What Is K-Beauty?
For those unfamiliar with the term K-Beauty, it refers to skincare products and regimen rituals from South Korea. I realized K Beauty was becoming a “thing”—not just for trendy Millennials, but also for skincare-savvy Gen Xers and Boomers—when a friend of mine who's a successful, 40-something dermatologist, got remarried and went to Korea for her honeymoon. Instead of lingerie, she brought an empty suitcase, then went on a skincare shopping spree, stuffing it with sheet masks, night creams laced with snail mucin, and an assortment of ‘essences.’
So what’s the allure of South Korean skincare? For starters, the innovative, sometimes wacky-sounding, formulas are usually both surprisingly effective and affordable. Also, the eight-to-ten steps characteristic of most nighttime K-Beauty regimens has a surprising upside. First, it enables you to target every possible skincare issue (wrinkles, sunspots, sagging, sensitivity) individually, then swap serums and essences in an out, as needed. As a result, you're customizing your regimen and meeting your skin's needs day to day.
Even more important, in my opinion, is that performing multiple steps before bed tricks you into a little end-of-day pampering, which can help you de-stress, sleep better and even lower end-of-day levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that accelerates aging. Interestingly, the French and Japanese have historically also adhered to elaborate pre-bed skincare rituals—and these two cultures are also often credited with aging well. Maybe not a coincidence.
For K-Beauty beginners, I've outlined four hallmarks of a typical South Korean skin regimen, along with product suggestions I’ve tried and like. Try them (or not). But if you've read this far, at least next time someone brings up K-Beauty, you won't look at them blankly.
Dual-cleanse K-Beauty devotees typically cleanse at day’s end with two steps: First, they use an oil-based cleanser, followed by a water-based one. The idea is that the oily formula breaks down makeup, then the water-based formula removes grime—and the oil. Adult acne is a chief complexion complaint in South Korea, so this one-two cleansing punch probably developed as a way to make sure the skin is super clean before bed. In my opinion, these two steps are not that different from using a cotton pad soaked in makeup remover, followed by your favorite foaming or gel cleanser, so many of you may already be doing something akin to this. But if you want to two-step K-Beauty-style, I like Aromatica Natural Coconut Cleansing Oil and Aromatica Sea Daffodil Cleansing Mousse, both available at peachandlily.com, one of the most popular K-Beauty shops in the U.S.
Apply an essence This liquidy toner-like product is also sometimes called a softener, or, incongruously, a lotion, even though it’s more watery than lotiony. It’s usually applied with a cotton pad right after dual-cleansing and, unlike American toners such as Sea Breeze circa 1987, essences are typically alcohol-free and safe for sensitive skin. There are a range of formulas, but the purpose of most essences is to remove dead skin cells, prepping skin for any serums and creams applied after it. I like COSRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner, which gently exfoliates and seems to instantly tighten pores. It's available at us.memebox.com, another popular K-Beauty online shop.
Slather on snail mucin Yes, you read that correctly. Snail mucin. K-Beauty night creams, often referred to as “sleep packs” frequently contain that gooey mucus-y trail snails leave behind. The mucin is said to be highly moisturizing and to help cells function more efficiently. The first time I applied a product with snail mucin, I was reminded of when I went to get a "fish pedicure" in Tokyo. For those who’ve never seen or tried a fish pedicure, it entails sticking your bare feet in a basin filled with water and allowing small “doctor” (Garra Rufa) fish to nibble at rough skin on your soles. I tried like ten times to plunge my feet into that fish-filled basin, but every time I started to lower my soles into the water, the fish would swarm in my direction, I’d scream—then I’d yank my feet up and out, splashing water everywhere. All I could think was barracuda. Needless to say, I finally opted out of the pedi. Applying snail cream was not quite as gag-inducing, but it was a leap of faith for me. However, it’s one I’m glad I took. I've been using Mizon Snail Wrinkle Care Sleeping Pack before bed for a few weeks, and it really does leave the skin incredibly soft—and plump. I see it as a rich but not sticky uber-moisturizer. And at only $16 (one us.membox.com), it’s not a huge investment for K-Beauty newbies.
Unfold a sheet mask One caveat: You will scare the beejezus out of your family if you walk around in one of these. Paper masks usually come in two pieces (one for the top of your face, and one for the bottom), they are soaked in a treatment serum—and they will make you look like a cross between Jason from Friday the 13th movies and Hannibal Lecter. But they are probably K-Beauty’s best-selling step and they need only be applied for about ten minutes to reap their benefits, which range from calming to tightening to hydrating to clarifying the skin. My favorite right now is the Donkey Milk Skin Gel Aqua Masks (I told you some formulas sound wacky). It really does contain milk from donkeys, which is said to help brighten dull skin. (I’m guessing it’s lactic acid, present in most dairy, that’s doing the gentle exfoliation.) Bottom line: My skin looks remarkably revived after one application and at just $2 per treatment, that's hard to top.