By now, we all know that if we want the most potent, innovative, ergonomic skincare products, we should look to the east. If B.B. cream didn’t convince you, essences, cushion compacts, and gentle-as-feather gommage peels will. Thus, nowadays when we catch wind of trending ingredients and products from Korea, we latch onto them and learn everything we can, knowing they will make it stateside eventually, and when they do, we’ll be ready and waiting (not to mention have bragging rights about using them before they were cool).
The latest Korean skincare trend to fall into this category? Products with fermented ingredients. Yes, like the wine you
guzzle sip at night and the yogurt you eat each morning, fermented products are processed in an oxygen-free environment over a long period of time for a result that is more potent and more powerful than its original state. Curious? Skin tingling in anticipation? Keep scrolling to learn everything you need to know about the next big thing in skincare!
First—a little information on how exactly ingredients are fermented when they’re used in skincare. “Fermentation is a process where carbohydrates and sugars are converted to skin-loving enzymes and amino acids, via the metabolic activity of ‘good’ microorganisms, like lactobacillus,” Christine Chang and Sarah Lee, co-founders of natural Korean beauty site Glow Recipe, explain. “Unlike traditional cosmetic processes that utilize high temperatures to blend ingredients and actives, fermented skincare is slowly processed over a period of time that can lead up to several weeks, in a pristine, oxygen-free environment.” It’s during this conversion process where the magic happens: ingredients are broken down and micronized, and harmful bacteria and toxins are naturally removed.
And there’s more—while research on fermented ingredients in skincare products is just starting, there are already studies that show the efficacy and potency of products are increased when they’re fermented, because ingredients are “broken down” into smaller, more easily absorbed molecules, Chang and Lee say. What does this mean? Basically, if you have dry or sensitive skin, this could be the miracle you’ve been praying for—the smaller the molecules in the products, the more easily they’ll penetrate and hydrate, repair, and soothe. “Think of this way—wine has several times the antioxidant content of grapes,” Chang explains. And that’s not all—she says fermentation can also help the nutrient density and concentration of skin-loving ingredients like peptides, proteins, antioxidants, and amino acids.
And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, because of the natural fermentation process, “bad” microorganisms can’t survive—which means less preservatives. So, in the end, you’re left with a super-potent product with very minimal (if any) preservatives that usually cause irritation. “All this makes for a gentle, yet effective formula that helps to improve texture, tone, dryness, and fine lines,” Lee says.
So what kind of fermented ingredients should we be looking for on our skincare labels? Chang and Lee say that as of now, some of the most popular ingredients in Korea include fermented botanicals, like chrysanthemum, dandelion and aloe—the first two have antioxidant properties, while aloe is known as an instant skin soother. Other common fermented ingredients? Grains, like rice, and proteins, like soy (the fermented version of which is called natto). “Rice is a very gentle, natural exfoliant and helps to even out your skin tone, while natto is hydrating and nourishing,” Chang says.
As for what types of skincare products fermented ingredients are most commonly found in, Lee says they’re used in pretty much everything—from toners to essences, serums, and creams. She does mention that they’re mostly focused on leave-in products, rather than cleansers. If you do purchase a product with fermented ingredients, Chang and Lee say to expect the shelf life to be about six to 12 months opened, or 24 to 36 months unopened. “Fermentation does create an environment where fewer preservatives can be used in the formula, but the shelf-life of a product depends on a number of other factors, including types of preservatives and other ingredients used in the formula,” Chang explains.
Korean women are smart, savvy, and know their skincare stuff—which might explain why they latched onto the fermented ingredient trend so quickly. Well, that and their diet. “Fermented foods are such a healthy staple in the Korean diet (kimchi is just a start!), so it was readily embraced for topical skincare as well,” Chang says. Alicia Yoon, founder of Asian beauty portal Peach & Lily, agrees, saying that Koreans have been eating fermented rice and various fermented foods for hundreds of years now, and the general trend in the beauty world is to go back to the more natural—things that history and experience can vouch for. “As the market gets more cluttered, to stand out and compete, a lot of brands are taking it back to basics,” Yoon says. “The fermented skincare trend is thriving because it’s based on things that have historically worked.”
And as for the trend carrying over to the U.S? “We definitely foresee fermentation becoming a trend in the U.S., and already see some recent launches with interesting fermented ingredients,” Chang says. Yoon thinks it might not make quite the splash as cushion compacts or B.B. cream, but will appeal to a new audience. “Fermented skincare is going to appeal to a new lineup of consumers in the U.S. who are little more adventurous,” she says, citing the appeal in the natural ingredients, as well as skin compatibility. “Anecdotally, fermented skincare products are much more compatible for all skin types because of the way they’re formulated,” she says. “When skin compatibility is high, the less chance there is for irritation.”
Keep scrolling for some of Yoon, Chang and Lee’s fermented skincare picks!