"Why should I buy a sun shirt? I love the sun, I put on sunscreen most the time (okay, some of the time), and I rarely burn."
Have you ever had this thought? We know we have! But according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70, and more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the US than all other cancers combined. Their research also suggests that over 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to UV rays. If that's not enough, consider that sun exposure is the cause of about 90% of skin aging!
To take your best shot at preventing harmful UV exposure, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying about 1oz. of sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside, every 2 hours no matter what, and immediately after swimming or profuse sweating. Are YOU applying enough sunscreen?
If you don't like the idea of applying that much sunscreen that often all over your body, the next best thing to do is cover-up. There are tons of different kinds of sun shirts on the market these days, made for all sorts of activities, and with all types of price tags. From shirts made for water sports or hiking to shirts with fishing or climbing in mind, it can be almost overwhelming to figure out which is the best choice for your lifestyle — let us help!
Related: The Best Sunglasses of 2020
But Why a Sun Shirt?
Okay, so perhaps you're considering the merits of covering up your skin rather than bathing in tubs of sunscreen all summer or on your vacation. But why a special shirt? Why not just any piece of clothing that covers your skin — why pay extra for UPF (whatever THAT is)?
Great question! UPF is similar to the SPF rating that you find in sunscreens but better. While most sunscreens block only UVB rays, UPF clothing blocks both UVA and UVB rays, keeping your skin much safer — and younger-looking. While sun shirts have UPF ratings ranging from a low of about 25 to a high of 50+, an average t-shirt (especially those thin ones that are so comfortable to wear when it's hot) only has a UPF rating of about 5! This means that around 20% of UV rays are still passing directly through your shirt and hitting your skin. While this may not cause burning, it can still inflict long-term damage.
Related: The Best Sun Hats
It is important to note that UPF ratings are only accurate when the shirt is new, not stretched tight, and being used as advertised. These UV-blocking properties will fade as the shirt ages, so it's important to keep this in mind as you use (and use and use!) your new sun shirt. Applying sunscreen underneath your sun shirt is still a very smart idea, especially if you've had the shirt for a long time.
So How Do I Choose a Sun Shirt?
First, consider how much protection you think you'll need. Clearly, you've decided you need more than sunscreen can offer you. Are you only worried about your shoulders and arms? Then just about any long sleeve shirt will suffice. What about the back of your neck? You might want to consider a collared shirt for that job. Do you worry about the tops of your ears? Perhaps a hooded shirt will help alleviate that worry. Are the backs of your hands likely to burn? You might want to consider shirts with sleeves designed to cover more of your hands, many of which even have thumbholes for maximum protection while you play.
If you like spending time recreating, working, relaxing, or just being outside, it's always a good idea to have a sun shirt to help protect you while you're out. With so many different features and styles, we've done our best to provide a breakdown of the differences to help you decide which is right for you.
What Are You Doing?
More than just a rhetorical question asked by a nosy relative, one of the best ways we've found to figure out what sun shirt is best for you is to ask yourself what you're doing when you envision yourself wearing it. Are you at the beach or swimming? Are you taking part in active land sports like mountain biking, backpacking, or climbing? Do you see yourself doing a bunch of different things all while wearing this shirt, like hiking, going to the office, barbecuing, and grabbing a nice dinner with your family?
Most of the contenders we reviewed dry relatively quickly, but are they right for water sports? Well, we think it depends on what you're doing. If you're looking for a sun shirt to protect you while you surf, swim, jet ski, and spend a lot of time splashing in the waves, you'll probably want some sort of rash guard. These are designed not only to protect your skin in the sun but to stay put while you play in the water. They tend to be a tighter fit that clings to your every curve, ensuring that they stay there while you swim with sea turtles or surf the perfect wave. They can also offer a small amount of warmth in chilly waters.
If you're more into paddle sports, you'll want to check the underarm seam configuration of a sun shirt before you buy it. Many models purposely change the configuration of the 'armpit seam' to be located elsewhere, as that seam placement can cause painful rubbing during the repetitive motions associated with kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, and other paddle sports.
Perhaps you're out for a grand fishing adventure on open waters. The Caribbean or Pacific sun is no joke, and the reflection of the sun off the water only intensifies the sun exposure. Some button-up shirts have tons of pockets and organizational features that can keep you organized without visiting the tackle box every five minutes. For ultimate protection from every angle of bouncing sunray on the open sea, a sun shirt with a tight-fitting hood is your best protection. You may also consider the overall fit of the shirt — too loose and it may blow up in a breeze, exposing sensitive skin. Too tight and you may become too hot to have the patience required to reel in that trophy catch. A relaxed fit or bottom-cinch option can help you find that perfect compromise.
Perhaps you're just looking for a shirt to protect you while you go camping next month — lounging in hammocks, playing frisbee, and cooking over a fire. In that case, there are many great options to stay protected and comfortable, even just around the campground. Choosing between a collared button-up shirt or a pullover with a hood becomes a matter of your personal style and comfort preference. Many hooded shirts stay thin and breathable and offer impressive flexibility. Collared shirts frequently have vents located in various places to keep airflow moving through on a hot day, and typically have useful pockets as well.
Perhaps you want to take your terrestrial adventures to the next level? Maybe rock climbing is on your list. In that case, you'll likely want a sun shirt that has a helmet-compatible hood to keep your neck protected no matter how high you go. If you're an avid runner, you're probably well aware of the damaging effects of the sun on your skin after you've sweated off all your sunscreen. A long-sleeved shirt with great sun protection can help solve your problems. A hood can again help keep your neck from burning, and thumbholes or over-the-hand cuffs can both protect your hands from sun and add a little extra warmth if you tend to be out the door in the brisk predawn.
You may also have stumbled across this article while preparing for an epic thru-hike, and are looking for a sun shirt to backpack hundreds or thousands of miles in. If that's you, you may be interested in the breathability and durability of the collared shirts that are typically made to take the kind of beating that backpack straps dole out. If you like a hood while you hike, there are some options for that too. Typically a slightly thicker, more durable fabric is preferable for lots of hiking because it's more likely to last you longer — an important attribute when hiking the 2600+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail!
All of the Above
Are you a jack of all trades? Or just don't want to buy a drawer-full of sun shirts? Then versatility is a must. If what you seek is a shirt with which you can hike the PCT, spend Monday in the office, kayak Sunday afternoon, or meet the in-laws for brunch, the REI Co-op Sahara is an excellent option for you. This shirt blows us away with its versatility. Highly breathable, soft and comfortable, stylish, and built to accommodate backpacks and PFDs, our reviewers find this shirt to be the most versatile in this review. Not far behind are the collared Columbia Silver Ridge Lite and hooded Mountain Hardwear Crater Lake and Outdoor Research Echo.
Sun shirts might be one of the most important layers you can buy. After all, your skin is the largest organ in the body, and you only get one! While there are many options out there, we hope that we have helped you find what style works best for your lifestyle. Now get out there and enjoy life outdoors!