Korean skincare is obviously huge right now, and there are so many products – where do you start? Well, the internet!
I went straight to influencers who talk about Korean skincare and tried out some of the products I saw being recommended over and over – here’s what I thought.
The video is here, keep scrolling for the text version…
Cosrx Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence
Cosrx Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence is probably the first product I think of when I think “Korean skincare”. I have seen this go viral on every platform – Reddit in 2015, Instagram around 2019, and now TikTok as well.
So many skincare influencers talk about this, and the other snail products from Cosrx. Jude of Fifty Shades of Snail has been on the Snail Essence Train since 2015 (I think the Reddit hype was partly her influence), and even now it pops up on her Instagram at least once a month. James Welsh also has Cosrx snail products in his favourites a lot.
This is just a solid product that captures a lot of the reasons people gravitate towards Korean skincare:
- Focus on hydration – East Asian skin generally has a more easily disturbed barrier, lots of air con
- Lightweight layer that delivers a massive punch of hydration
- Pretty budget-friendly
- Exotic appeal
The main ingredient in this is snail mucin (or “snail secretion filtrate”) – it’s at 96%, which is what the 96 in the name means.
Snail mucin is the purified slime from a snail, and it seems pretty gimmicky at first glance but it’s lasted a long time in Korean skincare – which is not the case with a lot of other gimmicky ingredients (does anyone else remember starfish extract and salmon sperm?).
The logic behind snail essence is that it’s the stuff protecting their belly (I know it’s called the foot, but it feels wrong to call it that…) against the world and helping it repair.
Related post: Snail Slime Skincare Science
So does it work?
The obvious thing this immediately does is hydrate the crap out of your skin. Hydration is really the main thing behind that glowy “glass skin” look, and I think this is why this product keeps going viral – the hydration just gives so much instant gratification!
Snail essence has a complex mix of long-chain sugary molecules (glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) and proteoglycans), which is what gives it the stringy texture and that super hydrating effect.
The best known GAG in skincare is hyaluronic acid, and the sugary molecules in snail essence works along similar lines – they’re really good at holding onto water and acting as a humectant moisturiser. Aside from hyaluronic acid, you don’t really see these a lot in skincare.
Related post: Skincare Chemistry: How to pick out humectants
Aside from hydration, this product is also known for brightening skin tone, helping with breakouts and irritation, and there’s some talk of it being good for anti-aging. It’s hard to pin any of this down to a specific substance in the snail essence, but it does have a lot of antioxidants, peptides, antimicrobial compounds, glycolic acid.
Cosrx also added some extra ingredients that also add to the hydrating and soothing effects: betaine, butylene glycol, hyaluronic acid, panthenol, allantoin and arginine.
I’ve found that this essence is just amazing for hardcore hydration with a side of soothing. I’m not sure if this does actually help my skin recover faster when it’s irritated or if it’s just the hydration helping, but it works really well for this.
It’s a very versatile product – you can apply a thick layer (and even then it’s not too sticky, mostly tacky), you can mix a little bit with water for a thin toner-like application, you can mix it into another moisturiser, it works fantastically to quickly hydrate your skin before makeup without leaving a layer.
Obviously snail extract is not vegan. From my understanding, the process of extracting the mucin for Cosrx products doesn’t hurt the snails – they crawl over textured material that collects the mucin in a dark room, and apparently the highest quality mucin is collected when the snails aren’t stressed.
Snail is a natural extract, which means there’s a lot of variation, and that includes with the percentage – you’re going to have different amounts of the actual compounds within each extract. It’ll depend on things like which species of snail they use, what they feed the snails, and how they purify the snail extract (which is a commercial secret).
So if you’re looking to try a snail product, I’d recommend ignoring things like “dupes” and percentages, and focus more on reviews of individual products.
Related post: Natural vs. Chemical – Which Is Better?
Also since it’s a natural extract, there can be allergens in it, and there are cross-reactivities between snail and dust mites and shellfish – but lots of people with these allergies don’t have a problem with snail products, and people without these allergies have reacted to it. Some people do get closed comedones (small clogged pores that are flesh coloured bumps) with snail.
But in general, this is a very popular product that works well for a lot of people and it’s a great first product if you’re dipping your toes into Korean skincare.
Pyunkang Yul Essence Toner
Pyunkang Yul Essence Toner is the first product I’ve tried from the brand.
I heard about Pyunkang Yul first from Gothamista, YouTube’s skincare godmother. Their products are really minimalist and focus on using plant extracts to make products suitable for sensitive skin.
To be honest, I’ve been putting off trying this brand because I thought they were really expensive. Their ingredients don’t have a lot of independent verification (commonly the case with natural extracts), so I felt like I’d have to dedicate a lot of time to testing them on my skin to make sure I’d be comfortable recommending something so expensive… and then I found out that they’re extremely budget friendly! They just have really nice packaging that looks expensive.
