Korean Sunscreen Reviews: Beauty of Joseon, Isntree, Innisfree, Mary & May

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I recently review a bunch of popular Korean sunscreens for a sponsored video, because most of you are heading into summer in the northern hemisphere. Conveniently I’m heading out of summer, so I’ve actually been trying out tons of sunscreens, and there are some really nice ones in this batch – including a few you’ve probably seen hyped up a lot on social media.

Related post: Reviewing Cult Asian Products (with video)

The video is here (I’m wearing a shirt I crocheted myself in it!), keep scrolling for the text version (sans homemade fashion).

Korean sunscreen thumbnail

I firmly believe that there’s the perfect sunscreen out there for everyone, but it is a bit of a process.

My top tips for buying sunscreens are:

  1. Check reviews from people with a similar skin type as yours. My skin is oily and dehydration-prone, and also pretty prone to clogged pores and hyperpigmentation. If your skin is similar, there’s a good chance we’ll like similar sunscreens (and skincare products in general).
  2. I really recommend writing down a list of sunscreen needs and wants, and every time you come across a sunscreen that sounds good, check against every item in that list. This is a really good way of making sure you don’t get swept up in hype, and completely forget about a dealbreaker.

If a sunscreen doesn’t work for your face, don’t forget that you can use it up on your neck, hands or body! I think us skincare nerds tend to forget about everything but the face, so it’s a good way to show some love to these poor neglected areas.

I also answered (almost) all the common questions I get about sunscreens recently, so make sure you check that out!

Related post: Answering (Almost) All Your Sunscreen Questions (with video)

Beauty of Joseon Relief Sun Rice + Probiotics

Beauty of Joseon Relief Sun Rice + Probiotics SPF 50+ PA ++++ is my favourite of the group. It has the highest ratings for SPF and UVA protection that you can get in Korea.

The SPF has been certified by 2 separate labs in Korea and Spain. Testing in two different labs in two different countries was one of the ways I recommended for getting a reliable SPF rating in my post on the SPFpocalypse of late 2020, so it’s nice to see this being done and this info being shared publicly.

Beauty of Joseon Sun Rice Probiotics

Related post: Purito Sunscreen and All About SPF Testing (with video)

It’s made by Kolmar, a big sunscreen manufacturer in Korea that has a great reputation for making effective sunscreens. In fact, all four of the sunscreens I’m talking about today are manufactured by Kolmar! They’ve become very popular post-SPFpocalypse – I think a lot of brands have become rightfully nervous about their sunscreen formulators, which makes perfect sense.

All four sunscreens are also actually approved and sold as UV protecting functional cosmetics in Korea, though not in the US or Australia.

Odile of The Monodist talks a lot about the Korean cosmetics industry. To make sure your Korean sunscreen is actually approved in Korea, she recommends checking 2 things:

  • That the term “Functional Cosmetic” (기능성 화장품) shows up on both on the tube and on the box of the sunscreen.
korean sunscreen functional cosmetic label
  • That it’s actually sold in Korea – for example, you can look up the Korean website of the brand and check that it’s available there.

All four of these tick off these boxes.

Beauty of Joseon Relief Sun Rice + Probiotics is a chemical sunscreen with newer filters, and has a very nice light texture like a hydrating gel moisturiser. It’s not greasy at all, it sinks into skin quickly and is very hydrating.

This sunscreen has very little white cast, it doesn’t show up on Glow by Ramon who has medium-ish brown skin, but it can show up on moderately darker skin tones. Even though it is a chemical (organic) sunscreen, it has MBBT in it which is an insoluble organic filter, and those solid particles can sometimes give a white cast on skin that’s on the darker side.

It has no fragrance and no alcohol if those are problems for your skin, and it’s designed to be super cosmetically elegant and works well under makeup. It’s also designed to wash off easily, which is great if you’re worried about clogged pores, but it does mean it’s not going to stay nicely spread out on your skin very well if you’re sweating or moving a lot – so keep that in mind when you use it.

The key skincare ingredient here is rice, a pretty popular ingredient in Korean skincare that’s meant to be great for hydration and for sensitive skin. The packaging says it has 30% rice extract and 1000 ppm rice germ extract, as well as three probiotic rice ferments (0.12 ppm Lactobaccilus/rice ferment, 0.12 ppm Monascus/Rice Ferment and 0.12 ppm Saccharomyces/rice ferment filtrate).

There are also a bunch of other plant extracts in it as well, along with niacinamide which is great for soothing skin and helping with brightening, glycerin which is an incredible hydrating humectant, and adenosine which is an anti-wrinkle active.

