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 best natural sunscreen review as well, where we have over 100 brands reviewed!), 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. Back when I was dressing my first toddler I applied sunscreen to him daily, but I am now rather deep into the traditional foods and natural living 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.
When I first put a short-sleeved, short pant swimsuit 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.
Sun Protection vs. Embracing Sunshine
There’s much to be said for the health benefits of vitamin D, and there’s even evidence that if you have enough Vitamin D in your diet, that too will protect your skin from sunburns. Many people claim we shouldn’t hide from the sun at all but rather seek out unprotected exposure to increase our vitamin D intake. But if you haven’t gotten enough base tan by slowly working up to maximum sun exposure, who wants to risk a sunburn?
Our family has a pretty healthy diet with, I hope, more vitamin D than most based on our raw milk consumption alone. However, I don’t know how to gauge the right amount of vitamin D, and I don’t know that I’m willing to allow my kids to get sunburns just to test out the theory. Yesterday was a certified failure, even with the added protection of four applications of sunblock. My son just swam too much in the pool between the hours of 1:30 and 6:00 p.m.
My daughter, on the other hand, was out for the same length of time in her Nantucket Sun swim shirt and shorts, her Tunga bucket hat from Sungrubbies, and no sunblock whatsoever, and she does not have a sunburn. Did she get shorted on Vitamin D yesterday in comparison? Who can know – I certainly feel like she had to have gotten some sunlight anyway with all the outside time we had.
RELATED: Non-Toxic Children’s Pajamas
Traditional Amount of Vitamin D?
If we need the sun to help our bodies make v, 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.
Sun Protective Fabric: Is there a Safety Hazard?
On the tags of one of the swimsuits I received from the companies I worked with for these reviews, I read the fabric content: “80% Polyamide, 20% Elastane.”
Shucks, I thought. I don’t recognize either of those terms.
It struck me that perhaps there’s a material safety risk with the fabrics in the sun protective clothing, and I realized I had to research a bit into the technology of the industry.
Mostly, the UPF on sun protective clothing (Ultraviolet Protection Factor, means about the same as SPF does for lotions) is determined by the tightness of the weave. Other factors include the color of the fabric, weight, and stretch (from an explanation of UPF ratings at Coolibar, and corroborated by the other companies). Some companies add zinc oxide into the fabric in ways that it cannot wash out, like Coolibar’s ZnO Suntect cottons. Cotton has a looser weave, so to have a high enough UPF, it needs some help.
When there’s no treatment, it’s likely that the fabrics used are a polyester blend. The polyamide is nylon and elastane is spandex, which of course are synthetic plastics, but generally aren’t targeted for being hazardous or toxic, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a swimsuit made of anything radically different than that.
I’m fairly confident that the fabric in sun protective clothing is not going to be a risk factor unique enough to take into consideration.
Our Sun Protective UPF Clothing Reviews
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). The fact that the last three companies are resellers doesn’t necessarily imply that the clothing is lesser quality, as some of the fabrics are made in Australia where they have very strict sun standards. It’s nice to have options!
Don’t forget that I’m not afraid of the sun, but a moderate. If you’re just starting with this post, back up a little and read about the hazards of chemical sunscreens and my search for the best mineral sunblock. Now on to those options that will hide you from the sun when you can’t help it otherwise…
Coolibar Children’s Bucket Hat
Coolibar manufactures their own fabrics and products, which is important to remember when evaluating the items. I immediately loved the look and feel of the chlorine resistant bucket hat, but I was so unsure about the lack of a chin strap that I bothered a few more companies just for a hat with a strap to keep it on. This hat has an adjustable Velcro tab that pulls tightly on a strap hidden from view inside the fabric. It’s a very clean look, seen here:
As the weeks wore on with my son’s Coolibar hat and we figured out how to fasten it tightly, I found some surprising results. Although the hat does come off at times when jumping into the pool, it has stayed on through:
- A 20+mph speedboat ride
- Very, very strong winds at Lake Michigan (enough to send the sand pricking into our legs)
- Jumping and diving into 2-foot waves in Lake Michigan
I’ve actually come to appreciate the Coolibar hat more than the two I received with chin straps, because:
- It’s adjustable to fit multiple head sizes
- It’s staying on great anyway
- It’s perfect for kids who dislike things touching their neck
- When a chin strap hat gets tossed around, it still falls off and has to be plunked back on, you just don’t have to chase it around. Unless a sun hat is also snug enough to stay on most of the time, the chin strap doesn’t save the hat plunking parent all that much time and energy.
