One of my favorite things to do while traveling is tucking into a drugstore and filling my cart—and eventually my suitcase and bathroom back at home—with foreign beauty products. (Excellent recent finds include hot pink Curaprox toothbrushes in Sicily). But nothing catches my eye like international sunscreens, which are far more innovative than their American counterparts. This is how I found myself poring over the shelf of cool blue Bioré tubes at a pristine two-story pharmacy in Tokyo.
Many Americans know the Bioré brand for its charcoal face wash and beloved Pore Strips. Japanese shoppers, of course, have access to the Tokyo-based company’s full product line, which includes a jelly cleanser, steam-activated serum, and one very high-tech sunscreen: Bioré UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen. In it went to my basket, alongside a lifetime supply of fiber-wig mascara. In the two years since that fateful encounter, American beauty brands have launched their own gel sunscreens, but here’s why I’m faithful to the Bioré O.G. and buy it by the three-pack (thank you, Amazon).
Bioré UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen
Best for: All skin types
Uses: Protects skin from UV damage
Potential Allergens: None noted
Active Ingredients: Charcoal
Clean? No, contains sulfate and ethanolamines
Price: $10 to $16
About the brand: Bioré is a popular drugstore skincare brand owned by Japanese cosmetics company Kao.
The Bottom Line
The antithesis to heavy, thick sunscreen, Bioré’s gel-like UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen sinks into skin right away—no heavy residue or white tint. It feels closer in texture to a serum than a sunscreen, and won’t clog pores or cause breakouts or dryness. Bioré's UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen protects against UV damage, contains hydrating glycerin and hyaluronic acid, and resists water and sweat for up to 80 minutes. Skin feels fresh and dewy, not gooped up.
About My Skin: Combination and acne-prone
A quick rundown of what I'm working with: A T-zone that’s oily to the point of reflectiveness. But also flaky patches. A very breakout-prone nose and chin. Blackheads, fine lines, dark spots. The gang’s all here. At one point, my skincare involved alleged solutions to all of these issues, but in time, I’ve whittled things down. (I have a life to lead and it no longer has space for my circa-2014 10-step ritual). I control what I can, and that’s keeping my skin safe from the sun with hats and sunscreen—thus the obsessive sunscreen shopping. This is especially true in foreign countries, where sunscreens are often far more advanced than what we have here in the states.
The Feel: Like a splash of water
Right out of the gate, Aqua Rich is nothing like traditional sunscreen. Whereas most are thick goops and white creams, Aqua Rich is like a light and silky gel-serum hybrid. It blurts out of the tube in a satisfyingly smooth blob, with a pale milky-yellow hue and barely-there scent. (The smell is super faint and fresh). The formula has a jelly-like wetness to it, but not in a greasy or oily way. Instead, the gel feels cool and slippery to the touch. It feels more like a facial serum than a sunscreen.
The formula's vanishing act is where things really get cool—it glides over and into skin instantly and without a trace. No phantom cast, no gunky feeling on the surface of the skin. "Watery Essence" isn’t a made-up product name: It feels like a splash of water over your face. I would go so far as to say that it’s a joy to apply.
Watery Essence is very much the product of a lab. The chemical UV filter octinoxate plays a starring role, with plenty of synthetics thrown in for that slip factor and invisibility. Alcohol is the second ingredient, though any drying effect is offset by a lineup of mega-moisturizers: glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and the antioxidant vitamin E, which protects against free-radical damage. Dimethicone helps create that ultra-smooth texture. The formula also contains arginine, an amino acid and anti-ager that boosts collagen synthesis, and royal jelly extract, an ingredient that smooths and brightens.
The Results: Glowy, quenched, and protected
Alone, Bioré's UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen leaves skin glowy and quenched but it also wears well under makeup. The slippy formula temporarily fills in fine lines and helps the ultra-smooth texture play nice with every concealer, foundation, and bronzer in my makeup bag. The light, watery texture is different from traditional sunscreens and is ideal for oily, acne-prone skin. The long-term benefits are just as impressive. Bioré’s solid SPF (50+) is higher than most drugstore options, so it’s more effective at blocking damaging free radicals and preventing premature aging.
In my experience, there are two big sides to the face sunscreen Venn diagram. On one side, there are those with perfect weight and strong protection, but steep price tags. (I’m thinking SkinCeuticals and Tatcha). On the other side, there are drugstore picks that are affordable, but less sophisticated as far as formulation. Bioré UV resides in that tiny sweet spot in the middle: It's a formula that feels luxurious at a cheap price point. And in terms of SPF, it outshines even many expensive competitors. All in all, considering the cost (cheap), SPF (high), and texture (light and fast-absorbing), this product is a fantastic pick. And if you, like me, go for the three-pack, well, that just makes the deal even sweeter. Note: Bioré's UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen is only available to U.S. shoppers via Amazon.
Similar Products: You have options
Glossier Invisible Shield: The smothering feeling, the chalky excess—have been engineered out of the equation. Glossier’s sunscreen is totally clear, blends in fast, and works really well. The downsides are that it contains less SPF (35 versus 50+) and less actual product (one versus 1.7 ounces), and costs about twice the price at $25.
Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen: Supergoop’s clear sunscreen with a velvety texture is a slam dunk of a sunscreen. It’s the same size as Bioré UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen (1.7 ounces) but is a more expensive option at $36. The SPF 40 is solid, the coverage clear, and the formulation natural (unlike Bioré’s synthetic one). Unseen has a more matte finish compared to Watery Essence, which leaves skin dewy and fresh.
Neutrogena Clear Face Oil-Free Sunscreen SPF 55: If you’re looking for great SPF at a low cost ($14), this oil-free lotion offers high-quality sun protection and a non-comedogenic formula that won’t clog pores. Unlike the Bioré, Glossier, and Supergoop options, this one is opaque and takes a bit of elbow grease to work in.
Dollar for dollar, ounce for ounce, Bioré's UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen is 100 percent worth buying. It more than holds its own against the competition in terms of effectiveness and invisibility on skin—and outshines in terms of price. The lightweight gel absorbs swiftly and smoothly, has zero grease factor (more of a fresh, dewy finish), and delivers a big dose of moisture to thirsty skin, thanks to glycerin and hyaluronic acid. It’s ideal for oily skin yet no matter your skin type, its outstanding SPF50+ blocks UV rays from doing their photo-aging, skin-damaging thing.