Japanese sunscreen has a lighter texture that is gentler on the skin and more moisturizing ingredients to keep your skin smooth and supple. Also, Japanese sunscreens protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays, whereas many Western sunscreen products protect only against UVB rays.
To understand why Japanese sunscreen is better, we need to step back and examine why we are using sunscreen in the first place.
Sunscreen prevents skin damage from ultraviolet (UV) rays and the formation of melanin pigmentation. UV-induced skin damage and excessive melanin production are known to cause age spots, dullness, and wrinkles over time. That’s why dermatologists recommend that sunscreen be used daily.
One way Japanese sunscreens differ from Western sunscreens is in their approach to UV protection and the way the UV protection is indicated on the product labeling.
UV Protection and Labeling of Japanese Sunscreen
The labels “SPF” and “PA,” which are commonly found on sunscreen packaging, indicate the product’s effectiveness at UV protection. While you are no doubt familiar with the SPF label, which appears on all Western sunscreen products, you might be less familiar with the PA label, which is found on Japanese sunscreens in addition to the SPF label.
There are two kinds of UV rays: A waves (UVA) and B waves (UVB). The labels SPF and PA represent the ability of the sunscreen to block each type of UV ray.
SPF, which stands for “Sun Protection Factor,” is an indicator of protection against UVB waves, which can cause blemishes, freckles, and even skin cancer. The higher the SPF number, the better the protection against UVB waves, and the longer it takes to get a red sunburn. For example, an SPF of 50 indicates that it requires 50 times more UV light to turn your skin red compared to untreated skin (with no sunscreen applied).
In Western countries, the SPF number on the sunscreen label ranges from SPF 15 to SPF 100. SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97 percent, and SPF 50 blocks 98 percent. In Japan, in contrast, SPF numbers greater than 50 are simply denoted “50+”. Japanese tourists are surprised whenever they encounter Western sunscreen products labeled as SPF 70 or even SPF 100, since in Japan the numbering stops at 50.
The label PA, which appears on Japanese sunscreen but not Western sunscreen, stands for “Protection against UVA.” UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and damage the fibroblasts that produce collagen and hyaluronic acid, which are essential to the skin’s firmness and elasticity. UVA rays cause your skin to darken, tighten, and lose luster. Spots, wrinkles, and sagging skin can be signs of overexposure to UVA rays.
Since UVA rays account for more than 90% of the ultraviolet rays that strike the Earth, if you are using a Western UVB-only sunscreen, you are leaving a significant gap in your protective armor.
PA is a four-point scale from + to ++++ that indicates how well the A-waves are blocked. The more plus signs (+) after the “PA” label, the better the protection against UVA rays. The rating system is as follows:
|PA+||Some UVA protection|
|PA++||Moderate UVA protection|
|PA+++||High UVA protection|
|PA++++||Extremely high UVA protection|
Japan started implementing the PA scoring system in 1996, and it was upgraded to include the current highest indicator of protection – or PA++++ – in 2013.
If you want make sure your Western sunscreen also protects your skin from UVA rays, look for the label “Broad Protection” or “Broad Spectrum.” These labels mean that the sunscreen offers broad protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
Cultural Differences Related to Sunscreen
Japanese and Western sunscreens are different partly due to cultural differences.
In Japan, pale skin is considered a sign of beauty and desirability, while in the United States and Europe, not so much. In Western countries, a person with pale skin looks weak or unhealthy, and a nice tan is a sign of beauty and desirability.
For this reason, many Western sunscreens do not contain ingredients for preventing pigmentation (skin darkening), which is captured by the “PA” label.
A Western SPF-only sunscreen meets the needs of Americans or Europeans who want to get a nice attractive tan while protecting their skin from the UVB rays that cause skin cancer. That’s shy some Western sunscreens only offer UVB protection, but not UVA protection.
Because Asian skin is prone to melamine activation and skin problems such as hyperpigmentation and blemishes, people of Asian ancestry who use a Western sunscreen should be sure to choose a product labeled “Broad Protection” or “Broad Spectrum” to ensure they get UVA protection.