There’s not much that makes a whole lot of us feel like a little kid being force-fed vegetables like the constant reminders to apply sunscreen — every day, several times a day, and also all over. Sunscreen is probably one of the most inelegant beauty or health necessities — sometimes it smells weird, but mostly it feels like a layer of pore-clogging grease that rarely if ever plays nicely with makeup or moisturizers. But you’ve got to use it! We’re all pretty caught up on how important sun protection is not only for our health, but also for the purpose of “anti-aging” if that’s a concern of yours.
Speaking of prioritizing sun protection, Koreans are the most extra folks in terms of skin care (think 10-step daily skin care routines and weekly facial visits as standard practice) so they would be the ones most likely making the most top shelf sunscreens. Korean beauty culture prizes smooth even dewy skin as the epitome of conventional beauty, so it makes a lot of sense that their competitive beauty market is constantly innovating sunscreen formulas to give consumers the protection they require with the texture, feel, and wear that any makeup-wearing (or makeup-hating) person would demand. If you’re use to the goopy white cast of most sunscreens you find in a lot of western drugstores or beauty shops, going so far to even skip the SPF in favor of a more preferable complexion feel, a) what are you even DOING, and b) get thee a Korean sunscreen and have your sun protection bases properly handled.
As someone who’s been singing the praises of Korean sunscreens for the past few years now, I can tell you that I’ve tried a handful and the most noticeable difference is the texture and wear. Sun protection should always be the outermost layer of your skin care routine, topping your moisturizer, and I find that Korean sunscreens are always light, easily spreadable and leave no visible trace or cast behind. Many even incorporate skin care benefits like hydration, antioxidants and skin tone-evening ingredients as a one-step product to do heavy lifting on top of your moisturizer and serums.
I consulted Toronto-based cosmetic chemist, Stephen Ko, as to what exactly makes Korean sunscreens dare-I-say “superior” to Western ones — at least in terms not sacrificing protection for texture.
“It’s not that South Korea has something specifically unique that allows them to create better sunscreens,” Ko says, “They just have access to more sunscreen ingredients to work with.” In the US, sunscreens are a considered a drug under the FDA so they’re tested for their ability to protect skin from UVB and UVA rays but aren’t required to go through the formal drug approval process. “Sunscreen chemicals on the other hand do need to go through the formal drug approval process, and because of this there hasn’t been a new one approved for use in sunscreens in the US since 1999,” Ko explains.
In countries like South Korea, that approval process is much quicker. These newer innovative sunscreen formulas improve on issues older formulas have, like “photostability, a larger molecular size to reduce skin penetration and a broader absorption spectrum — especially into UVA.” In the US, the main chemicals that protect against UVA are avobenzone, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
“We are terribly behind the rest of the world in approving sunscreens that are superior to those we have,” says Dr. Vivian Bucay, MD at the Bucay Center for Dermatology and Aesthetics. “Sunscreen formulations undergo a standardized testing method to determine what degree of protection it offers.” She agreed that the list of approved sunscreen ingredients by the FDA hasn’t been updated in years.
Dermatologist and Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC, Dr. Joshua Zeichner, added that “outside of the United States there are many sunscreen ingredients that cannot be used here yet. Many of these may be coming to the United States in the next few years [that] offer high quality protection against long range UVA rays which may be superior to some of the currently used sunscreen blockers in the US.” He reminds us that SPF only refers to protection from UVB — not UVA — rays. If you want to cover both, you need to use a sunscreen that’s labeled “broad spectrum.”
If you’ve ever seen a sunscreen offered by a Korean beauty brand, you may see that instead of “SPF” it’ll say “PA” with a number of “+” afterwards.
“PA is a based on the PPD test, or the persistent pigmentation darkening test. It measures the multiple increase of UVA a person can theoretically be exposed to without tanning or darkening of the skin,” Ko explained. “The PA system ranges from PA+ to PA++++. PA++++; the maximum rating means it has a PPD value of 16. This means that a person can theoretically withstand at least 16 times more UVA radiation before tanning with the sunscreen on compared to without.”
But how does that compare to the SPF rating we’re all use to seeing? Dr. Zeichner chimed in, “When used properly there is little difference between sunscreens above SPF 30. However, in the real world we apply less sunscreen than we should and we do not reapply. That is why I recommend using sunscreens with higher SPF values, as it serves as a safety net to ensure the highest quality protection for the longest period of time.”
As to why many western sunscreens insist on the condiment-like consistency, Dr. Bucay surmises, “I suspect that it’s probably because it’s less expensive to produce less cosmetically elegant sunscreen formulations.” She does have a few tips for getting your SPF right though: “SPF’s are not additive, meaning that wearing an SPF 20 moisturizer and an SPF 30 makeup does not equal SPF 50. The clock starts ticking once the products are applied, so the SPF 30 will keep working longer than the 20,” she warns. As for what order to apply when layering sunscreens, “I recommend that patients apply serums and lightweight products first and sunscreen as the last thing before makeup. Many of the newer and more elegant sunscreens are tinted and feel like primers, making them easy to use.”