If George Orwell had written copy for skincare ads, he’d say this about sunscreen: All sunscreens are created equal, but some are more equal than others.
Even if you buy a European brand from an America drugstore, it might not be as good as its international counterpart. National regulations for ingredients and effectiveness vary across the globe, causing products manufactured in other countries to be different, even if they’re from the same brand.
While Congress enacted the Sunscreen Innovation Act in 2014 to modernize and streamline sunscreen ingredient approval in the United States, American products still seem to lag behind.
Sadly, this often means our sunscreens tend to be greasier, less pleasant to put on and wear, and potentially less good at protecting our skin and preventing signs of aging. So what’s the difference between the sunscreen you buy in Tallahassee and the one you ordered from Tokyo? Let’s take a closer look.
Other countries are way ahead in quality
There’s not a simple reason that places like England, France, Japan, South Korea, and other countries have better sunblock products. It comes down to a combination of three large factors.
1. American sunscreens work with fewer (and “older”) ingredients
At the moment, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved 16 active ingredients for sunscreens. Europe has 27 approved substances. Not only does this difference limit the range of products in the United States, it can also impact effectiveness.
There are seven approved chemicals in Europe that protect against cancer-causing UVA light rays. Meanwhile in the United States, we’ve only got three approved chemicals for the same purpose.
Sunscreen manufacturers in the United States have limited ingredients because we treat sunblocks as over-the-counter medical products. Every active ingredient used in the United States must pass a rigorous process through the FDA before we can use them, which is great for our health, but also a reason things are moving so slowly.
Just look: The Sunscreen Innovation Act was enacted three years ago, but no new ingredients have passed the medical trials since, according to the FDA. Even when the research checks out, trials can also be expensive. So if there’s no demand or financial benefit to developing new products, there’s no incentive to create newer and better products.
On the other hand, other countries treat sunscreen products as cosmetics. Although the ingredients go through different testing processes, other countries’ regulations allow for faster approvals as well as the ability for companies to combine ingredients without restriction. As a result, these brands offer more options that don’t just protect your skin, but they’re also much nicer to apply.
2. The FDA has lax regulations for UVA protection
Just when you thought the FDA was slow to introduce new ingredients, they’re also not that strict about the amount of UVA protection required. A recent study found that many of the American sunscreen products labeled as “broad spectrum” block UVB rays but don’t block UVA rays as effectively as European brands do. UVA penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB.
In fact, the study, which comes from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, found that only 11 out of 20 American sunscreen products met European standards of protection.
3. The culture of tanning in the United States
A third reason our sunblock might lag behind the rest of the world’s is simply because Americans are still not as serious about sun protection as other cultures are. Despite extensive findings that UV exposure contributes to skin cancer, about 10 million American men and women regularly use tanning beds. Tanning, in many ways, is part pastime, part sign of luxury, and part identity.
Even with evidence that sun exposure suppresses the immune system, accelerates aging, and raises the risk of cancer, changing a culture can be difficult. When consumers don’t demand something, it affects the market and its interest in innovation. Here’s where Asian cultures, such as in Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines, differ. These cultures are similarly enamored with pale skin, which contributes to their wide range of high-quality sunscreen products. Because the market is so competitive, the products are not only better, but cheaper as well.
Ready to try a sunscreen from across the border?
You might initially be overwhelmed both by the choices and the language barrier when you’re looking for sunscreens from other countries. Luckily, online shops like Amazon stock many choices. As popularity grows in the United States, it’s easier to find clear and helpful reviews of the best products.
Here are three popular Japanese sunscreens, trialed and suggested by Reddit users of the r/AsianBeauty forum:
Bioré Sarasara Aqua Rich Watery Essence
UVA protection: SPF 50, PA ++++*
Review consensus: It feels like a light lotion, though it dries quickly, and offers all-day protection without residue.
Cost: $9.11 for 50 g on Amazon
Hada Labo UV Creamy Gel
UVA protection: SPF 50, PA+++
Review consensus: It absorbs quickly and doesn’t lend a white hue to the skin, making it ideal for people with darker skin tones or those who want to apply makeup over their sunblock.
Cost: $8.42 for 50 g on Amazon
Missha All-Around Safe Block Soft Finish Sun Milk
UVA protection: SPF 50+, PA+++
Review consensus: It’s light and easy to layer as part of a broader skincare routine, and reviewers like that it isn’t greasy or smelly like other products can be.
Cost: $18 for 70 mL on Amazon
*The + signs after PA are a Japanese marker that measures the UVA protection grade each sunscreen has. The European version of this is PPD, which can also be converted to PA. There is no standard for this measuring system, but generally the more +, the better protection the sunscreen offers.
Looking for more recommendations? Check out this sunscreen patch test showdown by beauty blogger Peeping Pomeranian. She tests eight sunscreens to see how effective they were for UV protection as well as sunburn and tanning prevention.
Caution: A few caveats about buying foreign sunscreen online
While many people love sunscreens from Asia or Europe, you should always shop carefully before buying. When shopping for sunscreen, remember:
You should read your labels carefully
Foreign products aren’t approved or tested by the FDA. While the vast majority of the ingredients in overseas sunblocks have been found safe and effective, there are a few that have raised doubts. For example, studies on rats have found that a UVB filter called 4-MBC can cause pituitary effects comparable to hypothyroidism. While you won’t get the same toxic levels the rats were exposed to, it’s still good to keep an eye out.
Counterfeit products are common
This is true even when buying from a reputable seller on Amazon. The best way to avoid getting a knock-off product is to look at the product’s rating and reviews. Past buyers can either confirm authenticity or alert you to fakes. It’s always best to buy from the sunscreen company directly, although they may take longer to deliver.
Sunscreen isn’t the only way to protect against dangerous UV rays
No matter where you live in the world, staying in the shade, putting on a light layer of clothing, and wearing a hat are all effective ways to block UV rays.
It’s never too late to start using sunscreen and prevent aging. But if you already have a burn (possibly due to not-so-great sunscreen), you may want to check out these home remedies.
Sarah Aswell is a freelance writer who lives in Missoula, Montana with her husband and two daughters. Her writing has appeared in publications that include The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, and Reductress.