One morning in mid-May, after having fallen asleep on an airplane in Los Angeles with an eye mask and a bowl of noodles in my belly, I woke up in Tokyo and couldn't believe my luck. The Japanese cosmetics brand Koh Gen Do had invited me on a press trip (in celebration of the reformulation of its iconic Aqua Foundation) to visit its headquarters, take a tour of the beauty shopping scene in Tokyo, and explore the sprawling city of kawaii fashion, ramen, kitty cafés, and 9.4 million people.
So, I packed my quirkiest outfits and my passport. Having never been to any Asian country before, I had wide, eager eyes and few expectations. For five days, I was given a crash course in all things Japanese cosmetics and skincare: I discovered drugstore and department store brands, hydrating products, and facial massage techniques I'd never so much as heard of before. And by the end of my trip, I felt like I had a new lease on skincare thanks to the lessons I'd learned from Japan's unique combination of centuries-old traditions and brand-new technology.
With the help of esthetician Megumi Setoguchi and board-certified dermatologists for Jenny Liu, MD, and Rachel Nazarian, MD, I break down five Japanese skincare secrets I picked up during my trip to Tokyo. Read on to learn more.
Meet the Expert
- Megumi Setoguchi is an esthetician and Koh Gen Do's Senior Managing Director.
- Dr. Jenny Liu, MD, is a dermatologist and expert for Japanese-inspired beauty Brand, Tatcha.
- Dr. Rachel Nazarian is a dermatologist of Schweiger Dermatology Group in NYC.
Drink Matcha Tea For a Glowing Complexion
Matcha is as prevalent in Tokyo as coffee and soda combined in the U.S.—it can be found served hot or cold in every restaurant and convenience store, not to mention all the different matcha-flavored snack foods you can buy (I may or may not have taken home some matcha Oreos as a souvenir). But matcha is also an important centerpiece of Japanese culture, and I learned about the traditions surrounding it at a tea ceremony hosted at a Tokyo cooking school called Chagohan, where I learned to mix and drink matcha in an old-school style.
Matcha is a part of almost every Japan resident's daily lifestyle, and Setoguchi credits it in part for giving Japanese women such glowy skin. Matcha has anti-inflammatory properties, meaning it can help curb the redness associated with acne and rosacea, not to mention it contains antioxidants and chlorophyll, which help protect the skin against the negative effects of UV radiation.
"Matcha is a concentrated form of green tea, which although green tea typically contains antioxidants, this particular form has a high density of free-radical fighting capacity because of its concentration and preparation," Nazarian explains.
Liu echoes this. "Skin is a reflection of our body," she says. "Consuming a well-balanced diet and beverages that are high in antioxidants, like matcha, can help improve our overall body health, which can be reflected in our skin."
She adds that the most significant changes to skin, of course, come from skin care and what is applied to it directly. Aside from drinking the green powder, you can also incorporate it into your routine by using skincare products formulated with matcha, like Colleen Rothschild Beauty's Matcha Tea Treatment Toner ($32), which also contains kombucha black tea to help absorb excess oil and minimize the appearance of pores.
Take Probiotics For Gut and Skin Health
When asked to describe how the Japanese attitude toward wellness benefits its citizens' skin, Setoguchi knew right away: probiotics. "The environment of your gut is directly connected to your skin—Japanese women are all very aware of this," she said. For this reason, probiotics are a huge part of the average Japanese diet.
"We have natural bacterial flora that help boost our immune systems and help minimize bad bacteria. When we throw off this sensitive balance, inflammatory markers in the colon (and skin) increase, triggering acne, rosacea, and perhaps other inflammatory conditions of the skin," Nazarian explains. "Probiotics can help rebalance the skin and bacteria internally, but it’s important to also adhere to a good topical regimen, and diet, to decrease the disruption of the good bacterial flora and pH as well. Topical probiotics are quite useful for repairing the damaged skin barrier that may have been caused by over-stripping of the natural bacteria and oils from harsh scrubs and overly aggressive cleansers."
The Japanese consume their probiotics in a number of ways: They have a version of kombucha called “kocha kinoko," which is a sweet fermented kelp tea rich in probiotics. Pills and supplements are also on the rise. And of course, many probiotic-containing foods are staples of the Japanese diet, like miso and pickled vegetables (both of which I consumed every day of my trip).
