SK-II Facial Treatment Essence: is Pitera a magic ingredient or a hoax?

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SKII products

I am really excited about this post because I have been planning on writing this for a long time now. Around a year, to be exact. I was hearing nonstop about SK-II’s Facial Treatment Essence, a product containing a magical ingredient named Pitera, so I decided to try it out for myself for 12 months. Here’s what I’ve learned and experienced in this very expensive experiment.

early-morning sake brewery

Pitera is the highly touted “miracle ingredient” that was discovered incidentally in the 1970’s, when scientists noticed the soft tender hands of sake brewers that sharply contrasted with their wrinkled and aged faces. According to the SK-II website, scientists spent years looking through 350 yeast strains to isolate the Saccharomycopsis yeast strain that produces Pitera. When they discovered it, leading scientist on the SK-II team Takashi Yoshiji said, “We knew we had found something very special – a gift of nature that will transform skin for generations to come. Even today, we are constantly making new discoveries about its efficacy after 30 years.” They even made a feel-good promotional video about this. No joke, they love this stuff.

Here are some of the many many Pitera products that SK-II features:

Basically, Pitera, a natural by-product of yeast fermentation, is a rich liquid containing amino acids, minerals, vitamins, and organic acids, said to improve skin lucency, decrease wrinkles and lighten dark spots. Sound too good to be true?

As usual, I went onto PubMed to see what kind of scientific evidence there is for Pitera. After searching a variety of key words including Pitera, I finally found ONE study examining the effects of Saccharomycopsis Ferment Filtrate (Pitera) on reducing inflammation in mouse macrophage cells and on exerting protective effects on artificial human skin cells. Another study I found on Google (in a journal that is not accepted into the rigorous PubMed database) concluded that Pitera enhances skin’s barrier functions in human skin cells. That means it helps your skin retain moisture better. The authors in both of these papers include scientists from Procter & Gamble, the company that houses the multi-billion dollar industry that is Pitera. Both of these experiments, as you may note, took place in cell lines, which is far from real life human skin. I can’t find any experiments systematically examining and testing the effects of Pitera on humans, even though this product is obviously safe to use.

Scientific evidence aside, I was still willing to believe that there must be a reason thousands of women around the world swear by this product. I didn’t want to give up on Pitera until I tried it for a decent amount of time. I purchased one SK-II Facial Treatment Essence, the product containing the highest concentration of Pitera, on Sephora in December 2013 and started diligently applying it to my face every night in between toner and night cream (click here for the step-by-step night-time regimen every gal should follow for better healthier skin). Now, over a year later, this is what I’ve found:

What I liked:

– The product comes in a beautiful weighty frosted glass bottle that looks very elegant and fancy

What I didn’t like:

– I’ll just come out with it right here. After using the product every night for a year, I notice no real improvement in my skin. No skin brightening, no lightening of dark spots, no noticeable increased skin firmness, no decrease in wrinkles. I just don’t see a difference.

– It smells weird and unpleasant

– It’s SO EXPENSIVE for what it does (which in my case is nothing). The smallest bottle is $105 for 75 mL (equivalent to 1/3 of a cup). That calculates out to be $1.40 for each 1 mL (about 20 drops) of “miracle water.” That means each DROP of Pitera is about 7 cents. Every time I accidentally fling a droplet on the floor I cringe because hey, those cents add up.

So all in all, I think I will finish off my bottle since I shelled out a pretty penny for it already, and just wipe my hands clean of my Pitera experiment for good. I have to hand it to SK-II, they are geniuses at marketing. And they actually managed to get one paper published in the scientific literature, even though it was in mouse cells. At least they tried.

Of note, in doing research for this article I came across another blog’s review of SK-II Essence which I thought was quite good. This blogger compared SK-II essence to a similar yeast derived product from Korean brand Missha, and came to a similar conclusion as me.

Being a dermatologist who strongly believes in evidence backed skincare, I have put together a guide to antiaging ingredients that actually work and how to build your perfect skincare routine here. For me, I believe in the efficacy of topical retinoids over Pitera, since retinoids have been shown over and over again in hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific experiments in cell lines and in humans to speed up cell turnover, decrease fine lines and dark spots, treat acne, and actually increase collagen production. If I’m going to be spending the big bucks on a skincare product, you bet I’m going to examine the primary scientific literature to make sure the product’s ingredients actually function as they are marketed!

