American sunscreens lag behind Korean brands in quality. Why?

Kristin Schwab and Sarah Leeson Jul 8, 2024
Heard on:
HTML EMBED:
COPY
American sunscreens are notoriously thick and greasy. Some countries have more advanced options. Michel Porro/Getty Images)

American sunscreens lag behind Korean brands in quality. Why?

Kristin Schwab and Sarah Leeson Jul 8, 2024
Heard on:
American sunscreens are notoriously thick and greasy. Some countries have more advanced options. Michel Porro/Getty Images)
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Summers are hot and getting hotter, so it makes sense that a lot of us are stocking up on sunscreen. Globally, the sun care industry was worth more than $14 billion in 2023 and is continuing to rise.

But not all sunblock is created equal.

While Korean skincare products and cosmetics have been popular for years in the U.S., Korean sunscreen is now having its moment in the sun — and American users are noticing a big difference from the brands they have at home.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent for Vox. He joined Marketplace’s Kristin Schwab to talk about the appeal of Korean sunscreen and what’s holding American sunscreens back. An edited transcript of their conversation is below.

Kristin Schwab: So I think we’ve all experienced goopy American sunscreens that take forever to rub in. What is Korean sunscreen like?

Alex Abad-Santos: Beauty and cosmetics in South Korea are lightyears ahead of what’s happening in America. And so, in South Korea, what makes me kind of sad as an American is that they figured out how to make sunscreen kind of a joy to put on.

Schwab: A joy…?

Abad-Santos: A joy! No, no, I spoke to some experts and they were just like, “Yeah, the best sunscreen is the sunscreen you put on.” And what South Korean manufacturers have figured out is how to make sunscreen that doesn’t feel like a chore. So it, like, blends in with your skin. Like I actually, I’ve been trying out some sunscreens for my article, and I’m kind of amazed with some of them. And all the complaints we have with sunscreen, they basically found a way to kind of eliminate those complaints.

Schwab: So the flip side, I guess, of the idea that foreign markets are doing so well with sunscreen is that American sunscreen is just worse. Why are we behind everyone else?

Abad-Santos: Well, apparently it’s the government. Not to sound like a tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist, but the actualities of it are there’s something going on with our government and how it regulates sunscreen.

Schwab: Yeah, in your story, you say the FDA has not greenlit any new UV filters since 1999. I looked up a few cultural references here. That’s the year that gave us the Sega Dreamcast and Napster; that’s how far back we’re going. Why has it been so long since the FDA approved new sunscreen technology?

Abad-Santos: So, sunscreen in the States is regulated very differently than it is overseas. Because there are claims like it will reduce sunburn or it will reduce your risk of skin cancer, sunscreen is regulated like a drug. And to get it on the shelves, you have to undergo all this FDA approval. Now, the problem with that is that the FDA kind of works at a very glacial pace. And so while in Europe, in South Korea, and in parts of Asia, sunscreen is regulated like a cosmetic, you get more approval faster. And I think that is the main thing. So, when you have faster approval and faster testing, you can get more advanced chemical filters, more advanced filters, more advanced formulations on the shelves over there.

Schwab: Yeah, the last time I went to the dermatologist, he was like, “The next time you go abroad, bring a carryon for sunscreen.”

Abad-Santos: Yeah, I think what your dermatologist was saying is what I think a lot of people do now. There’s a lot of sunscreen tourism on TikTok and everything. They’re like, “I went to Korea, I came back with all this sunscreen, and it’s great.” And it’s just funny to talk about sunscreen like that because you don’t think of like sunscreen as a precious commodity. But I guess — in comparison with the rest of the world — it is kind of.

Schwab: Well, besides sunscreen tourism, are there any ways to get your hands on these foreign brands?

Abad-Santos: So, apparently, the thing that’s a little bit worrisome is that, because of the growing trend of South Korean sunscreens, people are looking on Amazon. And there’s a lot of counterfeit stuff on Amazon and a lot of third-party sellers. So you can’t really be sure that the sunscreen that you think you’re getting from Korea is actually Korean. You have to actually go to a retailer or a curator, and then hopefully that website or that seller is doing the correct things and getting you the real product. So I think anytime you go through that, there’s a little bit of a worry if you’re getting the real product.

Schwab: Is there any chance the FDA regulations in the U.S. might change in the future?

Abad-Santos:  I mean, what we had was a couple years ago was, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she actually has a couple of viral videos about wanting to introduce legislation that would speed up sunscreen advancement. But actually we haven’t really seen much yet. And like you said, it’s been years and years since the Sega Dreamcast was being used. But yeah, it’s been a very, very long time and there hasn’t really been any sign that the U.S. is speeding up its sunscreen advancement.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.