SPF and UPF – What’s the difference?

But what about gardening?!

I mentioned in this week’s column (January 1, 2017) that my top-priority garden goal this year is to protect my skin. I’ve recently undergone¬† surgery to remove basal cell carcinoma from the tip of my nose and another surgery to reconstruct the tip. Definitely not the way I would have liked to spend my winter holiday! One thing is for sure, though; after 53 years of basking in the sun without protection, this experience has finally motivated me to take seriously the importance of caring for my skin while gardening outdoors.

I’ve never liked the greasy feel and the smell of most sunscreens, so I listened with interest when my dermatologist told me the best protection for my skin is to wear a sunhat and clothing with a 50+ Ultra-Violet Protection Factor (UPF) rating. She also recommended that I use sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating of at least 30 on my face for extra protection.

I’ve known about SPF for a long time, but UPF was an unfamiliar term until I did a bit of research. As it turns out, these two factors are completely different ways to measure sunburn protection. SPF is specifically for sunscreens, and the more recent UPF rating is for sun protective fabrics. SPF measures how long a person can be exposed to sun rays without getting burned. By heeding my dermatologist’s advice and applying SPF-30 on my face, I’ll be protected for 300 minutes (5 hours) as long as I don’t sweat the sunscreen off.¬† The Environmental Working Group offers a list of effective sunscreens that meet its criteria.

However, SPF only measures protection from the sun’s UVB rays unless the product label states it’s a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which means the sunscreen also protects from UVA rays. Both types of ultra-violet rays are responsible for skin damage, including skin cancer.

A UPF rating measures how much of the sun’s UVA and UVB radiation is absorbed by the fabric. For example, a fabric with a UPF rating of 50 allows 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation to pass through it. This means the fabric will reduce the skin’s exposure to UV radiation by 50 times (98% UV block) in areas where the skin is protected by the fabric. Coolibar is a company that specializes in UPF 50+ clothing, hats, and gloves.

Covering up while gardening in the sun sounds counter-intuitive to someone who hates being hot and loves being tanned, so part of my sun protection strategy is going to involve becoming more selective about the times I garden – before 10 a.m. and after 5 p.m. during the summer months. I’m also going to hang this picture somewhere visible. Anytime I start to revert back to my old, reckless habits, I’ll remind myself that I don’t want to go through that again!



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  • About the Author

    Rhonda Nowak

    Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. With more than 25 years of gardening experience and a Ph.D. in literature and language arts education, she combines a love for plants, poetry, and prose in her Literary Gardener blog. ... Full Profile
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