What has your experience been with SK-II facial treatment essence?

photo credit: early-morning sake brewery via photopin (license)

40 Comments on SK-II Facial Treatment Essence: is Pitera a magic ingredient or a hoax?

  1. Julie
    March 16, 2015 at 1:14 pm (2 years ago)

    Hi, I’m a second year (blog loving) medical student. I just have to say that I think it’s so great you set out to find evidence-based studies with a decent research design regarding products. The world needs more people like you who won’t just promote a product for the sake of incentives. Also, props to highlighting the fact that Procter & Gamble funded the research. Thank you for being honest with your readers! Awesome article! :)

    Reply
    • Joyce
      March 16, 2015 at 1:28 pm (2 years ago)

      Julie, thanks so much for stopping by and for leaving such an encouraging comment! Hope you can subscribe to email updates or like my FB page to get automatic notifications about posts. Are you interested in pursuing derm as a career?

      Reply
      • Julie
        March 17, 2015 at 6:44 pm (2 years ago)

        Possibly! But so competitive to match into. Internal Medicine is currently at the top of my list :)

        Reply
        • Joyce
          March 19, 2015 at 5:20 am (2 years ago)

          I’m in the middle of my prelim intern year in medicine and I have to say…I admire hospitalists a whole lot!

          Reply
      • PAUL JACOBS
        June 16, 2017 at 12:47 pm (1 month ago)

        Hi Joyce,

        I, too, am impressed you care enough about the truth to do proper unbiased tests. However, it is very difficuly to disprove a product that claims to slow down or stop the ageing process, as with the hands of the Asian men. Let’s not forget, the claims are not that it makes old faces look young, but that it stopped the hands of these men ageing. There is a big difference. Had these men not been working with sake and instead were told to put pitera on their hands for a year and record any differences they, too, would probably be unimpressed by the results. Your face may not appear, to you, to have improved, but it is quite possible that without the product, you would have noticed more wrinkles appearing.

        The problem with what I’m saying of course is that it takes time and a lot of money to know if your investment has paid off. As you say, a very expensive experiment. But, if what they say is true about these men’s hands, it makes sense that the substance will work on other parts of the body. Just thinking aloud. I was given a 30ml Men’s sample and I am currently trying it, splashing on a bit every day but as I already said, I might not reap the benefits until someone says to me in ten years, “Paul your face hasn’t changed in ten years”. Only then will we know that the stuff really works.

        Anyway, carry on the good work xx

        Reply
        • Joyce
          June 27, 2017 at 2:23 pm (3 weeks ago)

          I think in the field of antiaging the best ways to quantify include comparative pictures over a long period of time (though this is still subjective based on the eye of the observer) and better yet, biopsies to compare pre treatment skin to post treatment skin. This allows you to quantify level of collagen, degree of oxidative stress, etc. I’m a more scientific way. SkinCeuticals did a cool study looking at biopsies before and after treatment with antioxidants in patients exposed to ozone (see my post on atmospheric aging for that!). Great things to think about!

          Reply
  2. Jess
    March 16, 2015 at 7:37 pm (2 years ago)

    I’ve tried the essence and I went through 3 bottles. I actually smashed one barely used bottle one morning when I was very tired and sluggish and it happened in slow motion as I watched it just drop and my $$$ when all over the floor along with a lot of glass. I agree the essence does nothing but sometimes people will use and buy something because of the name brand so yes, kudos to them for marketing and building up the hype. I really appreciate your honest and thorough reviews. I can’t wait to read about the secret weapon actually works.

    Reply
    • Joyce
      March 16, 2015 at 9:16 pm (2 years ago)

      Jess, thanks for sharing your experience! I’m cringing reading about the bottle smashing! Those drops are precious! I was really hoping that this product would be the “miracle water” that its branding suggests, but after using it for a year I have to be honest to myself (and my wallet). Just curious, are you still using it?

      Reply
      • Jess
        March 23, 2015 at 6:31 pm (2 years ago)

        No, I’m not using it anymore. I had I started using it after college as a splurge and I think I found it cheaper on some Asian website but I can’t remember which one anymore. I actually stopped using it into my third bottle and I had half a bottle left just sitting there in my medicine cabinet. I couldn’t be sure if it was still good to use after a long while so when I was cleaning one day I did the deed. Yes, I just threw it away. The horror. For me the clearest skin I’ve had was when I started eating healthier and less sugar and junk food. I stopped getting cystic acne or any acne at all. I just use aloe vera gel mixed with my moisturizer and a few drops of Josie Maran argan oil in the mornings and at night. I also try to drink lots of water but certainly not a liter. 😉

        Reply
  3. Alice Lin
    March 17, 2015 at 10:14 pm (2 years ago)

    Joyce, this was a great post. I was considering getting SK-II back in Taiwan, but glad that I didn’t!