Here my daughter demonstrates the hat’s sun coverage compared to a standard issue child’s swim hat from a big brand store:
One of the added benefits of this adjustable hat is that it really can work for multiple head sizes. Ours is a size S/M, rated for ages 2-8. I always figure the longer a child can wear an item, the most cost savings you’re going to get, so I love that factor!
If you have a small child who will take their hat off themselves and throw it overboard, the Coolibar hat won’t cut it and you’ll want a chin strap. But for slightly older kids who will leave their hats on, I’m very pleased to recommend Coolibar’s style.
Coolibar Men’s Rash Guard or Swim Shirt
I often wonder how much money we’ve saved on sunscreen because my husband has worn a rash guard for three or four years now, not to mention the time he didn’t have to spend applying cream to his back and chest. Males are notorious for either (a) forgetting sunscreen altogether, (b) neglecting to reapply and/or (c) using too little sunscreen to be effective. For guys, I’m a huge proponent of the swim shirts.
The shirt from Coolibar really looks sharp on him, and the steel gray is very manly. My husband says it really keeps him cool at the beach in spite of the darker color, because it stays wet longer than his skin would. It breathes well and dries quickly on the line.
The review was going to be 100% positive until last weekend, when my husband wore a backpack to the beach and we discovered one major disadvantage of the matte fabric: it doesn’t hold up well under any abrasion, even that as simple as a backpack rubbing against your back. You can see the rubbed area on his lower back, along with a few long, thin scratches on the upper back and one 4×1-inch swath on his front that looks like the wrong fabric got stuck to some Velcro, even though there was no Velcro involved:
I was so disappointed, because this really wasn’t wear and tear beyond normal use, and his previous rash guard never had this sort of problem.
However, even with these scuff marks, he’s still using and loving the same Coolibar rash guard we got for this review back in 2010 when we started this whole sun protection journey, and it’s still in quite incredible shape in 2018!!! You can just tell the fabric is better than other shirts we’ve tried over the years, even for adults.
When he bought a random brand of rashguard a few years back to make sure he had two shirts, that one not only didn’t hang as nicely when wet but also died within a few years and we got rid of it! I’d spend the money on Coolibar (and have again!) for sure. We still use and love the bucket hat as well!
On the Company
Coolibar has great customer service, quick shipping, research-driven production, and a commitment to sun safety and quality. They have a very comprehensive line of clothing that goes well beyond the beach, and they also sponsor a school hat program to try to get bucket hats and sun protection information into the hands of school officials and teachers at a reduced cost.
Nantucket Sun Review
I was intrigued by this concept, that we were going to receive a family set of just…sleeves. It’s a unique product, and my first thought is that it seems fear mongering, that the only market for the sun sleeves would be people who are truly afraid of the sun. As a balanced perspective sort of gal, I am not afraid of the sun (too much), and I find that our family has never burned on our forearms, so I didn’t really get it.
My son, lover of all things new and novel, fell for the child sun sleeves immediately and wore them right away. He’s definitely the one in our family who gets the most use out of them. I am still having mixed feelings overall.
- They still make you warmer than bare arms (much!)
- Can’t help if you’re wearing a tank top or standard women’s swimming suit anyway
- They stay up well, but not perfectly. You’ll spend some time tugging them up your arm
- The sleeves of course will make your Vitamin D synthesis impossible, but for your face. It is important to get some unprotected sun exposure to reach the body’s daily Vitamin D needs.
That said, I think the sleeves still have a place. It’s easy to imagine how a skin cancer survivor or someone who has watched family members battle the disease would be eager for simple, comprehensive sun protection. There are also people who, for reasons of medicinal reactions or various skin or heart disorders, really cannot tolerate sun exposure. For this small subset of the population, the sleeves are a fabulous invention.
If I had children with incredibly fair skin, and I wanted them to get some sun for Vitamin D but not too much, the sleeves are a nice way to go out with bare arms and then cover them once adequate sun exposure has been reached.
I don’t think I’d purchase sun sleeves for my family, but now that I have them, I’ve brainstormed some alternative uses:
- Bug protection without chemicals
- Great for cold skin when in air conditioning, and smaller to pack in a purse than a sweatshirt
- Good for biking or other sporty activity: if it’s cold when you start, especially, you can peel them off as you go (or vice versa)
And they do look mighty snazzy. If you’re wearing a T-shirt and the sleeves, no one would know that you didn’t just have a long-sleeved shirt underneath. Kids can also wear the adult sleeves on their legs, which we did for a walk to protect from mosquito bites.