Make Hydrating Lotions a Staple In Your Beauty Routine
Setoguchi taught me that lotion is the centerpiece of Japanese women's skincare. A lotion is a product with a liquid, watery texture that you pat on your skin with your hands after cleansing to deliver deep, intense moisture that feels lightweight and non–pore-clogging on the skin. It's as important to the Japanese routine as moisturizer is to us; in fact, some Japanese women use a lotion and an oil without any moisturizer at all.
"Skincare lotions, also known as moisturizing essences, are very popular in Japanese and Korean beauty, which is strongly rooted in the idea of skin hydration, as an essential part of skincare," says Liu. "Skin hydration means a healthy skin barrier and healthy skin." She likes The Essence from Tatcha because it "contains various blends of active ingredients to improve skin hydration and therefore also enhance efficacy of other skincare products."
Nazarian says lotion is a catch-all term. "It's a generic term for a product that may offer multiple benefits: anti-aging, brightening, protection etc.," Nazarian says. "The benefit of using a lotion, assuming you choose your lotion wisely, is that you can use a product that multitasks and improve your skin beyond just hydration."
One of the most popular lotions in Japan, according to Koh Gen Do's intern, is this Naturie Hatomugi Skin Conditioner ($10), which we came across at a Tokyo drugstore. It's so cheap but offers so much product that you can really go to town with your lotion packs (a method of applying lotion where you saturate a few sheets of pure cotton for even more hydration).
Apply a High-Quality, Lightweight Facial Sunscreen
If you think American drugstores are chockablock with beauty products, Tokyo would make your heart skip a beat. We hit up about five popular drugstores all over the city and were flabbergasted by the selection of makeup, skincare, and gadgets, some of which were quite exotic. (Like eyebrow stamps? So strange). But what impressed me the most about Japanese drugstores was their impressive selection of "gel" sunscreens. So many American consumers complain of facial SPF being chalky and breakout-inducing, but tons of Japanese brands like Shiseido and Allie, make these incredibly lightweight, liquidy "gel" sunscreens that offer SPF 50 and a texture that won't clog your pores, all at drugstore prices.
"Gels differ from creams and lotions on their reduced oil content. Gels are lightweight and absorb quickly into the skin, making them an ideal choice for sunscreen for those with acne-prone skin, or for use in hotter, more humid climates and during the summer," Nazarian explains.
I'd heard legends of a Nivea sunscreen that's only available in Japan, so I picked up a bottle in Tokyo and have been using it ever since. Believe me when I tell you the texture is so featherlight and watery it was hard to believe it really contained SPF—but about a month after my trip to Tokyo, I went on a beach vacation with my family, wore the product every day in the sun, and didn't get burned once. America, it's time to step up your drugstore sunscreen game to Japan's level—pronto.
Gel sunscreens are less occlusive and feel more breathable, according to Nazarian, making it easy to layer them in your skincare regimen or under makeup.
Use Makeup to Complement Your Skin (Not Hide It!)
The Japanese makeup trends I noticed in Tokyo consisted of matte, flawless skin, bright lips, and a black eyeliner wing. But "flawless" skin in Japan doesn't mean a thick coating of full-coverage foundation: It all starts with a clear, hydrated complexion underneath—achieved with the products and lifestyle habits I've already mentioned—matched with a foundation that conceals and evens out just what's needed while still looking like natural human skin.
Those were the requirements in Koh Gen Do's mind when they set out to reformulate their signature foundation in 2018: Koh Gen Do's Aqua Foundation is sort of a sleeper hit in the U.S., used by nearly every makeup artist but not as much by everyday consumers. By contrast, in Japan, it's a household name and the go-to product for movie stars and on-camera talent whose skin has to look perfect, but also like it's not caked in makeup, in super-HD.
In April of 2018, the brand relaunched the product with an updated formula, intended to be lighter in weight but with better coverage. The formula is complete with soft-focus pigments that make the skin look airbrushed, in addition to nourishing ingredients like jojoba oil, olive squalene, and shea butter for a hydrating effect.
Whenever I want my skin to look naturally flawless in the Japanese style, I spend 10 minutes with my lotion pack, make myself a matcha tea, and apply this foundation. It's a routine that blends old traditions with modern technology, and I feel honored to have gotten to witness it firsthand.
This trip was paid for by Koh Gen Do. Editors' opinions are their own.