Asian Skin Care Guide
There are a lot of skin care fanatics (myself included) out there who believe that as a whole, Asia is the world leader when it comes to skin care. Their technology and lack of red tape when it comes to bringing new products to market has many experts saying that they’re anywhere between 8 and 12 years ahead of the US when it comes to skin care technology.
Since I began writing about Korean products on this blog, I’ve received an increasing number of inquiries about Asian skin care and what makes it so unique. I’ve put together this starter guide to give people an introduction to the Asian skin care routine, and provide some resources for how to get started with your own.
This guide is divided into three parts: The major differences between Asian and Western skin care culture, details about products and routine steps, and lastly, some additional shopping and information resources.
Part 1: Five Major Differences
Here in the US, cosmetics make up the majority of beauty purchases. Not the case in Korea and Japan, where women prefer to spend their money on skin care products. In fact, Hope in a Blog cites one statistic that says 89% of Korean women spend more money on skin care products than makeup. The philosophy is that beauty begins with great skin, and that healthy skin means you need less makeup.
Asians take UV protection very seriously. As a result, they have some of the best sunscreens in the world, as well as a much wider selection.
Coinciding with the sunscreen obsession is the fact that fair skin is very highly valued in Asia. There are a ton of whitening products in the Korean and Japanese skin care markets, and many of the multi-functioning products tout whitening properties as one of the major attributes.
Most of these products aren’t actually turning anyone’s face white- many of them are just brightening products meant to fade dark marks and even out skin tone. However, there are some products that aim to actually lighten the skin, but the effects of the skin lightening are mostly temporary.
Cutting Edge Ingredients
As previously mentioned, experts say that Korea is around 10 years ahead of us in terms of skin care technology. This is largely due to the fact that there is less red tape when it comes to bringing new skin care ingredients to market. Skin care actives such as snail mucin, bee venom, and Syn-ake – a synthetic compound that mimics the effects of viper venom on wrinkles, are commonly seen in Korean skin care products right now. Those trends are always changing, but some of them are effective enough that they wind up sticking around. Snail slime has been big there for a few years now, for example. For more information on some of the current Korean skin care ingredient trends, see my post here.
We have some really amazing quality skin care products here in the US. Some of my baseline skin care routine is, in fact, comprised of Western products that I’m extremely pleased with. But the market for skin care in Asia is extremely competitive, and one of the benefits of that phenomenon is higher quality products, even at lower price points. There are many low to mid-range products that are found in Japanese drug stores or Korean road shops that are right on par with our mid-end, department store Western brands.
4. Number of Products
Most of us are used to a 3-step skin care system that includes cleansing, toning, and moisturizing. In Asia, an average skin care routine includes anywhere from 5-10 steps, including cleansing oil, foaming cleanser, booster, essence/serum, emulsion, cream, eye cream, and sunscreen. Additionally, many women regularly include sheet masks and sleeping packs in their routine.
In order to get the most benefit from all these products, Asian women use a layering technique to apply them. The layering technique involves gently patting or massaging the products in the in a specific order, usually from the lightest in consistency to the heaviest. It’s interesting to note that while this technique originated in Asia, it’s also very popular in France, where it’s referred to as “millefeuille.” The literal translation of “millefeuille” is “a thousand layers.”
Part 2: Asian Skin Care Routine – Products & Layering
There are anywhere from 5-10 steps in a Korean or Japanese routine. Each of these products is applied by patting it gently into the skin with your fingers. Some people like to use a light massage technique, which stimulates the circulation in your face. Here’s a quick look at the order of those steps and a general description of the product types:
Step 1: Oil Cleanser
This is a cleanser designed to remove makeup, and is often referred to here as “pre-cleansing.” Sometimes a cream cleanser is used in place of an oil cleanser, but the oil cleansers do a pretty bang-up job at removing makeup.
Step 2: Foaming Cleanser
This is designed to really clean the skin once all makeup has been removed. Non-foaming cleansing milk may be used instead.
Step 3: Toner/Booster
Here is where we really start deviating from the Western routine. An Asian toner is not the same as a Western toner. Western toners are designed to provide additional cleansing and tend to have astringent properties. An Asian toner is designed to add moisture to the skin that might be stripped during the cleansing process, and to increase the penetration of additional skin care products. Some brands have separate toners and boosters, in which case the booster is applied first to prepare the skin for more products, followed by the toner, which is designed to soften the skin. However, in many skin care lines, the toner and booster are the same product. You have to be quick applying a toner/booster product – once you dry your face, it’s optimal to apply this within 2 seconds. I almost never make the buzzer myself, though, and my face hasn’t fallen off yet.
