Top Favorite Japanese PA++++ Sunscreens

“Apart from genes and healthy lifestyle, nothing will make as much difference in the way your skin looks as sun protection.” These words come from my mom’s dermatologist in Kyiv, a woman in her late seventies who had the most beautiful skin I’d seen. It had all the natural signs of age, but it was smooth, even toned and glowed like the inside of a seashell. At the time sun worship was a religion, so her advice seemed outlandish. Nevertheless, so impressed was I that I decided to follow it.

My mom’s friend would have loved visiting Japan, where the skincare wisdom is based on daily sun protection. Parasols on a sunny day outnumber umbrellas on a rainy afternoon. Unlike in the US or Europe, where a tube of sunscreen comes out only for seaside vacations, women (and men) use sun protection every day. Which means that the expectations from the skincare brands are high. Not only are the sunscreens more cosmetically elegant, with finishes that make skin look healthy and smooth, but they also offer excellent protection against UV radiation.

For the past few years, I’ve been spending more time in Japan, so it’s been fascinating to learn of new products and try many different cosmetics. My favorite Asian sunscreens still remain the ones formulated for the Japanese market. They tend to have soft, matte finishes and wonderful, light textures. Many products contain alcohol, since it not only makes for an easier formulation, but also because it gives a cooling effect on a sweltering Japanese summer day. I avoid it. My combination skin is prone to dehydration, and I avoid anything with alcohol. The only exception on my list is Shiseido SENKA Mineral Water UV Essence, because the alcohol in that formula doesn’t bother me.

Japanese sunscreens have a rating system that is different from that used in the US and EU. Without going into too much detail, I’ll just point out that if you want a sunscreen with the highest protection factor, look out for the PA with 4 plus signs following it: PA ++++. The SPF ranking doesn’t matter as much, but at PA++++, it’s typically 50 and above. I don’t see any reason to go higher, since a sunblock with SPF 100 doesn’t give you twice as much protection as SPF 50.

I don’t have a preference between chemical or physical blockers. Chemical sunscreen ingredients act by absorbing UV rays. Physical sunscreen ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide reflect or scatter UV rays. Some of my favorites like Sunplay are a mixture of the two; others like Shiseido SENKA Mineral Water UV Essence are chemical.

Sunscreen is most effective when it’s applied as the last step of your skincare routine, which I’ve described in A Guide to Skincare Layering. Also, since many sunscreens are sweat and water resistant, you have to do a double cleanse to remove them. Since I’ve done it on a bus with no running water in sight, I know that it’s even easier and faster in the comfort of one’s home. Take a look at My Skincare Routine to see how I do it.

I have already written about my sunscreen philosophy and gave a sampling of my favorite products, so this article is more a closer look at the Japanese brands. Below is my recap of the top favorites.

Rohto Mentholatum Sunplay Super Block SPF50+ PA++++

Active ingredients: Zinc Oxide, Titanium Dioxide, Octinoxate, Uvinul A Plus

I’ve been using Sunplay for the past four years, and it’s still one of my top favorites. It’s a thin white liquid that applies easily and leaves a matte finish. Since the UV filters are a mixture of chemical and physical like Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, it will leave a white cast if your skin tone is anything darker than light olive. That’s just the nature of physical blockers. But if the white cast is not a problem, it’s an excellent sunscreen with full spectrum protection.

Sunplay was reformulated in 2013, but if you’re looking for it on Ebay, you might still come across the old stock. Please take a careful look at my photo before you buy. This is the bottle you want. Anything else will be the old formula, full of alcohol.

Dr. Ci:Labo UV & WHITE Moisture Milk SPF50+ PA++++

Active ingredients: Octinoxate, Octisalate, Zinc Oxide, Ensulizole, Univul A Plus, Uvinul T150, Tinosorb S.

