Having a clear and plump complexion is a must-have for many women. In the age of beauty gurus and social media influencers, skincare routine guides are dominating YouTube and TikTok. “No makeup” makeup looks are in, and many women are using beauty products to enhance their natural beauty instead of masking it.
The virality of skincare topics could be attributed to the fact that 85% of people between the ages of 12 and 24 experience breakouts. Acne, discoloration, bumps, and inflammation are a source of insecurity for many. A beautiful complexion signals health and youthfulness, and one of the best things about having clear skin is not needing foundation when you go out. Glamming up with expensive products isn't as necessary when a clear complexion does all of that for you. And let's face it, putting on foundation, contouring, and using concealers are fun but time-consuming. Feeling the need to constantly cover up blemishes is exhausting. Thus, the quest for clear skin is shared by millions.
But what exactly causes breakouts? Clogged pores, bad hygiene, and genetics are often to blame, but I believe that the flare-ups and breakouts most people experience are due to hormone imbalances and inflammation. Regardless of the reasons, we often turn to skincare products in hopes of improving our skin. But is it possible that some of the ingredients or commonly practiced "skincare routines" in America could possibly be making some people's acne…worse?
Why I Switched to K Beauty
I used to experience acne breakouts, redness, and blackheads on my t-zone. I tried many products that are known for fighting zits like cleansers containing salicylic acid, which is one of the most widely used ingredients in face washes and creams. I went on to try AHA (alpha hydroxy acid), BHA (beta hydroxy acid), clay masks, peels, etc. Any top-reviewed product that claimed to clear skin, I tried it.
Little did I know that I was only making it worse for my skin. Nothing about my face improved. In fact, after months of trying out different products, my skin only became drier, bumpier, more discolored, and more inflamed. Obviously, I was doing something wrong.
As I continued to research skincare products, I came across videos of women showing their before and after pictures. Unlike me, their results showed a clear and shiny complexion. I learned that they swapped out their American skincare routine full of harsh chemicals in favor of Korean skincare with gentler products. I admired their results, so I knew I had to try it too.
After months of switching to Korean face cleansers, toners, masks, in conjunction with using American products that solely focused on hydration, my skin barrier was repaired – clearing my skin and improving my complexion.
American Skincare Focuses on “Drying Out” Acne
Lots of skincare products in America that are intended to treat acne focus on drying out pimples. But most of these ingredients that are said to unclog your pores may actually make your skin worse for you in the long run. Take, for example, salicylic acid – it's great for drying out your pimples by unclogging your pores and exfoliating your skin. Benzoyl peroxide is another great example of an ingredient that is commonly used in America. It works by removing dead skin cells and by drying up the oils in your pores.
Your body creates more oil when your skin is dry to help retain moisture, leading to more breakouts.
But drying out your skin is counterintuitive – your body actually has to create more oil when your skin is dry in order to help your skin retain moisture, leading to even more breakouts. Dry skin also leads to more shedding, clogging more of your pores in the process. So while these products may seem to be effective at first, using more of them over time will only lead to a damaged skin barrier which just causes more acne.
The underlying issue here may be due to the overuse of these products. We’re not really educated on these ingredients nor are we knowledgeable on their effects when used frequently. Most face washes are labeled for daily use when they should be cycled instead. We should be taught to protect and heal our skin barrier.
Why Having a Healthy Skin Barrier Is Important
Your skin is an organ that has layers. The top layer, where you experience flakiness or breakouts, is known as the Stratum corneum. This barrier is kind of like a wall; it keeps out toxins and pathogens from penetrating your skin. It contains cholesterol, fatty acids, and ceramides. Every day, your skin barrier is working hard to protect your body. Many things can potentially damage it: pollutants, allergens, harsh chemicals, over-washing, steroids, stress, and more. When a skin barrier is damaged, it shows up as scaly skin, acne, skin infections, discoloration, and itchiness.
Korean skincare is all about repairing the skin barrier to improve complexion and avoid acne. They recognize that a damaged skin barrier is a sign of poor health, and so they treat it and take it seriously.
The Korean Skincare Routine
Unlike the popularity of “spot treatment” in the U.S., which focuses on targeting affected areas and pimples, the process of improving the skin is treated holistically in K beauty by focusing on skin barrier repair and rejuvenation by using gentle products.