    Reply
    • Joyce
      March 19, 2015 at 5:21 am (2 years ago)

      Ally, I’d love to hear what your favorite skincare products are; I love that you focus on natural ingredients that are less harmful to the skin.

      Reply
  4. Petiteish
    March 18, 2015 at 7:36 pm (2 years ago)

    This was a really fantastic review, I appreciate your candor! I tend to be very skeptical about most beauty products, so I wasn’t surprised. I am so looking forward to hearing about your experience with retinA (assuming that’s what you were hinting at?) Thinking about trying out a drugstore serum like roc or oil of olay. Have you any experience with those? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Joyce
      March 19, 2015 at 5:23 am (2 years ago)

      Yes, the secret weapon is retinA and I am still struggling with retinoid dermatitis after 3 months of use…I should be accustomed to it by now but my skin is especially sensitive I suppose. I don’t have any personal experience with drugstore serums but would be an interesting topic to look into for a blogpost in the future

      Reply
      • Elina
        August 31, 2015 at 7:56 pm (2 years ago)

        Hi, Joyce. Thank you so much for this post. I’ve been soooo curious about SK-II, but can’t get myself to spend that much money without knowing it works. I’d be very interested in what you have you to say about retin-A.

        Reply
  5. Lourdes @ Tribeloco
    March 19, 2015 at 7:44 pm (2 years ago)

    That was an excellent review. I’m so glad that you used it for a year before reviewing and dug deep to find research on the medical “evidence” claims. Honestly, I’ve tried so many things under the sun from the least to most expensive products (though not SK-II) and what always works for me to get clear and glowing skin is drinking loads of water and eating whole foods. Wish it was always easy for me to do, but I’m unraveling years of junk food abuse and poor fitness. Thanks for your honesty.

    Reply
    • Joyce
      March 21, 2015 at 4:50 pm (2 years ago)

      Thanks Lourdes! The most expensive products don’t necessarily have the highest efficacy. The best advice I can give is to always use sunscreen (at least SPF 30) during the day and moisturizer at night.

      Reply
  6. searchingforsubstance
    August 26, 2015 at 12:35 am (2 years ago)

    oohhh.. thanks for this review and also debunking this myth! i heard about PItera but i do agree it sounded too good to be true.

    can you do a post on hylauronic acid?

    Reply
  7. Jackie
    March 12, 2016 at 2:15 pm (1 year ago)

    Hi Joyce, enjoyed your article but was surprised by your results and maybe more so by the implication that this won’t work for anyone! I’m wondering if maybe you and the other commenters are a lot younger than me? I’m 47 and have been a skin product junkie forever but I don’t believe the hype just because of packaging or expense. I think my main issues are bigger pores and dull skin (dark spots, too). For the last ten years or so I’ve really noticed that no products are wowing me until the SK-II Facial Essence, actually. Admittedly, at this stage I buy more high end products but would gladly
    invest in cheaper lines if they worked well on me. I got a sample of this Essence at Sephora not expecting much and was so excited that within a few days of use my skin looked calmer (less red) and brighter! Shock! So perhaps I got better results because I’ve got mature skin with a much slower cell turn-over rate than younger girls? I’ve been using this for about 4mths now and will continue for the time being. Anyway, I’m only suggesting that perhaps this line is more useful on people over 30 with definite skin issues to begin with.

    Reply
    • Joyce
      March 13, 2016 at 11:11 pm (1 year ago)

      Hi Jacklyn, thanks for your comment! I think that as with anything I review on this blog that if you use the product and have great results, then you definitely should continue using it. Everyone’s skin is different and may react to different products in various ways. My point in doing this review was to go over all of the scientific data out there published in Pubmed indexed journals for people looking for the hard science behind Pitera, so everyone can be better informed when deciding whether or not to invest in a product.

      Reply
    • shona
      January 12, 2017 at 12:52 pm (6 months ago)

      I’ve been using the Estee Lauder ME but my skin is more red. I’ve got a new sample of SK II from Sephora that I will try afterwards as I do remember thinking at the time that SK II lit up my skin. (I buy the value packs of two big bottles in the duty free). I was 45 when I tried it initially so I wonder if that is better for mature skin (although SK II says they are aiming at the 24-44 market). I will report back.

      Reply
      • Joyce
        January 12, 2017 at 1:27 pm (6 months ago)

        Let me know! I like hearing patient experiences.

