20 Mega-Popular Korean Beauty Staples

Because Korean cosmetics brands are so responsive to a finicky (and often flighty) consumer, they’re continually launching (and killing) products due to feedback and sales reports. While this model is great for getting rid of deadweight products and bolstering innovation, it also attracts some bizarre one-offs featuring outlandish ingredients. Horse oil, bird poop, pig collagen...I really think Koreans will take anything — dead or alive — and figure out if it has beautifying qualities. (Case in point: Etude House’s A to Z mask collection, offering everything from aloe to zucchini.)

Because the Korean cosmetics industry moves at such a fast pace, I’m constantly sifting through weird, desperate-for-attention ingredients and trying to determine if they’re legit. But despite all the marketing gimmicks, I’ve managed to whittle down the ever-growing list of options to a few major power players.

Ahead, I’ve compiled a glossary of the most popular ingredients in Korean cosmetics, along with a few of my favorite products that feature them. Read on to learn the power ingredients you need to know.
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Donkey Milk
While milk is pretty much absent from Korean cuisine, it’s been a staple of Korean skin care for as long as I can remember. My mom taught me that if there was ever any just-expired milk in the fridge, it was bath time.

But that was normal cow milk. Increasingly, I’ve been seeing all manner of milks used to the point that I fear for milkable animals everywhere. Case in point: donkey milk.

From the second I got my hands on donkey milk products, I was ready to dismiss them as a "weird for the sake of being weird" ingredient. But it turns out donkey milk is actually a nutritious gold mine. It contains 60 times more vitamin C than cow’s milk as well as vitamin A, which helps facilitate skin regeneration. It’s also a rich source of fatty acids and ceramides, making it an excellent moisturizer. And because it’s similar in composition to human milk, these nutrients are more easily absorbed into the skin.

Even with the weird odor (you've been warned), this is one of my favorite masks. Slapping one of these on is like hitting the reset button on my dry, stressed-out skin. Trust me, I would not sit through half an hour of wafting a blend of donkey milk and donkey oil if it were not for how amazing my skin looks and feels afterwards.
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Seaweed
Believe it or not, seaweed, not kimchi, is Korea’s lifeblood. Because of its unusually high concentration of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants, it’s traditionally what Korean women eat after giving birth to replenish their bodies and heal. As a reminder of what our mothers went through, Koreans of all ages customarily eat seaweed soup on their birthdays.

When it comes to skin care, Korea is not the only culture to harness the restorative powers of seaweed. For all the beautifying powers of seaweed without the slime or high price tag, I absolutely love Whamisa’s Organic Sea Kelp Facial Sheet Mask. It's a seaweed sheet mask that's made out of actual seaweed. See the fascinating hand-packing process that the kelp masks go through, here.
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Korean Red Ginseng
Anti-ager, acne-fighter, spot corrector, and skin protector, this multi-hyphenate power ingredient is like the James Franco of skin care. Science backs up what Korean and Chinese herbalists have been practicing for centuries. Ginseng is doubly prized for its medicinal and therapeutic applications, and though it doesn’t require a specially trained pig to root out, its rarity coupled with high demand translates to high prices. In more traditional Korean households, it’s not uncommon to see large glass urns filled with massive twists of gnarled ginseng floating around on display like preserved aliens in a sci-fi movie.

In Korea, Sulwhasoo is equated with old-world luxury. The cream is formulated with a potent duo of ginseng roots and berries, as well as a blend of over 20 botanical extracts and oils. Seriously, the ingredients list is like your skin’s wishlist to epidermal Santa Claus.

I find the distinct ginseng scent relaxing. The texture is a beautifully emulsified, soufflé-like cream, and there aren’t enough emoticons in the world to express the sheer pleasure of anointing my skin with this.

From its packaging to its Instagram, it’s clear that Sulwhasoo is aimed at an older set. Since I’m still too young to weigh in on truly long-term benefits, I canvassed the Internet for insights. Overall, Sulwhasoo has a remarkably stellar track record. On Naver Shopping (Korean Amazon), the Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream boasts 4.8 stars out of 5 with over 1,500 reviews. To be specific, 1,312 reviewers gave this product 5 out of 5 stars.

So is it worth the money? Relative to comparable products like La Mer Moisturizing Gel Cream ($295), Chantecaille La Creme a la Rose de Mai ($210), or La Prairie Skin Caviar Luxe Cream ($430), yes. If you can afford it, I say treat yo’ self.
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Snail Mucin
In Korea, snail mucin has become so common as a beauty ingredient that even products that contain mucin don’t feel the need to name themselves after the prized compound. Alicia Yoon, founder of Peach and Lily, says that the filtrate is well-loved for its antimicrobial properties, which can help keep acne at bay, as well as its healing properties, which can be helpful in reducing hyperpigmentation from acne or sun damage.

