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There’s more than one kind of sun exposure to avoid, y’all.
I hate to tell you this, but most U.S. sunscreens are not properly protecting your skin. Try Korean sunscreens and you’ll quickly see why.
Korean beauty is very popular right now, so you may assume this is about some new fad. While its rise to prominence in the U.S. beauty market has helped to expose the physical differences between American-made sunscreens and Korean ones, the proof is in the data: Korean sunscreens (and Asian sunscreens in general) use a wider range of ingredients to fully protect the skin from both UVB and UVA rays.
“SPF” refers to UVB protection. There is no UVA protection included, and this is the case with most sunscreens you’ll find on your local drugstore’s shelf. UVA rays are dangerous because you don’t feel them affecting your skin. (They turn skin brown, while UVB causes sunburn.)
Sunscreens made in the U.S., Canada, and Australia are considered a drug by the FDA, and using new chemicals in sunscreens requires a formal drug approval process. This creates a lot of hoops to jump through, so the U.S. has not approved any new chemicals for its sunscreens since 1999.
Asian sunscreens do not have the same restrictions, so new chemicals that significantly improve the performance of the products are used regularly. “We are terribly behind the rest of the world in approving sunscreens that are superior to those we have,” Dr. Vivian Bucay, MD at the Bucay Center for Dermatology and Aesthetics, told Allure in a recent interview.
Korean sunscreens use a different rating system than the ones we use in the U.S. Rather than an SPF number, these sunscreens use a system called the persistent pigmentation darkening test, known as the PA system for short. The more plusses you see after the PA, the more protection you get from UVA exposure.
In addition to not being damaged by UVA rays every time you walk outside your house, Korean sunscreens often forego the gloppy, white-cast texture we’ve begrudgingly accepted as sunscreen in the U.S. for something far more favorable. You can expect lighter weight, a nicer smell, and much, much quicker absorption.
It’s worth noting that most Korean brands come in smaller bottles and cost a little more than your average Coppertone. But it’s worth it to not smell so nauseatingly tropical.
Our 8 favorite Korean sunscreens
PA rating: +++
Good for: normal to dry skin
You’ll see the term “sun cream” a lot more on Korean products, and Pure Block is just that: a lovely, rich cream that feels moisturizing. It absorbs quickly and leaves a beautiful dewiness behind. There is no white cast, and the product feels silky instead of greasy. This line features a waterproof version, as well as the Aqua Sun Gel, which feels cooling when applied. This is an ideal first product for the beginner to Korean sunscreen.
PA rating: +++
Good for: Dry skin, aging skin
If you hate the way American sunscreens smell, you’ll likely love this one from Goodal. It’s a gel that isn’t overly thick but effective at shielding your skin from the sun. Add that to 50 SPF and PA+++ protection—that’s UVA and UVB both covered there, ladies and gents—and you’re gonna be aging backward in no time.
PA rating: +++
Good for: Oily/acne prone skin
Oily skin types will wonder how they ever lived without Safe Block, which has green tea and tea tree extract to keep grease at bay. It’s also highly moisturizing and the smell is mild but pleasant. It’s built to hold up to water and sweat, so this is a really good one to toss in your bag and take to the beach.
Price: $11.00 (regularly $14)
PA rating: +++
Good for: sensitive skin
If you experience redness even when you aren’t in the sun, Aloe Soothing Sun Cream is ideal for you. Lightweight and quick-absorbing, you can count on it for full protection from both UVA and UVB rays just like the others on this list. Don’t forget that reapplying is just as important as wearing it in the first place–keep one of these in your purse! (And no, the SPF in your makeup is not enough to count as a reapplication!)
Price: $12.44 (regularly $15)
PA Rating: ++++
Good for: Dry skin, cold weather conditions
A simply lovely sunscreen from K-beauty company Like I’m Five, the Mild Sunscreen is a perfect pick for fall and winter months (you could easily skip your moisturizer and just use this as your final step). With a mild botanical scent, this sunscreen is easily one of my favorites I’ve tried in a long time.
PA rating: ++++
Good for: Sensitive skin, Aging skin
SeaNtree was smart to put a cute little donkey on its products because no woman can resist adorably packaged products. That said, the product inside is just as good as protecting the skin as the packaging is at being cute. Donkey milk protects your skin from oxidation stress and is terrific for bolstering your immune system. Aging skin will also get a boost from Vitamin C and Lactose. It’s such a highly moisturizing sunscreen that you can easily skip your moisturizer step when you use it. Whee!
PA rating: +++
Good for: Dry skin, cooling skin down
This sunscreen is so deliciously rich it can act as your moisturizer! The consistency is more like a serum than the typical cream sunscreen and feels cooling when first applied. Best of all, unlike the majority of sunscreens sold in the US, it offers broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection. You can be sure your skin is completely protected the next time you have fun in the sun.
PA rating: +++
Good for: Aging skin
Swanicoco is a botanical Korean beauty line that has gotten lots of attention lately for its focus on natural ingredients, and its product lines are made up of 90-100 percent of them. The Sunbrella UV Shield Perfect Sun Block Cream contains green tea extracts, niacinamide, and adenosine to brighten overall tone and calm redness. It’s a rich cream that takes a minute or two to fully absorb, but once it does, you’ll be beach-ready.
MORE BAZAAR DEALS:
- The 20 best Korean beauty sheet masks
- 5 K-beauty sampler crates under $25 that will leave you glowing
- The best Korean beauty products for $10 or less
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Colette Bennett is a writer and editor who specializes in geek culture, beauty products, and Amazon deals. Her work has appeared on CNN, HLN, Engadget, Kotaku, Colourlovers, and Continue Magazine. She's also given talks on working in news for CNN's Leadership Unplugged program. Bennett also runs popular Korean beauty blog Chok Chok Beauty and regularly slathers her face in snail slime.