Beauty of Joseon have some other products I really like as well. They have a great cleansing balm, and a bunch of nice serums with a mix of traditional Korean Hanbang ingredients like ginseng, rice, propolis, as well as more modern ingredients like niacinamide and snail mucin. I’d recommend checking them out if you’re in the market for some new products.

Mary & May Cica Soothing Sun Cream

Mary & May Cica Soothing Sun Cream SPF50+ PA++++ has practically the same ingredient list as the Beauty of Joseon sunscreen, and as you’d expect, it has a very similar texture.

The differences are mostly with the skincare ingredients as well as a light, slightly floral fragrance that goes away quickly. It’s been tested to be hypoallergenic, and like the Beauty of Joseon sunscreen, it’s formulated to work well under makeup as an everyday commuter-style sunscreen.

In terms of the skincare ingredients, the Beauty of Joseon sunscreen focuses on rice, whereas this focuses on Centella (which you probably guessed from the “cica” name). Centella is great for soothing sensitive skin, and I love using cica products when my skin is irritated and needs a bit of extra care.

Related post: Skincare Ingredient Spotlight: Centella Asiatica

This sun cream has 10000 ppm (1%) F-cica complex, which consists of 7 different centella extracts and fermented yeast, and it’s soothing and hydrating. It also has niacinamide and adenosine, which is why this is also categorised as a whitening and antiaging functional cosmetic in Korea, on top of being a sunscreen – I talked about this pairing before in my Heimish post. (The Beauty of Joseon sunscreen has this niacinamide/adenosine pairing too, but doesn’t make this extra functional cosmetic claim, I’m not sure why – but it could explain why the Mary & May sunscreen has a higher regular retail price than the Beauty of Joseon one.)

Related post: My Favourite Heimish Products (with video)

Mary & May is a brand I haven’t heard of before, but they’re a clean Korean brand with a core brand philosophy of being “16-free” and using only EWG Green Grade ingredients. “EWG Green Grade” seems to be a common claim for Korean products now, and I’m guessing it means all their ingredients are rated at 3 or below in the EWG’s entirely unscientific and pretty damn arbitrary rating system – I’ve talked about why clean beauty is BS before.

Related post: Clean Beauty Is Wrong and Won’t Give Us Safer Products

It seems like while Koreans were exporting their super wearable sunscreens to Western markets, they were importing clean beauty. I actually saw at least one EWG or “free from” clean beauty claim for all of the sunscreens I’m talking about today.

I was quite surprised to see the number of time the EWG was referenced from all the brands when I was researching this post, but thinking back to maybe 7 years ago, the levels of this on Western sites was probably that high too, and as people became more aware of the EWG’s dodgy science, less brands seem to be using these claims.

Interestingly the EWG and “free from” claims are sometimes on the Korean sites and in Korean on the packaging, but not on the English versions, so I think maybe that’s another sign that clean advertising isn’t working as well for Western consumers anymore. Maybe I’m being naively optimistic here, but just let me have this.

Mary May Cica Sun

Isntree Hyaluronic Acid Watery Sun Gel

Isntree Hyaluronic Acid Watery Sun Gel SPF 50+ PA++++ is a sunscreen I’ve talked about before. This is a chemical (organic) sunscreen with a relatively heavy texture compared to a lot of other Korean sunscreens. It has no white cast, no fragrance and no alcohol, and it’s recommended for dry and sensitive skin.

Isntree Watery Sun Gel

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It’s SPF 50+ and PA++++, and like for a lot of other sunscreens these days, they show independent testing from Korea Institute of Dermatological Science to verify these ratings.

The Watery Sun Gel is actually approved as a whitening and antiwrinkle functional cosmetic as well, again because it has niacinamide and adenosine in it.

On top of that, it has 8 types of hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is used in cosmetics as a humectant that grabs onto water and keeps it on and in your skin, but a lot of people complain that it can feel like it dries your skin out. I think this is because a lot of products use only one size of hyaluronic acid, so it might all stay on the surface of your skin and feels like it dries into a film. To avoid this, a lot of products (including this one) now use a range of sizes of hyaluronic acid to hydrate at different depths in the skin, so it feels more well-rounded. There are a bunch of other skincare ingredients in it too like astaxanthin, centella and ceramide.

The Isntree website recommends this for outdoor activities, but there’s no official water resistance claim. I don’t think you should rely on it for hardcore exercise, but I think it’s probably going to hold up to movement and sweat a bit better than the average Korean sunscreen.

