8 Korean Beauty Products I Loved Long Before Sephora Made K-Beauty Mainstream

I guess I'm a K-beauty hipster.
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I guess I'm a K-beauty hipster.

Judging by the fact that nearly every Sephora is rolling out the banners proclaiming, “Hey, K-beauty is a THING now, guys, and we are selling it!” I can firmly say that Korean beauty is just about hitting max acclimation into the global beauty infrastructure of “gimme” and “now.” Those of us in the biz have known this for a few years now, but it’s cool to see all of our hard ranting and raving finally paying off and to have much more access to those covetable skincare products and cosmetics in the Western hemisphere.

All it took was one essence and I was hooked. Fast-forward about a year and my entire medicine cabinet is filled with Korean skincare products. It’s almost all I use now, save for times when I’m trying out other things for the fun of it. Generally, I default back to my K-beauty loot, though. 

I find that not only is the packaging cute and thoughtfully constructed, the products WORK and don’t cost an arm and a leg to have. Seriously, I felt like screaming out the window (in joy) when a $13 serum (more on that later) I bought just for kicks turned out to make my skin into a near-bioluminescent silken canvas. 

That said, let the ranting begin!

TONERS

L to R: Belif Bergamot Herbal Extract Toner, Son & Park Beauty Water, Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner

L to R: Belif Bergamot Herbal Extract Toner, Son & Park Beauty Water, Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner

I didn’t use toner up until about a couple months ago. My experience with most of them was super-drying and stingy, and I wasn’t very acne-prone, so I figured I’d skip the extra degreaser on top of a cleanser. 

Korean toners are quite different in concept in that you use them after cleansing to further moisten the skin to prepare it to absorb all the good skin junk you’re about to slather on next. Who knew your skin’s thirst needed a primer? These toners can have benefits of their own, too—generally of the soothing, brightening, texture-evening variety.

Belif is one of the fewer K-beauty brands that formulates with all-natural ingredients. Bergamot Herbal Extract Toner has a slightly gel-like texture, which is easier to handle whether you choose to do the cotton pad swipe with it or just squirt a dime-size into your palm and pat it on your face. It leaves a refreshing layer of moisture that, even after absorption, makes your skin feel clean but not dry and tight. I use this one every morning before moisturizing. Mmmm, plumpy.

Son & Park Beauty Water is one of those cult items that pretty much every K-Pop star hoards. I’m a bit perplexed on the concept of a “beauty water” but simultaneously appreciate the brevity in name (somewhat rare for lots of Korean skin care products). It does and is what it says. Think of this like those fancy French micellar waters that go the extra mile to exfoliate with willow bark and papaya extracts and hydrate with botanicals like rose and lavender water. I use this every night after cleansing to grab whatever makeup I might have missed and get my skin properly thirsting for the next step.

Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner is aloe-based, if you couldn’t tell, so it’s mega-soothing and hydrating. BHA is a mild exfoliator, and there’s also some hyaluronic acid and snail secretion filtrate in it, so it also works to repair and plump up your skin. My driest peoples, this is the toner that will change your mind about toner.

ESSENCES

L to R: Benton Snail Bee High Content Essence, Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence, Dr. G Vita Ampoule pH Mist

L to R: Benton Snail Bee High Content Essence, Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence, Dr. G Vita Ampoule pH Mist

Essences, man. What is the deal with essences? It straddles the line between toner and serum because it’s like a hybrid that preps as well as imparts goodies. I find they probably lean more towards serum, but all in all, it’s just logistics.

I cannot rave enough about Benton Snail Bee High Content Essence. It has snail and bee goops in it (duh) so while your brain might be like “stay away from her, she sounds dangerous!” the she in question is doing an arsenal of time-reversing repair in record rates. Be not afraid—bug parts rule in your skin care. 

