As much as you might be sick of reading about it, we’ll never stop writing about or stressing the importance of sunscreen. It is by and far the most important part of any morning skin-care routine (fight me!), but it’s also the hardest to navigate. The ones readily available in the U.S. are greasy and pore-clogging and leave a racist white caste for those whose skin veers darker than “mocha.” It’s a nuisance to find a good one, but things get easier if you look outside of North American borders and set your sights further afield.
It shouldn’t be surprising that some of the best sunscreen products come from Asia, since skin-care brands from Korea and Japan are so far ahead of the beauty curve, in general. Beyond that, sun protection has been prioritized for far longer in Asian countries than it has been in the States. But the sunscreen superiority from Asian skin-care brands isn't just a cultural difference, it also has to do with their products' formulation and its ingredient approval process.
“Sunscreens are regulated as over-the-counter drugs here in the United States,” Dr. Joshua Zeichner explains. “Because of this, the ultraviolet light blocker used in sunscreens is limited by an approval process by the FDA. Outside of the United States, including in Asia, there are newer ingredients used in sunscreens that actually provide broader protection against UVA light than what we currently have available in the U.S.” For example, manufacturers from Asian and European countries have been able to include filters like Tinosorb S and M in their formulations, which protects from both UVA and UVB rays (more on that in a bit). Cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson tells us that, since the FDA undergoes such strict testing requirements, it could take a while for U.S. sunscreens to gain access to ingredients already green-lit by other nations. "We're terribly behind in terms of innovation," he says. "It could take years for us to catch up."
People typically judge sunscreens based on the SPF number listed on its packaging. But, that number amounts to the UVB protection a product offers, not UVA rays. You should be worried about both. UVA rays, Dr. Zeichner explains, are dangerous because they “penetrate the skin and may be associated with the development of skin cancers and premature aging.” Some sunscreens developed in the U.S. do provide UVA protection (the ones that are labeled "broad-spectrum" on the packaging), but the ingredients available elsewhere do a more thorough job. You’ll often see things like "PA+++" on sunscreens produced in Asia which is equivalent of SPF but for UVA rays. The more "+"s, the more protection against UVA rays it provides.
Dr. Zeichner says that both Asian and European sunscreens provide similar and adequate protection, but one aspect that gives Asian brands a leg up (for me!) is the texture of its products. They’re often lighter and have a serum-like consistency rather than a heavy, butter-like feel. Many even have hydrating and antioxidant ingredients mixed in, so that it works double-duty. This might turn some people off; the thought process is often, The thicker the product, the better, but Dr. Zeichner says that’s not the case. “The quality of the protection depends on the particular product rather than the consistency,” he tells us. So, why suffer through feeling like your pores are suffocating when you can give them room to actually breathe?
All of that is to say: The U.S. has a lot of catching up to do. Dr. Zeichner says that change might be on the way, but not for a while. He explains: “The sunscreen innovation act was put forth several years ago to encourage the FDA to expedite their review of new sunscreen ingredients, however, this is a slow process. I expect that in the future, we will have new ingredients available in our sunscreen, but it will take many years.” Charlotte Cho, founder of Soko Glam, says that since there are so many limitations, some American brands have started to make their sunscreens in Korea or abroad.
But, friends, the damaging effects of the sun wait for no one. So, if you’re even the least bit curious, or simply care about your skin prematurely aging, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite Asian sunscreens ahead.