One of Korea’s most popular snail products is Mizon’s All In One Snail Repair Cream, which contains a high concentration of snail secretion filtrate and has become so popular that it’s spawned an army of fakes.

Mizon owes its current success to more humble beginnings. In 2000, five of Amorepacific’s leading researchers left the cosmetics giant to start Mizon Creative Beauty Lab. The new venture started out on Korea’s home shopping network, and it didn’t take long for Mizon to expand operations in all directions, opening up brick-and-mortar locations and an online store while taking the company across borders to the global market.
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Quality Water
Water is a big trend in Korea. I knew it had reached new heights with the installation of a chic “Water Bar” in the middle of Shinsegae, one of Korea’s upscale department stores, complete with “water sommeliers.” I’m of the camp that believes nothing should be named a “bar” unless alcohol is being served, but I can appreciate that when it comes to skin care, not all water is created equal.

Cremorlab, a Korean skin-care brand that rose to prominence after Michelle Phan sung its praises in a beauty haul following a short trip to Korea, is all about the water. A thermal spring runs 1,100 meters beneath the parcel of land where its research facility and factory are located in the Gangwon region. This mineral-rich source of water is used exclusively by Cremorlab in all of its products.

One of my favorite Cremorlab products is the body lotion. Smoothed over even the roughest patches of my skin, it’s incredibly moisturizing. It also imparts a healthy dose of hydrating nutrients, but what I appreciate most is its fast absorption. I’m usually scrambling to get ready post-lotioning and the last thing I need is to be sharing my moisturizer with the lining of my pants.
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Propolis
Propolis is a resinous bee byproduct that the insects themselves use as an all-purpose spackle in sealing cracks, sanitizing, reinforcing, and protecting their hives. It’s long been popular in the beauty world because it’s thought to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, which help fight acne, and antioxidant properties which can slow the signs of aging.

Thousands of years ago, the Greeks used propolis to treat abscesses and the Assyrians put it on wounds to fight infection and speed along the healing process. Because research about propolis as an aid to skin care is preliminary to scant, I get the feeling that the idea of a magical bee byproduct is a story we want to believe more than there is research to support it.

Either way, one of Korea’s top skin-care products is CNP Laboratory’s Propolis Energy Ampule. CNP Laboratory is the godchild of the Cha and Park dermatology empire, Korea’s leading dermatology brand.

Since its launch in 2000, the Propolis Energy Ampule has consistently proved itself the brand’s best-selling product. It’s formulated with 10% propolis extract, but what I think makes it special is the addition of CNP’s Anti-Irritant Complex and sophora extract, two ingredients developed independently by CNP to soothe skin and diminish hyperpigmentation.

The addition of hyaluronic acid helps boost skin’s moisture, resulting in a very well-rounded ampoule. I love adding a drop or two to my moisturizer or foundation to give a boost of nutrients.
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Galactomyces
Galactomyces are a type of fermented yeast, and I would never have cared to know what this is if it weren’t the star ingredient in SK-II’s cult line of skin-care products. Galactomyces ferment filtrate is abundant in vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, and organic acids, and when applied to the skin, this means improved skin tone and texture.

While the particular strain of galactomyces ferment filtrate used by SK-II can only be harvested in one area of Japan, the ingredient’s reputation as a skin-care game changer has ushered in a host of copycats — with Missha’s Time Revolution Treatment Essence being the most formidable contender.

Most recently, I stumbled upon SK-II and Missha’s jankier copycat, COSRX Galactomyces 95 White Power Essence. The unfortunate name most likely comes from niacinamide as the second ingredient, since it’s known for diminishing discoloration in the skin. Despite the fact that this bottle is covered in stickers and facing the corner of my vanity, this essence is a real yeast beast. It’s formulated with 95% galactomyces ferment filtrate and continued use has resulted in a plumper, more hydrated face for me.
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Mugwort
Korea boasts an abundance of botanicals within its tiny landmass. Mugwort is a slightly bitter herb that’s been used in traditional Korean medicine for hundreds of years. The weirdest application I’ve encountered is at a traditional Korean spa, where I was instructed to strip down, don a beautifully embroidered dressing gown, and straddle a hole in a box containing a steaming basin of mugwort infused water. Basically, it’s like having your lady parts hotboxed on a toilet filled with boiling mugwort tea. Because mugwort is traditionally thought to have detoxifying abilities, this treatment (read: slice of torture) was meant to detox my uterus.

