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Sun protection becoming fashionable

TUESDAY, JULY 13, 2010

Entrepreneurs mixing UV-blocking fabrics with style

The amount of clothing many of us wear in summer is, understandably, inverse to the temperature.

Matters of decency aside, that might not be a problem if we wore enough sunscreen, but most Americans don’t.

“The best sunscreen of all is a hat and protective clothing and smart behavior,” says Jeffrey Dover, president of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.

But regular apparel simply doesn’t offer the same sort of UV protection as special sun-protective items. Though a tightly woven textile in dark colors is better than a loose weave in a light color, few of us wear black turtlenecks in the summer.

Clothing that is truly sun-protective is marked with UPF – for “ultraviolet protection factor” – labeling. That’s similar to the sun protection factor, or SPF, ratings on sunscreens and describes how much UV radiation a fabric blocks.

The problem, of course, is finding anything fashionable. The market has long focused on children and athletes, but over the last few years, a number of companies have been working to expand options for the rest of us.

“I consider myself fashionable,” says Sonja Gfeller, founder of Ayana, a UV-protective apparel line with the tag line “Skin care you can wear.”

Gfeller, 45, was having a hard time maintaining her sense of fashion and also protecting her skin from the sun after moving from her native Switzerland to San Clemente, Calif., in 2003.

She was tired of constantly applying sunscreen, and she didn’t care for the few items of sun-protective golf, tennis and hiking apparel she was able to find in stores.

“There was nothing,” Gfeller says.

Three years of research yielded fabrics from Japan and Taiwan that either wove zinc oxide, a UV blocker, into the textile or infused it into the fabric during the dyeing process.

Gfeller started sewing those 45 UPF textiles into casual everyday items such as tunics, T-shirts, blouses, pants and skirts. This spring-summer season she expects to sell about 2,000 garments through her website (www.ayanashop.com) and at niche boutiques.

Like most sun-protective clothing items, Ayana’s garments are effective for a limited number of washings – about 40.

They also need to be worn in conjunction with sunscreen because clothes don’t cover everything. There are still exposed bits of skin that are vulnerable to the sun.

Shannon Farar-Griefer has a lot of experience with exposed skin. The founder of the Moeben SPF clothing line is an ultra-marathoner who runs 100-mile races that subject her body, and her skin, to long stretches in the punishing sun, leaving her with basal cell carcinoma on her chest and arm.

In 2006, she started making UV-protective arm sleeves in leopard print and other patterns and has since expanded her line to include dresses, skirts, pants and bathing suits.

“I grew up with the baby oil and the reflector thing with all my girlfriends out by the pool in Palm Springs, completely unaware of the damage sun causes,” Farar-Griefer says.

“The boomers now, we’re paying for it. We didn’t think 20 years ago that we’d have to worry about wrinkles or skin cancer. There are great UV fabrics out there, so why not wear clothes that will give you a little protection?”

John Barrow was living in Australia when that country’s government agencies were first warning residents of the skin cancer dangers posed by a hole in the ozone layer.

Now a Minneapolis resident, he realized there was a need for sun-protective clothing when a Mayo Clinic dermatologist asked him to buy sun-protective garments whenever Barrow and his family returned to Australia.

Barrow started his Coolibar line of SPF clothing in 2003 and now does about $10 million annually in sales through his website (www.coolibar.com) and catalog, catering to baby boomers seeking classic clothing designs infused with sun protection.

“It’s still a fairly pioneering concept,” says Barrow, adding that sun-protective clothing has the potential to be five times larger than the $1 billion U.S. sunscreen market and is just beginning to go mainstream.

The key to that mainstreaming is boomers’ growing awareness of sun protection intersecting with advances in technology that allow a greater breadth of style.

Coolibar uses four types of fabric in its line – waterproof synthetics, lightweight weaves, travel knits and zinc-oxide-infused cottons – all of which are UPF 50+ even at the end of a 40-wash life cycle.

Though sun-protective clothing still requires the use of some sunscreen, wearing it is easier than using an SPF lotion or spray by itself.

“Clothing is a high-compliance product,” Barrow says. “You’ve got a much better chance of using clothing and a bit of sunscreen than all sunscreen.”



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