To help you choose the right sun shirt for your favorite activities, we offer this thorough tome on the humble sun shirt. The truth is, if you're going to spend close to $100 on something, a few minutes of reading is more than worth it to ensure the thing you want to buy, is worth it as well.
Related: The Best Sun Protection Shirts
Why a Sun Shirt
Why a sun shirt? Because sunburn sucks. People far too often underestimate the time it takes for the sun to bake epidermis. At elevation, things get worse, and if you're reading this website, you're likely someone who spends time playing at altitude. Sun shirts give us the confidence to be outside longer, help us stay comfortable, and let us bring fewer shirts on through-hikes.
Clothing with at least a 30 UPF lets us leave the sunscreen at home, especially when paired with a hat or hood. Plus, more studies are emerging about the risk SPF lotions pose to aquatic environments, as well as to the health of our skin. Unless taken off to let drift in the current, a sun shirt poses little risk to our vibrant reefs and water quality until it's time to be thrown out.
Versatility is a great reason to buy a sun shirt. Most options are designed for multiple outdoor pursuits, from climbing to crab fishing, and they're often seen on long-distance hikers, climbers, and trail runners. And because they can be good for all-around outdoor activity, they offer a great deal of quiver-killing long-term value.
Pullover vs. Button-Down
You can find simple, long-sleeve t-shirts with a UPF considerable enough to help block the sun. But they don't hold up as true sun-shirts. For maximum coverage, comfort, and features, you're going to want to browse for either a button-down or a hooded pullover.
The hoody, by virtue of its construction, is a superior design for keeping the UVB and UVA at bay. Studies on sun exposure all agree that the first, best preventative measure is coverage. For evidence, look no further than cultures and communities across the globe that thrive in harsh desert environments.
Hooded sun shirts do have some limitations. They're not going to win you any style points, and they tend to be limited as travel shirts because they often lack pockets. They're great for all-day outdoor confidence against the sun, especially when the peak exposure hours roll around and the hood can be deployed for that extra kick of coverage.
Button-down sun shirts provide a more traditional appeal to the outdoor set, balancing on that line between exotic explorer and trendy outdoor pro. Didn't Indiana Jones wear one under his satchel?
In our testing, the hooded sun shirts were less expensive than the highest performing button-down shirts, offered the same levels (or more) of UPF, but only one scored high in fit. The button-down shirts we tested in this round, the Columbia Silver Ridge Lite and Canyon by Mountain Hardwear, for example, looked as nice as they felt. They also packed well and never left us wanting for an iron.
Obviously, the sun shirt style you prefer comes down to need and use. Straight-up long hours in the sun should warrant a comfy hooded pullover. Hiking long, sweaty hours while needing access to snacks and your phone? Take your more traditional option. We recommend one of each.
We're lumping comfort in with fit because they're so closely tied when choosing a sun shirt. Moreover, who's going to buy something that's annoying to wear, regardless of its ability to shield us from the sun? Comfort is intrinsic to buying any piece of clothing.
Sun shirts are by design meant to be "bigger." That is, they need to maintain a relaxed fit to aid in breathability, cooling, and drying. Air has to be encouraged to circulate around, under, and through the garment to wick away sweat and manage the temperature. A tighter garment stands to make more contact with the body and thus restricts air flow, absorbs more perspiration, and also makes the fabric more subject to wear and tear.
Testing shows that the balance between size and comfort in a sun shirt can be hard to reach for some outdoor clothing manufacturers. Bigger is not always better. However, many brands offer different styles of shirts with UPF, so the brand-loyal shoppers out there will likely find a sun shirt from their favorite logo confidently walks the line of size, fit, and all-day comfort.
We encourage you to look at two tested examples of how fit and size coalesce, and work against one another. The Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Hoody (UPF 50) moves well on a person, breathes, and keeps the wetness at bay. The Columbia PFG Terminal Tackle (UPF 50) is a veritable hooded blanket, offering total sun protection but at a size that jeopardizes comfort, packability, and certainly style, should that be a factor for a buyer.
Don't merely stand in front of the mirror when trying on a sun shirt, move around a little. How does it move when your arms do? Does the hemline expose your waist or lower back? Is the yoke (top of back across the shoulders) encouraging movement or denying it? The fabric and overall shirt style certainly impact these issues, but in the end, fit is fit, and if it doesn't work for you in the store or after UPS drops it off, it will work even less on the way up to an exposed pass in the Sierra Nevada.
