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Understanding Korean Beauty Products

November 26, 2015


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Korean Beauty Products can be super confusing. After grappling with many awkward mistakes I think I’ve finally got a handle on how they work. When you buy products in Korea you get SO MANY awesome free samples, and this gives you the chance to try out a lot of things and see what you like the best. I never got into the more strange products like bee venom or snail oil but I have gotten into a larger cleansing and moisturizing routine and I love it! I hope my breakdown of Korean products can help you understand the beauty and skin world a bit better and let me know if there is anything I got totally wrong!

Cleansing Oil

This thin oil usually comes with a pump application head and is applied to your skin directly like a face wash. It really takes off all of your makeup! It’s magical and a really good one will take off all of your BB Cream + waterproof makeup to the point that I don’t even have to use a make up remover. However, since this is your first step to facial cleaning you must follow it up by a face soap or it will never come off! Like never ever.

Face Cleanser, Foam Cleanser, Cleansing Balm

Now you can wash your face like normal with one of the many kinds of cleansers available. It might be foaming, gel, bubble, milky, whatever floats your boat.

Exfoliate, Scrub, or Peel

Once your face is all clean of makeup and dirt, I move to the exfoliate zone. I’m an advocate of face scrub myself, some people find it too harsh for their face but I love it. If I go two days without using it, the next day my skin will start being flaky near my nose and forehead and it will really show up when I try to apply makeup. I have two kinds of scrub, one is a super intense micro-exfoliate that I use once a month and the other is my daily to every-other-day scrub. Korean Peeling Gels or Peeling Powder kind of creeps me out because I can’t help but feel it is a chemical reaction on my skin. Some of my friends use it and love it and told me it kind of just rubs/rolls off of your skin as if you had split glue on your skin. If any of you use Peel, please let me know!


Just like the normal toner from back home, you can apply this directly after washing your face. It’s usually in a bigger bottle and very watery. Sometimes they have a gel like consistency. The watery ones need to be applied with cotton pads and the gel ones can be applied with your fingers. I still find it confusing and honestly only use it when I get it for free.

Emulsion, Essence, Serum, Ampoule, High Vitamin Booster

Even though I’ve asked many people, they all seem to have slightly different opinions about what every product does and when you should apply it. The conclusion I came to was that it’s like added some extra care to your skin before you apply the final lotion or cream. If you apply this and just walk away, your skin can feel tight or dry. Also, generally speaking, the smaller the bottle, the more intense the liquid inside. Some are mega-vitamin packed and can be too intense for sensitive skin, and some are like a milky lotion. It’s safe to say these usually come in small bottles and they’re more intense and focus on something specific you need. For example, it could contain vitamins, anti-wrinkle fighters, pore tightening, sebum control (aka oil control), brightening, whitening, smoothing, hydrating, and so on. Just make sure you act super dramatic and apply it like in the commercials in slow motion or it WON’T WORK!!! Just joking. OR AM I!???

Moisturizer, Lotion, and Cream

Moisturizers are normally your basic last step face treatment. A lot of people just do this step after washing their face and I think deepening on your age and skin, it’s totally enough. It’s usually a light cream that can go on underneath you makeup. If you find your moisturizer very thick or oily it might be a night cream or intense moisturizer made for the extra dry season. I only use cream in the winter when my face gets mega dry.

Face Pack

Applying a face pack is the most awesome thing. It’s like having a wonderful flashback to when you were a child and being allowed to apply colourful goopy paint to your face. Face packs must be washed off but some are applied and left on overnight before being washed off.

Sheet Mask

These are those wonderful wet paper masks soaked in some kind of essence. You’ve seen us do a WTF on the ones that looked like creepy animals, right? In fact, if you don’t use an essence/serum you can use this in place of it. I bring these bad boys with me on long flights because the air is so dry on planes. Plus, because you don’t have to wash it off, you can just pull of the paper mask when you’re done, toss it in the garbage, and pat in the extra essence.