This essence has pretty much all actives in the ingredient list—no filler, so there’s little room for potential do-nothing irritants to eff up your game. The snail stuff repairs and evens texture, while the bee stuff boosts collagen and hydration, so what I got after about three weeks of use twice a day was even-toned, smooth skin. Acne marks faded significantly, I stopped getting those weird underground cystic monsters, and dry patches were well-watered. The price might be a couple bucks in difference depending on where you shop, but I’ve never paid over $20 for this. (Cue Shia LeBeouf voice going, “DO IT. GO OUT AND BUY THIS. YOU CAN DO IT. SO DO IT.”)

Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence often lives in the shadow of its more expensive dupe-origin, SKII’s Essence. The ingredient lists are similar, with fermented bacterial goodness working towards brightening, repairing and protecting your skin. But before you start rinsing your mug with microbrew, not all ferments are created equal, and some will work better than others. That said, this one has a strong enough reputation that I doubt it won’t impress anyone. I started using this around the same time I started using Benton’s Snail Bee Essence, so much good skin came after use. Not sure who was pulling more weight, though.

Vita Ampoule pH Mist does what you might have assumed: balances your skin’s pH. If you’re too dry, it’ll bring it back to wetter times. If you’re too oily, it’ll tell your sebum glands to cool it. It’s like a bouncer in an aerosol, regulating what riffraff gains entry to the club that is your face. Also, it smells really nice. I’m not a face-mister in general, but I’ll sneak a midday spritz of this stuff if nothing else just to smell it. Who wouldn’t want Febreze for your face?

MASKS

Elizavecca Milky Piggy Carbonated Bubble Clay Mask, Caolion Blackhead Steam Pore Pack

Elizavecca Milky Piggy Carbonated Bubble Clay Mask, Caolion Blackhead Steam Pore Pack

Remember when I mentioned that Korean beauty products rarely have brief names? Here are good examples of that. What do milky pigs have to do with face masks? Absolutely nothing! Forgive the redundancy of terms but somewhere in translation, they really want to get across how fun, quirky and worky a product is.

All I can say about the Elizavecca Milky Piggy Carbonated Bubble Clay Mask is be prepared for an exercise in self-restraint. It looks like a gray clay mask, but upon contact with oxygen, it effervesces. Just a minute after you smear it on your face, your face becomes a science project with bubbling clay that seems to grow forth as it snaps, crackles and pops all the gunk out of your pores. I was dying with how tickly it felt, but that just made the massage and rinse all the more satisfying. 

I bought the Caolion Blackhead Steam Pore Pack because, honestly, I wanted to be confronted with the question “Where is pore?” on the lid every time I opened my medicine cabinet. Gotta keep your goals on your mind at all times. 

This is a super-satisfying mask to use. It’s kaolin clay with grainy bits, so you slather it on and it gets warm—really warm. Let it marinate for about 10 minutes and then massage it around to exfoliate. I recommend a cool-water rinse. I’ve never felt so refreshed and scrubbed clean from a mask before—and my pores have not been found since.

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If there’s one thing I will never stop working tirelessly towards perfecting, skincare is it. I’m obsessed. Not, like, under-the-knife obsessed, but it’s a big priority and passion of mine. I’ll wear SPF everyday even if I don’t brush my hair—like that. 

I used to be riddled with milia and whiteheads all over my chin and nose and patches of eczema on my cheeks, replete with blotchy tone until I cut the bullshit with expensive serums containing gimmicky ingredients that didn’t really work—even going so far as to stop washing my face with water and doing the oil-cleansing method (didn’t really do the trick). I mean, an entire nation of beauty obsessives (and I mean seriously obsessed—South Korea is the world’s cosmetic surgery capital) can’t steer you wrong. They want the best so they produce the best.

Korean culture believes beauty is something that is cultivated and earned through work and dedication; “I woke up like this” doesn’t cut it. After all, “good genes” makes for a much briefer (plus boring, plus non-inclusive) discussion than swapping beauty secrets, right?

Right!

Right!

  • How many of you have jumped on the K-beauty train? 
  • What are your Korean holy-grail products? Seriously, tell me. I want to buy them. 
  • Where do you get your K-beauty fix?