There’s a Legitimate Reason Skincare Gurus Are Obsessed With Korean Sunscreen


I’m not a confrontational person, but if I hear so much as a whisper that undermines the use of sunscreen, I will speak up. So when a friend of mine recently complained that SPF was too much of a hassle — too greasy — to wear daily, I rattled off a list of lightweight, watery formulas to prove her wrong. Many of my suggestions, I realized, were Korean sunscreen formulas.

And it makes sense: texture is one of the major differentiating factors between American SPF and Korean SPF, notes Glow Recipe® Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Sarah Lee. “Korean sunscreens are always lightweight,” Lee notes, unlike many of the heavier consistencies Americans often expect in homegrown sunscreens.

There’s a reason American sunscreens feel that way — and have felt that way for as long as you can remember. It’s worth noting that in the United States, sunscreen is regulated by the FDA. In Korea (and most countries outside of the states), sunscreen is considered a purely cosmetic product, and does not require a rigorous approval process. Ergo, Korean sunscreen formula innovations are more rapid than those in the US. (And often, more cosmetically elegant.) Meanwhile, there hasn’t been a new sunscreen chemical approved in more than 15 years, and thus the textures haven’t changed much, either. (That said, there are still some wonderful American-made sunscreens. Read more about the best ones, here.)

But texture is key in Korea. Sunscreen formulas there have to fit into a broader, multi-step skincare routine — more specifically, one that includes essences, toners, and numerous other products piled atop one another. In the ecosystem that is K-Beauty skincare layering, heavy, greasy formulas simply won’t cut it. Instead, SPF (always the final step, Lee notes) has to glide weightlessly across the face; it’s more of a lacquer than a disturbance to the other products that have been so artfully applied.

Naturally, when skincare-centric people view SPF as part of their face care routines (and not just an afterthought to slap on at the beach), the market responds. “[Sunscreen is] taken very seriously,” Lee asserts. Many formulas even contain added benefits like hydration, antioxidants, and other ingredients that assist your moisturizers and serums, she notes. Today, Korean sunscreens come in a range of forms that you’d be hard pressed to find in local American drugstore — including oils like TONYMOLY® BCDationTM Sun Oil SPF 50+ PA++++ ($29), and mists like this one from AMOREPACIFIC®. But despite their vast textural varieties, K beauty sunscreens share the commonality of something called PA.  

But first, a quick science lesson. The sun’s ultraviolet rays come in two forms: UVA and UVB. UVA rays, which reach deeper layers of the skin, are responsible for premature skin aging. UVB rays hit the surface of the skin, and are responsible for visible sunburns. (Of course, both are terrible for the skin.) Every sunscreen made in the US protects against UVB rays — but not necessarily UVA rays. To find one that protects against both, you need to look for the words “broad spectrum.”

That brings us back to PA: While SPF accounts for UVB exposure, PA accounts for the level of protection against UVA rays. You’ve likely seen “+” symbols after PA on packaging. These indicate the level of protection against persistent pigment darkening (PPD) — or tanning — in the sun. If you’re hoping to avoid getting any color at all, seek out the maximum level of PA protection: PA++++.

And, for Korean consumers, this probably is a goal. Broadly speaking, sunbathing for the sake of a tan is not fashionable in Korea; sun-induced hyperpigmentation counteracts what Christine Chang, the other Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Glow Recipe, calls the Korean beauty ideal of “glowing glass skin.” (Glass skin refers to skin that is so plump, so unmarred by hyperpigmentation, that it looks almost like glass.) Naturally, UV rays — which can create age spots and sagging — are the antagonist in the glass skin journey. “The sun is the biggest perpetrator of aging and creating dark spots!” Chang confirms.

For this reason, plus the fact that there is rapid innovation in the sunscreen space, “The Korean beauty community is more well-informed on sun protection and sun exposure than the U.S. consumer,” Lee says. Both she and Chang are, of course, among said sunscreen-savvy consumers. Chang favors the Make P:remTM Blue Ray Sun Gel ($32), which not only protects against UV rays with SPF and PA, but also works to counteract infrared light, which raises skin temperature and has been linked to premature skin aging.

Ultimately, the most important thing is that you’re wearing sunscreen, period. But if you’re looking for one that’s cosmetically elegant, lightweight — and heck — might just make your skin glowier, too, I would personally point you in the direction of your local K-Beauty store.

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The PA rating system is used in Japan and Korea to classify UVA protection and is not an FDA requirement on sunscreens sold in the U.S.

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