This Essence Toner is probably their most popular product – it’s been recommended by lots of content creators, including Gothamista and Beauty Within.
Just from the packaging, I assumed it would be around the $50 mark. It’s difficult to say because of exchange rates and sales, but this smaller bottle is currently $5.50 USD on StyleKorean.
The toner has astragalus root extract as the main ingredient. It’s a herb used in Eastern medicine, and there’s not much evidence for what it does on skin, but most plant extracts have some level of humectants for hydrating, and antioxidants that soothe and soak up free radicals on skin. This specific extract also has betaine (soothing and hydrating) and minerals.
The toner has a thick, cushiony water texture that’s slightly slippery. It absorbs quickly, it’s weightless and not at all tacky. I found it really soothing and refreshing on my skin.
But I wouldn’t say this toner was very hydrating. I was actually kind of disappointed in how this didn’t keep my skin hydrated throughout the day. When it goes on it feels really hydrating, but the moisture goes away pretty quickly.
So I think this product could work if it fits into your routine. If you have really dehydrated skin and you want one hardcore hydrating product in your routine that keeps your skin plump all day – this isn’t it. But if you want something lightweight and soothing, if your skin isn’t super thirsty, if you want a hydrating toner for summer, or if you use lots of layers of hydration, if you’re doing the 7 skins method, this is great.
Round Lab Birch Juice Moisturizing Sun Cream
Round Lab Birch Juice Moisturizing Sun Cream SPF 50+ PA++++ has been hyped up so much – it was in both Soo Beauty and EuniUnni‘s top lists of 2021, Bonnie Garner of Beauty Alley’s comprehensive sunscreen roundup, Sugar Peaches Loves, and Alice in the Rabbit Hole.
This is a sunscreen that’s popular with Korean customers too, and the tube actually has almost no English on it – it’s a bit of a hipster Korean sunscreen pick!
Active ingredients-wise, it has the same core formula as the other chemical Kolmar sunscreens that have been super popular over the last couple years, including the Beauty of Joseon, Isntree, Skin1004 and Benton sunscreens I’ve reviewed before.
If you’ve been reading my posts, you’ll know this family of sunscreens has been top of my list for a while – they work really nicely on my skin. They feel like a cream-gel moisturiser going on, they’re hydrating, and they feel like they stay on your skin pretty well.
Related post: Top Sunscreen Recommendations 2022
They’re SPF 50+ and PA++++, which is as high as the rating system goes in Korea. They don’t leave a white cast unless your skin is quite dark (the whiteness probably comes from the MBBT UV filter, which is a chemical sunscreen but it’s in particulate form which scatters some visible light).
They can leave a bit of a shiny finish, so some people find them greasy. For me, the shiny film is super light and falls on the glowy side of the glowy/greasy dichotomy. I think part of this is also that they hydrate my skin really well, which means any oil feels lighter, and makes my skin look better rather than worse.
I found this one very slightly heavier and richer than the Beauty of Joseon sunscreen, so I think this is more suitable if your skin is drier. I also found it more hydrating and slightly lighter than the Isntree one.
The actives in this include birch juice which is meant to be purifying, baobab extract and hyaluronic acid which are hydrating, allantoin which is soothing, as well as the standard niacinamide and adenosine that you see in the other Kolmar sunscreens too.
I have mixed feelings about having all these very similar Kolmar sunscreens on the market. I’ve seen Odile Monod say it’s boring, and while I kind of agree, it’s also really nice to have variations of my favourite formula. If you don’t like this formula or if you’re allergic to one of the components it’s probably less of a good time for you…
Mixsoon Bean Essence
After I’d been using it for a few weeks, I (finally) looked at the product page and discovered that you can also use it as an exfoliant! Mind blown. It works much like a peeling gel, and was the top voted multifunctional product on the Korean beauty app GlowPick in 2021.
This has 4 fermented ingredients: bean, pomegranate, barley and pear.
The fermented bean part explains the texture – it’s really gooey and stringy, a lot like snail essence. It’s reminiscent of the stringiness of natto (edible Japanese soybeans).
Like in snail essence, the texture comes from long chain hydrating molecules that form a sort of net over your skin that sticks to water. I’m not 100% sure what the specific compound is, but it should be similar to natto which has polyglutamic acid.
The pomegranate extract is a natural source of AHAs, which provide some of the exfoliating effect, the other extracts also have antioxidants, vitamins – the standard plant extract benefits.
There are also a bunch of clinical studies on it where it smoothed out texture, helped with blackheads and reduced skin oil.
From the texture you’d expect it to be really sticky, but it isn’t – it feels really nice and hydrating on the skin. I was really impressed with the hydrating abilities of this. I did feel a kind of “hydrating net” on my skin and it lasted overnight.
For exfoliating, you prep your skin with warm water, pump out some product and just start massaging. After about a minute, you start to feel little sand-sized grains forming under your fingertips. It’s very satisfying!