Step 4: Eye Cream (optional)
If you’re an eye cream fan, you’ll be happy to know that there are a ton of Asian eye creams on the market. Different skin care lines have different suggestions for when to apply the eye cream, but I’ve noticed a lot of them have you apply the eye cream just after your toner/booster.
Step 5: Sheet Mask (optional, nighttime only)
Sheet masks are thin cotton sheets soaked in a treatment essence designed to target particular skin problems. There are a huge variety of these available, and they are generally inexpensive. They can do a number of things – some of them are moisturizing, some are exfoliating, some are whitening and some are nourishing. Most sheet masks are meant to be applied after the toner/booster step, and for some people, they replace the essence/serum step. After leaving the mask on the face for 10-15 minutes, gently pat the remaining essence into the skin and then finish your skincare routine as you normally would. Most like to use sheet masks a few times a week, but some people prefer to use them daily.
Step 6: Essence/Serum
An essence, or serum, as we better know it here, is a liquid concentrated with skin care actives. Most of them have a lighter texture, somewhere between a liquid and a gel, but there are some that have a creamier texture. Sometimes an essence is also referred to as an “ampoule.” There are a few lines that have you apply the essence after the emulsion, but in most cases, the essence comes first.
Step 7: Emulsion
An emulsion is a moisturizing treatment, which usually has a lotion like consistency. It is meant to moisturize, but also often has a lesser concentration of some of the same actives in the essence. For those with oily skin, or who live in a humid climate, this is the only moisturizing step in the routine. People with drier skin will also apply a cream later.
Step 8: Spot Treatment (optional)
A spot treatment can be a number of things – acne treatment, whitening serum, wrinkle filler, etc. For reference, if you use any kind of retinoid, that would fall into this category, as would any type of benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.
Step 9: Cream (optional)
Creams are meant to provide additional moisture. They are generally thicker than emulsions and come in a jar rather then a pump bottle. Many people skip this step, particularly in the morning, but people with drier skin like myself like to include it.
Step 10: Sleeping Pack (optional, nighttime only)
A sleeping pack, sometimes called a sleeping mask, is a skin treatment that usually comes in a tub or a tube. It’s designed to be applied over the face at night to provide moisture and skin care benefits while you sleep.
Step 11: Sunscreen (morning only)
As previously mentioned, Asian women go above and beyond when it comes to protecting their skin from UV damage. You’d be hard pressed to find an Asian sunscreen that provides less than SPF 30 protection, with most of them providing SPF 45-50.
Part 3: Shopping & Resources
Online & Retail Stores
There are a lot of online shops and sellers on Amazon and Ebay that carry counterfeit Asian beauty products. It’s very important to make sure you are buying from a trusted seller – there is no telling what ingredients are in the fake products! This is a list of online stores and sellers that I know carry authentic products from Korean and Japanese skin care brands. All of them either ship internationally, or are located here in the US.
W2Beauty – Huge selection of authentic Korean beauty products that ship from Seoul. All products are fresh from their manufacturers. Prices are about the same as they are at Sasa, but W2Beauty shipping is free. For an extra $3 you can get a tracking number. Very friendly customer service. If there’s a product you want but don’t see it on their site, email them. They will do their best to get it for you! PayPal accepted. If you’re new to W2Beauty, you can get $5 off your first order by entering my sponsor code when registering your new account: 025605
Korea Depart – This website has the largest selection of Korean beauty products available to US shoppers. All products ship from Seoul. Their prices are really low – right on par with what you would pay if you were actually shopping for them in Korea. However, the shipping is very expensive – if you order from here, it would be wise to go in on a huge order with friends to make the shipping cost worth it.
Pretty & Cute – Pretty & Cute has a website that sells a variety of well known Korean brand skin care and cosmetics, including Etude House, Elisha Coy, and My Beauty Diary. They also have a retail store in Portland, OR, and I’m extremely jealous of everyone who lives near it.
Sasa – This is a huge online department store. Sasa has retail stores throughout China, and the website itself ships from Hong Kong. They have a huge selection of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean skin care products. Shipping takes a while – my last order took a little over two weeks – but the shipping prices are fair. PayPal accepted.
A-poly on Amazon – This is an Amazon Marketplace seller I’ve purchased products from and can confirm the authenticity of the shop’s products. They ship from Korea. Shipping prices are reasonable and I thought it was pretty fast.
Cosmetic Love on Amazon - This shop has a great variety of Korean cosmetics and skin care products, and the prices are very good. They ship worldwide from South Korea.
Rescue Warrior on Amazon - Pretty decent selection of products from lots of major Korean brands. All products ship from Korea. Prices are very reasonable.