Whitening and Brightening

Many people think whitening and brightening means “change your skin tone to look more caucasian” but I would have to argue that it is actually a lost in translation kind of moment. Whitening and Brightening is supposed to be when you want to even out your skin tone to make it one colour if you have skin problems such as scarring, acne, discolouration, or red blotches (my cheeks and nose are like this). It absolutely can result in lighter coloured skin, but that’s because it has heavy coverage which makes your entire skin look like one shade.

Dewy Finish

The Dewy Finish is when your product makes your skin looks moist or wet. I personally hate this look because I spend so much time trying to powered the oil off my face, but in a lot of Korean dramas you’ll see really shiny looking girls due to the “dewy” finish. It’s supposed to give off a look of youth and freshness and I get what they’re saying…I just don’t agree with it.

Magic Perm: Straight Hair

Ok so this isn’t really a part of Korean Beauty Products but I’m throwing in some hair terminology as well because I’m going all out here today. Ahem: You can’t wash or dry or your hair, or put it in a ponytail for an entire day (warned my hairdresser) but after that day my hair remained straight no matter how humid the weather. After a ponytail in the heat, my hair would be straight with no bend from the hair elastic! Be warned, there is a different between a straight perm and a magic perm. The magic perm costs a lot more and is harsher.

Digital Perm: Loose Curls

This perm starts out on the tighter curl side but slowly loosens to big loose curls (depending on the length of your hair). To style it, you can add gel and just crunch your hair to get very defined curls or you can just use your fingers to twirl the hair and it creates loose curls. This perm does NOT start from the scalp, so the top of my hair wasn’t mega crazy curly or anything. I really want to do it again with my long hair but you can’t do it on hair that is bleached or coloured without destroying your hair. :( One day!!!

C Curl: a small wave at the bottom

Think of the letter “c” it isn’t a full squiggle, and that’s the same for this perm. It’s mostly used at the end of your hair to create a kind of flip or small wave that gives you more volume.

S Curl: very loose waves

This is kind of like the mermaid hairstyle and similar to the Digital Perm but not as curly. It will effect your hair differently depending on the length or weight of your hair. It is intended to create loose wavy curls but it can also add a lot of volume to your hair!

*PHEW* That was a big post! I hope this can help everyone out and make you feel more confident about buying or using Korean beauty products. If I missed anything, please let me know. Also, let me know if you ever got a Korean perm and what your experience was like. Time for me to start my 8 step face cleaning…it’ll all be worth it if I look like I’m 20 when I’m actually 90.



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Understanding Korean Beauty Products


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  1. As far as essences emulsions etc a good basic rule of thumb is to go thinnest to thickest. So liquids then gels then lotions then creams etc
    http://snowwhiteandthepear.blogspot.com/p/recommended-reading.html Is an amazing resource
    Especially this http://snowwhiteandthepear.blogspot.com/2015/04/multi-step-korean-skincare-routine.html
    pH stuff is mega confusing but basically it’s like this. Skin has a naturally acidic pH. When you wash your face with most soap it jacks up your pH and makes it really basic. Toners force your skin’s pH back to a normal level where it can most efficiently absorb facial products
    I’m gently edging into Korean and Japanese beauty with garnier cleansing oil and a low pH face wash (cerave foaming is good, Americans), toner, ost vitamin c serum, missha time revolution night repair science activator borabit ampoule(phew) and a laneige travel kit I picked up at target. Also biore watery essence sunscreen. Japanese, not Korean but awesome

    5 years ago
  2. There’s no way I could make it through a chickvid, but speaking of beauty, Martina, what’s up the Left Hemisphere Lobotomy Haircut?

    Slugs and snails are after me
    D.D.T. keeps me happy
    Now I guess I’ll have to tell ’em
    That I got no cerebellum
    Gonna get my Ph.D.
    I’m a teenage lobotomy, yeah

    5 years ago
  3. Passed by a Sephora the other day with a big poster in the window advertising “The Korean Dewy Look.” Looks like it’ll be popular in the States now!

    5 years ago
  4. DD

    Also I totally agree with you description. Applying essence should be exactly same to the commercial! Your essence is watching you(!) if you do it or not! It only works when you use it slow and soft. It is such a frecking product.

