Korean skincare is an area of skincare that is quite new and foreign for me in terms of learning about a few of the many different brands available, what each brand is notorious for and of course what are the must purchase items whilst in Seoul. I nerded it up before I went to Seoul and did so by reading endless reviews and hunting down accurate ingredient listings. I also tried to develop general understanding on why and how Korean skincare is that little bit different to what I am used to. After reading some great K-Beauty blogging resources like those from Snow White and The Asian Pear, Fifty Shades of Snails and Fan Serviced B, I discovered that what perhaps sets Korean Skincare and Western Skincare apart is their use of of ingredients, their concentrations within formulas and the innovations within the research and development laboratories of big companies such are Amore Pacific and LG.
In this blog post I look into five different skincare ingredients that are widely used or popular in South Korea (and slowly making waves in the Western skincare scene). Some of these skincare ingredients have heaps of scientific research to back up their benefits whilst others, not so much. However, each and every one of these ingredients are quite popular and are used in many Korean skincare products as a main ingredient (and thus a marketing tool) or is just commonly found on a formulation listing of different products.
This ingredient is the first sort of ingredient that I think about when it comes to Korean skincare - for me it is sort of what put Korean skincare in the spotlight - but what is it exactly? Blogger, Pretty Not Included wrote this post earlier this year outlining what Snail Mucin/Snail Slime is and the research that has been conducted about it and its effects on the skin. She notes that snail mucin or Helix Aspersa Müller Glycoconjugates "it is an active ingredient of proteins, glycolic acid, hyaluronic acid and antimicrobial peptides".
What good does snail mucin offer for the skin anyway? According to a press release by Andes Natural Skincare in 2008, snail mucin claims to do the following for the skin:
- Possesses potent superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione-S-transferase (GST) antioxidant activities as well as multiple modes of antioxidant action, acting at the level of free radical production and also sequestering free radicals. This helps to maintain the skin healthy and improves cell function.
- Counteracts sun damage, and thus prevents premature skin aging and wrinkles.
- Accelerates skin turnover and renewal of damaged tissues, including actinic keratosis and keratosis pilaris and opens clogged pores.
- Induces quick skin regeneration after wound healing, and helps to avoid keloid & abnormal scars and restore tissue plasticity.
- Is effective to prevent and treat all types of scars and stretch marks.
- Helps to reduce acne scars of all types, even ice-pick or indented scars and fights teen and adult acne & scalp and skin infections.
So does it actually even work? Well from what I have read, studies are generally inconclusive, although they do show some promising results, it is clear that more research does need to be done with this particular ingredient. In a scientific review published in the Journal of Phytotherapy Research, scientists note that studies conducted have shown that snail mucin has been successful in helping patients with hyperpigmentation. In another study conducted in 1982 by Japanese scientists, it found that snail mucin does show some antibacterial qualities (thus why it is attributed to helping with acne in Korean skincare) but further research does need to be conducted. According to Future Derm, most research on snail mucin has been conducted in-vitro which means that it has been created in a lab environment on cell cultures and there has been a serious lack of controlled experiments or long term clinical trials. Overall, I think that the scientific data of snail mucin is lacking and many of the positive effects that people see with their skin from using the mucin is perhaps from the hyaluronic acid or glycolic acid that is included with its formulation.
Popular Korean brands that use snail mucin include (and are not limited to) - Cosrx, Mizon and Skinfood.
Hanbang refers to traditional Korean Medicine and in terms of skincare, it refers to products that have been scientifically formulated with multiple herbs and botanical extracts that are based on the ancient wisdom and practices of traditional Korean herbal medicine. This ensures that that there is a synergistic efficacy and safety to help improve skin conditions. Hanbang in Korean skincare often uses ingredients such as ginseng, bamboo, green tea and also can incorporate traditional processes such as fermentation (more on that later).
The market for hanbang in Korean cosmetics and skincare is huge, in a news report in 2008, it was estimated that USD$1.1 billion worth of hanbang cosmetics and skincare were sold in 2007, accounting for 20% of total sales in cosmetics and skincare. No doubt that that number has risen with the increasing demand for Korean skincare and cosmetics globally.
Whilst there are no solid studies on the the benefits of some of these traditional Korean herbs and extracts on the skin, small scale studies have been conducted and the results have so far been promising. For example, a study published in January 2016 in the Journal of Ginseng Research shows that human skin cells in a lab environment and 21 female participants seemed to have responded well with a mixture of Ginseng and Chinese Hawberry in terms of a smoother surface, more hydration and less fine lines and wrinkles around the eye area. In the Journal of Integrative Medicinal Research, there is discussion of the benefits of plant extracts, including hanbang ingredients such as green tea being able to neutralise free radicals due to the levels of polyphenols and also discussion on green tea improving skin health. There are so many studies that exist on the benefits of traditional herbs such as green tea, ginseng, gingko etc when consumed orally and currently, studies on the benefits of such herbs and botanical extracts on the skin are promising. I think the delivery system in terms of how the positive effects of these hanbang ingredients are integral on how they are absorbed into the skin and how they work with the skin's chemical structure to improve the skin's general health.
