Korean sunscreens are not the goopy, pore-clogging stuff you might be used to. Instead, they’re light, fragrant and easy to apply. Many of them are stellar multitaskers, offering hydration, antioxidants and skin tone-evening, along with UVA and UVB protection. And because they don’t leave a chalky white residue, they’re often the preferred brands for people of color.
Korean skin care, after all, has been earning accolades over the past decade in the beauty industry, known for creating “glass skin” ― that dewy, misty perfection you adore in photos of your favorite K-pop stars. This summer is the perfect time to expand your H Mart shopping list with Korean-made sunscreens that are a definite improvement over the pasty, sticky tubes currently sitting at the bottom of your beach bag. Let’s dig in to what dermatologists love about them, and when they say you might need something more substantial.
What’s the difference?
If you’re wondering why Korea gets to have BTS and the world’s best sunscreen, the short answer is: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not move at breakneck speed when it comes to innovation in the world of sunscreen. “It’s been about 20 years since the last sunscreen ingredient was approved in the United States,” dermatologist Uchenna R. Okereke told HuffPost. The reason for that, she explained, is that the U.S. considers sunscreen to be an over-the-counter drug, which is why it’s regulated by the FDA. “In several other countries, including Korea, sunscreens are considered cosmetics, so those sunscreen manufacturers have more ingredients to choose from,” she said.
But why does Korea specifically rule so hard with sunscreen? “The Korean market moves faster and is filled with innovation in terms of new ingredients and ingredient combinations,” said Deanne Mraz Robinson, dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale New Haven Hospital. She also is a fan of that country’s product guidance. “The Korean brands use the PA system [Protection Grade of UVA Rays] to identify the protection grade of UVA rays, in addition to disclosing the SPF, which measures UVB ray protection. Here in the U.S., brands aren’t required to specify UVA vs. UVB protection. Instead, we just say ‘broad spectrum,’ which means there is coverage against both types of rays.”
Dermatologist Suchismita Paul told HuffPost that one reason Korean sunscreens are so popular is because their user experience is often superior: “They have a variety of formulation options that are lightweight and easier to apply on the skin without leaving a white cast,” she said. “That’s especially important for people with skin of color who might be reluctant to use sunscreen when it leaves a chalky white cast on the skin.” Besides managing the basics so well, Korean sunscreens often add in all other sorts of epidermal treats. “You can find brands with ingredients like soothing aloe vera, hydrating hyaluronic acid, brightening niacinamide and ceramides that have additional benefits to the skin,” she said.
What Korean sunscreen is better (and worse) for
“In Korea, it’s generally accepted that sunscreen is part of a lifestyle of sun protection, so sunscreens are typically designed to have an elegant formulation compared to Western sunscreens, which tend to be heavier, water-resistant and intended for outdoor use,” Okereke said.
Her observation is seconded by Michelle Wong, the chemistry Ph.D. behind the Lab Muffin beauty science blog, who said it’s important to know that these products do have a best time and place for use. “They aren’t a miracle solution,” she told HuffPost. “Korean sunscreens are very lightweight and elegant to use, and they tend to use the newer filters, which are the active sunscreen ingredients that work to protect against UV. But if you’re planning a day at the beach, they wouldn’t be a good option.”
Finally, Okereke noted that popularity is not science. “A claim of superiority is based on clinical efficacy, or how effective a product is,” she said. “That information can only be obtained in head-to-head clinical trials, and to date, there is no evidence showing that Korean sunscreens are superior to other sunscreens.”
“Tinted sunscreens with iron oxide are critical to protect against exposure to visible light,” Okereke said. “This is of particular importance in those with skin of color, as visible light exposure can exacerbate certain skin conditions that are photo-sensitive, like melasma or hyperpigmentation.” She said that no matter what brand you use, it’s important to reapply any sunscreen every two hours. “If you wear makeup, this can be challenging, so I recommend using SPF powder and reapply it during the day,” she added.
It’s important to apply any product at the right point in time, too, depending on what you’re using. “Physical/mineral sunscreens (with ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) should be applied last in your skin care routine, and they must always be at the outermost surface of your skin in order to repel the sun’s rays most effectively,” Robinson said. “But chemical sunscreens (with ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate) need to be applied first, onto clean, dry skin, because they need to be able to be absorbed into the skin to convert UVA/UVB rays into heat and release it.”
“While sunscreens are absolutely necessary, there is no sunscreen that provides 100% sun protection,” Paul concluded. “It’s still very important to practice other sun safety habits, such as seeking shade, avoiding midday sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and wearing sun protective clothing, hats and sunglasses.”
5 Expert-Recommended Korean Sunscreens To Try
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