What Makes Korean Sunscreen So Good? We Investigate

The differences between K-beauty and American sun-care.

Woman wearing a swipe of sunscreen

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From sheet masks to BB Creams, we could argue that no beauty routine is complete without at least one Korean skincare product. Korean beauty products are known for their effectiveness, innovation, and use of best-in-class ingredients (snail mucin, anyone?). Plus, the smart — and often adorable — packaging is not just for aesthetics, but thoughtfully designed to provide more seamless application. 

So when it comes to sunscreen, it’s no surprise that Korean formulas also feel one step ahead of what other brands around the world are doing. “We consider sunscreen the last but most important step in K-beauty’s multi-step skincare routine," says Charlotte Cho, Co-founder of Then I Met You and Soko Glam. "Sun protection is such an important part of Korean lifestyle, and we wear sunscreen every day — whether you’re indoors or outdoors."

Aside from providing the primary task of giving your skin UV protection, we dive into exactly how  K-beauty approaches sun safety while nurturing your skin health. Though the jury’s out on whether Korean sunscreens are better than Western formulas, there are many reasons why people might prefer them — and options for getting them stateside.

They're Lightweight and Easy to Blend

Your experience with sunscreen may have involved a ghostly white cast at best, and a pore-clogging and greasy feel at worst. The most noticeable difference with Korean sunscreens is their elegant texture and wear. This is because “Korean chemists have access to the best and newest UV filters,” says Teresa Carper, director of product development for Soko Glam. They’re specifically designed for everyday wear — not just outdoor use, which is usually the main target for U.S. brands.

Because of that, Korean sunscreens are “lightweight, won’t leave behind a white cast, work well under makeup, and will not dry out the skin,” says Cho. Especially for people of color, wearability and texture could be the biggest priority when picking out sunscreen. Neogen Deramlogy Day-Light Protection Airy Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 is a Korean fan-favorite for its cloud-like texture and quick absorption. 

They Benefit from Korea's Innovations

Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates sunscreen as a drug, there’s a limited list of ingredients that are allowed.“The FDA hasn’t approved any new UV filters since 1999, while K-beauty is rooted in innovation and technology,” says Carper. These filters are the active ingredients used to protect against UV rays. In Korea, the approval process is more efficient since “sunscreens are regulated as functional cosmetics,” she adds.

But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean Korean sunscreens are any less safe: “The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) is the regulatory authority in Korea — similar to the FDA — responsible for creating and overseeing the sunscreen approval process. In order to bring a Korean sunscreen into America, there’s an extensive approval process that includes submitting clinical safety and efficacy documentation to the MFDS," Carper says. "The testing and documentation is similar to what’s required in other global regions, but the process is more efficient and can be done quickly."

They Can Multitask

K-beauty, in general, is known for packing multiple benefits in one punch. Though sunscreen across the board obviously has the goal of preventing signs of premature aging, Korean sunscreens take it up a notch with even more nurturing ingredients. “Korean sunscreens are also often infused with ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid to help protect the skin barrier and deeply moisturize your skin,” says Cho.

We’ve also started to see fermented ingredients commonly found in Korean essences. For example, Then I Met You Essence Light Sunscreen SPF 50 features fermented sake extract to hydrate skin and shield it from environmental stressors. As far as ingredients, Korean chemists are always trying to figure out the best new thing.

They Use Both SPF and PA

In the US, Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is only specific to UVB protection. “In the states, UVA protection isn’t required, but if you see ‘broad spectrum’ on a sunscreen product, it protects against UVA and UVB rays,” says Carper. In addition to SPF, Korean brands use a PA (Protection Grade of UVA rays) system based on a PPD (Persistent Pigmentation Darkening) test that measures both rays. If a sunscreen has a PPD of eight, for instance, it would take eight times as long for your skin to tan as opposed to if you weren’t wearing any sunscreen. 

The PA rating system looks like this:

  • PA+: Some UVA protection with a PPD between 2 and 4
  • PA++: Moderate UVA protection with a PPD between 4 and 8 
  • PA+++: High UVA protection with a PPD between 8 and 16
  • PA++++: Extremely high UVA protection with a PPD of 16+ 

The PA and SPF numbers provide important information about how to best protect your skin and make educated choices around your sun-care. “Some US brands are also choosing to test for and include their PA rating as an added benefit for sun-conscious consumers,” adds Carper. 

They Have Higher SPF Values

Korean sunscreens usually feature a higher SPF. Essentially, the higher the SPF, the longer your skin is protected from UVB rays. “The maximum SPF claim value permitted in Korea is 50+. Until recently, the FDA had also proposed a claim limit of 50+ and did not specify a limit in the most recent regulation update," says Carper. "However, you will typically find daily SPF products that hit the upper limit in Korea, while SPF 15 to 40 is more common in the US. This is most likely because Korea has a more sun-conscious consumer." Plus, for reasons we've covered, Korea has access to next-gen filters that allow for a higher SPF without any greasiness or weight.

They're a Dream to Reapply

A crucial part of sunscreen is reapplying it every two hours to best protect your skin. Many Korean sunscreens are packaged and designed to easily reapply as needed. “Korea has always provided effective solutions for ease of use and to benefit your skin,” says Cho.

For instance, Iope Air Cushion SPF 50 comes in a cushion compact format, so you achieve sunscreen reapplication and can seamlessly touch up your makeup with breathable, tinted coverage. Other convenient applications include SPF sprays and powders, so you don’t have to worry about blending them in and ruining your existing makeup look.

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