It’s time to face the facts: We’re smack in the middle of Japan’s hottest season. The Japan Meteorological Agency expects the average daily temperature for the Kanto region from July to September will get as high as last year’s (26 degrees Celsius), if not more.
Whenever you go outside, it’s important to protect yourself from the sun. Of all the tools at our disposal — air conditioner, electronic fan, straw hat and konbini ice cream — the one you absolutely must break out for ultraviolet protection is sunscreen. But Japan has a variety of formulas and brands, and it can be tricky to know which one to use. Our in-depth guide will help you find the best option to keep your skin safe.
Know your labels
As you consider your options, the most important thing to consider when choosing a sunscreen is the level of protection it provides. On Japanese sunscreen bottles, this is usually indicated by SPF and PA. SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” which protects your skin from damaging UVB rays. The number of SPF indicates how long it would take the sun to redden your skin (when using the product as directed), compared to no sunscreen. So if you use a sunscreen with SPF 30 correctly, for example, it will take your skin 30 times longer to burn than if you used nothing at all. But even if you use a sunscreen with a high SPF, you still need to reapply every few hours.
PA, on the other hand, refers to the “protection grade” of UVA rays. While UVB causes your skin to burn, UVA penetrates deep into the skin, resulting in skin aging and risk of skin cancer. PA is rated from minimum + to max ++++. More + marks indicate higher protection.
In addition, sunscreen varies depending by type, such as gel, milk and cream. The gel and milk types are liquidy and generally easy to spread, while the cream-type is relatively thicker.
According to Amazon Japan’s sales rankings, Kao’s Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Gel (from around ¥798 on Amazon, 50g) takes first place. It’s a lightweight, water-based moisturising sunscreen that easily absorbs into the skin — suitable for both face and body — and you don’t need much for full coverage. Nivea UV Water Gel (from ¥727 for 140g on Amazon), also from Kao, is another fan-favorite. Having to only give the nozzle one push, it’s easy to include in your busy morning routine.
Another recommendation is the cream-type Allie Sunny Apricot (from around ¥1,980 on Rakuten, 60g) from Kanebo Cosmetic. This face sunscreen has a skin tone correcting-effect, which leaves your skin firm and vibrant.
If you play sports or plan to spend any time at the beach this summer, Anessa Perfect UV Skin Care Milk (¥3,300, 60g) from Shiseido will protect your skin from the sun (if not from sharks). Seemingly plain, the milky liquid has a unique feature: Its UV protection is strengthened by exposure to heat, water and sweat. Sold since 1992, it’s one of the more well-known products on the skin-care market and has stood the test of time.
A newer option is Jellys Guard (¥2,640, 50g). As the product’s name suggests, this waterproof, reef-safe sunscreen prevents you from getting stung by jellyfish, which historically swarm beaches after mid-August and mark the end of the swimming season. It was developed by high school students in Ehime Prefecture in collaboration with ABS Co. Ltd., and has made a splash on the market since 2019.
Sunscreen for kids and sensitive skin
For those who prefer the toxic-free products, Fancl is a well-trusted brand. Since 1981, Fancl has been selling products with no artificial coloring, fragrances and preservatives. Its Sensitive Skin Care Sunguard (¥1,980, 30g) was designed for people who have dry skin. The milky cream delivers high hydration for both face and body, and is safe to apply even for six-month-old babies.
Isehan also offers stress-free sunscreen with its Kiss Me Mommy! UV Mild Gel (¥990, 100g), which is approved for children ages 1 and up. It’s uniquely plant-based and includes extracts from acerola, aloe and raspberries, which can be easily washed off after a day of play with just soap.
While sunscreen is an essential item for outdoor or water activities (like swimming), the toxic chemicals contained in some sunscreens threaten marine life. In 2020, Palau became the first country to ban any sunscreen that contains one (or more) of 10 harmful ingredients, including oxybenzone and octinoxate. Hawaii followed suit, and the state’s law came into effect this year. Japan, on the other hand, hasn’t made a move yet, but some cosmetics companies have been taking steps of their own.
GLE’s Earth & Coral Friendly UV Balm (¥2,728, 40g) is a mineral sunscreen made with zinc oxide, which won’t dissolve in seawater. Its other ingredients come from plants, including sesame, coconut and lavender flower oil, making it 100% organic. Plus, it was nominated for the Jury Prize at the Biodiversity Action Award Japan, which recognizes sustainable products, projects and organizations in the country, in 2018.
While many pharmacies primarily showcase their range of liquid-based sunscreens, it’s also possible to find everything from sunscreen sprays to wet wipes. Outdoor UV White (¥2,970, 10g) is a stick-type sunscreen that’s not only pocket-sized and portable, but its scent of peppermint and eucalyptus protects you from another common summer enemy: mosquitoes.
When you need to reapply the sunscreen after sweating, try Muji’s wet tissue Sunscreen Wipes (¥290, 12 sheets) or the sprayable Aisunon Hin’yari UV Guard (¥1,280, 60g), which wicks away sweat while providing UV protection (though for full coverage, you should still spread it over your skin with your hands). And don’t forget about protecting your hair and lips from strong sunlight, too. Try Mieufa (¥1,200, 80g) from Napula for five scented varieties of hair sunscreen, and DHC’s UV Moisture Lip Cream (¥880, 1.5g).
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