This is my second favorite sunscreen. The texture is light and delicate, and the finish is matte with a hint of satiny glow. Even on my combination skin, it doesn’t turn shiny. The formula is packed with hydrating ingredients and after I remove it in the evening, I notice how smooth my skin feels.

Isehan Sunkiller Perfect Strong Moisture SPF50+ PA++++

Active ingredients: Octinoxate, Octocrylene, Uvinul A Plus

Another sunscreen that’s perfect for those with normal and normal-dry skin. It looks like thin gel and applies without leaving a visible finish. On my skin it can on occasion be too shiny, but if used under powder, this sunscreen is still very elegant. It’s hydrating, however, and that’s the reason I save it for colder months.

Shiseido SENKA Mineral Water UV Essence SPF50+ PA++++

Active ingredients: Octinoxate, Parsol SLX, Octocrynele, Tinosorb S, Avobenzone, Uvinul A Plus.

In my photos it’s the dark yellow tube.  The sunscreen has an elegant serum-like consistency and absorbs instantly. It doesn’t leave my skin shiny, although the finish is not exactly powder-matte. It contains a little bit of alcohol, but because it’s formulated with hyaluronic acid, it’s also hydrating.

L’Oréal UV Perfect Advanced 12H UV Protector SPF50+ PA++++

Active ingredients: Mexoryl SX/XL (terephthalylidene dicamphor sulfonic acid, Drometrizole trisiloxane), Titanium Dioxide

This sunscreen isn’t Japanese, but it’s made for the Asian market, and I’ve added it as an option for dry skin. It contains no alcohol (but unlike other sunscreens on my list, it’s fragranced). Applying it is a pleasure, because it’s creamy and light. On dry skin, the finish is satiny, with a delicate glow that makes people give you compliments. On my combination skin, it’s simply shiny. I only use it in the winter, when my skin needs heavier products.

It’s also available in a tinted version, which can replace a light-weight foundation.

Where to find Japanese sunscreens

When I first started using them, I had to beg my friends to send my packages. These days, I usually buy them from Ebay and Amazon. There are many reliable sellers based in Japan. None of the sunscreens I mentioned are more expensive than $10-16 per bottle.

If you need more information on Japanese sunscreens and skincare in general, the best website is Ratzilla. It features reviews, explanations, and annual roundups of the best products.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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60 Comments

  • Austenfan: Interesting post and nice to see some more new options. I googled the Dr.Ci but it seems a bit more expensive than the others. I’ll put in on a search and see what crops up; thanks for some new options. August 11, 2017 at 7:37am Reply

    • Victoria: That one comes and goes, so I’d also put it on a search. I think you will like it a lot, especially if you’re using Sunkiller (if I remember correctly).

      Have you been able to find ISDIN sunscreen again? August 11, 2017 at 9:02am Reply

      • Austenfan: I really like Sunkiller Perfect Strong Moisture in summer, I find it too drying in winter however. When I ordered my ISDIN I got two bottles so I’m good for a while especially as I rotate with different French brands. The ISDIN is very nice in summer as well, as it leaves a nice finish. The parapharmacie that I told you about offers them at the lowest price point.
        Have you ever tried the Kanebo Allie extra moisture? Ratzilla was quite positive about it. And I missed Bioré in your list, I seem to remember that you liked that one a lot as well. August 11, 2017 at 11:04am Reply

        • Victoria: I didn’t mention Bioré this time, because I found that on hot, humid days it doesn’t stay on as well. It lost in my rankings. 🙂 August 11, 2017 at 12:25pm Reply

          • Austenfan: I’m always glad to receive an answer to all my inquisitive questions 😉 August 11, 2017 at 12:28pm Reply

            • Victoria: Ah, I forgot about Kanebo Allie. It’s another excellent sunscreen, but maybe a bit too shiny for the summer for me. August 11, 2017 at 12:31pm Reply

              • Austenfan: Thanks I think I will try it at some point. August 11, 2017 at 4:50pm Reply

