Asian Skincare: Understanding Products

I’m here to learn you a thing about taking care of your skin in ways you didn’t even know were possible. So get ready to come to terms with how you’ve been neglecting your beautiful face for years… Then go ahead and bookmark this post. Let’s dive into Asian skincare.

I too have spent many years torturing my skin and wishing I could afford American skincare brands on a minimum wage budget. When I lived in the states my nightly routine included a facial scrub/cleanser combo, and then a couple squirts of Jergens. No wonder my skin was drier than a cabernet sauvignon in the Sahara Desert. This seemed like the only solution that wouldn’t have me skipping meals to buy moisturizers. Then I was introduced to Asian skincare brands, and now I’m addicted to experimenting with the shitload of new products available.

It’s extremely common for women in Japan to use more than ten products in their nightly skincare routine, while American women only use about half as many. Because of this high demand for effective skincare products, Asian countries (namely Korea and Japan) have created some of the best products on the market, including a huge variety of products that can fit into any budget!

So let’s explore the different types of products you’ll encounter when creating your own routine.

Breaking down Asian skincare routines

Oil Based Cleansers

If you aren’t interested in enrolling in a twelve step program, I would recommend you at least add this to your routine. Oil based cleansers use the power of science to remove even the toughest of war paint. Lash glue, life-proof mascara, and liquid liner wings that could carry you off into the sunset all wipe right off. Using an oil based cleanser as the first step in your routine prevents you from over scrubbing or pulling on your skin, especially the delicate skin around your eyes. Even oily skin types should use oil cleansers since they help to balance sebum production and prevent over washing.

Water Based Cleansers

Once the oil based cleanser does it’s magic, it’s best to follow up with a water based cleanser. This method is called “double cleansing” and it’s a cornerstone of Japanese skincare routines. The oil based cleanser does all the dirty work by breaking down makeup, dirt, excess sebum, and whatever else might have made its way onto your skin during the day and/or night. Washing a second time with a water based cleanser helps to ensure your skin is sparkly clean and that you didn’t miss any remaining grime hiding in your precious pores. Using a facial cleansing brush or microfiber washcloth with your water soluble cleanser is a great way to get a little gentle, daily exfoliation without over scrubbing. Which brings me to the next step:


Repeat after me: “I will not exfoliate my skin every day.” Got it? Ok.

Using an exfoliator once or twice a week is a great way to brighten your complexion, soften your skin, and give your skin an occasional extra deep cleanse by removing impurities. Exfoliators come in different intensities depending on the texture and coarseness of the ingredients. Ground rice and ground almonds usually offer a stronger exfoliation than sugar, salt or charcoal. Stronger doesn’t mean better though! You should look for an exfoliator with ingredients that will benefit your skin type the most–as long as you promise not to use them daily. In conclusion, if you want skin that feels like a velveteen bunny you should include an exfoliator in your skincare routine.

Toner Waters

After your two step cleanse (and occasional exfoliation), it’s best to prepare your skin with a toner. Before I moved to Japan, I always thought of toner water as basically the cosmetic equivalent of over-proof rum: it burns with the intensity of a thousand suns, but damn it gets the job done. My go to “toner” was the little blue container of Ultimate Clear Anti-Blemish pads by Noxema (which is a staple for any American teenager fighting off hormonal breakouts). Products containing ingredients like alcohol and witch hazel are wonderful for treating a breakout, but they really shouldn’t be used daily. Routinely using products aimed at drying your skin will cause premature aging, fine lines, and wrinkles. The toner waters available in Japan are much different. They’re much more gentle and have a very low alcohol content. The main point of a toner is controlling sebum production, balancing the pH level, and preparing your skin for the next treatments.

So, after cleansing and toning it’s time for the second half of your routine. Make sure you’ve got a pen and paper handy because the next part gets confusing and it will be on the exam…joking!

Basically there’s a few different categories of liquids with various viscosity that you’re definitely going to want to rub on your face. Yes, I’m talking about essences, serums, emulsions and ampoules.


In my opinion, the least confusing out of this cluster fuck is an ampoule. These tend to be a treatment for a specific issue (acne, large pores, dark spots, etc) and almost always come in a cute little bottle with a dropper. They’re supercharged with a particular ingredient and allow you to customize your routine depending on what’s ailing you. You only need a drop or two, so even with daily use, a bottle should last you a few months.


So this is where shit gets confusing. But, hopefully I can explain it in a way that helps you to better understand the wonderful world of Asian skincare. Let’s begin.

The most simple explanation is that a serum is usually thicker than an essence. Both tend to have a high concentration of a few active ingredients that yield some specific benefit for your skin. Both are aimed at moisturizing your skin post-cleanse. However, most skincare gurus will tell you that you should use an essence before your serum, this doubles the hydration and benefits to your skin. It’s worth noting that serums and essences have a lot of overlap. This is because women in the the US understand “serum” while women in Japan and Korea understand “essence”… So sometimes the use of a different term is purely a marketing scheme. Doesn’t that just really drive home the mind fuck?


Imagine if you emptied a bottle of toner water into your Vitamix, added a few pumps of moisturizer, and then put that shit on blend. That’s an emulsion. I do not claim to understand why they exist.

The most important take-away from this section of Asian skincare is that you should look for quality products that have ingredients that will benefit your skin type. Don’t feel the need to get one of each just to check a box on your routine! Skincare companies are literally inventing new ways to sell us products every single day. Just because a brand creates a new buzz word (first essence, pre-essence, post essence, freshener, effector) doesn’t mean you NEED to add it to your routine. Just be sure each step is working for you.

Sheet Masks

Sheet masks are slowly making their way over to the states, with beauty stores like Sephora and Ulta jumping on the Asian skincare train. There are so many to choose from and the prices range from affordable to WTF. I tend to agree with the sentiment “bitch, treat yo’ self” so I splurge for the $1-$3 range. I know it seems like a lot to spend on a single use product, but you will definitely notice a difference in your skin the next day after only one use. Plus, this should be a weekly regimen, so don’t worry about breaking the bank! You should wear a sheet mask for about 10-20 minutes. This gives the ingredient enough time to absorb into your skin. Just let your skin air dry once you remove the sheet (don’t wash off the excess). Look for masks that you think your skin could benefit from the most and try them out!

Eye Cream

It’s a cream for your eyes.

Night Cream/Sleeping Pack

Most people have heard of or used night creams before. A night cream is a very thick moisturizer that you apply right before going to bed. A sleeping pack is like a night cream on steroids. The consistency is even thicker and it will probably feel like a you just rubbed peanut butter on your face. The results are amazing though! Switching out your night cream for a sleeping pack once a week will help prevent fine lines and wrinkles by thoroughly hydrating our skin.


Asian skincare focuses on preventing and healing damage instead of just concealing it. The sun does so much damage to the delicate skin on your face, so it’s really important to wear a sunscreen every day (not just at the beach). This can be a dedicated sunscreen, a tinted moisturizer with SPF, or a foundation with SPF. Just be sure to touch it up during the day to ensure your skin stays protected!

I hope this post helps you to better understand the wonderful world of Asian skincare 🙂 Let me know if you have any questions or any advice to share in the comments down below! If you’re interested in checking out the products in my routine click here!