Just in time for summer (despite some of the gray days during the rainy season): an overview of sunscreen (or sunblock) in Japan.
I should note that I’ve heard various complaints about sunscreen tubes and bottles being relatively small here, and in many cases, this tends to be true. In my experience, women here often seem to prefer covering up their skin with clothing, hats, scarves, etc., carrying around an umbrella, and/or just avoiding being outside during the peak times of day. It’s not uncommon when stopped at an intersection to see pedestrians waiting under store eaves in the shade until the light turns green (though this is also just to get out of the heat). So I think one possible reason the quantities may be smaller is simply because they are primarily used on the face, neck, hands, and/or arms. Their small size also makes them easier to carry around.
As for men in Japan, it doesn’t seem that protecting their skin from the sun is as popular as it is with women. I’m sure some do, but women seem to be more concerned about this (in general, of course does not apply to everyone) and in general, sunscreen in Japan seems to be marketed more towards women.
First of all, sunscreen or sunblock in Japanese is: 日焼け止め (ひやけどめ, hiyakedome)
Other words to know:
紫外線 しがいせん ultraviolet rays
耐水性 たいすいせい water resistant
無香料 むこうりょう unscented
無着色 むちゃくしょく no coloring
Understanding UVA/UVB protection
Every country has its own form of indicating a sunscreen’s effectiveness against UVA and UVB rays, though the use of "SPF" is fairly standard.
Japan uses SPF to measure protection against UVB rays. You’ll see standard numbers such as 15, 30, 50, etc.
Protection against UVA rays is indicated in Japan as “PA” with a plus sign (+).
PA+ strong protection
PA++ very strong protection
PA+++ the strongest protection
So for more protection, look for more plus signs (you’ll probably want at least PA++).
I know there is a fear among those who can't read Japanese well of accidentally picking up a whitening product at the store. Whitening sunscreen certainly exists, but it’s usually easy to avoid. It’s also important to note that most of the whitening sunscreens I looked at use a vitamin C derivative (L-アスコルビン酸2-グルコシド) as the main ingredient, which supposedly inhibits melanin production (although I’m not sure this has been scientifically proven). It doesn’t actually bleach the skin.
Another ingredient I saw (though less often) was stearyl glycyrrhetinate (グリチルレチン酸ステアリル), a derivative of licorice.
To avoid buying “whitening” sunscreen, don’t purchase anything with 美白（びはく) or ホワイトニング on the packaging.
You may also want to look out for シミ, which essentially means sun spots from skin damage, or literally, “stains”. Although not all products with this listed on the packaging contain any ingredients that lighten the skin, they may just claim to prevent sun spots.
The active ingredients in most sunscreens are divided into two categories: absorbing agents (ingredients that “absorb” UV rays) and scattering agents (ingredients that reflect UV rays - generally considered less harmful).
Some ingredients you may find in Japanese sunscreen (either alone or in combination) include:
UV Absorbing Agents - 紫外線吸収剤
吸収剤 きゅうしゅうざい kyuushuuzai an absorbent
テレフタリリデンジカンフルスルホン酸 and ドロ メトリゾールトリシロキサン
ethyl methoxycinnamate or
octyl dimethyl p-aminobenzoic acid or PABA
(not commonly used in western countries anymore, nor is it commonly used in Japan*)
butyl methoxy dibenzoylmethane aka avobenzone
phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid i.e. ensulizole (particularly used in sunscreens that focus on the “non-greasy feel”)
If you want a sunscreen that doesn’t use absorbing agents, aside from looking at the ingredients, you may find the following on the packaging: 紫外線吸収剤不使用 or 紫外線吸収剤フリー.
UV Scattering Agents - 紫外線散乱剤
散乱剤 さんらんざい sanranzai scattering agent
Ethanol (エタノール) (also known as alcohol) is also often used in sunscreen (and many other products), so for skin sensitivities, infants, or if you just want to avoid using alcohol, make sure to buy one that doesn’t list it in the ingredients.
No White Residue
If you want one that leaves no white residue, look for 白くならない somewhere on the packaging. Note that not all types will necessarily list this though.
When looking for non-comedogenic types, I’ve found a lot of skincare isn’t labeled whether it is or not - but some sunscreens will say ノンコメドジェニック if they are. However, Ratzilla of RatzillaCosme (a Japanese Cosmetics Resource, in English) notes: "The term 'non-comedogenic' is not regulated in the US (nor Japan) so it's completely meaningless."
Top 10 sunscreens in Japan
The top-ranked sunscreen in Japan (according to cosme.net) as of June 24, 2011, are:
1. Nivea Sun Protect Water Gel SPF 30
ニベアサン プロテクトウォータージェル SPF30
2. Biore Sarasara (Silky) UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence
ビオレ さらさらUV アクアリッチ ウォータリーエッセンス
3. Allie Extra UV Gel (Mineral Moist)
アリィー(ALLIE) エクストラUVジェル (ミネラルモイスト)
4. Sun Style UV Cut Powder Cool
5. Cledepeau Beaute Cream Protection UV
クレ ド ポー ボーテ クレームプロテクション UV
6. Allie Extra UV Protector (Perfect Alpha)
アリィー(ALLIE) エクストラUVプロテクター (パーフェクトアルファ)
7. Benefique UV-AA Deep Block Essence
ベネフィーク UV-AA ディープ ブロックエッセンス
8. Anessa Whitening UV Protector
アネッサ 美白 UV プロテクター
9. SALA Milky Gel UV
10. Mentholatum Sunplay Super Block
メンソレータム サンプレイ スーパーブロック
Where to buy?
Your local daily goods store will carry various brands and types, though if you want more specialized products, you may want to look at a department store, online, or in places such as Loft or Tokyu Hands.
Natural (Non-chemical) Options
For those concerned about other chemicals in sunscreen, most of the options you’ll find on store shelves contain a long list of additives, stabilizers, etc. Most did not seem to contain parabens (パラベン), though some did.
One sunscreen I looked at claims to be non-chemical (with no parabens, additives, etc.), but it actually has quite a long ingredient list, and even contains aluminum starch octenylsuccinate, which is currently ranked as a high hazard ingredient (with a “fair” amount of research data though) according to the Environmental Working Group.
Other than scouring every ingredient list, it may be wise to look at sunscreens listed on natural/organic cosmetic websites, look at stores such as Loft, or order online, from places such as iHerb.
Have you tried Japanese sunscreen? Any particular favorites?
*I would like to thank Ratzilla of the site RatzillaCosme, a Japanese Cosmetics Resource (in English), for providing some ingredient/product clarifications in this post.