The great myth of sunscreen, or why UVA is ruining your life

I’ve been thinking about sunscreen a lot lately. This started when my co-worker Cynthia wrote a feature on sunscreens and how they work – or, more appropriately, why they don’t work. She worked with a friend I referred her to who many of you know from the kbeauty community, cosmetic chemist Stephen Ko. As those of you who know him are already aware of, Stephen has a wealth of information to share that is not generally available to the public.

Then yesterday, in a conversation on a skincare-focused Facebook group I am a member of, the discussion of sunscreen came up again as related to hyperpigmentation problems. In addition to freckles, I have several large spots on my forehead that are clearly sun damage. I can cover them with foundation, but what I really want is for them to go away. After all, I wear sunscreen daily and reapply regularly, so why am I getting them in the first place?

Ugh. Do not want.
Stephen kindly weighed in on the matter, teaching me something I did not know:

“Based on the placement of the hyperpigmentation (forehead, bridge of nose, cheeks…basically where people put highlighter) I would say this is likely from UVA exposure! This is where I got mine as well, until I switched to sunscreens with 3rd gen sunscreens with proper UVA sunscreen – which means ones that aren’t made in the USA. Even Mexico has way better sunscreens!”

So, first key (disturbing) info to take away: The majority of U.S. sunscreens are NOT protecting you from sun damage.

I’ve never enjoyed the thick, sticky feel of sunscreens in the U.S. which is why I switched to Japanese and Korean products. In them I found magical items like Biore’s UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence and Goodal’s Mild Essence Protect Essence. They feel nothing like sunscreen (more like Korean essences) so I fell in love with their texture and scent. But as I also learned thanks to Stephen’s knowledge of the science behind these products, those may not be protecting me either. From more of his comments:

“Asian sunscreens (imported from Asia) are a decent bet too, but honestly the PA system compresses the UVAPF into something that isn’t very useful. UVAPF 50 and UVAPF 20 for example both get a rating of PA++++.”

The PA system, by the way, is how the Japanese convert a standard UVA score from a PPD test into their version of UVA measurement for sunscreens. As Stephen has kindly indicated above, it is not an accurate system. In the U.S. we’ve been educated to look for SPF numbers as proof of protection. For instance, prior to this conversation I always purchased SPF 50 or higher because I am fair. The higher the SPF, the more protection I get, right? Not exactly. Many sunscreens protect your skin from UVA, which are the sun’s shortwave ultraviolet waves. However, the Skin Cancer Foundation announced in 2013 that UVB, the  sun’s longwave ultraviolet waves, was starting to become a source of concern in regards to sun damage as well.

To give a little bit more info on this so you understand why exactly UVA is a problem: It plays a key role in the development of skin cancer. All this information may seem like a hassle to deal with, but if you care about your health and life, it’s worth it to learn about it so you can get a sunscreen that is truly protecting your skin.

Now (unfortunately) it gets more complicated. In order to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB, you may think you want to look for products that advertise “broad spectrum” or “multi spectrum” protection. These also should contain specific UVB screening ingredients such as stabilized a avobenzone, ecamsule (a.k.a. MexorylTM), oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide. However, one issue with this is that these two terms do not do much to explain how much protection one is getting from UVA, so for instance it is possible to use a 100 SPF product that is labeled broad spectrum but has a small amount of UVA protection, so you can still burn or end up with hyperpigmentation.

In case you’re indignant at this point (and I was), the reason for this issue in the U.S. is that the FDA has not published a Final Rule for SPF labeling or UVA protection labeling. That’s the reason why there’s some haziness. However, in Europe things differ. The European Cosmetics Association (Colipa) has since published a Guideline for in vitro measurements of the UVAPF/SPF and critical wavelength. In short, when you purchase a European sunscreen you are able to get a clear idea of the protection from both UVA and UVB exposure, clearly indicated on the label!

