Your Beginner's Guide to Understanding Asian Skincare Products

Updated 09/08/17
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When Korea’s BB Cream craze expanded (or rather, exploded) into the U.S. in 2011, we were suddenly made aware of just how far ahead of the skincare game Asia was in terms of both innovation and technology. Since then, we’ve seen other Asian beauty products, like CC Creams and sheet masks, introduced to America under crossover brands like SK-II and AmorePacific (both of which are sold at Sephora). Of course, it was only a matter of time before more niche Asian brands found a place on the average American woman’s medicine cabinet.

But for anyone who has ever fallen in love with the creamy lightness of a BB Cream, or experienced the thrill of a post-sheet mask glow, comes one caveat: Asian skincare products—though effective and cutting-edge—can come across as somewhat intimidating to the unschooled at first. Ingredients like snail slime or starfish essence, and ambiguous terms like “snow cream” or “smooth pudding” (yes, it’s a real product), can leave a lot of women scratching their heads and wondering if they’re supposed to apply the product, or spoon it in their mouths.

We spoke with Alicia Yoon and Cindy Kim, founders of Korean and Japanese beauty e-commerce site Peach and Lily, and Katherine Tocheff, Director of Marketing & Innovation for Japanese skincare line Hada Labo, and asked them to explain the basics of Asian skincare to us. From the main differences between Asian and American skin products, to their predictions on the “next big thing” from Asia to take the U.S. by storm, they gave us the ultimate crash course—and we’re sharing all of their knowledge with you.


Click through the slideshow above for our beginner’s guide to understanding Asian skincare products—plus, some truly wondrous products you NEED to know!

When asked about the main difference between Asian and American beauty products, Yoon and Kim both referred to the influence of the consumer. “On average, Korean women spend seven times more [on beauty products] than American woman,” says Kim. “All that money gets pumped back to cosmetics firms in Korea, where they’re constantly having to create innovative products that keep consumers happy.”

Kim says that Korean women are very demanding about the products they use on their skin, mainly because they’re more well-versed about skincare than the average American women. “What’s interesting is that—like in any eco-system—you’re only going to be as good as your consumers are demanding, and Korean consumers are the most demanding globally,” Yoon says. She mentions that a lot of outside brands will use Korea as a testing ground for new products: “If you can meet the Korean “bar,” your product can succeed anywhere else in the world.” In other words, since Asian consumers demand and expect more, their products often deliver more.

Another big difference between Western beauty products and their Korean and Japanese counterparts are the ingredients. “There’s a culture of celebrating the timeless ingredients that are indigenous to Asia, like indigenous mushrooms or ginseng,” Yoon says. She explains how Korean women will immediately notice if a certain product is filled with cheap ingredients or harsh chemicals, and that they tend to favor more natural ingredients—one reason why botanical-based products are so popular in Asia.

Kim mentions one emerging natural ingredient that’s starting to get popular in Korea: maple tree sap. “It’s one of the most purified form of liquids on earth,” she says. “It spends so much time in the tree and soaks up nutrients…it’s absorbed into your skin immediately, whereas water-based products take time to break down and get absorbed.”  Intrigued? She suggests giving Maycoop’s Raw Activator ($60) face serum a try.

When it comes down to it, Kim says that that Asian and American women simply approach beauty differently, from a cultural perspective. “We grew up watching our moms do a 10 to 15-step skincare system,” she explains. “It’s not an obsession with looking young—it’s more the belief that if you respect your skin, it will respect you back and reward you with a beautiful complexion for a long time.”

Tocheff says that Japanese women feel the same way: “That’s why we are creating an eye cream specifically for the American market,” she says. “It doesn’t exist in Japan—even though Hada Labo has hundreds of products—because Japanese women care more about the overall look and feel of their skin, instead of spot treatments or piling on makeup.”


If the ingredients are higher quality, does that mean we should expect to shell out more for them as well? “Korean products will run the gamut from complete mass to super luxurious,” Yoon says. Though they run the full price spectrum, she says that the value you see in Korean products are usually better than with other countries. “Because of the way consumers look for things, brands can’t get away with using cheaper ingredients and hiking up the prices,” she says.

Tocheff explains that this high-quality, reasonable pricing mindset applies to Hada Labo’s brand philosophy as well: “As a brand, we’re built on the belief of offering consumers the highest quality ingredients, with affordable pricing.”

We couldn’t help but ask about the notorious 10-step Korean skincare regimen. Kim laughs and explains: “Where the steps start multiplying is cleansing—Korean women will often use a cleansing oil and mild cleanser right after—and then they really start expanding at the serum stage.” She says that Korean women will use multiple serums targeted towards different skin issues, like pore minimizing, brightening, and tightening.

What about women who don’t have time to complete a 10-step system everyday? Yoon suggests the bare minimum of cleanser, toner, and a serum—or two. “Potentially, you might not even need a moisturizer, because you can replace that with another moisturizing serum,” she explains. “It may be better to double-down and focus on the step where the ingredients really 

Since Yoon and Kim are constantly traveling to Asia to learn about new products and innovations, we asked them to share what they think the next “big thing” in beauty will be to hit the U.S. They answer: sleep masks and finishers.

“In lieu of your night cream, or after applying night cream—it depends on how that particular sleeping mask is formulated—you would apply a sleep mask that absorbs right into your skin,” Kim says. With a consistency between a cream and a serum, they’re filled with active ingredients like you would find in any type of serum, but won’t “fly away” if you don’t apply moisturizer right after. Instead, a sleeping mask, like May Coop’s Tightening Mask ($55), will seal in all of its active ingredients and penetrate deep into your skin while you snooze.

In the same way, a finisher, like Sulwhasoo’s Luminature Essential Finisher (soon to be available in the U.S.) seals in your AM skin products and provides a smooth base or your face makeup. Plus, it’s filled with skin-benefiting ingredients and leaves you with a shimmery, dewy glow—think of it as a serum and face primer hybrid that locks in every product you applied before foundation.

Tocheff hints of a new product that Hada Labo will release this fall that falls under the current sheet mask trend, but with a much more wallet-friendly price point. Currently, popular sheet masks by SK-II and AmorePacific sell for around $100 for a pack of four.

And there you have it—you may now consider yourself an Asian skincare expert! Have you ever tried any Asian skincare or beauty products? What are your thoughts? Sound off below!

Plus, keep clicking the slideshow above for the groundbreaking Korean and Japanese products you NEED to know about!

Cremorlab T.E.N. Mineral Treatment Essence $42
Hada Labo Skin Plumping Gel Cream $25
Mizon Returning Starfish Cream $28
Missha Speed Solution Anti Trouble Patch $8
Be The Skin Botanical Nutrition Toner $25
Manefit Bling Bling Hydro Gel Mask $6
May Coop Tightening Mask $55
Aromatica Neroli Brightening Facial Oil $42
Amore Pacific Color Control Cushion Compact Broad Spectrum SPF 50+ $60
Tatcha Evening Aburatorigami Papers $15

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