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The K-beauty craze has been going strong for years, after first taking off in the Western world in 2011 with the introduction of BB creams—blemish balm creams—which had been popular in South Korea from the 1980s.
Making the most of the country’s advanced cosmetic industry, which has been decades ahead of the curve, many women today follow a meticulous Korean skincare routine (often consisting of 10 or more steps) to maintain glowing, healthy skin, as explained in the K-beauty section of my book How to Live Korean.
Every stage of the multi-step skincare routine involves applying various products. So which ones are best? Here we unveil some of the top K-beauty products, as recommended by Korean skincare experts.
1. Power Calm Hydrating Gel Cleanser
Korean skincare begins with the proper cleansing of the skin—specifically the double cleanse—which forms the foundation of the daily Korean skincare regimen. This entails washing your face with both an oil-based cleanser and a water-based one before layering on a series of products.
It’s important to choose a cleanser that can thoroughly clean the skin down to the pores without stripping it and disrupting its pH level, Alicia Yoon, the founder/CEO of Peach & Lily, who is a Harvard Business School graduate with an esthetician license, told Newsweek.
“I love the Peach & Lily Power Calm Hydrating Gel Cleanser as it’s great for all skin types, leaves skin sparkly clean while being gentle on skin,” Yoon said.
Charlotte Cho, a licensed esthetician who is the co-founder of the K-beauty website Soko Glam and author of The Little Book of Skin Care, told Newsweek: “I really believe in the power of the double cleanse. It’s the ritual that really helped me fall in love with K-Beauty and skincare. This K-Beauty practice really helped me to tackle my own acne and breakouts.
“Now that I’m a mom, I love this step as a form of self-care. There’s nothing better than gently massaging the face, neck, and chest with an oil based cleanser,” she said.
2. Hyaluronic Acid Moisture Toner
Pamper your skin without breaking your wallet with the Hyaluronic Acid Moisture Toner from Korean skincare brand It’s Skin. This quick-absorbing toner has a soft, silky feel with a light, refreshing scent.
The moisture-locking product is made with hyaluronic acid, a key molecule for skin moisture with a unique capacity in retaining water, as explained in a July 2012 study in the Dermato Endocrinology journal.
“Youthful skin retains its turgor, resilience and pliability, among others, due to its high content of water. Daily external injury, in addition to the normal process of aging, causes loss of moisture,” the study said. So hyaluronic acid can be key for maintaining youthful skin because of its ability to retain water.
3. Licorice pH Balancing Cleansing Toner
For those looking to balance out their skin, the Licorice pH Balancing Cleansing Toner from Acwell is your answer.
Cho said: “I always gravitate back to this formula because of its gentle pH of 5.5. Not only does it help to brighten the complexion with the use of licorice root extract, it also lightly cleanses, leaving the skin hydrated and fresh.”
4. Wild Dew Treatment Essence
Applying an essence is one of the crucial steps for hydration that’s often overlooked. But it is the key for “unlocking luminous glowing skin,” according to Peach & Lily’s Yoon, who recommends her brand’s Will Dew Treatment Essence.
Yoon advised: “Pat it into skin using your hands and it both drenches skin with hydration while prepping for following steps of your routine.”
5. Green Tea and Aloe Sheet Masks
Sheet masks—thin sheets soaked in ingredients offering different benefits, from hydration to a moisturization—have been popular in South Korea for several years. They not only help the skin better absorb all the products you apply during the multi-step skincare routine but make the perfect mini-facial pick-me-up you need during a busy week.
I love the Green Tea and Aloe Essence Masks from the Korean brand Esfolio. These masks, which also have a lovely calming, refreshing scent, are especially rejuvenating on the skin when placed on the face after being stored in the refrigerator.
The Aloe Essence Mask is made with a highly concentrated essence as well as moisturizing ingredients such as the aloe vera leaf extract, which helps make the skin more elastic and moist and calms down sensitive skin. Aloe vera is known for its powerful antioxidant compounds, which helps to prevent premature aging by neutralizing free radicals, which cause cell damage.
The Green Tea Essence Mask is made with several nutrients from green tea leaves, which helps to make your skin clean and clear by removing toxins hidden in your pores. Green tea contains catechins, which are natural antioxidants that can help prevent cell damage and reduce the formation of free radicals.
6. Snail Mucin Energy Essence
“There’s nothing more K-Beauty than snail mucin,” according to Cho. “Although it seems like an odd ingredient, it really shines in skin care.”
Snail mucin is essentially an excretion from a snail, which you may often see listed as “snail secretion filtrate” on product ingredient lists.
In addition to its hydrating benefits, snail mucin works to plump, decrease the look of hyperpigmentation and can also combat acne, the Soko Glam co-founder explained.
“I specifically love it in higher concentrations, which is why I’ve been reaching for The Klog’s Snail Mucin Energy Essence, which is formulated with 90 percent snail mucin and wild yam root extract AKA phyto mucin,” Cho said.
7. Super+ Beblesh Balm
Skin 79, a Korean skincare brand specializing in natural ingredients, has been around since 1998. It is credited as the pioneer of the “beauty balm” product term after developing the first BB cream with a makeup function back in 2006.