One of the most popular skincare routines in Korea is known as “double cleansing.” The first step is to use an oil-based cleanser – that's right, even for those who have very oily skin. The second step is to use a water-based cleanser. It's believed that only using a water-based face wash will only push impurities deeper into the pores since oil and water repel each other. By this logic, it’s believed that the oil-based cleanser will dissolve impurities and oil and excrete them outside the pores, while the water-based cleanser clears the oils and dirt that were just lifted out of the pores.
The oil-based cleanser will dissolve impurities, while the water-based cleanser clears the oils and dirt away.
There are other skincare steps that K beauty does differently that I recommend we all do. Let's talk about them.
The Multi-Step Process in Korean Skincare
In America, everyone's skincare routine kind of varies. Some people just wash and moisturize. Others don't really have much of a routine. But the Korean skincare routine is pretty universal in Korea, although the number of steps varies from person to person. You'll see Korean skincare guides online that show anywhere from five to 12 steps.
Let me give you an example of what the Korean skincare routine may look like. After the two-step process of cleansing, some people may choose to exfoliate using products that are gentle and free of harsh chemicals like parabens. Then, they put on toner or “essence,” a product that feels like water used to hydrate your skin. It's formulated at a low molecular weight for maximum absorption and produces a dewy, brightening, and hydrating effect. The fifth step is to add a serum for hydration, discoloration, and skin barrier fortification. After this, some people may use a sheet mask to encourage the production of collagen and elastin. The last steps typically consist of eye creams, moisturizers, and SPF to minimize sun exposure.
Now I totally understand how this skincare routine can seem overwhelming and almost like overkill. I'd say it's not necessary to go all out and buy 10 different products. I actually think the double cleansing, maybe adding in essence, sheet masks, and moisturizing is enough to heal your skin barrier.
I love trying new products, so I don't really have "go-tos," but here are some I've tried that I would buy again: Mizon Goodnight White Sleeping Mask, Any Missha Essence, The Black Tea London Classic Serum by Tony Moly, The Face Shop Cleanser, and Dermal Korea Sheet Masks.
Let's Talk about Sheet Masks
I'm personally a huge fan of Korean sheet masks, so we have to talk about them! I remember using clay and peel-off masks many years ago. They did the job by drying out my pimples for a little while, but they dried out my entire face too. In K beauty, sheet masks are all the rave because they work by repairing and hydrating your skin.
Focus on repairing your skin with gentle cleansers and products that fortify your skin barrier.
I used to work for a Korean-based company, and one time, one of the VPs came to visit from Korea. He gave the employees hundreds of hydrating masks as a welcome gift! That night, I tried one on and fell in love. The sheet was cold but soothing, and I left it on my face for 10 minutes. I used a face mask every night after that, and the gift bag lasted me for about 5 months. When I look back at that period of time, my face was very healthy and hydrated.
A couple of months after, I started experiencing breakouts again – at the time, I didn't put two and two together. But now I know that hydrating my skin and healing my skin barrier are essential to keeping my skin clear. I'd say the sheet masks should be one of the “must-haves” in your beauty haul. Stay consistent with it and watch your skin brighten and glow.
I want to talk about another of the major differences between American and Korean products: the price. Our minds often think a higher price equals a better product, and that may be the case sometimes, but many people can't afford a Dior cleanser. If you go a little too cheap with U.S.-based products, you'll come across cleansers that contain ingredients that will only cause more damage to your skin barrier in the long run.
This is not to say that Korean skincare products aren't expensive – some of them are, but you can find some of the best K beauty products at price points lower than $25, and there are so many brands to choose from. Today, many Korean products are being exported to the U.S., making them accessible to anyone who wants to try out the K beauty skincare routine. And it seems that it's not going away anytime soon, since the Korean beauty industry is expected to grow to more than $379 billion.
If you find yourself feeling frustrated from the disappointment of products that promise to heal your skin, yet wind up making things worse, maybe it's time to switch to K beauty! Test out some gentle cleansers, hydrating serums or creams, sheet masks, toners, and essences, and see how your skin transforms. Take a tip from the Korean beauty industry and instead of drying out your pimples and over-cleansing your face, focus on repairing your skin with gentle cleansers and products that fortify your skin barrier.
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