So at this point you’re probably thinking, cool, I’m going to import all my sunscreen from Europe from now on (or, you’re frustrated and you’ve already hurled your laptop across the room). That’s a bit tricky to do, as they’re sort of tough to find. Stephen recommended eChemist as a good retailer to purchase from, and a few of the brands he recommended include Ombrelle Complete Kids, Bioderma, La Roche Posay, and Nivea and Garnier from Europe.  I’ve ordered the La Roche Posay to try out, thanks to Stephen’s kind information. Here’s to hoping that if I am using a product that filters both UVA/UVB adequately, these sunspots will fade and I can stop wasting my money on products that are not doing their job.

Just a reminder that I am NOT A SCIENTIST and that I am learning all this from someone else. It’s all a learning process, but here’s to hoping my skin is free from sun damage in the near future!





8 Comments Add yours

  1. Soh says:

    Amazing write up, I think about these things a lot. I’ve been getting a lot of information from tons of different places, especially explaining even if we get the right stuff, we’re still probably not applying enough. I hope this information stops me from having to deal with those hyperpigmentation effects on my head too!


  2. choronghi says:

    So what sunsceewn do you use now


    1. colettebennett says:

      I just ordered the La Roche Posay from a European eBay seller to try it out! I’m using the Biore UV Watery Essence from Japan in the meantime.


  3. choronghi says:

    Application is so important too. Lately ive seen so many YouTube videos with poor application technique and improper amount of sunscreen. I especially irritated at the people who put 2 dots on their cheeks and then spreads that all over their face… I’m like wtf .

    From what I’ve seen on japanese tv the best way to get an even application is to put a dot on your forehead, checks, nose provided you use enough sunscreen. I also go out of my way to apply more dots on my forehead and sides of my face etc before I do any blending or tapping etc. also I hear the most effective way to apply chenical sunscreen is to apply sunscreen then apply again 30 minutes later then go out( that’s a lot of planning in advance)


    1. colettebennett says:

      It is but I think it’s worth it not to burn. I’m also learning to wear hats a lot more!


  4. j0eie says:

    Hi Colette,
    Found your site to be packed with info and very relatable. In searching for Asian skincare basics, I have read through page after page of blogs that have great tips, routines and reviews… but the majority of the writers are in their 20s! Not that there is anything wrong… but for those of us in our 30s (or +), it’s really nice to find someone who is on this Asian skincare journey who is a bit older (in a good way!).

    l think I recognized it the most when I read your post about how you were using products from Etude House and the Korean cosmetics lady at the shop told you it wasn’t for “mature” skin ;). There are so many brands out there, and I wonder if you’ve had experience with certain brands being a bit “younger” and therefore would affect how it reacts to your skin? I’ve read a few blogs about age appropriate skincare products (for ex. Sulwhasoo vs Innisfree or IOPE is supposedly more for 30s+ vs LaNeige more for 20+?)

    Thanks for your work!


    1. colettebennett says:

      Hi Jo! Thank you so much for your kind words and for spending time reading the site. I am so happy that something I did can be of use to others. I agree with you — it’s also nice to find bloggers in your age range when it comes to this topic. Most of the ones I follow are in their 30s as well. Now to answer your question…to my surprise, many of the “younger” brands are surprisingly effective for me. However, I tend to be open-minded and try anything that appeals to me. I find these days the lines that I enjoy the most are Hada Labo (Japan), IOPE, Missha, Laneige and Goodal. I’d say these lines all offer a lot for women in their 30’s. The pricing isn’t crazy high (but Sulwahsoo is there, if you want it!) and the ingredient lists are solid. For instance, my current Laneige moisturizer is $37. I find that pretty reasonable. Several of my other key products are much less, like the Hada Labo Premium Lotion which is typically $10 or less and lasts for a year with daily use. I think one of the doors that kbeauty opened for me is the interest in mixing and matching products. And not all lines make everything perfectly! So my mixing it up, I found I have really enjoyed a lot of what most of the lines out there have to offer. Even Etude House has gotten smart with lines like Moistfull, which is aimed at collagen replenishment for 30s and up! I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions! 😀


  5. choronghi says:

    here’s the video on application that i finally shared


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