K-Beauty 101 with Korean Beauty Blogger Fiddy Snails
This post is kicking off the Expert Beauty Picks series in which I’m hoping to bring fresh perspectives and diverse approaches to skincare and beauty from guest bloggers. Would love to hear your input!
K-beauty! The term is everywhere lately, and for (in my opinion) very good reason. But if you’re new to K-beauty–or if your exposure to it so far has been limited to celebrity sheet mask selfies and articles about 10-step skincare routines or freaky-looking foil face masks–the concept can be bewildering. What exactly is K-beauty?
I’m Jude (aka Fiddy), the blogger who writes the mostly K-beauty blog Fifty Shades of Snail, and Joyce invited me here today to help readers new to K-beauty make sense of the term. So let’s get started!
K-Beauty 101: What is K-Beauty?
At the most basic level, the term “K-beauty” just refers to “beauty products from South Korea.” For many political, economic, and cultural reasons, South Korea’s beauty industry is a marketing juggernaut; the term “K-beauty” arose as the trends and products started to gain popularity worldwide. K-beauty can apply to makeup, haircare, body care, and, most notably, skincare–my personal obsession.
As it applies to skincare, K-beauty has a more specific definition. Beauty standards in East Asia, including South Korea, have traditionally placed heavy emphasis on the complexion. The beauty industry reflects that. K-beauty offers consumers all the tools they need to put together an intensively skin-first beauty routine for any skin type and just about any budget.
That’s the real advantage of Korean skincare. It’s not that Korean products are inherently superior, because they’re not. There are duds in K-beauty just as there are duds anywhere else, and there are winners in Western products just like there are in K-beauty. But there’s an absolutely gigantic range of options to choose from, and that means a higher likelihood of finding winners for your skin. More importantly, the huge range of options means a higher likelihood of putting together a winning routine for your skin–in skincare, it’s rare that one product alone will give you the best results. Customizing the optimal routine with a number of suitable products is the way to success.
K-Beauty 101: Korean Skincare Product Types
Of course, navigating all those products can be bewildering. There are product types in K-beauty that are rarely seen outside of Asian brands. Exploring K-beauty can feel like learning a different language at first. To help you get started, here’s a quick glossary of the most common product types you can use to build a skincare routine, organized in the order that each product would go in a skincare routine.
Cleansing oil/cleansing balm/first cleanser: The first step of a typical nighttime “double cleanse,” cleansing oils and cleansing balms are oil-based products used to remove makeup and sunscreen before washing one’s face. More effective than most cleansers alone and more gentle on skin than any cleanser with equivalent makeup-removing powers, commercial cleansing oils and balms emulsify with water and rinse away easily.
Gel cleanser/foaming cleanser/cleansing foam: The second step of the double cleanse, these water-soluble facial cleansers remove any cleansing oil residue and clean skin to provide a fresh canvas for skincare.
Toner/skin/lotion: While K-beauty does offer some astringent toners like the ones we’re more used to seeing in the Western market, Korean brands are better known for producing hydrating toners (and then naming them things like “skin” or “lotion,” as if to confuse newcomers). Packed with humectants to hold water in skin, hydrating toners provide a boost of moisture and help plump up parched skin.
Essence: Though some companies use the term interchangeably with “serum,” generally essences come in larger volumes and are runnier and more dilute than serums. They provide targeted skin benefits, such as acne control or skin brightening, as well as additional hydration.
Serum/ampoule: Ostensibly more concentrated and intensive than toners and essences, serums and ampoules are marketed according to the skin concerns they target, such as dark spots or aging. Some companies use the terms interchangeably, while others reserve the term “ampoule” for the most highly concentrated products in the smallest bottles (usually at the highest prices).
Emulsion: These liquid moisturizers are analogous to lotions in Western skincare lines.
Gel: These moisturizers are generally extremely lightweight and most suitable for oily skin.
Gel cream: Halfway in between a gel and a cream, these moisturizers are lightweight and heavy on the water, but offer more emollient moisture than gels, making them most suitable for normal skin.
Cream: As you might have guessed, these are the heaviest moisturizing options.
Sheet mask: Sheet masks provide individually packaged megadoses of hydration. A high volume of hydrating essence is soaked into a pre-cut pulp or fabric sheet. You place the sheet on your face for 10-20 minutes (or longer, if you want). The sheet helps to occlude the essence, forcing it to absorb into skin rather than evaporate into the air. Just about any sheet mask will plump and hydrate skin, but most also claim additional effects. The world of sheet masks is a microcosm of K-beauty as a whole–there are options for everyone!
