There’s a reason why Korean beauty has become a staple in many people’s skin routines: It works. K-Beauty brands are constantly innovating, whether in the form of milk peels or splash masks, and it’s what goes into those fun textures that does the heavy lifting.
Natural ingredients have contributed to the mainstream success of the space, as they deliver astonishing results while having interesting stories behind them. Sure, some of them are so out-of-the-box, they’ll make you do a double-take (snail mucin, anyone?), but we’ll try anything that can bring us toward the goal of our best skin ever.
Meet the Expert
- Charlotte Cho is a K-Beauty expert, co-founder of Soko Glam, and author of The Little Book of Jeong.
- Sarah Lee is a K-Beauty expert and co-founder of skincare brand Glow Recipe.
- Ginger King is a cosmetic chemist, owner of product development firm Grace Kingdom Beauty, and founder of lip care brand Fan Love Beauty.
To keep up with the ever-growing Korean skincare market, we caught up with some of our favorite K-beauty experts, Sarah Lee of Glow Recipe and Charlotte Cho of Soko Glam, to find out which natural ingredients they love and why. We also tapped cosmetic chemist Ginger King weigh in on her thoughts on these additives. Read on for their responses.
One of Lee's favorite ingredients is propolis, which she tells us naturally occurs in the sealing and walls of honeycombs to help keep out water and discourage bacterial growth. "On skin, this translates to a potent antioxidant powerhouse that fights signs of aging and photodamage," Lee says. King adds that it has “anti-microbial and healing benefits.”
In Korean products, propolis is used as boosters in a skincare routine, as they leave skin soft and with a dewy glow. Lee recommends propolis for all skin types and especially for those who are struggling with acne, sensitivity or are looking for something hydrating and healing.
Lee's favorite product that utilizes the benefits of propolis is the LJH Grow Vita Propolis Ampoule. "It adds a punch of glow to my dull and tired skin on the days I'm sleep-deprived or am traveling," she says.
Cho cites pearl as a powerful ingredient in skincare due to its long history and numerous skin-benefiting properties, including accelerating new skin growth, healing acne, and blemishes, and minimizing large pores. "This power ingredient has long been used in traditional beauty treatments, and it is the key ingredient in one of the hottest emerging brands coming from Korea, Klavuu," Cho says. "The minerals and active properties in pearls keep the skin acidic, which slows the aging process while still keeping skin hydrated and firm." King adds that pearl is often used to give skin a natural luster, but she’s not sure if there are actual clinicals to prove that it does.
Experience the power of pearl with the Lapcos Daily Pearl Mask, a no-slip sheet mask infused with the ingredient.
The Tremella mushroom—a.k.a. Silver Ear— is a powerful hydrator and can hold up to 500 times its weight in water. “This is also known as the ‘silver ear,’” says King. “It’s highly nutritious, moisturizing, and has an anti-inflammatory effect.”
Lee goes on to call this a “beauty food” in Asia. “It’s thought to increase circulation and beautify skin,” she says. “The mushroom also has antimicrobial and antiviral properties, making it a great choice for acne-prone skin that's lacking in moisture or is prone to dry patches.”
Though there are many varieties of honey, royal honey is considered one of the best. “Royal honey is produced by worker bees and known as superfoods for anti-aging to help smooth out the lines and wrinkles,” says King.
Cho says royal honey is so valuable because it's aged through a 60-day fermentation process that leaves it with less water and has more skin-benefitting ingredients, like vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. "It also works as a natural humectant, binding moisture to the skin," Cho says.
The Royal Honey Propolis Enrich Essence is a waterlike formula that potent with royal honey.
Also known as yuja or yuzu, Cho also likes the citrus fruit found in the tropical Jeju Island in South Korea due to its high content of vitamin C—three times as much as lemons. "It's an ingredient used to stimulate collagen production, and brighten dark spots," Cho says. "It's often drunk as a tea to help combat colds." King adds that it’s used to help even out tone.
Shake this bi-phase lotion by Erborian to combine the ingredients and apply with a cotton pad post-toner and pre-treatment. It's super lightweight and smells like sweet citrus—it's truly a refreshing experience.
Bamboo extract was traditionally used in Asia for centuries as a means to heal skin. “It's a good, sustainable antioxidant,” says King. “Bamboo powder is also great for exfoliation.” Cho likes it for its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
This gel-like moisturizer contains bamboo sap to help hydrate the eye area and impart a healthy glow. Bamboo fiber helps lock in that hydration to dull the appearance of fine lines, while a matte finish softens dark circles.
"Cactus oil and extract are having a moment in K-beauty right now, and with good reason: It's a beautiful hydrating extract that binds hydration and moisture to the skin, and the oil is a dry type that sinks right into skin without heaviness for a plumper, firmer result," Lee says. King echoes this, saying it “has superb anti-inflammatory effects on skin.”
This lightweight gel-cream uses organic Sahara cactus oil to lock in moisture and nourish the skin. With a high concentration of antioxidants and vitamin E, this cream quickly absorbs into skin and hydrates all day while fighting signs of aging and stress.
"Birch juice is sap from birch trees and is known to be the next coconut water because of its richness in proteins and antioxidants," Cho says. It's extremely hydrating, making it a great option for dry weather in fall and winter.
Slather this quenching cream onto your skin before you hit the pillow for an impossibly dewy glow come morning.
Braakhuis A. Evidence on the Health Benefits of Supplemental Propolis. Nutrients. 2019 Nov 8;11(11):2705. doi: 10.3390/nu11112705.