This is also recommended this for reapplication over makeup, which I’ve talked about before (I recommend using a cushion puff sponge for this). It’s also been tested for skin irritation and passed with flying colours.

Related post: How to Reapply Sunscreen Over Makeup (with video)

Unfortunately on their page they also show EWG ratings for every ingredient (which I thought we moved past as a species), as well as a sunscreen infographic that’s not quite right.

It says chemical sunscreens need 30 minutes to absorb before working, which is a bit silly because it’s not true, and this is a chemical sunscreen so they’re pointing out a fake disadvantage of their own product. They also show a video of it absorbing UV immediately under a UV camera.

I quite like this sunscreen even though it’s recommended for sensitive and dry skin. Isntree also have a stick sunscreen that’s recommended for oily skin that I’m pretty keen to try as well.

Innisfree Intensive Long-lasting Sunscreen EX SPF 50+ PA++++

Innisfree Intensive Long-lasting Sunscreen EX SPF 50+ PA+++ has the highest labelled protection like the rest of the sunscreens here, but the special bit is that it’s actually water resistant. It’s recommended by Innisfree for surfing and playing in the water.

Thanks to Odile Monod again (my Korean beauty insider info guru), “water resistant” in Korea means the SPF drops by less than 20% after 40 minutes in water during the water resistance test. This is less strict than the Australian and US standard, which needs the sunscreen to stay at the full SPF, but stricter than the EU which lets it drop to half.

It’s the first water resistant Korean sunscreen I’ve tried. Unsurprisingly it’s very heavy in texture for a Korean sunscreen, but the texture is a lot lighter than typical Western water resistant sunscreens. Sunscreens that are water resistant usually have a lot of polymers and thicker oilier ingredients to keep it in place when your skin gets wet, so you do usually end up with more of a noticeable feeling on your face.

So this is a pretty unique sunscreen in my sunscreen library. It works well for those in-between situations where you might want a smoother, lighter sunscreen that sits nicely under makeup, but you’re also going to get a bit moist – like maybe you’re going on a boat ride at a wedding or something (I don’t know your life).

I really like that Korea has a standard for the “water resistant” label – there are a few Japanese sunscreens I’ve tried that claim to be water resistant, but unfortunately, as far as I know, there’s no standard for water resistance in Japan. So unless the brand says how they tested the claim, you just don’t know how much you can rely on that.

If you have any other recommendations for water resistant Korean sunscreens, please leave them in the comments!

This is a combination sunscreen that uses a mix of organic and inorganic UV filters. It does have a slight white cast that mostly goes away as the sunscreen settles. I would expect that this might not be great for dark skin tones (I’m guessing it’s from zinc oxide and/or the titanium dioxide).

This sunscreen doesn’t have alcohol in it, and it has a hydrating feel with a slightly oily finish that’s a bit more noticeable than with other Korean sunscreens.

The scent is a moderately strong floral scent, which Innisfree says is from a low allergen fragrance.

Based on the reviews I found online, most people don’t have eye sting with this, but a few do. Eye sting is quite individual and not everyone gets stinging from the same products and ingredients, so for most people this will probably be fine.

Unfortunately there is a “Coral Reef Friendly” logo on the front, which I’m not a fan of, especially since I’m pretty sure this isn’t being sold near any coral reefs. The concentrations that were found to damage coral in studies so far are well below the concentrations that have been measured in the wild, aside from a couple of massive outliers. The ocean is massive and pretty turbulent, so sunscreen really doesn’t seem like a big issue unless you’re basically touching the coral. Here it just seems to mean it doesn’t have oxybenzone or octinoxate, which are the two ingredients banned in Hawaii following a study that was pushed very heavily in the media, but this sunscreen actually has nano zinc oxide and nano titanium dioxide, which were both found to damage coral at unrealistically high concentrations too. Again, I don’t think it’s really a real issue for any sunscreen ingredient, but I think if you’re a brand using it in your marketing you should be using a consistent standard.

Related post: Is Your Sunscreen Killing Coral Reefs? The Science (with Video)

They did recently change their packaging to white tube and yellow lid, without the reef logo, so that’s encouraging! Keep that new packaging in mind if you have trouble finding it.

The products here were provided by StyleKorean for a sponsored video, although this post isn’t sponsored. This post contains affiliate links – if you decide to click through and support Lab Muffin financially (at no extra cost to you), thank you! For more information, see Disclosure Policy.

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