In recent years, Asia—the SPF-loving land of canned collagen drinks, handheld “face-shaping” rollers and snail slime creams—has emerged as the world’s most innovative skin-care producer. Consider your favourite BB cream, brightening serum or sleeping mask, or the spate of new paper-sheet face masks—all trends imported from the East. Asians are also the world’s biggest skin-care spenders. Japan, which has grappled with recession since 2008, still ranks number one in face-care spending per capita, with total sales nearly doubling the U.S. figure, says market research firm Euromonitor International. Wealthy China ranks second.
Why the obsession? Class consciousness may be a factor. Having “transparent, luminous, poreless skin” means a woman can afford the time and expense necessary to take care of herself, explains Yongwoo Nam, manager of beauty research at the Seoul-based skin-care giant AmorePacific. Since tans once signified toiling-in-fields hardship, “White skin used to be a symbol of noble status,” he says. “Now it’s a symbol of wealth.”
Just a walk in the famous shopping areas like Myeong-Dong in Seoul, you’ll see women from all over Asia (Japan, China, Singapore etc.) hauling skincare like the world is going to end.
From snail creams to placenta serums, Korea has everything under the sun when it comes to skincare. Since demand there is high for products, more money is poured into research and development of skincare products, and shoppers are also pickier because they have such choice.
Whereas Western skin care regimens typically include 2-3 steps (cleanser, toner, lotion- and that’s on a good day for me), Asian skincare regimens can include upwards of 10-15 steps. The ‘layering’ technique involves patting or massaging the products in a specific order, usually from the lightest to heaviest consistency. While the layering technique originated in Asia, the French are also proponents of this method, otherwise known as ‘millefeuille’ –translated as ‘a thousand layers’, not to be confused with the pastry.
Unlike most Western beauty products, Asian skincare tends to emphasize natural ingredients over harsh chemicals. And what could be more natural than snail slime?
Here’s a breakdown of all the ways they’re ahead of the skincare curve:
The Ingredient: Maple Tree Sap
The Basics: Acer mono sap—as it’s called on the label—is an experiential ingredient that enhances the delivery of active ingredients.
The Benefits: Tree sap molecules are smaller than water molecules, so they absorb more easily and deeper into the skin. It delivers a myriad of beneficial nutrients, vitamins and minerals like amino peptides and calcium to lift, rejuvenate and hydrate skin. (And because of its antioxidants, maple tree sap is a common health drink in South Korea.)
Try This: May Coop Raw Sauce Toner, $42 peachandlily.com. May Coop Raw Moisturizer, $40 peachandlily.com.
The Ingredient: Snail Mucin
The Basics: Snail enzyme is a high-efficacy active ingredient comprised of proteins, glycolic acids and elastin commonly found in skin creams and sheet masks.
The Benefits: This trusted slime is derived from the same stuff snails produce to heal cuts on their soft bodies from rocks and other rough surfaces. In beauty products, snail mucin firms and restores skin by replenishing moisture and supporting cell regeneration (which helps fade acne scars, smooth uneven complexions and reduce hyperpigmentation).
Shop It: Dr. Jart+ Premium Time Returning Serum, $54; sephora.com. MISSHA Cell Renew Snail Cream, $37;sokoglam.com.
The Ingredient: Rose Oil
The Basics: The essence derived from the flower is a potent active ingredient containing vitamins A and C and other minerals and antioxidants. It also has antibacterial and aromatherapeutic properties.
The Benefits: Products with this skin-saving oil are designed to delay signs of aging, soothe and moisturize skin, reduce redness and inflammation and provide astringent and antiseptic benefits to acne-prone skin.
Shop It: Aromatica Rose Absolute Eye Cream, $29; thearomatica.com. Isoi Bulgarian Rose Blemish Care System, $64; glowrecipe.com.
The Ingredient: Bee Venom
The Basics: This active ingredient contains a compound called melitten, which has anti-inflammatory properties that are said to be stronger than hydrocortisone. It’s used around the world in skincare products as an anti-ager.