While a peeling gel starts bunching up immediately, this takes a bit longer and there are less particles.
Related post: Do peeling gels really peel off my skin? (with video)
Since I was curious what the grains were, I collected some of them and had a look under a microscope. The grains are really white in colour (aside from the black lint from my towel!), which makes me think that most of this is still something in the product bunching up rather than purely dead skin.
My skin was super smooth and soft afterwards, more so than with a peeling gel. So I think it does have a more hydrating effect than a standard peeling gel, and more of a smoothing effect too.
I also wondered if other products did this too, and just aren’t marketed this way, so I tried massaging in the same way with the Cosrx Advanced Snail Mucin. It formed a few tiny grains after a lot of rubbing and my skin hurt by that point (it was too sticky), so I do think that this essence at the very least has the perfect texture for it.
Beauty of Joseon Dynasty Cream
Beauty of Joseon Dynasty Cream was a product that I hadn’t tried properly – while I’ve talked about the Beauty of Joseon sunscreen, they do have a whole line of other products as well!
My main influencer here was Kelly Driscoll. This is one of her top Beauty of Joseon products – she’s been using it since 2015! This was Beauty of Joseon’s first product, and it’s been through a few reformulations since.
It comes in really nice luxe packaging. It’s quite firm in texture, which means I’d expect to be pretty heavy and greasy on my skin, but this is lightweight and hydrating. I’ve been using a really small dab under my makeup to prep my skin, but a heavy layer works well on my skin for dryer winter weather.
It features rice bran, ginseng and niacinamide which are all great for hydrating skin, with some line smoothing, brightening effects as well. There are some really light oils in there (squalane and hydrogenated polydecene, which is similar to mineral oil). It’s fragrance-free, which is rare for a cream in a jar (especially a nice jar!).
If you’re looking for a lightweight hydrating moisturiser, especially one that’s fragrance-free, this might be a good option.
Beauty of Joseon Revive Eye Serum: Ginseng and Retinal
Beauty of Joseon Revive Eye Serum: Ginseng and Retinal is the other BoJ product I tried for this video. I came across this thanks to Alice in the Rabbit Hole, who reviews a lot of Korean skincare. Beauty of Joseon was her favourite brand of 2021 and this was her favourite product.
After I started trying it out, I also saw a whole flood of reviews come out including from Dr Dray, Cassandra Bankson and James Welsh. Maybe there’s some sort of artificial marketing push, but I can’t be mad at it – Beauty of Joseon have been around for so long and their products are really nice, so they’ve worked hard for their time in the spotlight.
I tend to be a bit hesitant about trying out eye creams. I wear Ortho-K contact lenses at night, and sometimes I’ll have to get out of bed and readjust them, so eye creams can make it hard to get a grip on my eyelid.
But I was pretty excited about this one because of the ingredients:
- Ginseng: Their star ingredient, which they say they included because it’s been shown to target wrinkles. It’s a hugely popular ingredient in Korean skincare.
- Retinal (note: with an A, not retinol!): This is a stronger form of vitamin A that converts to retinoic acid (tretinoin) in one step, which is as close to tretinoin as you can get in a cosmetic product (it’s one step closer than retinol).
Vitamin A derivatives are the gold standard ingredients in skincare, and retinal has been making its way into more skincare products recently. It’s usually encapsulated, which improves the stability of the retinal (retinoids are notoriously unstable – one study found that some retinol products on the market are 80% decomposed after 6 months), but also releases the retinal gradually onto the skin, so there’s less irritation.
Sometimes I have some doubts about whether all the retinal makes it out of some encapsulation systems. But I don’t think it’s a big issue for cyclodextrin (the main system used in skincare products with retinal), or liposomes, which is what Beauty of Joseon uses. The retinal is at 0.02% which is a low-to-medium concentration.
This is one of the most inexpensive retinal products I’ve seen, and you don’t have to only use it around your eyes – the Beauty of Joseon website actually says you can use it on the rest of your face and body. So this is a good option if you’re looking for a general retinal product to try.
Kelly Driscoll mentioned that this irritated the skin near her eyes, which isn’t too surprising – strong retinoids make your skin go through a retinisation process as your skin kind of rebuilds itself, and your eye area can be quite sensitive.
I have a post on how to adjust to retinoids with minimal irritation – if this is your first retinoid product, I highly recommend using some of those strategies, especially if you’re going to use this all over your face.
Overall, this was a very good batch of products – I think I might’ve had my thumb on the scales a bit, because I do know what I’m looking for in products!
Have you tried any of these products? What did you think?
The products here were provided by StyleKorean for a sponsored video, although this post isn’t sponsored. This post contains affiliate links – if you decide to click through and support Lab Muffin financially (at no extra cost to you), thank you! For more information, see Disclosure Policy.