        Reply
  8. kelly
    March 14, 2016 at 10:58 am (1 year ago)

    This was a great review…thanks for your honesty and thoroughness..it’s refreshing to get a point of view from someone who actually put it a concerned effort. Props to you. Please keep these types of posts coming.

    Reply
    • Joyce
      March 14, 2016 at 11:06 pm (1 year ago)

      Thank you Kelly – I am going to keep trying to put together science-backed posts so you all have access to the same peer-reviewed articles and evidence that scientists do!

      Reply
  9. Helen
    December 28, 2016 at 11:03 pm (7 months ago)

    So in this article you use the dearth of peer-reviewed studies on pitera to jump all over SK-II and then clickbait-style hint at a better competing product at the end… All while conveniently never materializing any other peer-reviewed studies for any other competing products, either.

    It probably wasn’t your intention, but seeing you rip on SK-II and shill another product really destroys my trust in this review. It feels like retinA or whatever got to you first or paid you better than SK-II, so that’s who you are hyping.

    I don’t know if that’s the situation. Maybe this is your honest opinion, uninfluenced by marketing $$$. I doubt it though.

    I have no idea if I am closer to knowing if SK-II actually works, but I certainly don’t trust retinA at all now. :/

    Reply
    • Joyce
      December 28, 2016 at 11:11 pm (7 months ago)

      Thank you for your interesting and somewhat misinformed comment because a post on the science behind retinoids have been in the works for a while. I took on this post because as a scientist and a physician I’m interested in the actual SCIENCE behind these products. That’s why I went to the primary literature itself. It’s very interesting that you think I’m getting paid by “RetinA or whatever” because retinoids are one of the most trusted prescription strength medication in use in the field of dermatology for decades, and they definitely don’t need to be paying me or any other dermatologists to say that because it’s what has been proven over and over again in science. Here are 653 peer-reviewed articles in the scientific literature about the efficacy of retinoids on skin. We study retinoids in our textbooks and we prescribe it to patients for acne, palmoplantar pustular psoriasis, inflammatory conditions like pityriasis rubra pilaris, ichthyosis disorders, and for anti-aging, among other conditions. I definitely don’t need to convince you because the studies speak for themselves, but for people who are actually interested in reading about the science behind anti-aging, the mechanisms of action, and what actually works, I suggest you take a look at the primary literature itself.

      Reply
    • Joyce
      January 22, 2017 at 10:44 pm (6 months ago)

      Hello, thanks for sharing that article. I looked at the sources in the article you shared for the lines in which SK-II was mentioned and one of source articles is the one I address in this blogpost, done in cell lines. One of the other articles cited is also done in cell lines, which is not immediately applicable to humans, and the last article consists of anecdotal evidence looking at why Chinese people like to have lighter skin, not the scientific basis of SK-II. I think that the cell line papers show promise, but further work needs to be done exploring the benefits of fermented yeast in skincare products, especially before people pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle.

      Reply
  10. FatinBunny
    February 7, 2017 at 5:51 am (5 months ago)

    Hmm, after reading this, I quite agree with you. But still, I can’t understand how do Korean people get so “porcelein skin”. I try everything, yes, my skin at least lighter than before, no acne but.. the texture, I just dont like. Still I can see the fine lines across my forehead and few under eye. Try also the most cheapest product (Bedak Sejuk). Heard that its give great result but not sure the real scientific approach behind it. Feel doubt if its could get my skin dryer.

    Joyce, would you like to help me? teach me about skincare? If you don’t mind? Here sponge_nabihah@yahoo.com

    Thnx

    Reply
    • Joyce
      February 7, 2017 at 2:06 pm (5 months ago)

      I think Korean women have a combination of good genes and lifelong good habits of taking care of their skin starting from childhood. We know that the sun can cause signs of photoaging with wrinkles and dark spots and all the Korean women I know from Korea are religious about applying sunscreen daily!

      Reply
    • Soraya
      April 12, 2017 at 12:14 pm (3 months ago)

      I think it’s a combination of their healthy food and exfoliating acid treatment. If you have problem with texture i really suggest you do some research in BHA/AHA, i have try it recently it really has help me with my texture problem

      Reply
  11. Leslie
    February 21, 2017 at 4:56 pm (5 months ago)

    Just somebody passing through. I don’t use SK-II myself because it’s too expensive, but it’s recommended to use up a newly opened bottle within the month. If the smell of your product is getting stronger or becoming pungent, it’s because it’s been too long. You probably shouldn’t be applying it on your face. Also…an essence is lighter than a moisturiser…I don’t think you’d expect to see a radical difference by using only essence even if it is for a year. If anything it’ll just work to maintain the current condition of your skin. To actually see improvements you probably would’ve had to use other products in the line, or one of their more concentrated serums.

