If the Koreans are to be believed, more is better. Attaining gorgeous skin is a laborious process involving multiple steps, to be repeated several times a day. In recent years, one of the hottest trends in cosmetics is Korean products, which promise gorgeous skin but come with a product-heavy, labor-intensive routine.
In fact, popular vlogger Soko Glam details her meticulous 10-step routine just to cleanse and moisturize the face — day and night online.
But do they really work? A 10-step routine is at odds with more minimalist American skin-care methods, which can be as little as washing and moisturizing. Further, many of these products come with ingredients not commonly found in Western skin care, like pearl essence, snail secretions or donkey milk, to name a few.
So are Korean cosmetics living up to the hype? In general, skin-care professionals say there are some good, high-quality products that can be helpful, but like anything else, consumers should do a little research before buying.
Dr. Lauren Ploch, a board-certified dermatologist in private practice at the Georgia Dermatology and Skin Cancer Center in Augusta, says the biggest difference between Western and Korean beauty products is the focus on “having clear skin first and foremost. … Another thing about Korean skin care — that I love — is it’s very sunscreen-prominent.”
The first Korean products that came to the U.S. were beauty/blemish balm creams, known as “BB creams.The creams combine several products in one, such as being a foundation, a moisturizer, a sunscreen and perhaps including antioxidants or other anti-aging ingredients.
Read more: 5 Things Dermatologists Won’t Tell You
Dr Low Chai Ling, founder of SW1 Clinic, believes that the introduction of HDTV coincides with the rise of complexion-centric skincare regimes. With HDTV’s sharper focus, complexion flaws were magnified. In addition, the increase use of “selfies” led to more scrutiny of one’s complexion. “People were no longer content to have pimple-free skin. I was beginning to see patients who wanted to have poreless skin that looked flawless even in the harsh light of day!” she explained.
That helped lead to a wave of other Korean products, including the introduction of the labor-intensive cleansing steps as well as medicated sunscreen with coverage, known as BB creams.
Dr. Low who also created the SW1 line of cosmeceuticals and, and co-authored the textbook “Aging in Asian Skin,” said some of the fundamental steps include using an oil-based cleanser to remove oil debris and makeup. A foam-based cleanser removes dirt, an exfoliate removes dead skin cells, and a toner preps the skin to better absorb what is applied next. “Many of the Korean skincare steps are also designed with the Asian skin in mind, which is less likely to be as dry as the Caucasian skin, therefore the focus on removing sebum, dirt and debris,” she says.
To moisturize, an essence is applied to help with skin regeneration, then a serum is added, which is a more concentrated version of the essence. A moisturizing mask layered on via a sheet is next, followed by an eye cream. During the day sunscreen is added, while at night there may be a second mask such as a Sleep Mode to wear while sleeping.
Korean skin care is “a very different philosophy (from American skin care) that if you want results, you have to make the time for it,” Dr Low says. “There is also a certain sense of ‘hygge’ involved when it comes to the Korean skincare regime. A mindfulness and sense of meditative pleasure involved in the whole process” explains Dr Low. Hygge is a Danish word used when acknowledging a feeling or moment. It refers to a sense of mindful consciousness, a certain slowness, and the ability to not just be present – but recognize and enjoy the present. “Like savouring a good wine or a good book, it’s not for the impatient and cannot be rushed.”
But not everyone agrees that all those steps are needed.
“The more you do to your skin, the more irritated it’s likely to get. I think people have to sometimes take that step back. … I find it completely unnecessary and expensive. Unless someone goes to their dermatologist, and their dermatologist says, yes, you need this extra layer,” Dr Weingarten, a dermatologist says.
Dr Low says that not everyone requires the full 10 steps which can be an overkill for some. But people who want to try out Korean products should look for gentle cleansers, serums and moisturizers based on their skin type. In fact, her patients who are judicious about their skincare regimes are sometimes prescribed different skincare to target different parts of the face to help them achieve optimal results, she explains. “For example, I may prescribe White Plasma to combat melasma on the cheeks, then a sleeping peel for the T-zone” says Dr Low.
As far as the unusual ingredients like snail secretions, all experts we spoke to said to use a little caution. In many cases, it’s the novelty factor that is generating the buzz. Do you really need the moisturizing factor from snail slime that a normal tried and tested moisturizer cannot deliver? Don’t forget novelty product s also come with less track record and higher risk of undocumented side effects.
Over-the-counter “cosmeceuticals” products claiming to have medical benefits aren’t recognized by the Food and Drug Administration. They don’t have the same testing as products dermatologists prescribe for skin conditions, according to medical experts.
Cosmeceutical products may be tested, but they may not be testing for efficacy. Instead they may be tested for consistency, smell, texture. Because these cosmeceutical ingredients aren’t regulated by the FDA, it’s hard to tell how much of them a product contains and whether it is making a difference. Also, some of these ingredients can cause allergic reactions, even if they are natural.
The thing to take away from Korean skin care is relish your skin care, don’t limit yourself (to a few) products and don’t hurry through it. Make sure to wear sunscreen every day, and if you can find a good product that multitasks for you, that’s a good one to get.
Taking your time with your skin is a gift to yourself and your skin. Whether or not, you need to necessarily invest in a full 10 steps remains debatable. “Instead of counting the number of steps, the key really is to focus on active ingredients that truly work,” says Dr Low. Astaxanthin found in red algae, glutathione and resveratrol are superior innovative active compounds proven to help turn back the aging clock faster than the rest.