Sleeping pack/sleeping mask: These night cream substitutes claim highly targeted, mask-like effects with overnight use. They come in all consistencies, from the lightest gels to the richest creams.
Sunscreen: You may think you know sunscreen, but until you’ve tried an Asian sunscreen, you’re probably missing out. Japan and Korea are notable for their huge array of lightweight and incredibly wearable face sunscreens. Look for a high SPF, of course, but also look for a high PA rating. PA denotes relative UVA protection and ranges from PA+ to PA++++. I don’t play with anything below PA+++ (Joyce’s explanation of PA+ rating here!).
K-Beauty 101: The Myth of the 10-Step Routine
Much of the mainstream coverage of K-beauty focuses on the supposed “10-Step Routine” that Korean women are said to adhere to. (The number of steps may change based on who’s writing the article and how many products the author or the K-beauty retailer being featured would like to promote.)
The 10-step routine is a myth, and even if it weren’t, it’s totally beside the point. K-beauty isn’t about hitting a set number of steps or products. It’s about finding what works best for your particular skin. It may also change based on time of day. At night, I do like a lengthy routine. My skin shows visible improvement when I stick to it, and I happen to enjoy it. But in the morning, I’m more of an essence-emulsion-sunscreen person.
If you choose to try some Korean products, remember that what works for other people may not work for you. Your skin may do best with four or five steps, and that’s just as valid as ten for another person (not to mention easier on the wallet).
With that being said, here are a few of my favorites to finish off!
Fiddy’s Favorite K-Beauty Products
Sulwhasoo Snowise EX Cleansing Foam: I prefer my cleansers to be at a neutral pH or lower and gentle on skin, but that often means a boring cleanser that doesn’t foam well. Somehow, Sulwhasoo’s Snowise EX Cleansing Foam delivers a ton of thick, fluffy foam and a gorgeous herbal scent without being high pH or harsh on my skin. It’s not a cheap product–known for their use of traditional Korean herbs, Sulwhasoo is a prestige brand with prestige price points–but I’ve bought and finished two tubes of this. So far.
COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence: At the opposite end of the prestige scale but not the opposite end of the quality scale is budget-friendly COSRX, which makes my absolute favorite snail product ever in the entire world. Once you get past the “what?” factor, snail mucin is an excellent ingredient for many people. Moisturizing, soothing, and packed with skin-friendly proteins and antioxidants, snail keeps my skin soft and smooth and helps it recover quickly from any mishaps. The COSRX snail mucin product has a distinctive snaily consistency, smooth and slippy; a short and simple ingredients list; and a ton of snail mucin.
LJH Vita Propolis Ampoule: Propolis is another of my favorite skincare ingredients. In addition to providing calming, healing, and protective properties, a good propolis product gives my skin a noticeable glow. The LJH Vita Propolis Ampoule is the best propolis product I’ve tried. The bottle is tiny and the texture isn’t particularly spreadable, so I like to mix a couple drops of it into my COSRX snail.
A’Pieu Pure Block Aqua Sun Gel: I first tried this sunscreen when it was sent to me to try for an article at my day job at K-beauty site W2Beauty. I fell in love pretty much instantly. The Aqua Sun Gel is dead cheap, but you wouldn’t guess it by the smooth texture and amazingly light and non-greasy finish. I use this nearly every day. (On the other days, I use A’Pieu Pure Block Natural Sun Cream, which has all the same benefits but is slightly more moisturizing.)
Sulwhasoo Overnight Vitalizing Mask EX: I consider this sleeping pack the queen of all sleeping packs. A thick but not heavy cream packed with Sulwhasoo’s signature medicinal herbs and infused with a gorgeous herbal scent, the Overnight Vitalizing Mask EX leaves my skin brighter, more even-toned, firmer and more supple in the morning. Also, it’s a bargain compared to Sulwhasoo’s other moisturizers.
As I mentioned, however, what works for someone else may not work for you. Part of the fun of K-beauty is discovering your own skin’s needs and best products. If you’re pumped to start exploring, I wish you the best of luck on your journey!
And you can always come visit me on my blog, Fifty Shades of Snail, for reviews and inspiration.
Thanks for reading–I had a lot of fun writing this!