Hanbang is huge in Korea and the popular brands include Sulwhasoo, History of Whoo, Illi Hanbang and Sooyerhan.
Whilst on a skincare shopping mission in Seoul and trying my best to scrutinise the ingredients list of anything I buy (trying to avoid that dreaded alcohol denatured), one thing that I have noticed on many of the products I have looked at or have purchased is niacinamide. It is practically on almost every single skincare product I have purchased and is normally one of the top ingredients in the Korean ingredients listing.
Niacinamide is a powerful antioxidant (vitamin B3) that has been scientifically proven to improve the skin's barrier protection by reducing the the transepidermal water loss of the skin and therefore product which contain the ingredient prove to generally be a good skin moisturiser. Studies have also shown that niacinamide can also improve the effects of hyperpigmentation of the skin, a concern in which many consumers in Asian cultures have (marketing that is commonly mistaken for 'skin whitening'). Some studies have also shown that the use of niacinamide can also improve the overall look of the skin in terms of the reduction of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as skin elasticity.
I find that whilst niacinamide is commonly used in Korean (or Asian skincare) in general, I haven't seen in much in Western skincare brands (with the exception of the recently released 'The Ordinary' range by DEICEM). From what I have read an understood, there is sound scientific data and studies that do highlight the benefits of improving the skin's barrier protection and also improvement with the effects of hyperpigmentation in the skin.
Arbutin is another skincare ingredient that I find in many of the ingredient listings of skincare products in Korea, especially those which promise to brighten or 'lighten' the skin. Arbutin is a ingredient that was originally derived naturally from the dried leaves of different plants (such as bearberry) and now with progressions in science can also be made synthetically.
Many studies have shown that the arbutin has had success in the improvement of skin hyperpigmentation. The way in which arbutin does this, is that it acts to inhibit certain chemical activities in the skin due to it sharing similar chemical structure to those cells which can potentially act to darken or dull the skin. In some clinical trials conducted on actual people, scientists have found that arbutin has successfully shown that it can lighten skin tone in a period of 12 weeks.
Other studies show that arbutin is potentially successful in other areas of skincare, acting as an anti-inflammatory for the skin and also as an antioxidant to fight off free radicals within the environment. Whilst there have been many studies that show the success in arbutin in the way of helping the skin with dullness, hyperpigmentation and skin lightening, more research does need to be done on the claims of arbutin being a successful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. However, despite this, the most popular use of arbutin in skincare is first and foremost in hyperpigmentation and the lightening of the skin. It's success shows in a number of Asian skincare lines which promise to fight hyperpigmentation and to 'whiten' the skin. It is perhaps one of the most under used skincare ingredient in the Western world, with only a few products that I know of using this ingredient.
I spoke a bit about fermentation briefly in my blog post outlining my Seoul Skincare Wishlist/Shopping List with regards to the popular skincare brand SU:M37 in which every single product in the range contains fermented Korean herbs and botanicals. Fermentation is huge in Korea and it is featured in many products across many different brands. Examples include Korean green beauty brand Whamisa, Missha’s cult product ‘Time Evolution First Treatment Essence’ which contains 80% of a fermented yeast extract, the entire SU:M37 range, popular hanbang brands such as Sulawhasoo and History of Whoo...the list is endless.
I actually struggled to find some solid scientific articles which explained the benefits of fermentation in skincare, but according to an article cited by Truth in Aging, there is evidence that fermented skincare ingredients could potentially be more successful than their non fermented counterparts. The article cites a study that compared fermented and non-fermented red ginseng (the most popular type of ginseng in Korea) and in this study conducted in 2012, scientists found that the fermented red ginseng has a higher concentration of antioxidants. The study also concluded that the fermented red ginseng was more successful in terms of ‘anti wrinkle efficacy’ and had better whitening properties.
The other theory that I have read about fermented skincare is that fermented ingredients are more readily absorbed by the skin and therefore are more efficient in successful in promoting better skin health and anti-ageing properties. The supposed science behind this theory is that fermented ingredients have been naturally been further broken down into smaller particles and that this allows the ingredient’s benefits to absorb and delivered more successfully into the the skin. Again, with this theory I cannot seem to find solid scientific evidence that proves this theory (and if anyone has a reference to prove this, please let me know!).
As you can see, the skincare industry in Korea is quite broad - ranging from the perhaps gimmicky ingredients of snail mucin, to solid and scientifically proven ingredients like niacinamide and arbutin and finally a more holistic approach to skincare in the way of Korean hanbang and fermented ingredients. There is no doubt that the Korean cosmetics and skincare industry is extremely innovative and competitive in terms of striving to find the latest and greatest for their consumers. There is a huge emphasis on skincare in the Korean culture and it is obvious that companies invest billions of dollars every year to develop new products which must deliver effective results to consumers. Put simply, if the product doesn't work, it will not sell in the competitive market of Korean beauty but at the same time products and their 'key' or 'star' ingredients need to be different, stand out and at times even a bit 'gimmicky' in order to gain attention in an oversaturated market. I guess it is also what makes Korean skincare fun - there is always something innovative, different or new.
Have you used any products that contain one of these five ingredients? Did you notice any differences in your skin when using them? I would love to hear your thoughts, so please share your experiences in the comments section below.