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Is kids’ fashion increasing your child’s risk of cancer?



In a country with some of the highest UV levels in the world, children’s skin protection is paramount – but are clothing retailers offering Australian kids enough? We investigate.

It’s one of the questions that crosses an Australian parent’s mind while dressing their child on a hot summer’s day: “Have I covered them enough to protect them from the sun?” After shopping the market and comparing boy’s and girl’s clothing from various stores, found that for girls the answer might actually be “no”.

After putting a tape measure to gender-based clothes, it was found that the amount of material in the girls' version was up to 76% less than for boys.

For parents who have both boys and girls and frequently buy clothes, this difference won't come as a surprise. When shopping for boy’s, singlets, short-sleeved T-shirts, knee-length shorts and pants fill the rails. When shopping for girls, it’s a different story with feminine trimmings and skimpier cuts like capped or frilled sleeves, shorts as high as knickers and more fitted shirts a common sight.

It’s little wonder then that some parents we talked to said they dress their girls up in boy’s clothes to keep them better covered.

This is what happened when we put fashion on the line to see how girls measure up against boys:

The investigation: Boys clothes vs girls clothes

For the purposes of our investigation, and to keep the results as fair as possible, we compared items by the same brand from the same retailer and in the same size (3-6 months for the newborn bodysuits, sizes 4 and 5 for the kids’ clothing depending on what was available in the same line).

The items compared were of similar value. All measurements were taken to the nearest 5mm with each article lying flat.

The percentage difference was calculated by taking the difference between the measurements, dividing that by the boy’s measurement and multiplying by 100.

The results:

Tops - Size 5 (retailer 1)

Girls (mm)Boys (mm)Percentage less material for a girl
Sleeve length (from collar)15023536%
Sleeve length (from shoulder to hem)8514541%
Shirt length (from top of collar to hem)3753955%
Waist (when laid flat)3003309%

Sleeve length (from top of collar to hem)


Sleeve length (from shoulder to hem)

Looking at the tops side by side it’s clear the girls' outfit is much smaller than the boys. The sleeve was around a third shorter while the length from the shoulder seam to the end of the sleeve was 41% shorter.

A size 5 is meant to fit boys and girls aged four to five years. These sizes are meant to fit children of similar heights, no matter their gender.

More specifically, the sizing guides provided for this particular retailer stated that a size 5 girls is appropriate for a 114cm-tall girl with a 58cm-wide chest. A size 5 boys is fit for a 116cm-tall boy with a 58cm-chest. That 2cm height difference makes a size 5 girl only 2% shorter than a size 5 boy, a big difference from the percentages in clothing length mentioned above.

Note that the sleeve length on the girl's top is 85mm at its longest. This is just 5mm longer than the sleeve on a 3-6 month old newborn's bodysuit.

Shorts - size 4 (retailer 2)

Girls (mm)Boys (mm)Percentage less material for a girl
Leg length (waist to hem)230310 (rolled up), 350 (rolled down)25.8% (rolled up), 34.3%
Leg length (inner leg to hem)65130 (rolled up), 170 (rolled down)50% (rolled up), 61.8% (rolled down)

Leg length (waist to hem)


Leg length (inner leg to hem)

When it came to shorts, the length as well as style varied greatly between boys and girls. The pairs compared were pull-on shorts marked “playwear” in a size 4 and while the waist length was the same when laid flat, the leg length was far from comparable.

The boys' pair was presented rolled up, which made the initial length 25% shorter, when rolled down this increased to 36.6%. The girls' pair, though it was rolled up slightly, could not be rolled down as the seam was stitched into place. This made the inner leg length exceptionally shorter, measuring in at 65mm from crotch to hem, which was a 50% decrease compared with the boy’s pair when rolled up.

The retailer’s site states that a size 4 should fit boys and girls of the same height (106cm tall) and waist size (56cm).

Bodysuit - Newborn 3-6 months (retailer 1)

Girls (mm)Boys (mm)Percentage less material for a girl
Sleeve length (from collar)1401400
Sleeve length (from shoulder to hem)80800
Length (from collar to hem)3253250

Sleeve length (from collar)


Sleeve length (from shoulder to hem)


When it comes to newborns from retailer 1, not much changed . This is a nice example of two gender-based items from the same retailer that recognise no difference in size, length or sun protection whether you purchase from its boys or girls sections.

