Eastern Promises Part 1: Translating Between the Asian and Western Skincare Routine

Oftentimes I forget that some readers are new to Asian skincare or new to having a skincare routine at all (e.g., MY FRIENDS), so I end up writing for the intermediate-level reader (for lack of a better description).

Today, I’m taking a step back to explain:

  • in general terms, how to build a skincare routine–especially now that entirely new product categories originating from Asia are popping up to complicate things further; and
  • the biggest changes to my skincare routine from incorporating Asian beauty products.

06 Asian Western Skincare Routine

Translating Between the Asian (Korean) and Western Skincare Routine: More Similar than You’d Think

Some articles focus on the “otherness” of the Asian skincare routine.  There are SO.  MANY.  STEPS.  Look at the exotic ingredients!  What does this product even do?? 

Somewhat understandable since it’s not as interesting to point out similarities.  (Note: In this context, “Asian” mostly means Korean because that’s what’s currently saturating American media coverage of the Asian beauty scene.  And “Western”–an imprecise but widely understood term–mostly means American because that’s, well, me; I’ve been an avid consumer of American beauty culture (mags, blogs, shopping, YouTube) for a long time.)

But really, whether it’s Asian or Western, the routines boil down to four components:  CLEANSE, TONE, TREAT, MOISTURIZE.  That’s it.  Build a routine by focusing on those components.  It’s not about the number of steps or where your products come from.

Here’s a generalization of how that translates into Asian vs. Western products.

Asian Western Skincare RoutineYes, yes, I’m simplifying a lot. (Boy, is it hard to fit sunscreen into my rubric, and hey, couldn’t first essences/acid toners be considered treatments….) But I’ll assume you’re savvy enough to recognize that simplifying here serves clarity and brevity and doesn’t set forth absolutisms.  Nuanced reads on building the Asian skincare routine can be found on nonsonoquitter, Fifty Shades of Snail, and Snow White and the Asian Pear, among other places.

I don’t push for one type of routine over another.  Personally, I do a hybrid routine in that it incorporates a lot of (previously) uniquely Asian products such as sleeping masks, but it also includes daily use of acid toners and a retinoid treatment, which are emphasized more heavily in Western skincare (and arguably reflective of different skincare philosophies, e.g., hydrate and nurture vs. strip and renew).

The key is to do what works for your skin and to switch up products in response to your skin’s needs, which can change depending on the time of day, the time of the month, the season, and even the part of the face.

Bottom line: Customize!  For each component of my routine, I have multiple options and also layer and mix and match to my heart’s skin’s content.  For example, I have a choice of several moisturizers and treatments depending on how dry, pimply, and calm my skin is.  Sometimes I mix a Korean ampoule with a facial oil, and sometimes I layer on three Korean essences and ampoules before applying my prescription retinoid.

To see my actual skincare routines, see Part 2 here.

Blurred Lines: East Meets West

01 Sleeping Masks
The Peter Thomas Roth sleeping mask fits right in with Laneige and AmorePacific.

The ubiquity of BB creams is the clearest model of the strength of Asia’s influence (again, mostly Korea’s) on Western beauty trends today.

Makeup-wise, we’ve seen BBs, CCs, and now cushion compacts seep into the Western beauty consciousness.

In terms of skincare, sheet masks and sleeping masks are no longer foreign (pun!) to Western shoppers.  Hydrating toners and essences–sometimes named boosters or lotions here (lotions is actually the term long-used in Japan)–are being introduced.  And cleansing oils and balms are mainstream now. Even the last few years’ trend of brightening skincare seems to be carried over from Asia.

The blurring lines are positive developments in my opinion because it means easier access to those products and, potentially, a fusion of the best of both worlds.  More competition, more innovation, more choices, MOAR MOAR MOAR!

The 4 Biggest Changes to My Routine from Incorporating Asian Beauty Products

  1. Incorporating an oil cleanser as a “first cleanse” to dissolve makeup and sunscreen.  My “first cleanse” used to consist of eye makeup remover and a face wipe, but face wipes lack the oomph to fully remove waterproof sunscreen and makeup.  For a time, I found flakes of white residue from inadequately removed sunscreen.  Now I’m hooked on oil balms/jellies/sherbets that are so good that I don’t even need a separate eye makeup remover any more.

    02 Cleansing Balms
    Cleansing balm, jelly, and sherbet (all previously reviewed)
  2. Incorporating a hydrating toner or first essence.  Before AB, I went straight from cleanser to serums.  I never used toner because Western toners are marketed mainly as astringents to dry out oily skin (no thanks!) and are seen as optional if you’ve adequately cleansed.  Hydrating toners/first essences have changed all that.  Although similar in texture to Western toners, this type of product hydrates rather than mattifies and often provides additional benefits such as skin-repairing and skin-brightening ingredients.  I love the immediate hydration and the light exfoliation from wiping a cotton pad over my face.

    03 First Essences
    Missha First Treatment Essence and Hada Labo Gokujyun Lotion are some well known examples.
  3. Using a standalone sunscreen. I used to use the all-in-one moisturizer+sunscreen products that are quite common in Western lines and very convenient.  However, I now apply about 1/4 tsp of a standalone sunscreen after moisturizer to ensure that I’m obtaining close to the advertised level of SPF, which is based on applying the product at a specific density that would be overkill for moisturizer.  It might also feel like overkill for sunscreen, but a lot of them dry down after several minutes.  (I’ve read recommendations by dermatologists of 1/3 to 1/2 tsp for just the face!  I’m currently willing to accept less than the advertised level of protection in exchange for a more workable base for my makeup.)04 Japanese Sunscreens
  4. Using sunscreens offering PA++++ protection against the range of UVA wavelengths that cause pigment darkening (e.g., sunspots, tanning, freckles).  (SPF only indicates protection against UVB rays, the ones that cause burning.)  Four pluses is the maximum PA rating on sunscreen labels and currently only adopted in Japan (Korea’s PA scale only goes up to PA+++).  After making this switch, I noticed that I was quite a bit paler last winter and that I haven’t tanned as much this summer (although I have darkened a little).Although a Korean PA+++ sunscreen or an American “broad spectrum” sunscreen might in fact provide UVA protection equivalent to or even exceeding a Japanese PA++++ sunscreen, the fact remains that there is no way to discern that from the label and companies often are unable to tell you the precise amount of protection (based on my personal experience emailing American brands).  And frankly, I’m skeptical about Korean and American sunscreens meeting or exceeding PA++++ protection because the incentive to formulate products with that level of protection is simply not there when companies don’t need to or can’t advertise such high protection.
05 Japanese Sunscreens PA++++
MOAR pluses please.

Phew, that was a lot of info. Thanks for reading! Click on over to Part 2 to see my current skincare lineup.

7 Replies to “Eastern Promises Part 1: Translating Between the Asian and Western Skincare Routine”

  1. “I’m skeptical about Korean and American sunscreens meeting or exceeding PA++++ protection because the incentive to formulate products with that level of protection is simply not there when companies don’t need to or can’t advertise such high protection”

    Well reasoned and I agree completely 😀

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