                • Victoria: Another sunscreen that gets lots of consumer choice awards in Japan is Anessa. I forget the full name off the top of my head, but it’s in a golden bottle. It’s excellent, but I can’t use it daily, because it contains alcohol. The finish is matte and perfect, though. August 11, 2017 at 4:59pm Reply

                  • Victoria: Decided not to be lazy and look it up:
                    Shiseido Anessa Perfect UV Sunscreen EX N SPF50+PA++++

                    Apparently, they released an alcohol-free version this year, so I’ll have to try it. August 11, 2017 at 5:02pm Reply

                    • Austenfan: Thank you! August 12, 2017 at 6:54am

                    • Sandra: I use Anessa, in the gold packaging. I use the “mild” formula for sensitive skin August 14, 2017 at 8:07pm

      • Nick: Speaking of ISDIN, it is difficult to find it here in Switzerland. I think the texture and efficacy are as good as many Japanese sunscreens. When I run out of Anessa, I will try to get the FusionWater one from ISDIN. August 11, 2017 at 1:17pm Reply

        • Victoria: I’m wearing it today! Yes, it’s the only EU sunscreen I’ve found that’s comparable to the Japanese brands in texture and finish. I’m curious about the new Avene range, too. August 11, 2017 at 1:43pm Reply

          • Austenfan: The Avène is much easier to apply than it used to be, but still quite different from the Japanese sunscreens. You might want to try SoleilBiafine as well. It’s scented but that disappears very quickly. August 11, 2017 at 1:50pm Reply

            • Victoria: The texture is thicker, so you still have the feel of something left on your skin, whereas few of the Japanese sunscreen are like that. August 11, 2017 at 4:43pm Reply

              • Austenfan: Yep, true, the Biafine however leaves my skin feeling more like it feels after applying a Japanese sunscreen (or Isdin), the Avène does not, but it does not leave my face shiny. Mind you I have very dry skin, so I can get away with thicker textures. August 11, 2017 at 4:50pm Reply

                • Victoria: For instance, Clarins sunscreens for face are popular among people with dry skin, and they’re mentioned in every magazine around here. They make me look like I’ve buttered my face. Yeah. August 11, 2017 at 4:57pm Reply

            • Nick: Avène sounds interesting and not too pricey. Not sure if the fact that they incorporate their spring water into their sunscreen helps with any soothing. I did some journal search and found pit that the ion composition of their water has anti-inflammatory effect on skin cells in vitro, so they could be really onto something. August 11, 2017 at 6:22pm Reply

              • Victoria: I use their body sunscreen, and it does feel very good. August 12, 2017 at 3:38am Reply

                • Mariann: I wish I could love it but it made me feel sticky. I am still on the hunt for a good body one, keep going back to Nivea. August 12, 2017 at 6:45am Reply

                  • Victoria: It does feel a bit sticky, but I use it when I go running, so it doesn’t matter that much. August 12, 2017 at 6:52am Reply

              • Austenfan: I take those spring water claims with large mountains of salt, but I’ve used a number of their products over the past years and I’m generally quite happy with their products. They have some really nice face creams and lip balms. August 12, 2017 at 7:13am Reply

                • Nick: Yes, ultimately with a (huge) grain of salt. Whilst they are proven results, they were conducted in vitro. Everything must have been very reductive: they tested on only one cell type, despite the complexity of the human skin, under one growth temperature and at a near constant pH of the growth medium. Therefore, one can never be sure of the performance under real-life conditions. We scientists love to use the word ‘suggest’ or ‘potential’ to describe our results — it leaves a leeway for argument 🙂 August 12, 2017 at 4:42pm Reply

  • Awfulknitter: I’ve gotten a bit jaded with trying new sunscreens. I’ve been wanting a more budget-friendly one than the Paula’s Choice Resist Anti-Aging Moisturiser SPF 50, which I think is excellent (super-light, no white cast, no fragrance), but still, the price! The UK does not offer many good budget options with high protection and no fragrance – I’ve been experimenting with baby sunscreens, but so far they’ve all fallen into the trap of having white casts and/or heavy textures. I’m trying to use them all up on places other than my face.

