So what IS the difference between these two acronyms we commonly see when talking about sun protection?
Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF)
UPF is the measurement of protection from UV rays when talking about FABRIC. How well your clothing protects you from harmful UVA and UVB rays. Any fabric can be tested and given a UPF rating, which ranges from 1 to 50+ and is often times referred to in terms of coverage quality (good, very good, ultimate).
A UPF5 rating means that 1/5th or 20% of all UV radiation penetrates the fabric. This would be considered very poor UV protection but is commonly the rating for a standard t-shirt.
UPF50+ is the highest rating given to any fabric and means that less than 2% of all UV radiation penetrates through the fabric. Many people with skin sensitivities due to medications or previous health issues rely on this amount of coverage and it is a great proactive approach to reducing sun exposure and the risk of skin cancer.
Sun Protection Factor (SPF)
SPF is the term used for measuring protection from UV radiation when talking about SUNSCREENS. Similar to UPF, the higher the SPF rating, the better the protection, but the two are not created equal. Where UPF products protect against both UVA and UVB radiation, early sunscreens only protected against UVB rays which cause sunburns. Broad spectrum sunscreens now protect against both types of radiation.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding sunscreens today as they are linked to environmental and personal health issues. Any time you apply a substance to your body, trace amounts of the chemicals used are absorbed- potentially causing health issues down the road. There is also a lot of research related to the correlation between sunscreen use and the health of our earths coral reef systems. There is a very real chance that we will start seeing bans on sunscreen in certain areas over the next few years.
- UPF or Ultraviolet Protection Factor is used when referring to clothing. The higher the rating, the more protection provided. UPF clothing protects against both UVA and UVB radiation.
- SPF or Sun Protection Factor is used to determine protection from sunscreens. Many “Broad Spectrum” sunscreens now protect against both types of UV radiation, but that has not always been the case.
- There has been a rise in global health concerns surrounding sunscreens and their impact on our environment. Look for that conversation to continue as more research is done.