    5 years ago
  5. Face pace~ :3

    This was informative & helpful, particularly in the hair department… I didn’t know such things existed.

    There’s a Face Shop in a mall near me and I’ve tried cleansing foams, cleansing creams, sheet masks, and toners, and they’ve all reallllly impressed me. They also have given out oodles and oodles of samples; it’s ridiculous.
    I didn’t even know what the toners did. But I used them. And I liked em.
    Cleansing creams kind of irk me- they don’t feel very effective and I don’t like how they feel like they never wash off D:

    Either way, if The Face Shop’s product quality is any indication of Korean beauty products as a whole, I might need to do some serious investigating into specific products online. They seem to work wonders.

    5 years ago
    • Replying to my own comment because I totally forgot to mention; ‘dewy’ skin is so freaking weird. It just looks like their faces are oily. If done in very small, subtle amounts, it can look alright, but I’ve seen dramas where I just wanted to throw face wash at everybody. It was ridiculous.

      5 years ago
      • That’s the same way I feel! I sometime watch it and go “Oh gosh they should fire the makeup artist for letting her get that oily…oh wait…that’s the dewy look.” :|

        5 years ago
    • ooooh, The Face Shop. If you haven’t already, try one of the cleansing oils. Right now, I’m married to the Brightening Rice Rich Oil. Even if you don’t wear make up, it effectively removes daily gunk and sunscreen (which you should be using in copious amounts EVERY SINGLE DAY :P) prior to your actual cleanser.

      5 years ago
  6. I wonder if Korea now has better products than Western ones since there is a rise of concern for animal testing? I keep hearing how awesome Korea’s beauty products are and I would LOVE to give them a try but I really don’t agree with animal testing, i mean let’s face it, we don’t NEED make up in the same way we need medicine. But it is pretty much impossible to get information about animal testing for English speaking companies, I can’t imagine getting straight answers trying from a company that speaks Korean.

    There is also the movement for more natural products, so maybe Korea isn’t afraid to put more chemicals in their products and therefore make them better? I don’t know. But it is funny that you make a video deciphering Korean beauty products when I feel like western beauty products are just as confusing!

    Just wondering, is the whole beauty blender thing taking off in Korea? It is amazing. I remember the BB Cream video with Martina and she applied it with her fingers and I thought it was a pain in a butt. So I used foam wedges and it sucked too. The beauty blender is faster than both methods, but give the results and tapping the cream with your fingers.

    5 years ago
    • Yeah that’s a really good point! o.o And kind of alarming considering they do have pet stylists at pet stores and whatnot.

      5 years ago
  7. I’m a AA woman from the east coast, and I absolutely loooove Korean skincare. Since switching from American or European lines, I’ve noticed that my skin looks better at a fraction of the cost. I especially love The Face Shop, It’s Skin and Benton. Granted, I have a better understanding of which product does what and when/ where to put it, since I have a background in cosmetics. People are astounded or disgusted by my daily regimen of makeup remover, oil cleanser, foam wash, scrub, toner, treatment serum or ampoule, moisturizer, eye cream and SPF (yes, I practically live in my bathroom). But hey, people constantly think that I’m at least 5 years younger.

    One thing that weirds me out is needling. I got a device, but I start to cry everytime I use it. Has anyone else suffered through?

    5 years ago
  8. This is an excellent post! It definitely covers a lot of the basics and I feel that it does an excellent job of getting people started. I would also love to recommend the r/AsianBeauty subreddit. It’s an amazing resource full of friendly and knowledgeable people that are more than willing to put people in the right direction. There’s also tons of reviews and guides to figuring out what products to try out and which ones are (chemically speaking) duds. :) It also tells people where to shop and what to expect when you buy from certain retailers. And if you’re somewhere outside of Korea, it tells you what physical locations are available. I’ve been into Asian beauty for about 5 years now, and I haven’t looked back once. All of the products I’ve used are good, and most are great. There’s just such a jump from American beauty to Korean beauty, scientifically speaking. And my skin has never been happier. :D

    5 years ago
  9. I’ve been getting into asian beauty stuff lately and given that I am in states and can’t get all the lovely free samples that come with buying elsewhere, I would love some clarification on sleeping/face packs.