Though science is weak on what mugwort can bring to the table in terms of improving skin, it remains a popular ingredient in Korean cosmetics, especially with brands that center on plants native to the peninsula.

Hanyul is one such brand, and following its recent makeover, it has really taken off. Though the Pure Artemisia (a much prettier word for mugwort) Fresh Water is the third best-selling item in Aritaum, Amorepacific’s version of Sephora, I’ve taken to Hanyul’s Pure Artemisia Cleansing Foam, which features mugwort for its purported antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Other than having a distinctly herbal scent, this cleanser reminds me a lot of Shiseido Perfect Whip Foaming Cleanser, arguably Japan’s most famous foaming cleanser. Just a small, pea-sized amount foams beautifully into a rich lather to gently cleanse skin without stripping it of its natural oils. With how little I use for each cleanse, it could easily last me a year.
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Volcanic Clay
Jeju is an island off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula, and many Korean people regard it with pride because of its unique botanicals and minerals. The Korean cosmetics industry and Jeju Island are pretty closely linked, as Jeju is home to over 18,000 different kinds of algae and plant species. Innisfree, Amorepacific's eco-friendly brand, revolves exclusively around Jeju’s native ingredients, which include volcanic clay harvested from Halla Mountain at the center of the island.

Innisfree’s Jeju Volcanic Pore Clay Mask continues to be one of the brand’s best-sellers. It’s a Cosmopolitan Korea Beauty Award Winner and three-time InStyle Korea Star Beauty Award Winner. I keep this product in my rotation because it’s effective at drawing out impurities and unlike other clay masks, it doesn’t burn like hell or leave the skin completely parched.
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Soybeans
Soybeans play a major role in Korean cuisine as well as cosmetics. Studies show that they have considerable anti-aging and antioxidant power. In addition to containing high levels of vitamin E and fatty acids, they contain genistein, which has a collagen-stimulating effect, as well as isoflavones, a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. All these compounds influence skin thickness and elasticity, which is why soy extracts are not an uncommon ingredient in anti-aging products.

Innisfree’s Soybean Energy Essence is one of the brand’s best-sellers. The soybeans used in the essence are naturally fermented in volcanic pottery on Halla Mountain over 300 days. The result is an extract that is highly effective in purifying dull skin.
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Vitamin C
Vitamin C has long reigned as a key active beauty ingredient, and the reason it’s so popular in Korea is because of its maximum skin-brightening and pore-toning potential. Korean women consider it a superhighway to glowing skin because of its potent antioxidants. Fruits like strawberries, lemons, kiwis, and tomatoes contain high doses of vitamin C. Recently, I’ve noticed the addition of more exotic fruits like pomegranate, acai berry, and papaya to the roster of vitamin C-boosters.

Mizon Vita Lemon Sparkling Powder is like spring-cleaning for the dermis. The science is also pretty amazing. Perusing the ingredients, I cringed at the baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) as it’s way too alkaline for skin and can be especially drying, not to mention potentially damaging to the skin barrier. But through the magic of science when the two packets meet in water, sodium bicarbonate reacts with ascorbic acid and citric acid (vitamin C) to produce carbon dioxide and two vitamin, antioxidant-packed compounds: sodium ascorbate and sodium citrate. OMG, if my high school chemistry teacher could see me now.

Basically, my skin is polished to a glow and hasn’t felt this good in years. It’s velvety, baby-butt smooth, and I can’t. stop. touching. it.
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Ceramides
Ceramides are like the glue that holds together the cells that make up the skin’s barrier. They are a major component in protecting against water loss and supporting the skin’s matrix, keeping it firm. Studies have shown that replenishing ceramide levels in skin helps strengthen its barrier and prevent loss of moisture. So it makes sense that they’re a pretty buzzy ingredient in the beauty world.

Dr. Jart+’s Ceramidin line is all about moisture and building up the skin’s defenses. Every time I pat it on, I imagine dispatching little armies of ceramides ready to Red Rover out the moisture-robbing agents of the world. I really don’t think my skin could survive without this line. I spent a few days without it and felt myself deflating like a sad balloon. I’m also mildly addicted to its beautifully herbal scent.
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Charcoal
Charcoal has a long-standing history that dates back 2,600 years during the Silla dynasty, and to this day, it’s used in many aspects of daily life. In addition to fueling Korean barbeque, charcoal can be used to filter water and draw out and neutralize odors and toxins.

