Are Korean Sunscreens Safe | Controversy, FDA-Approval and 5 Important Facts!

by Jih Yun

Korean beauty bloggers stress so much on closing up your skincare routine with Korean sunscreen. But are Korean sunscreens safe? Keep reading to find out.

If you closely follow skincare routines you know how important the application of sunscreen is to top it all off. A good sunscreen not only protects you from the sun’s harmful UV rays but also acts as a barrier that prevents reaction with the ingredients in your other skincare steps.

Until some time ago, we could close our eyes and slather our faces with one of the cult-favourite Korean sunscreens without question. Then, the Korean sunscreen controversy happened and it made us question if Korean sunscreens were in fact safe?

Are Korean Sunscreens Safe?

Korean sunscreens were generally considered safe and effective. South Korea has a well-regulated cosmetic industry, and their sunscreens are subject to rigorous testing and quality control measures. Many Korean sunscreen brands are highly regarded for their innovation and high SPF protection.

However, it’s important to note that sunscreen safety can depend on various factors, including the specific ingredients used in the product and your individual skin type or sensitivities. Some people may have allergies or sensitivities to certain sunscreen ingredients, such as chemical UV filters or fragrances, so it’s crucial to check the ingredient list and do a patch test if you have concerns.

It’s also worth mentioning that regulations and formulations can change over time, so it’s a good idea to stay updated on the latest information regarding sunscreen safety. You can consult with dermatologists or rely on credible sources like the FDA (in the United States) or local regulatory authorities in your country for guidance on sunscreen safety and effectiveness.

Additionally, some Korean sunscreens gained international attention for their claimed SPF levels not matching the actual protection they provided. In 2020, the FDA issued an alert about specific Korean sunscreen products that didn’t meet their labeled SPF levels, highlighting the importance of verifying product claims.

To ensure your safety, consider the following tips when selecting and using sunscreen:

  1. Check the SPF rating and broad-spectrum protection.
  2. Read the ingredient list and look for any known allergens.
  3. Consider your skin type and any specific concerns you have (e.g., sensitivity or acne-prone skin).
  4. Perform a patch test if you have sensitive skin.
  5. Keep an eye on product recalls or alerts issued by regulatory authorities.
  6. Follow proper sunscreen application guidelines, including applying an adequate amount and reapplying as needed.

Lastly, it’s always a good practice to consult with a dermatologist if you have any concerns about sunscreen safety or if you need personalized skincare recommendations. They can provide guidance based on your specific needs and skin type.

are korean sunscreens safe

What is the Korean sunscreen controversy?

In December 2020, INCIDecoder, a cosmetic entrepreneur decided to run some tests on the Purito Centella Unscented Sun to understand their formulation in order to create a just-as-elegant sunscreen. In a blog post published by the brand, they received the test results that revealed that the sunscreen only had an SPF 19, in contrast to their advertised levels of SPF 50.

Without being defensive, Purito initiated many in-vivo and in-vitro tests for all of its sunscreens despite the formulations having been approved by the KFDA. Not only did they stop the sales of its sunscreens, but they also provided a full refund to the sunscreens’ customers.

This brought many other Korean brands that make sunscreen with similar formulations under scrutinous eyes. Keep Cool and Dear, Klairs also took the brunt of it since they were created in the same lab.

What is the Korean sunscreen controversy?
Source: Klairs Cosmetics Website

Klairs’ Soft Airy UV Essence seemed to have a different SPF index when tested with country-specific testing methods.  Consequently, they stopped the sales of their product overseas. 

Are korean sunscreens safe
Source: Instagram @KeepCool_Global 

Keep Cool’s Soothe Bamboo Sun Essence confirmed that their claim of SPF 50 was not accurate and initiated a $25 Keep Cool voucher for all those customers who had bought the product.

Actions Taken

Naturally, as the rest of the world found out, some corrective measures had to be taken. In Australia, the sale of any Korean sunscreen was completely put a stop to. The country couldn’t take risks because of the prevailing conditions of skin cancer among its’ citizens.

Dear Klairs has stopped the global sales of its sunscreens and the Singaporean government recalled the sales of all 3 Klairs sunscreens from the market.

All of this was a true awakening, a rather emotional one that made people like me, who standby Korean beauty, shocked and angry. But time has passed now, and a lot of new information has come to light revealing the underlying truths of the safety of Korean sunscreens.

It is important that you stay completely informed before you decide to jump to a conclusion and completely write off Korean sunscreens from your everyday essentials kit. 

Regardless of the plight of Korean sunscreens, they are still by far very effective. People still prefer Korean sunscreens because of their formulations, elegance and comfort felt on the skin. A fair comparison to Western formulations of sunscreens would bring certain factors to light.