Among the brand’s best-sellers is the multi-functioning Super+ Beblesh Balm, which offers protection from UV rays with an SPF of 30, while evening out your skin tone and normalizing sebum production (sebum being the main component of the body’s natural oils that coats, protects and moisturizes your skin).
The balm is also packed with antioxidants, made with acerola fruit extract which can stimulate collagen production for an anti-aging effect and help reduce wrinkles.
8. Glass Skin Refining Serum
Serums and other treatments that address different skin issues (such as wrinkles, pigmentation, and acne) also form a key part of the daily Korean skincare regimen. Yoon’s “holy grail product” is the Glass Skin Refining Serum from Peach & Lily.
It contains hyaluronic acid for hydration as well as “niacinamide to visibly brighten, peptides to visually firm, peach extract for antioxidants and madecassoside to soothe,” the Peach & Lily founder explained.
“It’s a gentle serum that gives my skin a lot of support and helps to keep it radiant and happy,” Yoon said.
9. Mugwort Essence
Korean skincare brand I’m From is a staple in the K-beauty community, as is the mugwort plant, which is the main ingredient of this essence product.
Cho said: “Also known as artemisia, mugwort has a long history in Korean health and wellness practices for its calming and soothing benefits.
“I specifically love the I’m From Mugwort Essence because it contains 100 perfect mugwort extract, so I can truly reap all the benefits of this universal skin care ingredient.”
10. EGF Collagen Ampoule
Ampoules, which are highly concentrated serums, also form part of the Korean skin care routine. They are usually applied temporarily to target certain skin problems, whereas serums are for daily and nightly use.
The EGF Collagen Ampoule from The Skin House, a Korean skincare brand dating back to 1979 known for its use and development of “scientifically proven ingredients for skin,” is an ampoule aimed at anti-aging.
Its main ingredient is EGF (epidermal growth factor), a healing agent that restores damaged skin. It also contains adenosine, which serves an anti-wrinkle function, according to the company.
EDF is a natural protein in our skin cells that aims to heal the skin by promoting DNA synthesis and cell proliferation, explains The Klog website.
This superlight ampoule, which aims to minimize wrinkles, dark spots, fine lines and sagginess, has a light and clean feel, quickly absorbing onto the skin.
11. Matcha Pudding Antioxidant Cream
To properly hydrate and protect your skin, it’s important to use a deeply hydrating moisturizer packed with antioxidants or vitamins, which helps keep the skin moisturized and fight signs of free radical damage, Yoon said.
“I recommend the Matcha Pudding Antioxidant Cream [from Peach & Lily] as it’s suitable for all skin types, feels lightweight while delivering long-lasting hydration and is packed with antioxidants.”
12. Renewing Rich Beauty Cream
Cho recommends Renewing Rich Beauty Cream from Then I Met You, the brand launched by Cho, especially for winter skincare.
She said: “Winter really challenges the skin. Between the arid environment outside and the dry air indoors, the skin really suffers from a lack of hydration.”
This cream contains “a powerful Quad Ginseng Complex as well as a three pronged approach to moisturization and hydration, with the luxurious buttery formula containing emollients, humectants, and occlusives,” the Soko Glam co-founder explained.
13. Daily UV Defense Sunscreen SPF 36
Wearing sunscreen (or avoiding the sun all together as much as possible) is one of the key ways by which many Korean women maintain healthy, youthful looking skin. This means wearing an SPF even when you are indoors.
Cho recommends Daily UV Defense Sunscreen SPF 36 from Innisfree, which is owned by the Amore Corporation, a major Korean skincare conglomerate.
This lightweight water-based sunscreen is infused with green tea, sunflower oil and “reef-friendly sunscreen ingredients,” according to the company, offering sun protection without a pasty white finish.
Cho told NBC News in August 2021: “I always tell people you want to find a [skincare] company that has a lot of research and development [and] a good example is Innisfree,” Cho said.
14. Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Eye Cream EX
The ginseng root-based eye cream from the holistic Korean skincare brand Sulwhasoo is made with the company’s unique “Active Beauty Ginsenoside substance” known as “Ginsenomics,” which aims to improve the resilience of the skin around your eyes.
Sulwhasoo is known for its more than 50 years of research on Korean ginseng for skincare. Its products focus on addressing the causes of skin problems as well as treating the signs of aging.
All of the company’s K-beauty research and development is conducted at the state-of-the-art Sulwhasoo Heritage & Science Center in South Korea.
The company’s brand ambassador is Song Hye-kyo, one of the country’s biggest K-drama and movie stars.
15. Cicapair Tiger Grass Color Correcting Treatment
The Cicapair Tiger Grass Color Correcting Treatment from Dr. Jart+, the Korean skincare brand that brought BB creams to the U.S. back in 2011, has become the top cult product in North America and Europe, according to the company.
The product is made with niacinamide (a form of vitamin B-3) as well as the company’s unique Green Repair Solution complex, which is made with tiger grass (a key herbal ingredient for skin recovery) and a blend of other skin-boosting herbs.
The green-to-beige cream helps neutralize redness and even out your skin tone as well as revive the appearance of tired skin.
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