Can You Tan Through Clothing?

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When you’re walking around in intense sunlight, how much protection are you getting from your clothing? Can you tan through clothing, and can you get a sunburn?

Whether you like tans or prefer avoiding them, knowing about it matters. Plus, one thing is for sure: having tan lines isn’t fun even if you like tans! Thus, you should know about the possibility of tanning through clothes.

Can You Tan Through Clothing?

sunflower girl

Yes, you can get a tan through your clothes. And a sunburn, too! So don’t automatically assume you’ll be protected just by putting on some clothing.

You can get a full tan with clothing on by wearing Tan-Through Swimwear, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Ultraviolet rays have a strong penetration capability and can go past various clothing materials. So even if you are wearing a cotton shirt on a hot sunny beach, you should not get complacent in thinking that you will be safe from sunburns. The risk of sunburn is present even with clothes. However, virtually any clothing does provide at least some protection from UV rays.

Sunscreens are rated by SPF, or Sun Protection Factor. Clothing is rated by UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor. The protection factor for most clothes ranges from about UPF 4-50+. This can vary depending on the color, condition, and type of fabric. A UPF value of 4 provides a small amount of protection, while a 50 is going to block the vast majority of the sun’s rays.

Although various fabrics have different capabilities, you should not rely on clothes alone to prevent sunburns. 

The sun’s UVB and UVA rays contribute to skin cancer, though they also provide the benefits of tanning in the sun.

Many types of clothing do not provide sufficient protection for long spells outdoors in sunny weather. For a basic example, a white t-shirt will give a UPF of about 4, while a thick denim jacket will give a UPF of 50+. The thicker the material, the more protection is provided.

There are still steps you can take to protect yourself against the harsh rays of the sun to reduce damage to your skin.

Synthetic Fabrics

To bring down penetrating and damaging sun rays, you lean toward synthetic fabrics over natural ones. Synthetic materials are often tightly knit and allow less sun rays to penetrate them. Rather than cotton, you can don fabrics like acrylic, polyester and lycra when roaming out in the sun for longer time periods. 

To know how tightly knit the fabric is, you should check out the denier rating.

More Layers

Layers really are key to the whole thing. Each layer of clothing provides additional protection, and can be taken off and put on as needed throughout the day. No need to constantly reapply sunscreen, just pop on that UPF shirt and you’ve got instant protection.

By combining layers of clothing, bathing suit, hat, etc., you’ll get the best protection you can, while maximinzing the enjoyment of the sun and the beach.

Stay Dry

wet shirt

Wetness can bring down UPF protection for various materials. Unfortunately, if you get that white T-shirt wet, the amount of sun protection it provides is lessened. Thus, you should try to keep your clothes as dry as possible for protection against the sun.

Wide-Brimmed Hat

wide brimmed hat

A good hat is key to getting good protection when exposed. The head and neck is especially susceptible to skin cancers, and a hat will be a first line of defense in these areas.. Try out a wide-brimmed hat for keeping out the sun.

Often these hats can look really good if you can pull it off, and they offer much more sun protection than caps.

With a bigger hat, you will have better protection of parts like the back, neck, ears, and face.

Darker Fabrics

Darker fabrics are more protective since they have a greater ability to absorb harmful rays from the sun. You might think that dark colors will keep you hotter but the truth is that they are better at absorbing damaging sun rays. White and light pastel colors look good in the hot sunny weather, but are less protective. 

Clothing especially designed for sun protection make use of darker hues for lower UV exposure.

How to Tan Through Clothes

You now understand that it is very much possible to get sunburned and endure skin damage even with full clothing. You should know how this happens and the different factors that determine how well a fabric can protect you from the sun’s rays. 

Different kinds of clothes have different efficiencies of keeping out the sun’s rays and thus carry different SPF ratings.

The following 3 factors strongly influence the protection that a fabric can provide against sunlight.

  • Material – for better UV protection, the material should be capable of absorbing more sunlight. Thus, synthetic fabrics such as polyester may be a better choice than cotton since they absorb more sunlight than cotton. 
  • Weave – tightly knit or woven fabric can keep out more of the sun’s rays than loosely knit fabric. Since less light seeps past the material, there will be less skin damage from the sun with tight fabrics.
  • Color – dark colors have a stronger capability of absorbing sunlight than light fabrics. Since they can absorb more sunlight, they are better at keeping harmful sun rays away from your skin. 

Sunscreen vs Clothes for Protection

Most good quality sunscreens are going to provide more protection from the sun than much of the light clothing that people tend to choose at the beach. That said, there are a bunch of downsides to sunscreen that need to be part of the equation, too.

Clearly, the biggest concern is that many chemical sunscreens are being re-evaluated for safety due to cancer risks. These products are supposed to protect us from cancer, not cause it! Tests are ongoing, but many have switched over to safer mineral sunscreens. Unfortunately, these leave a white cast on the skin that often looks unappealing on darker-skinned people.

They often need to be reapplied frequently, and even “waterproof” sunscreens need to be reapplied after you go in the water.

For this reason, clothing should be a prominent part of your sun protection strategy.

Clothing and Sunscreen Together

It can often be helpful to combine sunscreen with clothing to provide adequate protection while out in the sun. If you can find a few layers you can add and remove as needed during your tanning session, you can make your time on the beach more pleasant, and hopefully healthier.

Couple that with applications of sunscreen as needed, and you can get enough protection from the sun, while also getting the benefits of tanning.

Another tip for greater protection is to use loose clothing. Since tight clothing can stretch the fabric, more sunlight may get through. Therefore, it is better to keep clothes loose so that less sunlight can get past. 

Remember that even when its cloudy, you can still tan. Be careful and be patient when out in the sun!

Does Sun Protective Clothing Work?

There are several manufacturers that specifically produce UPF50+ clothing. These can be great to have on hand when you’re headed to the beach.

For example, this Beach Shawl shown below from Coolibar is UPF50+, and will give a lot of protection to a significant portion of the body. It can be popped on and off as needed, and is super convenient and attractive.

Coolibar UPF 50+ Women's Sanibel Everyday Beach Shawl - Sun Protective (One Size- Pacific Blue Modern Stripe)
  • UPF 50+ - blocks 98% of UVA/UVB rays
  • FABRIC: ZnO fabric is super soft against...
  • FEATURES: 72 inches X 29 inches;...
  • RECOMMENDED FOR: achieving Ultimate...
  • NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: swimming, not...

A cover like that, combined with a hat and potentially some sunscreen, and you’re likely good to go in many environments.


Thinking in terms of layers is the key to sun protection. You can tan through clothing, and you can get sunburned through clothing. But clothing can provide helpful protection, and is potentially a safer option than many types of sunscreen. A couple of pieces of UPF clothing, mixed with your usual beach attire, and you’ll be good to go!

Written by Kayla Young

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