For skin, it also has a purifying effect as it hoovers up oil and debris from pores. When it comes to the best Korea has to offer in pore-cleansing, Caolion’s Premium Blackhead Steam Pore Pack is it. This charcoal and clay combination wash-off mask is unique in that it self-heats upon application to draw out impurities.
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Rice
Rice needs no introduction as a cornerstone of Korean culture. As a beauty ingredient, rice — especially whole with its husk intact — is a powerhouse of enzymes, antioxidants, vitamins, and proteins.

Oryza sativa, a rice bran extract, brightens up dull skin, and in fermented form, rice has skin-plumping powers. Whamisa’s Seeds and Rice Fermented Hydrogel Facial Mask is a slippery, serum-drenched mask that adheres like a second skin. It’s become one of my go-tos when I’m in need of a hydrating boost.
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Pig Collagen
Pig collagen continues to enjoy its run as an amusing star ingredient in the way reality TV stars inexplicably get signed to spin-off shows. (Science doesn’t necessarily back up the use of collagen when used topically, because its molecules are too big to penetrate skin.) Holika Holika, TonyMoly, and Scinic make the most popular products incorporating pig collagen, and Scinic’s Pig Collagen Jelly Cream is one of its best-sellers.

Collagen harvested from animals often hides in ingredient labels as "hydrolyzed collagen” — and this isn’t a uniquely Korean thing. Hydrolyzed collagen is pretty common in products everywhere in the world. Korean women flock to pig collagen because it touts the benefit of being most similar to human collagen. Scinic’s Pig Collagen Jelly Cream is formulated with 50% pig collagen and a patented collagen booster made of green tea extract and hyaluronic acid to supposedly help the skin absorb the stuff.
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Lotus
Another popular Korean botanical native to Jeju Island is the lotus flower, a water-dwelling perennial rich in antioxidants, fatty acids, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Lotus extract is a popular ingredient in cosmetics because of its reputation for combating signs of aging and deeply nourishing skin.

The Lotus is a small skin-care brand located on Jeju Island that’s built its portfolio of offerings around the aquatic flower. Its lotus tea is soothing and delicious, and its Essence Lotion with Lotus Leaf is pretty major. Its 70% lotus extract is flanked by skin-brightening niacinamide and natural oils to make for an intensely hydrating formula.
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Lotus Seed
Primera is an eco-oriented brand featuring natural ingredients. One of its most-loved products is the Miracle Seed Essence, which contains 93.1% lotus-seed extract. Lotus seeds are rich in water-binding, skin barrier-strengthening components like linoleic acid and amino acids. This means improved skin texture and tone.
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Camellia Oil
The glossy, healthy locks of Korean women have long been credited to camellia oil, which is pressed out from the seeds of the camellia flower. Though it has its uses in cosmetics because it contains fatty acids, vitamins, and lipids, it’s also amazing for hair. Because its proteins are similar to that of keratin, the key structural component of skin and hair, hair just drinks in camellia oil since it’s a lipid structure that hair proteins recognize. This means stronger hair with a mean sheen.
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Hyaluronic Acid
Hyaluronic acid is a strong hydrating complex that’s naturally present everywhere in the body, but almost half of the body’s hyaluronic acid is located in the collagen of skin. Hyaluronic acid helps retain over 1,000 times its weight in water within the cells of skin. No other biological substance comes close, which is why the skin-care industry, not just in Korea, has collectively lost it over this ingredient.

In Korea, women aren’t just applying it to their skin, they’re drinking it and getting shots of it injected. Though we definitely don’t recommend taking such extreme measures, we’ve found other means of grappling with the reality that as we age, the body makes less and less of it.

It’s Skin is a cosmetics brand that focuses on formulating power ingredients to maximize the ingredient’s efficacy. This means more isn’t always more. Ingredients can have compelling skin-saving potential, but formulating them to be stable but also effective can be challenging.

It’s Skin Hyaluronic Acid Moisture Serum is one stellar example of well-optimized ingredient potential. For the price, this is a standout product. It improves moisture retention in skin, and though I think the smell echoes its low price point, the glow-generating effect of this serum has me tolerating its slightly “drugstore” fragrance.
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Green Tea
A list of Korean power ingredients would not be complete without green tea. Green tea is best known for being an antioxidant superstar. Another Innisfree bestseller, the Green Tea Seed Serum honors the plant’s seeds. Innisfree claims it does wonders in the realm of hydration due to the divining rod-like capabilities of the plant’s roots, which spread deep into the Earth in search of the purest forms of water before deigning to sprout.
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