    Do they dry on the skin or do they stay wet or sticky? I have super dry skin and love the idea of having something moisturizing on my face through the night. From what I’ve read though, sleeping packs are gooey and for a side-sleeper like me, it would make a frightful mess on my pillow.

    Anyone have any experience with these?

    5 years ago
  10. Martinaaaa thank you for doing this video! I’m just starting to get into Korean beauty products and this is a huge help.

    Has anyone else tried Etude House’s Wonder Pore Clay Pack? MAGIC IS REAL AND IT COMES IN A LITTLE BLUE BOX.

    5 years ago
  11. A toner is actually quite important in your skincare routine. Most cleansers and exfoliators have a different PH level than the skin, so a toner will bring it back to what it should be. Just make sure it doesn’t contain alcohol. And as far as I understand about serums (and ampoules etc) is that “concentrated” is the keyword. Where moisterizers are packed with moisterizing ingredients and a little of the rest, serums are the other way around. Less moisterizing and concentrated on the problem you want to tackle (anti-aging, wrinkles, scarring, etc), which is why some people use multiple serums or alternate between them. I’m not a pro though, so please do correct me if I’m wrong.

    5 years ago
  12. Someone gave me a Tonymoly green apple peeling cream and I’m not sure how to use it. I had a hard time washing it off and I had to scrape the parts that didn’t come off with my nails ._.

    5 years ago
  13. Hi Martina! Contrary to what you mentioned about exfoliate/scrub/peel, a peeling gel might actually be gentler on your skin as compared to an exfoliator, as it sorts of breaks down the top most layer of your skin, so you’re able to rub off all the dead skin to have complexion that’s less dull!

    Personally, I enjoy using an exfoliator because I deal with problems like acne, blackheads and oil clots, and using an exfoliating scrub makes me feel like I get rid of those nasty stuff, as compared to just lifting off the layer of dead skin!

    I think peels are just generally more popular in Korea because most Koreans are blessed with great skin and they have no need for something that’s “harsher”!

    But then again I’m not a beauty expert so….!

    5 years ago
    • I remember reading some online post with common beauty mistakes, one is that people use exfoliators too often. I think the article said you should be using them more like once a month, so maybe the idea of a peel should be used more frequently?

      5 years ago
  14. Oh! I use Magic Bubble Creamy Peeling Wash by Etude House ! I really dislike the chemically smell but it does the job amazingly. My face feels nice too after using it. Toner was part of my regime but i soon got too lazy for it hahaha.
    I want to try straight perm/magic perm ;-; but my hair is too damaged for it ;-(

    5 years ago
  15. I’ve kinda assumed rinse was like a conditioner because a lot of my Korean and Japanese box hair dyes come with a rinsenpack of some sort.

    Funny story: I saw this girl on transit the other day and I think she was Korean. She had on so many whitening products on her face that she literally looked artificial. You could see the lines of the creams on the edge of her face.

    5 years ago
  16. Thanks for this post! I have been slowly getting into Korean skincare myself but I get so overwhelmed whenever I go into my favorite stores (Etude, skinfood, and FaceShop). Though I have a fear that too many products might make my skin problems worse. I have sensitive, combination skin that breaks out immediately if I use the wrong ingredient on it :<

    5 years ago
  17. Ive tried Moonlight in Spoon Blueberry by Etude House. Its a sleeping pack and bloody hell does it moisturize. It left my skin soft and brighter.
    This post cleared up alot of things thank you so much!

    5 years ago
  18. OMG Martina I love you, I sas just ordering things and was sooooo confused, I love you kyaaaa *insert fangirl screams*

    5 years ago
  19. I’ve actually done a digital perm in both Seoul and Busan before! I have very fine and stick-straight hair, and the perm lasted a good half a year and longer. I would say that initially the curls would look quite curly (like slightly ahjumma kinda curly) but after a day or two they soften and it looks beautiful.