I’ve also washed my son’s after our camping trip, and they came through the wash (hang to dry) acceptably.
One piece of advice if you order for your family: get everyone a different color. It makes it easier to pull the right ones out of the pile that way! Mine are the same color as Leah’s, and I’m constantly holding them up to check the length when I get them out.
Swim Shirt and Shorts
After our first season with a girl and girl’s bathing suits, I was quickly dismayed at how much skin is showing and needed sunblock protection. My kids have both always worn hats out in the sun, but little girls’ shoulders, back and chest seemed so exposed to me. I couldn’t wait to try something with some more coverage this summer.
We ordered a size larger than we needed, which is one of the many benefits of this kind of suit over a traditional girls’ style. Whereas a girls’ swimsuit hanging low because it’s oversized would look shabby, this suit ought to last three years or so on my petite little one, which is good because the two pieces together run just under $40.
The only problem I’ve run into so far is that the suit, along with almost all the other UPF swimwear I received, advises not to touch abrasive surfaces. Yeah, right. Like you can keep a 2-year-old at the pool or beach away from anything that will snag the fabric.
The swim shirt is showing its wear already after only 3-4 uses, and the pink stitching on the shorts is fuzzy. It’s not that the stitching is coming out at all, but it’s just snagging and fuzzy all the way around. The white stitching on the shirt is perhaps a different type of thread, because it’s not having the same reaction. Both pieces have been washed in the machine already, rinsed often, and soaked to try to get the smell out after dearest daughter made a mess in her swim diaper and got in the pool afterward. Yuck.
Later update: After a year or two, this fabric definitely started to stretch out and I can tell it wouldn’t last as long as Coolibar.
On the Company
Nantucket Sun, founded by a concerned mom and remaining women-owned, manufactures all of their own products and only uses UPF 100+ to block all the UVA and UVB rays. (They do carry a few other brands as well.) All of Nantucket Sun’s brand clothing is made in the USA yet passes Australia’s strict standards for sun protection. They get their fabrics tested and recertified every 6 months, going above and beyond requirements.
Alex and Me Review
Women’s and Youth Rash Guards
The mom always worries more about her kids when it comes to good health and protection, doesn’t she? I didn’t really plan to have a rash guard for myself, but I’m glad I got the chance to try a Dakine rash guard along with my daughter’s Platypus sunshirt from Alex & Me. Alex & Me has since closed down, but the same rash guard can still be found on amazon.
It’s a good example to my kids, and I also really, really like it for multiple reasons:
- Cute factor: when I tried it on, my husband gave cat calls. With capped sleeves and a short mock neck, they’re very flattering!
- Modest top: If you have a two-piece suit, the rashguard could easily replace your top, or simply cover it.
- Save the skin: Boy, was I thrilled to have this option when I foolishly got burnt last weekend after six hours in the sun. We had two more days at the beach left, and I couldn’t have been happier to cover up my already tender shoulders. The women’s rash guard has a tricky job of balancing cute with coverage. I might add one more inch to the capped sleeves to make sure it covered the skin most affected by the sun’s rays.
The one drawback for women is that the shirts have no liner or support, so if you order a light color or will be doing any bouncing, you will want to wear it in addition to your regular suit. I found I could get away with just the shirt because it was black and tight-fitting enough to suffice.
The sizes do run a bit small, so be sure to order one larger than you expect yourself to be. Mine is a size bigger than my shirts, but it’s plenty tight enough!
For children, I always buy one size up on shirts so that they can wear it a few years. My daughter is very petite, and at just two years old the size two gives her a few inches of extra sleeve length to grow into.
I did like having the long sleeve option for her, for when the sun was just too intense. The shirt looked comfortable, and she never complained about the bulk. I can even say that watermelon stains come out of it just fine. However, at over $40 for one shirt – for a child – I just can’t recommend this one. Then again, if you buy a short sleeved shirt and Nantucket Sun’s arm sleeves, your grand total is going to get right up there again.
Later update: The women’s sun shirt is eventually losing its shape after about 6 years. I still wear it, but not if I want to look cute because it’s getting closer to hanging down to my knees now!
