It's the one thing beauty gurus, influencers, dermatologists, estheticians and even your own grandmother can agree on: Sunscreen is an essential component to your daily skincare routine, as it provides critical protection against the harmful effects of ultraviolet, or UV, radiation. Considering that one in five people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime, it's crucial to find an SPF that you want to wear every day and that works best for you.

But in an oversaturated market, choosing a sunscreen can often be an overwhelming, difficult decision. And as consumers are becoming more and more health-conscious and informed, their perceptions and preferences regarding domestic vs. international sunscreen products have evolved, and factors such as regulatory standards, availability, efficacy and marketing significantly influence these preferences.

What is the difference between domestic and international sunscreen?

One of the primary differences between domestic and international sunscreens lies in their regulatory standards. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration regulates sunscreen products as over-the-counter drugs. This means that sunscreen ingredients have a rigorous testing process to prove their safety before they can hit the shelves. The FDA's approval process is strict and, in turn, slow, leading to a limited range of approved active ingredients. Currently, the FDA has only approved 16 active ingredients, many of which are older and less effective compared to newer formulations that are available internationally.

In comparison, the E.U. and other countries have more flexible and often faster approval processes, allowing a broader range of active ingredients. For instance, the E.U. has approved over 30 UV filters, including more "advanced" ingredients that offer superior protection. These regulatory differences can significantly impact consumer perceptions, as many buyers view international sunscreens to be more advanced and effective.

What about the Sun Protection Factor (SPF)?

Predictably, the efficacy of an SPF is one of the most critical factor influencing consumer perceptions of sunscreen products, with TikTok influencers creating entire profiles focused on testing products. The effectiveness of a sunscreen is linked to its ability to provide broad-spectrum protection, remain photostable and offer a pleasant user experience. International sunscreens, with their advanced formulations, often excel in these areas.

Ingredients like Tinosorb and Mexoryl provide UVA and UVB protection and maintain stability under sun exposure, reducing the risk of product breakdown and loss of efficacy. In contrast, some FDA-approved ingredients, such as avobenzone, can degrade quickly when exposed to sunlight unless stabilized with other chemicals. This can lead to concerns about the reliability of protection offered by some domestic sunscreens.

Additionally, the texture, cast and cosmetic aesthetic of sunscreens are important to consumers. Many international products are formulated to be lightweight, non-greasy and more comfortable to wear daily, which enhances consumer satisfaction.

A look at availability

Availability also plays a role in shaping consumer preferences. In the U.S., the limited range of FDA-approved ingredients can restrict the variety of products available on the market, creating a crowded marketplace of too-similar products. On the other hand, international markets offer a diverse array of products with innovative formulations that cater to different skin types, lifestyles and preferences, making international sunscreens highly attractive to consumers.

However, these products are not easily available or accessible to those in the states, and require consumers to purchase them online at higher prices due to shipping costs or import taxes, and even run the risk of receiving counterfeit products from online retailers. This can create a barrier despite their desirable and higher demand.

How to educate consumers?

Given the differences between domestic and international sunscreens, health care and beauty professionals play a pivotal role in educating consumers about the benefits and limitations of each, and different strategies can prove themselves useful:

  1. Highlighting regulatory differences: Professionals should explain the differences in regulatory standards between the FDA and international administrations. Emphasizing the rigorous testing and safety requirements for FDA-approved sunscreens can help build consumer confidence in these products. On the contrary, educating consumers about the advanced ingredients available in international sunscreens can help them make informed choices when seeking superior protection.
  2. Clarifying efficacy and ingredients: It's important to educate consumers about the efficacy of different sunscreen ingredients. Professionals should explain the importance of broad-spectrum protection and the role of UVA and UVB filters. They can provide comparisons of common ingredients found in FDA-approved and international sunscreens, highlighting the strengths and limitations of each.
  3. Product selection: Consumers often struggle to choose the right sunscreen for their skin type and lifestyle. Professionals can offer personalized recommendations based on factors such as skin sensitivity, activity level and environmental exposures to UV radiation. For instance, recommending mineral-based sunscreens for sensitive skin or water-resistant formulations for active individuals can enhance user satisfaction and protection.
  4. Accessibility issues: For consumers interested in international sunscreens, professionals can provide guidance on reputable online retailers and discuss the potential costs and benefits of purchasing these products. They can also suggest comparable FDA-approved alternatives that offer similar protection and user experience.
  5. Consistent use: Finally, one of the biggest challenges with sunscreen is ensuring consistent use. Professionals should emphasize the importance of daily application, regardless of weather conditions or indoor activities. Educating consumers about the long-term benefits of regular sunscreen use in preventing skin cancer and premature aging can motivate adherence, no matter where the product is coming from.

Consumer perceptions and preferences regarding domestic versus international sunscreen products are influenced by a variety of factors. While international sunscreens often offer advanced formulations and a broader range of ingredients, FDA-approved products still provide proven safety and effectiveness, and are more accessible for the every-day-consumer in the U.S. At the end of the day, wearing sunscreen, regardless of where it was formulated, is better than wearing none at all.

Catch some rays, but stay protected

Health care and beauty professionals play a crucial role in educating consumers about these differences, helping them make informed choices that align with their skin type, lifestyle and personal preferences. By doing so, they can enhance consumer satisfaction and promote better sun protection practices.