says

    Thanks for another great post! My kids, boy and girl, love the suits from Lands End that have a rash guard for the top and then a cute bottom. I love the prices during the sales! I found your tested versions darling! I agree that some vitamin D is important, but with very fair skin and considerable skin cancer in my family, some protection is critical. We try to balance. When we are out hear and there, we wear hats or caps but take in a bit of sun, when we are out in the heat of the day for sustained periods, we use sunblock (Badger or Burts Bees). For those hailing from tropical climates, perhaps no coverage is possible, but my kids would spend their summers red as lobsters and miserable, traditional diet or not.

  9. Rebecca K says

    We wear short sleeve shirts and shorts for all the kids, girl and boy for modesty purposes. It is nice thought that it’s starting to be “cute” and it protects them from the sunburn! My two-year old wearing a tank suit with floaties in it got lobsterfied yesterday while out on Lake Huron all day–the rest of the kids, no problemo! Although I did buy sun lotion this year I have only used it once so far.

  10. Eileen Debenham says

    We are on our boat most weekends in the summer. My kids and husband live in their Nantucket Sun shirts. My husband uses the Nantucket Sun sleeves. You get a LOT of sun when you are on the water the whole day. We still apply sunscreen to arms, face neck and legs. The sun shirts help tremendously because sun screen application takes a lot less time. No one has come back with sun burns yet! Oh and don’t forget the hat!

  11. says

    I am in the middle like you, Katie. I am very fair, and have already had skin issues with some moles removed that were luckily benign. I have never been a big sun screen wearer, and when I had these skin issues it was when I lived in Florida, where I was exposed to hot sun for much of the year – and I used to burn all the time. Since then, I have gone the traditional foods way as well. This summer in Vermont, I haven’t worn sunscreen at all, but limit my exposure. We spend a lot of time out in the garden, and so if we are going to be out for more than 2 hours, I will after 2 hours put on a big brimmed hat and a light weight long sleeve shirt. So I figure I am getting sun, but not exposing myself to it for too long. So far this year I have not burned. Like my grandmother always said, everything in moderation.
    .-= Jenn AKA The Leftover Queen´s last blog ..Thistlemoon Meadows Homestead Update- Mid-July =-.

    • Katie says

      Dianna,
      It’s a pretty cool fabric, for sure, but the sleeves do heat you up more than not wearing sleeves. I really like the rash guards to cover shoulders and the hats to cover faces, but we don’t really cover our legs or arms much. Gotta get some Vitamin D!
      :) Katie

  12. anonymus says

    Well, everyone has their tricks and know the condition of your skin, food, healthy diet is important, yes, but it has nothing to do with the sun I think you’re mixing things up. T-shirts to swim is important because the sun’s rays are harmful and that what we eat has nothing to do. Dermatologists recommend these shirts more and more especially for babies, why is that? In recent years we have doubled the number of people with skin cancer, the sun is not like 20 years ago, has become much more dangerous. I recommend using these shirts to 100%, especially if like me you are people you have white skin as if you have darker, do not run unnecessary risks of truth, skin problems can be avoided in 99% of cases and is better to go with a shirt but is not too sexy and not take the trouble to come after.

  13. amanda says

    I’m coming into this conversation late, but I can’t seem to figure out how to get my question answered: why can’t I just have my kids wear t-shirts? What’s so special about a rash guard? I have a hard time believing I really need a shirt with an SPF in it, when a t-shirt would likely do the same thing.

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Amanda,
      I’m late too, sorry I missed your comment for so long! :(

      A t-shirt would be a big help over “nothing,” but from what I understand, the harmful rays of the sun really can get through fabric, particularly wet fabric. My hunch, although not researched, is that a dark shirt would be safer than white…

      :) Katie

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