    The Isehan Sunkiller sounds like it might be a good one to try – I can’t believe how cheap it is, even when being sent from Japan! August 11, 2017 at 9:01am Reply

    • Victoria: The competition among skincare brands in Japan is very high, so you have more budget-friendly options. And people really do use sunscreen every day and reapply, which is why sunscreens come in small, 30ml bottles that are easy to tuck into your purse or even pocket. August 11, 2017 at 9:20am Reply

      • Awfulknitter: I noticed the weeny bottle size, and I was wondering about that!

        There’s quite a lot of competition in the UK it seems, but mostly for holiday sunscreens: huge bottles to throw in a bag and take to the beach to slather over the whole family. August 11, 2017 at 5:34pm Reply

        • Victoria: It’s the same in Belgium. Most of the sunscreens you find are in huge bottles. The pharmacies, of course, have more of an interesting selection, but as I mentioned to Nick and Austenfan, with few exceptions, the texture and finish are just not cosmetically appealing. August 12, 2017 at 3:32am Reply

  • Steve L.: Helpful. All unscented? I’m not familiar with any of these but the thing I’ve noticed about the few Japanese products I’ve seen is that expiration dates are, frustratingly, expressed in code. (From the descriptions the Dr.Ci is the one that caught my attention, too.) August 11, 2017 at 9:02am Reply

    • Victoria: All are unscented apart from the L’Oreal one, which has a floral scent.

      On some of my bottles the expiration dates are written simply, month followed by year. It also depends on the brand, I suppose. August 11, 2017 at 9:23am Reply

  • sandra: Any of these good to layer on top of makeup? August 11, 2017 at 9:17am Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t use foundation, so I haven’t experimented myself. But my friends who use foundation say that Isehan Sunkiller and Shiseido Essence layer well. I don’t think Sunplay would layer well makeup, since it has physical filters and those are heavier in texture. Another comment from my foundation and sunscreen-wearing friends is that the alcohol-containing Japanese sunscreens are easier to layer over makeup. August 11, 2017 at 9:25am Reply

      • Sandra: Switching continents, I am headed to Paris next week, any European sunscreens I should try? August 11, 2017 at 2:48pm Reply

    • Judy: This was a very exciting and informative post, thank you. I am a fanatic about sun protection. I live in Manhattan, and I use a parasol in the extreme heat, and hats year round.
      I’m looking forward to a trip to Japan and want to buy a WAKAO SUNSHADE there.
      I have been using only products with MEXYROL, Anthelios, but now will check out your suggestions. August 11, 2017 at 11:17am Reply

      • Victoria: Oh, you’ll enjoy Japan, since the selection of sunscreens even at an average beauty store is huge. Plus, there are all sorts of fun sun accessories. August 11, 2017 at 12:29pm Reply

      • Sandra: I also live in NYC, I am wondering if you could share your city sunscreen choices? August 11, 2017 at 12:47pm Reply

        • Judy: Every morning: EUCERIN #30 facial lotion
          In summer : La Roche Posey spf 50 Fluid
          with MEXYROL
          Also any of their tubes of sunscreen for the body.
          Purchase at discount FRENCH CANADIAN SITE phamix.com
          This is only place u can buy type with MEXYROL unless u go to Europe, where by the way it is very cheap.
          I also use regular Neutrogena Dry Touch HIGH
          and their solid body stick to throw into my bag. August 14, 2017 at 2:52pm Reply

        • Sandra: Thank you Judy! I will put the LaRP one on my list since I will be traveling to Europe soon.

          I emailed Victoria some places in the city that sell sunscreen. It is cheaper online, but if you don’t want to wait. They don’t sell all she listed, but you can try some out in the store.

