Why Sunscreens Are Better Abroad
The United States is far behind Europe and Asia when it comes to formulations and filters.
With more sunscreens from Asian and European brands gaining popularity (thanks, TikTok!), you might be tempted to stock up on buzzy SPFs during your next summer vacation overseas. But before you go on a shopping spree, it’s important to understand what exactly you’re buying — and why sunscreens from Europe and Asia may feel lighter, more hydrating, and just better all around. The main reason: “There are sunscreen filters that are approved in other countries [that you] would not be able to try in the U.S.,” says Emily Philen, Murad’s senior manager of scientific affairs. That’s because in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) manages sunscreen regulations and treats them as a pharmaceutical drug, which means it’s much harder to get new filters approved (and explains why so many U.S. sunscreens still leave a white cast or feel heavy and cakey).
If you’re looking to stock up on sunscreens on your next vacation and don’t know where to start, we’ve got you. Ahead, we’re sharing a guide to how to navigate international sunscreens in some of the most popular tourist destinations below.
Understanding Sun Protection Labels
Before diving into each country’s approach to SPF, it’s important to understand how sun protection is rated. In the United States, the FDA considers two main factors in a sunscreen: first, the way it interacts with UV rays (which is denoted by if a sunscreen is referred to as physical or chemical), and second, the protection level that a sunscreen can offer (which is shown by the SPF rating).
The sun affects the skin via harmful ultraviolet rays known as A (UVA) and B (UVB). UVA are aging rays, and UVB are burning rays. A broad-spectrum sunscreen will help provide protection against both.
Chemical Vs. Physical SPF Filters
Regardless of where you’re shopping in the world, there are two types of sunscreens: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens contain filters that absorb the sun’s rays through a chemical reaction, whereas physical sunscreens create a physical block on the skin to prevent the harmful rays from penetrating. Common chemical filters in the United States include oxybenzone, octinoxate, ecamsule, octisalate, and avobenzone, while most physical sunscreens contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
The SPF System
Another important thing to consider when searching for a sunscreen is the SPF number. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and tells you how much UVB light (burning rays) a sunscreen can filter out; “Broad-Spectrum SPF” protects the skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Higher SPF values up to SPF 50 generally provide greater sunburn protection than lower SPFs, though everyone’s skin burns at a different rate. Michelle Wong, Ph.D., a cosmetic chemist and founder of Lab Muffin, explains that SPF is tested pretty much the same way around the world, which makes it the easiest factor to look for when shopping for sunscreens when abroad.
The PA & PPD Rating System
PA and PPD are SPF ratings you may notice in sunscreens sold in Asian markets like Japan and Korea. While SPF is typically used to identify a product’s UVB protection, the PA and PPD system is used to measure a product’s protection against UVA rays exclusively. The PA value is denoted by a + symbol: The higher the symbol, the higher the sun protection. Meanwhile, the PPD index ranges from 2 to 50.
Globally, there is less agreement about the best way of testing UVA protection in sunscreens. If you’re curious about the way this is measured, Wong explains that when it comes to testing, many regions use in vitro methods that involve applying the sunscreen to a special plate and measuring the UVA absorbance. “Some countries also allow clinical tests on human volunteers for UVA testing, which is the basis for PA and PPD ratings,” she says.
The UVA & Star Rating System
In the United Kingdom, sunscreens may feature a star rating system, which denotes the level of UVA protection. The more stars there are, the higher the level of UVA protection. A round circle around the letters “UVA” may also be featured in European sunscreens, which means that the UVA protection is at least a third of the SPF value and meets European Union recommendations.
One more note from Wong: “If you're going to go swimming or you’re about to do a lot of vigorous exercise, it’s a good idea to [choose] a water-resistant sunscreen.”
SPF In The United States
There has been an explosion of newer brands in the American SPF market recently, but we’re still behind when it comes to formulation and innovation. As mentioned, in the United States, sunscreen is classified as a nonprescription drug and has to undergo the same rigorous approval process as a pharmaceutical drug — which might explain why there are way more compounds that are approved for sunscreen usage abroad that aren’t available in the United States yet. For example, the EU has 34 UV filters approved for use in sunscreens, while the United States only has 16 (with no new filters approved since 1996).