RubyRubyShop on Ebay – This seller has a HUGE assortment of fairly priced Korean skin care and cosmetic products from brands such as Missha, Skin79, Holika Holika, TonyMoly, Laneige, and more. This seller ships worldwide from South Korea.
F2Plus1 on Ebay - Tons of Korean products from all the major brands. This particular seller is really good about carrying new collections as soon as they hit the market. All products ship from Korea. Definitely worth checking out!
Bello-Girl on Ebay - Great selection of products from lots of major Korean brands. All products ship from Korea. Prices are very reasonable and shipping is free!
For the Fairest Sophia on Ebay - This shop carries a lot of higher end Korean brands, such as Hera, Ohui, Sulwhasoo, and History of Whoo. Her prices are great, and she includes a lovely handwritten note and a gift with your order. My last gift was an adorable lace headband!
KocoMall – This online shop is new, but the people who run it used to sell products on Amazon under the name seoulglamour. This shop has a great variety of Korean cosmetics and skin care products, and the prices are really fantastic. They ship worldwide from South Korea.
YesStyle – This shop has a fairly large selection of Asian beauty products. Prices are a bit on the high side, but shipping is free for order over $150. US shipping is only $10 for orders less than $150. This shop is based in the US – they have brick & mortar stores in San Francisco and San Jose!
Two Face Mall - Two Face Mall has a large selection of Korean beauty products. Prices are slightly higher than shops like W2Beauty and Sasa. Shipping is free. Products ship from Korea.
GMarket – GMarket is a huge online marketplace that sells all kinds of Korean products, including all kinds of skin care and cosmetics. Product prices are low, but the shipping cost is high. This is another place where it makes sense to go in on a large order with friends to make the shipping cost worth it!
Asian Brands with US Websites
This is just a short list of Korean and Japanese beauty brands with a US web presence. A few of them even have retail stores here!
DHC – Mid-range Japanese skin care and cosmetics. Their cleansing oil is very popular in the US.
Shu Uemura – High-end Japanese skin care and cosmetics. People rave about their cleansing oil as well.
Shiseido – HUGE Japanese brand that’s already pretty popular here. They are sort of like Estée Lauder in the sense that they own many sub-brands, but also have the self-named Shiseido line. In addition to their website, they also have counters in many department stores around the US.
Sulwhasoo – This is a super high-end, Korean, luxury skin care brand with a fantastic reputation. They have a website, but their products are also available at Neiman Marcus, so you can check them out in person if you’re lucky enough to live near one.
Amore Pacific – Amore Pacific is one the larger skin care companies in Korea. They have a US website, but Sephora now carries their products as well! They’re pricy, but not quite as pricy as Sulwhasoo.
Missha – Missha is a highly accessible Korean road house brand that’s famous for their amazing BB creams. They have a huge lineup of skin care products and cosmetics available on their US website, and frequently have 30-50% off sales. I think Missha is a great starting point for someone just getting into Asian skin care.
Skin79 – This is another brand that’s already got some visibility in the US thanks to their BB creams. Their big sellers are their Hot Pink BB Cream and their VIP Gold BB Cream.
Rachel K Cosmetics – Rachel K is a Singapore cosmetics and skin care line that was started by Rachel Hum, a Singapore beauty queen turned entrepreneur. Their flagship product is their CC Cream, which is raved about by many beauty bloggers and vloggers.
Asian Cosmetics & Skin Care Blogs
Hope in a Blog – In addition to reviews and press releases for new products, this website has a TON of information about Korean beauty brands, how to navigate your way through GMarket, and lots of details about the Asian skin care routine.
Cake Pie – This is a blog by a girl named Tiffany Martin. She’s a gamer and a cosmetics lover, and posts some great, detailed reviews of all kinds of Asian beauty products.
The Beauty Wolf - This is a newcomer to the beauty blogging scene covering a lot of Korean makeup and skin care products, as well as a few Western products. She also creates some truly stunning collage-style graphics to showcase the products – you might be tempted to print them out and hang them on your wall!
Sample Hime – I love the conversational tone of this blog, and she covers a really broad range of Asian beauty products. She’s also recently created a great spreadsheet that compares pricing between some of the more popular online Korean beauty sellers.
Beauty Junkie – I’m such a fan of Bethany’s blog. She reviews a wide range of Korean beauty items from popular brands such as Etude House, TonyMoly, and Missha. She emphasizes in affordable beauty products, so if you’re looking to get into some Korean skin care without falling into financial ruin, this is a great resource.
Bunny Kiss – This is a blog by a girl named Eva, who does a lot of Asian cosmetics reviews. She also has a YouTube channel!
I hope this guide has been helpful. I’ll be updating it regularly as I find new resources!