    One thing I will say though is that if you’re not fluent in Korean in any way, do make sure you bring a photo of the kind of end result you want. Most salons (I had my hair done in Hongdae, Seoul and Haeundae, Busan) don’t have staff that can speak much English; even their salon menu will be in really broken English usually.

    Also, after you get your perm done, do get some kind of curling essence or mousse! I don’t know if it was just my experience, but after I had my first perm done (Seoul), I didn’t get any curling products and my perm nearly straightened out completely after 3 days! At that point I was already in Busan and decided to perm my hair again. After that I immediately went to get a curling essence and my curls lasted ages after.

    I will definitely say that as long as you let the salon staff know what you want for your end result, your hair should be fine. My fine hair didn’t even frizz despite 2 perms within the same week, even after I came back to Singapore’s humid weather! Just make sure you maintain your hair properly after. :)

    5 years ago
  20. Love this post!!!

    5 years ago
  21. Thank you! I walked into a Etude House the other day and had no idea what I was looking at! The cushion is something that is not really known in the US as well. I had to look up what it was. Now that I know however I really want one but am not really optimistic due to my skin tone.

    5 years ago
  22. DD

    I really like how you describe the product. In america, I have opposite problem of yours: short skincare lineup. Until I reduce my skin product to one or two, I’ve bought products that overlaps each others a lot. I’m buying some of korean cosmetic product from korea yet (of my lovely friend’s rescue) because couldn’t find equivalent product in same price and quality: cheap oil-free sunscreen, air cusion product, milky type skin toner or liquid essence disposable masks.

    The type of toner is usually related to your skin type… if I remember correctly. My skin is very dry/sensitive. So I’m using lots of milky/gel toner because watery type makes my skin too dry. Instead, I usually skip the emersion part because it gives me enough soft and moist skin condition to provide oil on it. In my case, toner is frecking important product because it almost covers the emersion part. Sometimes very watery essence product replaced my toner part in same reason.

    5 years ago
  23. I use Paula’s Choice products almost exclusively.

    Morning: Cleanser, Toner, Moisturizer (gel w/ SPF)
    Evening: Cleanser, Toner, Antioxidant Serum, Moisturizer (cream no SPF)

    I should be doing exfoliation but haven’t bought any recently. I prefer chemical (leave on) exfoliation as physical really irritates my skin.

    5 years ago
  24. My husband and I both have a daily facial routine. First we shave, it makes my make-up go on smoother and no it doesn’t grow back darker that’s a myth. Then after we shave we wash our face with a standard cleanser or sometimes we just use a bar soap. Then we use a face peel mask, which is so fun for the both of us. It makes our skin so silky smooth afterwards and fights those stupid razor bumps. Then we tone our faces to tighten our pores and to remove any excess oils from the peel. Then I apply make up. :D

    5 years ago
    • Thanks for sharing! I never thought of the peel mask for helping with razor bumps but I guess that makes sense. Does it feel like it’s burning or anything considering your skin might feel a bit raw from shaving? I’m so worried to use peel masks! :O

      5 years ago
      • Sometimes it does burn on the drier spots, or if you use it too often. its more like a tingling feeling afterwards though. They do have sensitive skin face peels here in the USA. I LOVE the men’s kind, it usually always is sensitive.

        5 years ago
  25. Mae

    I was thrown off by cleansing oils in the beginning because I didn’t like how it felt so oily (well, duh) on my face even after I used a regular cleanser to wash it off. But after I got some samples of the Shu Uemura cleansing oils (which are fab but super expensive) my life changed! There were instructions on how to use them, and apparently you’re supposed to put the cleansing oil on your dry face (with makeup still on) then massage it all over, add a little water to your hands then continue massaging your face, and then finally rinse it all off. No oily residue leftover, all makeup removed! Feels so amazing, and works so well.

    5 years ago
    • That’s the same thing I was weirded out with, but after I used a couple different brands I found one that I really loved (it’s by Klairs) and it just dissolved everything off my face including my Etude house waterproof mascara which normally is a death struggle to remove. It was totally amazing.

      5 years ago