    Reply
    • Joyce
      February 22, 2017 at 11:41 am (5 months ago)

      Hi Leslie, thanks for your comment. I tried to find information about expiration date but couldn’t find much information on why it needs to be tossed out after a month. Would love to read more about that if you could share your sources! Also if that’s true, then the product is probably too expensive for a lot of people, since buying a new bottle costs around $180. I used the essence underneath my Shiseido benefiance night cream, and felt that it didn’t make much of a difference compared to the moisturizer alone. I think after experimenting with many skincare products my advice to my patients is still to stick with ingredients that have shown clinical benefit in randomized controlled trials such as retinoids (now finally over the counter for the first time).

      Reply
      • Nancy
        March 6, 2017 at 10:04 am (5 months ago)

        Loved your review! I received a sample from Sephora and started using it a month ago–I also started using RetinA in January–I must say I like the smoothness and discoloration of my skin, but I am thinking it’s more from the RetinA vs the SK-II Essence. I was on the fence about buying it, but if I have to use it up within a month, that’s not worth the $$$. I’ll stick with my RetinA and Skinceuticals for now. Thanks again for your science and unbiased research!

        Reply
        • Joyce
          March 6, 2017 at 11:04 am (5 months ago)

          Thanks for your comment Nancy! I’m so glad that my review was helpful!

          Reply
  12. Lily
    May 31, 2017 at 11:27 am (2 months ago)

    I used retinA for almost 3 years from doctors prescription. They increase the dosage continuesly but I dont see any improvement until now. My face are still red, flaky, and very dry. These few months I’ve been using it together with serum from Kiehls (oil form), but still my skin are dry and flaky. I dont understand why so literature said RetinA was great, while I dont see the benefit on my skin. Any suggestion?

    Reply
    • Joyce
      June 2, 2017 at 6:31 pm (2 months ago)

      Hi Lily, I think that it depends on your skin type and the strength of the tretinoin. If one of my patients is having a lot of redness and dryness from the tretinoin, I keep it at its lowest percentage and do not increase. Some people need to switch to the over the counter formulation, Differin, which may be more tolerable. Lastly, some people have such sensitive skin that they cannot tolerate tretinoin at all. For those patients, they can use over the counter retinol (SkinCeuticals, Roc, CeraVe, etc.). That may be a more suitable anti-aging alternative for you!

      Reply
  13. Allison
    June 6, 2017 at 7:11 am (2 months ago)

    Hi Joyce,
    Thank you for your thoughtful review. However, I would like to point out a couple of things from the perspective of someone who has lived in both the US and Asia for equal amounts of time. First of all, the concentration of pitera actually varies from region to region, with Japan having the highest quality of SK-II. I can’t promise that this is an absolute fact and would probably require further investigation. Second, I would say that many studies on pitera are probably done by Japanese scientists. I have learned that English scientific journals only include studies done by English speaking, specifically, American researchers. To gain a better understanding of an active ingredient that is more well known in another region, it is probably better to look into studies done in their local language. This is something I only just realized in the past couple of years as I started looking into Mandarin and Japanese journals. Hope this might help add another perspective to the matter of things. Cheers.

    Reply
    • Joyce
      June 9, 2017 at 11:49 am (1 month ago)

      Hi Allison, thank you for your comment. I agree that a lot of research is done and published in foreign journals; however, the gold standard worldwide that we use in academia to judge articles is publication in a journal that is rated and indexed on Pubmed. Not all of these are in English alone; there are highly rated journals chosen to be part of the Pubmed index that are in other languages like German, Polish, Chinese, etc and also translated into English. For example, all groundbreaking research done around the world is published in Pubmed-indexed journals such as Science or Nature, because these journals have been vetted and shown to only accept high quality, well designed research. The article I cited in this blogpost was actually performed in Taiwan, and it was accepted into an English journal. I think it’s great if scientists publish their findings in their local journals but personally, as a physician trained in looking through scientific evidence, I would still trust data that is published in Pubmed-indexed high quality journals.

      Reply
  14. Patty
    July 14, 2017 at 2:24 pm (1 week ago)

    Love the post! Glad to see studies on pubmed and use of product for a year (allowing for realistic results). But writing to say that the comment about you being paid by retinA was uncalled for! Doesn’t make any rational sense haha

    Reply
    • Joyce
      July 14, 2017 at 4:46 pm (1 week ago)

      Hi Patty, thanks for your comment! I figured others would be curious like I was to see what the scientific evidence shows :)

      Reply

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