Style is more about the physical design of a sun shirt than how it looks, but we do touch on the fashion aspects. We know it matters to some shoppers.
Sun shirts will be likely one of two designs: standard long-sleeve button-down, like the Mountain Hardwear Canyon, or a hooded pullover, such as the Cool Daily Hoody.
Neither form factor is indebted to a specific fabric type, as the majority will be some iteration of polyester with a variety of treatments, softeners, and levels of UPF. (Eddie Bauer does offer a mini-ripstop nylon button-down, the Atlas Exploration.)
However, a shirt's style directly impacts how it protects you. Our testing showed that purely as tools for sun blockage, the hooded pullovers are superior. They offer less risk of sun exposure from open buttons or poorly designed collars, fewer features that can rip or fall off, which provides more durability, and the hood offers neck, head, and even face protection. This design is very popular with boaters, climbers, and many types of wilderness guides.
Button-down sun shirts do have some advantages. Namely, they look better. The Mountain Hardwear Canyon and Columbia Silver Ridge Lite, top performers in our test, stood out as stylistic and not overly "outdoorsy." Pockets and roll-up sleeves make these styles suitable for travel and hiking, and sometimes even a meeting with your accountant. Provided they aren't over-cooked with features or dad-camper appeal, button-down sun shirts make great all-around outdoor tops.
UPF / Sun Protection
Standardized in Australia in the late 1990s, Ultraviolet Protection Factor is the rating system assigned to how much of the sun's harmful rays (UVA & UVB) an apparel item lets in. Color, weave density, and general product construction make up the foundation of a clothing item's UPF.At a UPF of 25, only 4% or 1/25, of the sun's radiation is allowed to enter the fabric. At 50, only 1/50th, or 2%, can reach the skin. Anything that allows 2% or less gets a rating of UPF+ 50.
Not every sun shirt we tested or that you might consider purchasing will be rated to 50, and that's okay. The Silver Ridge Lite, our award-winner for Best Bang for the Buck, has a UPF rating of 40. It's still hearty enough to repel what's bad for you, just not as much as the others tested. The Skin Cancer Foundation will award its Seal of Approval to anything with a UPF of 30 or above.
(SPF - Sun Protection Factor - is relegated to cosmetics, such as sunscreens and lotions.)
Both UVA and UVB rays are harmful, the latter being most responsible for sunburns. However, UVA is thought to more apt to penetrate layers of skin and is often considered the culprit for skin cancers.
The UPF is essential because the fabric absorbs the radiation and reduces it to merely harmless heat. In that reaction, though, lies the importance of a sun shirt's breathability and style. Big, hooded sun shirts with a lot of excess fabric become that much hotter as a result, but they offer more direct protection, making—again—the balance between fit and design essential.
Thin, lightweight polyesters help disperse that heat by allowing more cool air to move around the body. Lighter colors help, as well. For what it's worth, fabrics such as lycra (brand name) and elastane (collectively known as spandex) tend to have a better natural ability to block UVA and UVB rays. Yet, materials that stretch tend to allow more light to pass through. Your heavy, old-school spandex bike shorts? Super sun- resistant. The 15% spandex Outdoor Research Astroman? Not as much.
Now, if you wanted the most sun protection money could buy, you'd grab a heavy canvas work jacket with a hood. Nothing is getting through that. If not in Minnesota in February, there's no reason to ever be active for an extended period of time in that kind of coat. The outdoor industry had to then find a way to market a dependable product line of clothing that blocks the sun's rays and promotes activity. Voila, the sun shirt.
In summary, studies by the Skin Cancer Foundation report the following four factors as most critical in rating a clothing item's ability to block or absorb UVA and UVB rays:Color: lighter the better
Weight: heavier the better, per unit area and fabric thickness
Tension/stretch: more stretch, less protection
Moisture content: drier the better
Condition: more durable, the better
Synthetic fabrics have long made us much more able to sustain performance in the outdoors. It's no surprise then, that all sun shirts will be made from polyester, recycled polyester, nylon, or some unique form of each. You may also find some shirts with a percentage of elastane. In contrast, cotton is considered one of the lowest-rated UPF fabrics available, and a cotton/polyester blend is also not good.