According to the National Cancer Institute, most American adults do not use sunscreen regularly or are only using it to protect their face. When sunscreen is used in the United States, classic formulas like lotions, creams, and sprays (for the body) are preferred, though there has been some innovation with textures, like Vacation’s Classic Whip SPF 30, which has a whipped-cream consistency, and oils, like Supergoop’s cult-favorite Glow Oil SPF 50.
SPF in Australia & New Zealand
Australians typically favor physical and mineral-based sunscreens made with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, thanks to their high efficacy in providing sun protection. While many Australians desire a sunny glow, sunscreen is still considered a staple in beauty routines and sunscreen usage is widely encouraged. This might be because skin cancer rates in Australia are still one of the highest in the world, with Australians experiencing two to three times the rates of skin cancer versus people in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
The Australian government has some of the strictest requirements for sunscreen. All brands need to follow guidelines in the Australian Sunscreen Standard, which includes international standard (ISO) tests to determine their SPF, water resistance, and whether they are broad spectrum. (According to Wong, “Australia and the U.S. have stricter requirements for water resistance than other regions.”) Most sunscreens with an SPF 4 and above are considered a “therapeutic product” in Australia and must go through the Theraputic Goods Administration (TGA) to meet labeling and safety requirements. Australian sunscreens also feature more chemical filters like ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate that aren’t available in the United States.
SPF in Europe & The UK
European sunscreens are often considered the highest standard for their formulations and sun protection. Because European countries consider sunscreens to be a cosmetic product rather than a drug, there’s more flexibility in which active ingredients sunscreen manufacturers can use to protect against UVA rays. Across Europe, sunscreens must abide by the European Commission’s framework for cosmetics, which also outlines the testings and regulations of sunscreens.
The EU has some of the strictest efficacy and testing methods, which are implemented across many countries outside of Europe (like New Zealand and the Middle East). All SPF filters, chemical and physical, must adhere to Annex VI to the EU Cosmetics Regulation, and have to protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
French skin care brands are beloved throughout Europe because of their gentle, skin-soothing formulas — the same goes for French sunscreen, with brands like La-Roche Posay and Avène sought out as the most popular SPF brands. Though these brands are available in the United States, they’re often much cheaper in Europe or even formulated differently, which is why people stock up when traveling abroad.
SPF In China, Korea & Japan
When most people think of Korean and Japanese skin care, they often picture lightweight textures, serums, and water-like lotions — and that carries over into sun care. Many U.S. brands have adapted these formulas to their local markets, like Murad’s City Skin Age Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50 | PA++++, for example.
Sunscreens sold in countries throughout Asia are often classified as functional or therapeutic cosmetics, and each country has different regulations and strict testing. There isn’t one regulatory body in Asia, and most countries have their own testing and labeling regulations, with some countries taking the approach that sunscreens are cosmetics and others regulating them as drugs. Most Asian countries follow the PA method of measuring sun protection against UVA filters. You’ll find PA as a requirement used in Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Korean regulatory guidelines, while in India, most brands follow the lead of the EU and United Kingdom.
One thing to keep in mind: Before buying that viral Korean sunscreen you saw on TikTok, check to make sure that it’s the same formula as the one actually being sold in Korea. Some Asian sunscreen brands reformulate their products to adhere to the United States’ more-stringent SPF standards, which means the consistency, ingredients and feel will not be the same. “There’s also the risk of being unfamiliar with reputable stores in different countries, so you may be buying counterfeit products unknowingly,” warns Wong. “It’s also worth thinking about whether the sunscreen is going to go through extreme temperatures before you buy it, like if you're shipping it from overseas during summer, which can destabilize the sunscreen.”
Pirotta, Giulio. (2015). An overview of sunscreen regulations in the world. 10. 17-22.
Emily Philen, Murad’s senior manager of scientific affairs
Michelle Wong, Ph.D., cosmetic chemist and founder of Lab Muffin