Child’s Flap Hat
Solartex was one of the companies I called upon for a hat with a drawstring after I thought the Coolibar hat I reviewed wasn’t going to cut it. I received a flap hat (or here on Amazon) and one-piece SPF/UPF swimsuit for my daughter.
I’m personally not a huge fan of the baseball cap front, flat as a board, and then the fabric hanging down in the back, although I do like that feature if my daughter wears a bathing suit that exposes a great deal of her bare back. Along with a one-piece sun suit like this one, however, I think it looks a bit goiky and fearful. Is that just me? I much prefer the bucket hat style.
The hat and suit themselves were both very nicely made. I thought the hat ran a bit large because it comes down very close to my daughter’s eyes, although now that I see on the site that the size small should last until she’s 8 years old! That explains that! Even with the large size, the hat stays on really well in windy conditions.
Later update: We’ve used this hat for both genders over the years, and it’s a nice one to have around (although I still prefer the Coolibar bucket hat, which we still use after 8 years as well!).
Child’s One-Piece Suit
The suit is very easy to put on, and there’s only one big problem with it for a toddler who is not potty-trained yet. Can you guess? It’s tricky to get at a dirty diaper, so I might recommend a two-piece suit for this very young crew. Solartex also carries some suits in sizes 0-2 with snaps for easy opening, and the C-Wear brand suits have snaps, too. If I had my druthers, I’d also make the zipper an inch or two longer just to aid in the “getting it off” game when everyone’s skin is wet and sticks to the clothing. Order these a bit large – my little one’s in a size four, which is what the company said they usually put 2-year-olds in.
On the Company
Tunga Bucket Hat
This pattern is so very cute that I wish it was my bathing suit. The Tuga bucket hat from Sungrubbies incorporates the best of both worlds: it’s snug enough to stay on in the strong winds or big waves, but if it does get jostled off, no one has to chase it across the beach because it has a drawstring cord. The fabric just seems like it’s high quality, and I love that the hat is even reversible to a solid color. It is also found on Amazon!
Can you tell how strong the wind is in the photo to the right? The hat stays on, no problem.
The wide brim casts a deep shadow on face, neck and shoulders, but it’s not so floppy that it gets in her face (like the Coolibar hat does when she borrows her brother’s). The shape is just perfect for maximum cuteness, in my opinion!
My daughter’s hat is a size small, and it just fits. It doesn’t even really tolerate her pigtails underneath, so I’m crossing my fingers and hoping it still fits next year! I’m curious if a medium would stay on as well in the wind. Be sure to measure your child’s head when ordering hats, and shoot larger rather than smaller if you’re guesstimating.
The Tuga brand has adult UPF clothing and hats and lots of swimwear options on Amazon too – based on the quality of fabric of this hat and the fact that it never faded, I’d recommend the brand highly!
On the Company
I knew I’d be working with fun people when the email address was “the folks” at Sungrubbies. I had a lengthy conversation with Gail over there about sunwear and even sunscreens. I could tell that these gals really take their time choosing and take pride in selling only the best products out there. Actually getting the hat was a little slow, but it’s definitely their busy season.
More Options for Sun Protective Clothing
Those are all the initial full reviews I have for you, but there are a lot of options out there. Longevity/quality wise, we’ve also personally had very good luck with Lands End swimwear, and they have a lifetime guarantee (I believe) on all their products. They almost always have some sort of coupon going too, so don’t buy without one!
My site editor Robyn’s family swears by SwimZip suits. “The zipper in the front makes them easy to get on and off little ones and they are high quality so they last. They also have a line of sun safe clothing for the whole family, Shedo Lane, that is the softest material I’ve ever owned. I can’t get my toddler to wear anything but her Shedo Lane dress now!” – Robyn
- Lands End rash guards
- SwimZip rash guards and suits on Amazon
- Shedo Lane
- All Coolibar on Amazon
- All Tuga on Amazon
- All rash guards on Amazon
The Third Pillar of Sun Protection
Check out this fascinating interview with a Harvard-trained dermatologist about foods we can eat for sun protection and a little-known fern that increases your cells’ ability to withstand the harmful effects of the sun! It’s in a tasty little gummy called Sundots, and you can get 20% off your first order HERE with the code PARTNER20 today!
Be sure to use the coupon code PARTNER20 for 20% off your first Sundots order!!!
I received products to review free of charge for this post, but the opinions here are completely my own (can’t you tell?) and the companies have no sway over what I say here. See my full disclosure statement here.