Difference between American and Korean Sunscreen:

American and Korean sunscreens can differ in several ways, including their formulation, ingredients, labeling, and regulatory standards. Here are some key differences between the two:

1. UV Filters:

   – American Sunscreens: Many sunscreens in the United States use a combination of chemical (organic) UV filters and physical (inorganic) UV filters. Common chemical UV filters include avobenzone, octisalate, and octocrylene, while physical UV filters include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

   – Korean Sunscreens: Korean sunscreens typically incorporate a variety of chemical UV filters. Korean brands are known for using advanced and photostable UV filters like Tinosorb S, Uvinul A Plus, and Uvinul T 150.

2. Texture and Finish:

   – American Sunscreens: Traditional American sunscreens often have thicker, creamier textures that can leave a white cast on the skin, especially those containing physical UV filters like zinc oxide.

   – Korean Sunscreens: Korean sunscreens are renowned for their lightweight, watery, or gel-like textures that are easier to apply and provide a more comfortable and cosmetically elegant finish.

3. Ingredients:

   – American Sunscreens: American sunscreens may contain additional ingredients like antioxidants, moisturizers, and anti-aging components, making them suitable for daily skincare routines.

   – Korean Sunscreens: Korean sunscreens often incorporate skincare ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and plant extracts, providing added benefits beyond sun protection.

4. SPF Ratings:

   – American Sunscreens: SPF ratings in the United States are measured on a scale primarily focused on UVB protection. They do not provide a comprehensive assessment of UVA protection.

   – Korean Sunscreens: Korean sunscreens often display both SPF and PA (Protection Grade of UVA) ratings, providing a more complete picture of their protection against both UVB and UVA rays.

5. Regulations:

   – American Sunscreens: In the United States, sunscreen products are regulated as over-the-counter drugs by the FDA. They must meet specific testing and labeling requirements to be sold on the market.

   – Korean Sunscreens: In South Korea, sunscreens are regulated by the Korean Food and Drug Administration (KFDA), which has its own set of regulations and standards.

6. Packaging and Marketing:

   – Korean Sunscreens: Korean sunscreens are often marketed with innovative packaging, fun branding, and unique formulations to appeal to a younger, trend-conscious demographic.

   – American Sunscreens: American sunscreens tend to focus more on clinical efficacy and are often recommended by dermatologists for their UV protection.

It’s important to note that sunscreen formulations and trends can change over time, so it’s a good idea to check the specific product details and reviews when choosing a sunscreen, regardless of its origin. Your choice of sunscreen should also consider your skin type, preferences, and any skin sensitivities or allergies you may have. Additionally, make sure to follow proper application and reapplication guidelines for effective sun protection.

What the FDA is doing about Korean Sunscreens

In the Western market, specifically in the US, sunscreens are considered a drugstore product by the FDA. While they do have to undergo testing for whether or not they are effective against UVA and UVB, they do not have to undergo the drug approval process. The reason behind this is that the sunscreen chemicals that are approved by the FDA have remained the same since 1999. They might as well have become obsolete. 

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On the other hand, in Korea, The Korean FDA (KFDA) approval process is quicker and renews from time to time, constantly adding newer formulas to make innovative sunscreens.

Inclusivity and Korean Sunscreens

Innovation is what sets Korean sunscreens apart. Because of rigorously changing formulations, the Korean sunscreens could be inclusive of the prevailing problems brought up by sun blockers such as penetration of large molecules, broad spectrum and photostability.

Not only that, sunscreens tend to leave a white cast, creating problems for women of colour to sue them without their skin looking whitish. With newer formulas and light weight solutions, 

Korean sunscreens were able to enable a solution to that as well.

Besides, a lot of the western sunscreens tend to feel chalky. Owing to their restrictions, Western companies also find it rather inexpensive to produce pasty formulations that simply feel heavy on one’s skin.

SPF and PA+++ in Korean Sunscreens: Know the importance

I mentioned broad spectrum sunscreens earlier. Broad spectrum sunscreens are used to refer to those formulations that prevent the user from both UVA and UVB rays. A little known fact as it is, the SPF in sunscreen only protects one from UVB rays. That means protection from sunburns and tanning.

The UVA rays, however, affect the skin in more ways. It results in premature ageing, wrinkling of th skin, and by penetrating beneath the epidermis, it causes irreversible damage. Being exposed to UVA rays can be prevented by using sunscreens with a PA rating. Often, you’ll come across “PA+++” that indicates its presence.

In the PA rating, you’ll find 4 grades, ranging between PA+, PA++, PA+++ and PA++++. The higher the number of plus signs, the more protection it offers from UVA rays. The Koreans have gone the extra mile to develop a sophisticated PA rating system that allows them to rate the protection from UVA rays that is not found in many Western sunscreens.

