I’ll admit it. I’m a K-beauty junkie.
I first heard about Korean skincare a few years ago when the ten-step challenge was going viral. I imagine this is how many people got their first introduction; articles about this growing trend were everywhere. I read with skepticism-did people really do this? There was no way I could devote that much time to getting ready in the morning, and in the evening I was just too lazy. In fact, that’s one major reason I shun makeup- I hate taking it off.
To me, skincare meant applying sunscreen before going outside, and I only did that when I knew I was going to be outdoors for an extended period of time. I do not recommend this by the way. The most important take home message of this article is to wear sunscreen. Always. Essential. Got it? OK, keep reading.
Eventually I gave in. K-beauty just looked like so much fun! Cute packaging, crazy ingredients, fun names that seemed to have gotten lost in translation; I had to be a part of it.
Taking stock of the situation
The first step was to assess the current state of my skincare routine. I used moisturizer and well, that was pretty much it. I was the very definition of a minimalist. Next it was time to decide what I truly needed for my skin. I had some signs of aging: wrinkles and dark spots, splotchy redness on my cheeks and nose, and a forehead that was constantly dry.
I calculated I would need at least six new products. No way, not going to happen. Rather than spending tons of money by diving full in, I would just dip my toe into the waters of K-beauty. I started with the sheet masks.
Sheet mask saga
How fun were these? Eagerly I slapped these on my face every night. I loved the variety: pearl, green tea, snake venom, I couldn’t get enough. But was this just a gimmick or were there legitimate claims to these ingredients? I really started to give it some serious thought at this point. And to be honest, the sheet masks weren’t doing a lot for my skin. But how could they? I was using the band-aid approach. No, I had to do this right.
I started by washing my face. Sounds so simple, but I had never gotten in the habit. I had set a bad precedence in my teenage years, using harsh alcohol- based products that stung and made my already sensitive skin worse. K-beauty routines recommend double washing- using an oil based cleanser followed by a water-based one. This seemed like overkill to me, especially since I didn’t wear makeup. But I reasoned that since one of my biggest problems was dry skin, using an oil-based cleanser would be more moisturizing. In hindsight, this logic was probably wrong, but the result was right. Just that simple step of washing my face twice a day was enough to make my skin softer than it had ever been before.
After this, I was hooked. I immediately added toner, essence, eye cream and lotion to my moisturizer-only routine. Yes, I was steadily climbing that ladder toward ten steps.
Fortunately the move now seems to be toward minimizing the process, focusing instead on multifunctional products that target each individual’s unique skincare needs. For instance, to get the new look- cream skin- the product used is a hybrid toning and moisturizing one.
Korean beauty companies are also trend setters when it comes to responsible leadership. Most products have been cruelty free for years but now more companies are becoming vegan as well. They are also starting to minimize waste and use eco-friendly packaging.
I was impressed by how the K-beauty scene seemed ahead of its time. They had been focused for years on innovative, more naturally sourced products. There was even a term for it- hanbang- the use of traditional herbal ingredients. Was Korean skincare free of icky things like parabens, silicons, artificial dyes and fragrances? Absolutely! But they were also moving away from using essential oils, which I didn’t realize could cause allergic reactions in quite a few cases. I also liked their philosophy- there were no quick fixes. Instead these products were to be applied consistently, with a focus on prevention. Beautiful skin, not hiding behind makeup was the goal. Best of all, there seemed to be a lot of good quality products that were affordable. Even the boys were getting in on this, men in South Korea spend the most money worldwide on skincare.
Here are a few of the ingredients that I am most excited about; the superheroes of Korean skincare.
This centuries old favorite is undergoing a revival since new technology has made it possible to extract a highly concentrated compound from the seeds instead of the leaves. This process gives us more of the good stuff, antioxidants, which by fighting free radicals can slow damage at the skin’s cellular level. Ginseng also works wonders at reducing inflammation, firming the skin, and erasing those fine lines and wrinkles. This is definitely on my list of must-haves.
Honey, propolis and bee venom
Who knew bees were so good for the skin! To think I had been running away from them since I was a kid. These products all contain antimicrobial properties, making them great choices for acne prone skin. Super hydrating, the honey sheet mask I used had been one of my favorites. Honey’s moisturizing properties are so well known that there’s even a look called “honey skin” which is soft, glowing, and supple. Propolis is known as bee glue, and has been used in skincare since ancient times. Also packed with flavonoids, propolis soothes, softens and moisturizes. And then there’s bee venom, which is said to plump the skin by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the skin’s surface. I don’t know how they harvest it but apparently it doesn’t hurt the little guys.
Centella Asiatica Extract
I discovered this one while researching ways to reduce the redness on my cheeks and nose. Packed with natural amino acids, beta carotene, and phytochemicals, centella helps to prevent pollution in the air from damaging the skin, perfect for city dwellers. It’s also great for sensitive skin, which is why it’s doing double duty in my arsenal- as a toner and also in my sunscreen. Plus, it is also called cica which is just adorable.
I came across this product while reading about hydroquinone, a bleaching agent used for lightening dark spots. I was concerned about using hydroquinone because of the list of harsh side effects and its potential as a carcinogen. Instead, the article recommended arbutin. Made from bearberries, it is promoted as a skin brightener. This ingredient can prevent the formation of tyrosinase which is an UV activated enzyme that leads to dark spot formation on the skin. Impressively, it can even help to fade scars. I should have been using this years ago, but better late than never.
The first ingredient that hooked me on K-beauty. I had snails in my backyard and although cute, I hated them because they ate my plants. I always knew it was them because they left behind a trail of silver slime. Did people actually put this on their face?
Yes. And I do too.
Snail mucin, or snail secretion filtrate, is the ingredient that snails use to heal their fragile little bodies. That same regenerative power can be harnessed for our skin too. This is my all-time favorite product. It checks all the boxes: it hydrates, helps with acne and pigmentation, increases collagen leading to firmer skin, and of course it helps to blur those fine lines and scars. Whew! But wait-it also contains glycolic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid which exfoliates skin cells, for a brighter overall complexion. Sold.
I still spend too much money on K-beauty skincare. During the time it took to write this article I have jotted down at least three new products that I want to try. But for me, as an aging, non-makeup wearer, skincare is one of the most important aspects of my life.
And since faithfully using these products, I have seen a huge improvement. On lazy days, I can skip maybe one face wash, but miss two and I can definitely feel the difference in my skin. At least I was able to avoid the ten step product trap. I only use nine.