          My favorite Asian ones are Gold Anessa Perfect UV Aqua Booster Mild Type, Rohto Hada Labo Perfect UV Gel SPF 50+ PA++++ and not Japanese but a Korean brand Cosrx Aloe Soothing Sun Cream SPF 50 August 15, 2017 at 11:31am Reply

  • Allison: I’d love recommendations for super waterproof sunscreens. As surfer I need a sunscreen that really stays on when wet, but I don;t like to use things like Bullfrog on my face. I have tried the Shiseido wet force ones and they stay on, but I hear they are more for not getting burned than for skin protection. August 11, 2017 at 11:44am Reply

    • Victoria: Sunplay would be my pick. I used it last summer when I was doing white water rafting, and I was the only person in my team who wasn’t burned. Sunplay also exist in a version with SPF 100 especially for sports, but that formula contains alcohol and it’s much heavier. August 11, 2017 at 12:28pm Reply

  • Nick: I once worked temporarily for BASF and they had some chemists and dermatologists telling us about their sunscreen actives. They unanimously recommended using a UVA/UVB sunscreen everyday, regardless of the weather. I was also taught that UVA is responsible for most signs of ageing and UVB is the culprit for pigmentation and sun burn — the mnemonic ‘A for ageing; B for burn’ is handy. Here is an interesting case of a driver exposed on one side to UV rays: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMicm1104059#t=article

    After this, I make it a point to layer an inexpensive sunscreen under a simple Nivea moisturiser every day. It works wonders! August 11, 2017 at 1:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a nifty mnemonic, thanks! Which sunscreens do you like, Nick? August 11, 2017 at 1:42pm Reply

      • Nick: The geeky interest in formulation helps.

        My favourite are the golden Anessa SPF50+ PA+++ and ISDIN Fotoprotector FusionWater SPF50+/UVA. These are my staples for face.
        For body, I use sunscreen only when I am outside in summer — a little lazy — and I use ISDIN Fotoprotector Gel Cream. Previously, I used Shiseido because it was the only thing closest to that texture available in EU. Of course, it was high on physical block i.e. zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and would leave a bit of a white cast. Needless to say that the price is not carrot enough, especially when compared to ISDIN’s and Anessa’s.

        I wonder why such texture and performance are not so readily available in the EU? All I seem to find are the heavy ones. August 11, 2017 at 6:14pm Reply

        • Victoria: And the same companies make great sunscreens for the Asian market!
          I think that there is less demand, although it’s changing. If you don’t use sunscreen daily, then it doesn’t really matter if it’s shiny or feels heavy. So, I completely understand when people feel like it’s a punishing extra step of their skincare. Which is why discovering Japanese sunscreens can be such a revelation. They don’t just protect skin, they actually make it look good while you’re wearing them. August 12, 2017 at 3:38am Reply

          • Nick: Exactly! I just wish that the market here would discover the holy grail that is Japanese sunscreen. For me, the punishing extra steps are toners or sera, but your description of The Ordinary Vitamin C sounds convincing enough for me to give this punishing extra step a try. Oh, and the incredible price, too. August 12, 2017 at 6:52am Reply

            • kayliz: If it suits your skin, it’s well worth it:) August 13, 2017 at 12:59am Reply

    • Austen: Thanks for that link. Another example of why a patients history is such a major part of your diagnosis. September 3, 2017 at 6:52am Reply

  • Wilma: Thanks Victoria for this interesting post. I am hesitant however about using sunscreens with Octinoxate. Octinoxate is approved in the EU and US, but it has been shown as an endocrine disruptor in animals. As it is not only used in sunscreens but also in cosmetic products there is a potential danger of building up higher levels.
    http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/octinoxate/ August 11, 2017 at 1:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: I don’t want to sidetrack the discussion, but I will just say this. I find the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics biased and more fear mongering than driven by the spirit of scientific inquiry, just like its parent EWG. The research I’ve seen reassures me enough not to be concerned about this ingredient. Of course, everyone can choose the products based on their own needs and likes. August 11, 2017 at 1:41pm Reply