Lower-weight fabrics will do the most to resist the absorption of wetness often caused by perspiration and humidity, capitalizing on their billowy designs to help air pass through and around the person. Again, synthetic fabrics are designed to dry faster than natural fabrics, a fact no more apparent than when we consider a synthetic sleeping bag over down—we can't risk the latter becoming wet.
Open venting aids in a shirt's comfort level under active conditions. With breaks in the face fabric backed by mesh, these air-circulating features are probably the most valuable factor in a shirt's breathability equation. One drawback in back vents is how their function under the weight of a backpack. Our testing showed it to be an issue on samples that didn't include a significant yoke vent. The Sol Patrol II by Patagonia, the Mountain Hardwear Canyon, and Columbia's Silver Ridge Lite are good examples of substantial physical venting.
A sun shirt's breathability also contributes to its ability to shake off the bacteria that leads to us smelling like a farm animal after a few miles in the hot sun. Look for some manufacturers, such as Hanes and Patagonia, to use treatments that discourage bacteria from accumulating. Some smells will be hard to shake over time if the shirt isn't laundered on occasion.
Outdoor clothing makers spend a lot of time determining what works and what doesn't, what customers ask for, and what allows them to charge what for a specific product in their catalog. And since sun shirts cross that line into travel clothing, companies like Patagonia, Eddie Bauer, and Columbia want to make sure we have multiple places to put a passport.
Expect your options to encourage sleeve-rolling with an upper arm button to capture a hanging tab of fabric to hold the sleeve in place. Each of these mechanisms will be designed slightly different and depending on that design, easier or harder to secure. The Columbia in our test was a challenge whereas Patagonia's Sol Patrol II made it easy.
Collar design is key to this shirt category. If you don't want to wear a buff or some form of additional front and back protection, it helps to have a collar that can stand on its own and secure comfortably around the neck. Make sure you test this feature in the store or before you recycle the return form. Look for a "second collar" in the back for added neck protection, and for a front closure system that doesn't leave you gasping for air.
Venting is something to consider, as well. Shirts in this category will have mesh-backed vents along the back, yoke, and often along the sides under the armpits. Others use the pockets to help promote breathability by putting a flash of mesh behind the thinner front-facing fabric, or using an un-zippered chest pocket as a way to help air move around.
Another unique feature you might come across in a men's sun shirt is a mechanism for holding onto sunglasses. Some brands use a basic horizontal slit along a pocket flap. Or, Patagonia's method is a small loop of nylon webbing sewn into the seam from pocket to placket (the front, button area of a shirt). This may not be essential, but four of our five button downs in the most recent round of testing had a method for holding on to sunglasses.
Other features to consider when considering buying a sun shirt include things related to its basic design, such as hem length, distance between buttons, cuff length and design, pocket closure mechanism (hook & loop, snaps, or buttons) and seam type.
Remember to overlap a shirt's features with its intended activity. Are you spending an extended amount of time at sea? Will you be cycling across open desert or hiking above treeline? Know that each brand we tested will have an option to accommodate whatever activity one wants to take on, from bocce ball at the local brewery to pre-office paddleboard sessions.
Related: The Best Sun Hats of 2019
A sun shirt's durability is tough to gauge from a fitting room. While we know that ripstop polyester and nylon are generally tough fabrics, as the majority of outdoor products—from tents to backpacks—use them. In terms of a sun shirt then, its durability likely comes down to how well the fabric is put together and its features' ability to hold up to the rigors of the trail, ocean, or crag.
Consider seam strength by pulling at places where pieces of the fabric are connected, especially in areas that are subject to constant wear, such as under the arms and around the collar. Fondle the buttons a little, give them a small tug to ensure the stitches are intact and that errant threads aren't wafting around.
Unless explicitly designed for substantial aerobic activity, such as the Hanes CoolDRI, most sun shirts won't see the type of active wear that a running shirt might see. But, since many of these shirt options will end up under a backpack or the vestibule of a tent, confidence in their physical integrity shouldn't be overlooked. It's one of those things that may often require many months to discover, and we try our best to emulate those conditions.
Some people know right away when an article of clothing is right for them. Others need time, maybe a couple of fittings. It never hurts to try on multiple versions of the same shirt in the same size to test for manufacturer consistency. It was our goal to give readers a few major categories with supporting suggestions, a mental checklist to run through before spending money on something that says it helps prevent your skin from shedding. Whether hoody or classic button-down, rest assured that just about every outdoor clothing brand will have a sun shirt option for you, and we hope this article leads you to the best fit.