Additionally, there is a PPD system as well to tell how high or low the protection is against UVA rays. The Persistent Pigmentation Darkening system is used to indicate how long it takes for the skin to tan when it is unprotected. 

A PPD rating of 20, like that of SPF, would indicate that the skin would take 20 times more than normal speed to tan.

While the western sunscreens do use a PA rating, the Korean sunscreens used a marginally more extensive and sophisticated system to test their sunscreens. There have been faults when compared to foreign systems, but that is only because the procedures are different. From the ground up, having an SPF and a compatible AA rating is what makes a good sunscreen, and the Koreans seemed to have mastered it.

Are Korean Sunscreens Safe: FAQs

What is the Korean sunscreen scandal?

The Korean sunscreen scandal took the internet by storm when INCIDecoder discovered that Purito’s sunscreens weren’t as effective in SPF as they claimed. This brought a spotlight on other Korean sunscreens that consisted of similar formulations.
The scandal brought doubts to many Korean beauty worshippers and gave birth to many sceptics who bad-mouthed Korean beauty in general. The Korean sunscreens are still recovering from the scandal.

What is the most popular sunscreen in Korea?

Thanks to the innovative formulations of Korean sunscreens, there is one for every skin type. There are sunscreens that help acne-prone skin, ones that hydrate damaged skin and the kind that keep dryness at bay as well.
The best overall sunscreen is the COSRX Aloe Soothing Sun Cream SPF50 PA+++. It is quick absorbing, calms irritation and keeps skin hydrated.
One of the other popular sunscreens is the Etude House Soon Jung Mild Defence Sun Cream because of its budget-friendly nature. It’s non-comedogenic and won’t cause breakouts.
 This one, popular for good reason is my personal favourite. The Acwell UV Cut SPF 50+ PA++++ Mild Sun Fluid is excellent for sensitive skin. It does more than just protect the skin from the sun. It has helped calm prevailing irritation and redness on my skin. 

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Is Korean sunscreen better than American?

I stand by everything I wrote. Despite the scandals faced by the Korean sunscreen industry, they by far have managed to create all-inclusive formulations that prevent the skin from not only UVB rays but also UVA. The thing that is not that common in Western sunscreens.

Which Korean sunscreen is good for sensitive skin?

best korean sunscreen

The Suntique I’m Pure Cica Suncream, SPF 50, PA++++ is a great option. It keeps everything transparent. In fact, it also mentioned that it does leave a slight white cast, unlike other sunscreen brands.

Are Korean chemical sunscreens reef safe?

There has been a lot of debate in recent years about the safety of chemical sunscreens, specifically those made in Korea. Concerns focus on their potential to disrupt marine life and cause long-term health issues for humans.
Some organizations have called for a ban on these products, while others are recommending that people use them with caution and only when necessary.
The best thing to do is read the ingredients list carefully before using any sunscreen and talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.
To sum it up, some Korean chemical sunscreens are safe for coral reefs and others aren’t. You’ll have to check the packaging for the answer are most reef-safe products are marked as so.

How do Koreans protect their skin from the sun?

Koreans have mastered the art of skin protection, and they use a variety of methods to achieve this goal. One popular method is using sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB radiation. They also use lotions, creams, lip balms, eye drops, scrubs, bath bombs/soap bubbles/foam sticks/washcloths with sunscreen in them (to be used during or after bathing), and protective clothing such as hats, sunglasses , clothes shields for the face etc.
Additionally, Koreans avoid direct exposure to the sunlight by wearing long-sleeved tops at all times when outdoors even on cloudy days.
All this is very important to Korean people as pale white skin is very prized in their culture.

A final note about sunscreens, Korean or not

For sunscreens to be really effective, it is recommended that you choose one that is at least above SPF 30. Believe it or not, while SPF 30 provided about 97% sun protection, anything above that, even as much as SPF 50, only provides an additional 1%. Still, the higher the SPF, the more your skin can withstand when put against the sun.

Remember that sunscreens are not additive. Slathering an SPF 30 on top of SPF 20 will not make it SPF 50.  Reapplying every two hours, especially if you’re outdoors should keep you protected. 

Why You Should Trust BestKoreanProducts?

All our editors including the author of this article, Jih Yun do extensive research on the products reviewed and recommended in the article. We also use these products ourself to give you accurate, first hand information without any prejudice or bias. BestKoreanproducts has also got a team of medical reviewers and skincare experts to help give accurate advice and provide research-based facts concerning a product, its formulation or ingredients.

Also Read:

  1. Best Korean Sunscreen for acne-prone skin
  2. Best Korean Sunscreen for Dry Skin

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