      • Victoria: But I have no interest to engage in further arguments on this subject. I list ingredients so that people can research and make their own decisions, be it skincare or perfume. August 11, 2017 at 4:32pm Reply

  • Mariann: My face hates sunscreen. The only one that doesnt make me feel like an oily mess is La Roche Anthelios Dry Touch or whatever its called :). I think Ive seen Biore here in Chile and may try it out. August 12, 2017 at 6:48am Reply

    • Victoria: You should try one of these Japanese brands. They’re so superior to the sunscreens you can find anywhere else that they’re in a category of their own. August 12, 2017 at 6:51am Reply

      • Mariann: Thanks will do! August 12, 2017 at 6:39pm Reply

  • Danaki: Thank you Victoria for the very helpful post. I am a recent convert to Japanese sunscreen and I’m using SENKA too. I finished my Isdin FusionWater. For me, I found the Isdin better for summer and Senka great for winter. I’m going to have to restock both soon.
    I also use LRP Ultra Light Non-perfumed when I’m doing the gardening and so less concerned about the shininess (I find it the slickest). I save my Isdin/Senka for my more made up face.
    I bought the Biore one based on your earlier blog, and also Etude House Sunprise which is completely mineral. I’m yet to crack open the dinky bottles and give them a go. August 14, 2017 at 10:10am Reply

  • hajusuuri: Victoria, Have you tried La Mer Sumscreen? It is pricey but works well under liquid foundation (drugstore brand)? What do you think of using Clinique Blend it Yourself drops to sunscreen to even out skin tone and using it over a regular moisturizers? Here’s a link to the Clinique product:
    https://www.clinique.com/product/1599/45511/makeup/foundations/clinique-biy-blend-it-yourself-pigment-drops August 14, 2017 at 8:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m sorry for replying so late. I tried La Mer, and I wasn’t impressed. Too costly and the finish is nowhere near the finesses of the Japanese drugstore brands.

      Clinique’s is a good idea, but I’m curious to see how it wears on skin and whether the tint holds without changing. September 3, 2017 at 6:57am Reply

  • kpaint: I started using Sunkiller Perfect Strong Moisture last summer and absolutely love it. I only use sunscreen from late spring-late summer (the UV index where I live rarely breaks 1 the rest of the year) and was so pleasantly surprised when I started using it again this spring. I’d forgotten what a lovely texture it has. It makes a great last-step product and I briefly considered using it year-round just as a skincare product. I would take issue with your description of it as a “thin gel,” though. Thin gel makes me think clear and bouncy. I’d describe it as a lotion-y serum.

    I’m in my mid-40s with “normal” skin that needs lots of hydration thanks to the aging process. I appreciate the moisture I get from this sunscreen and love the dewy glow it leaves. (I avoid matte like the plague.) It also works beautifully under all of my (water-based) foundations.

    Previously I’d been using Supergoop City Serum, which I also really liked but it pilled under foundation. Prior to that, I was using La Roche Posay Anthelios and the Vichy knock-off of that product, both of which were very nice.

    I live in the US and stopped using drugstore-brand sunscreens years ago since they’re so ineffective, and give no aesthetic consideration to the end-user. So-called natural brands are even worse.

    I’ve been buying Sunkiller at beautius.com (a Hong Kong-based store I shop a lot at) but also stocked up when I found it on ebay at a good price. August 15, 2017 at 2:12pm Reply

  • Guido: Hi Victoria! Such an amazing post!
    I ordered the Sunplay and I loved it! Thanks!
    Other favorites are Anessa gold package and Biore’ watery essence but Sunplay is nice when I don’t want any alcohol!
    I also ordered the Sunkiller Perfect strong moisture!
    I read your blog since 2007 and I love your skincare posts!
    Greetings from Amsterdam August 22, 2017 at 4:22am Reply

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