Bodysuit - Newborn 3-6 months (retailer 2)

Girls (mm)Boys (mm)Percentage less material for girls
Sleeve length (from collar)9526564.1%
Sleeve length (from shoulder to hem)5021076.2%
Length (from collar to hem)3303300

Sleeve length (from shoulder to hem)

Retailer 2 was a different story. While bodysuits for boys and girls were available in the same style and dimensions, the majority of the girls' range had tie-up singlet straps or shortened frilled sleeves like the one pictured.

A couple of boys' suits were sleeveless, but generally the range available either had short or long-sleeves or were dungarees that required a shirt underneath, meaning extra protection when out in the sun.

The bodysuits compared above are for a newborn aged 3-6 months and were both part of the same Christmas line, so they should be suitable for a hot Australian summer. Despite this, the girl’s sleeve length is more than three-quarters shorter than the boy’s.

How to shop for affordable protective clothing

Although our investigation suggests a disparity in coverage between boys’ and girls’ clothing, it doesn’t mean there aren’t affordable options for girls that will protect them as completely as boys.

“The most important thing to consider in choosing clothes for skin protection is that they cover as much skin as possible,” says SunSmart Schools & Early Childhood Co-ordinator Justine Osborne. “Clothing that has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) is made from material that has been tested for UV protection.”

When shopping for everyday wear, Osborne says parents should focus on the style and material of the item. “Look for styles of clothing with long sleeves or pants, and tops with collars to help protect the neck,” she says.

“If the fabric doesn’t have a UPF rating, try holding it up to the light. If it has a lot of gaps and you can see the light through the fabric, it’s a good indication that the structure isn’t tightly woven enough or may be too stretched. Another tip is to choose darker colours, which absorb more UV radiation than lighter shades, or layer thin garments to increase protection,” she says.

For parents who like to stay on-trend with their children’s sunwear, Women’s Health editor and mother of two Felicity Harley recommends shopping the looks at Cotton On. “I’m a big fan of Cotton On because they do on-trend designs at very affordable prices,” she says.

“When it comes to beach-wear my boys are always decked out in Billabong long-sleeve rashies, long boardies and, of course, hats! They also have sunglasses with eye-protection factor but keeping them on [my son] Hugo is fun! We just bought a great beach tent from Kathmandu that is our staple.” When outside, the Cancer Council advises that you should never rely on one form of sun protection alone. Pair appropriate clothing alongside other methods such as sunscreen, a hat, shade and sunglasses.

Top picks for girl’s summer clothing

Here are some examples of what to look for in girl's clothing that is more suitable to an Australian summer. They feature longer sleeves or shorts whilst still staying true to a feminine colour scheme and look.

Girls' Sista Shorts With Sequin Pockets
Girls' Sista Shorts With Sequin Pockets

Target Australia

Why is sun protection important for children in Australia?

The UV levels in Australia are some of the highest in the world, and while a healthy dose of UV is crucial for the development of healthy bones and muscles, overexposure in Australia is all too easy. “On a sunny January day for example, some skin types can be damaged in as little as 15 minutes,” says Osborne. ““Given this, people who grow up in Australia are at greater risk of UV damage, and ultimately skin cancer, than people who grew up overseas.”

When exposed at a younger age, these risks are further increased as various epidemiological studies have shown that exposure in the first ten years of life determines your lifetime potential for skin cancer. It’s later exposure when this potential is actually realised.

What else should you do? Top tips to protect your kids from the sun

  • Slip on clothing that protects and covers as much skin as possible.
  • Slop on sunscreen that’s SPF30 or higher, broad spectrum and water-resistant. Search for a sunscreen that’s suitable for babies and toddlers as they’re gentler on delicate skin. If in doubt, apply to a small patch of skin to make sure the child doesn’t react to the formula before using.
  • Slap on a hat with a minimum brim measurement that suits their age.
  • Seek shade. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sunny or a cloudy day, you should always seek shade to avoid sunburn.
  • Slide on a pair of sunnies with UV protection to an Australian standard. Sunnies for babies and toddlers have soft elastic to keep them in place and maximum protection around the eye area.

Minimum brim measurements for hats

When it comes to hats, the Better Health channel suggests these as the minimum brim size for specific ages to protect the skin.

AgeHeadwear sizeMin brim width (broad-brimmed and bucket hats)
00-1 year41-43cm5cm
1-2 years49-52cm5cm
3-8 years50-54cm5cm
8-12 years55-57cm6cm

Top picks for children's hats

These hats will give you an idea of what to look for when purchasing headwear for your child. They feature wide brims and neck coverings to protect the face and neck.

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