The Benefits: Bee venom breaks down cell membranes, which tricks your body into thinking it’s under attack. It responds by increasing circulation, triggering the production of collagen and even relaxing facial muscles. This helps reduce the appearance of wrinkles, which is why some use bee venom as a natural alternative to Botox.
Shop It: Nature Republic Bee Venom Roll On Spot treatment, $18; amazon.com. Mizon Bee Venom Calming Fresh Cream, $36; urbanoutfitters.com.
The Ingredient: Sea Kelp
The Basics: Long considered a healthy delicacy in Asia, algae—a.k.a. seaweed and kelp—is extremely nutrient- and mineral-dense, and rich in essential amino acids and vitamins A, B, C, and E.
The Benefits: Beauty products formulated with the marine botanical extract are hydrating, softening and energizing, and ideal for dry skin. When fermented in facial sheet masks, sea kelp’s skin-loving amino acids, antioxidants and proteins are broken down to smaller, more easily absorbed molecules to majorly hydrate, repair and soothe skin.
Shop It: Whamisa Organic Sea Kelp Facial Sheet Mask, $14; glowrecipe.com. MISSHA Pure Source Sheet Mask (Sea Kelp), $2; misshaus.com.
The Ingredient: Tea Tree Oil
The Basics: Highly regarded as a non-irritating antiseptic agent for treating acne, Australian-native tea tree oilcontains terpenoids that have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
The Benefits: This holy grail ingredient is gentler on skin and has less side effects than the gold-standard breakout-fighting ingredient benzoyl peroxide. In addition to effectively removing dirt and makeup without stripping skin dry, tea tree oil clears away sebum buildup and calms redness. It’s great for those with sensitive, oily or combination skin.
Shop It: LJH Tea Tree 90 Essence, $38; nullskin.com. Aromatica Tea Tree Balancing Foaming Cleanser, $21;thearomatica.com.
The Ingredient: Hyaluronic Acid
The Basics: This extremely popular hero ingredient is a naturally-occurring polysaccharide found in our skin tissues, keeping our skin soft, supple and plump. When we stop producing it as we age, our skin dries, sags and wrinkles. Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, meaning it attracts water—and it can hold more than 1,000 times its weight in H2O.
The Benefits: If your skin lacks moisture, you want this in your regimen. Well-hydrated skin helps prevent premature aging, breakouts and excess sebum production. Serums containing hyaluronic acid extract leave skin supple, firm and plump with moisture. Also found in some makeup primers and foundations, it’s liquid gold for that coveted dewy look.
Shop It: Mizon Original Skin Energy Hyaluronic Acid 100, $42; urbanoutfitters.com. Aritaum Baby Face Mist Power Hyaluronic Acid 60ml, $11; jolse.com.
The Ingredient: Pig Collagen
The Basics: The makeup of pig collagen has shown to be similar to the collagen we produce ourselves to maintain a youthful appearance, though the effectiveness of applying collagen topically is debatable since its particles are too big to absorb into the skin.
The Benefits: In South Korea, women have claimed that applying this trending ingredient to the skin boosted firmness and elasticity. But because pig collagen can’t penetrate the skin barrier, collagen-packed creams tend to sit on the skin and smooth fine lines only temporarily.
Shop It: Tony Moly Pure Farm Pig Collagen Hydrogel Mask, $4; koreadepart.com. Hollika Hollika Pig Collagen Jelly Pack, $20; holikaholika.ca.
The Ingredient: Starfish Extract
The Basics: Skincare products containing starfish extract—packed with collagen, calcium and vitamins—have become something of a SoKo obsession recently, and though the ingredient is harvested from real starfish, companies like Mizon (which introduced a hugely popular line of starfish-infused creams) claims its products are “cruelty-free.”
The Benefits: Knowing that starfish can regenerate lost limbs, the idea is that these formulas can also restore your skin to a brighter, plumper, ultra smooth, even complexion by aiding in cell turnover. The ingredient’s received tons of high praise—and a cult following—but the verdict’s still out on whether or not it’s truly effective. Some studies have suggested that starfish extract could be used as a treatment for hyperpigmentation.
Shop It: Mizon Returning Starfish Cream, $32; urbanoutfitters.com. Mizon Returning Starfish Eye Cream, $32;urbanoutfitters.com.