K-beauty or Korean beauty: Either you’re all in or you’ve never heard of it before in your life. (OK, maybe you've heard of it, but haven't tried it yet.) The most popular example of K-beauty here in the U.S. comes in the form of those Hannibal Lector-looking sheet masks that have become ubiquitous with self-care over the last couple of years.
To truly understand K-beauty, it's important to note that skincare—more specifically, moisturizing—is at the center of everything. All of the cool products you see on shelves—the toners, essences, serums, ampoules and, of course, sheet masks—are made to further hydrate your skin.
So what makes a K-beauty moisturizer superior to others? That, friends, comes down to two things: texture and formulation. "Korean moisturizers tend to have very lightweight and fast absorbing textures. Like hybrids between a gel and a cream or lotions with whipped consistencies. They're also filled with skin-friendly ingredients that can easily be adapted to most skin types," explains Charlotte Cho, the CEO and Co-Founder of Soko Glam, one of the first online retailers of K-beauty in the states.
But before we go into what the best Korean moisturizer is and it’s proven benefits, we thought it might be helpful to start with a quick lesson on what moisturizer actually is and what it does for your skin in the first place.
First things first, what’s "Moisturizer"?
The word itself is a catchall term for anything you put on your skin—lotions, creams, gel creams and even overnight masks—to keep it soft, hydrated and smooth.
The primary job of a moisturizer is to minimize the amount of water that evaporates off of the skin (aka "transepidermal water loss"), while also sealing in moisture and keeping the skin barrier strong and healthy. This is important because a damaged barrier can let environmental irritants and microbes in and cause dehydration and inflammation. (Hello, flakes and redness). The takeaway here? Moisturizer is not just some marketing ploy to get you to buy more products.
That said, there are plenty of products out there that technically moisturize your skin, but aren’t labeled as such (i.e., a face oil). Depending on the ingredients in the formula and your skin type, any one of these products can function as your moisturizer.
So, do you need a separate serum, essence, moisturizer and face oil to keep your skin healthy and happy? Absolutely not. But if you find joy in the process of applying a multi-step routine (or want to target specific issue like dullness or acne) then you have many options to choose from.
How to pick a moisturizer
OK, now that we’ve established the purpose of moisturizer, let’s talk about how to navigate the sea of products out there—including, of course, the influx of shiny K-beauty options that can even be found in our local drugstores these days. To do this, the first step is to identify your skin type.
Generally speaking, if your skin tends to get red easily or stings when you apply most products, you likely have sensitive skin. For all other types, take a quick look at your T-zone (the patch of skin across your forehead and down your chin) at the end of the day. If the area looks relatively matte you have dry skin, while a shiny T-zone indicates oily skin; if you have a bit of both, you, friend, have normal or combination skin. (And if you don’t quite fit into any of the buckets we just laid out, talk to a board-certified dermatologist, who can help figure out your exact skin type and how to best take care of it.)
For sensitive skin, you’ll want to avoid certain ingredients, like alcohol, dyes and fragrances and opt for milder formulas instead. (Tip: Though many products are labeled as being "for sensitive skin" a better indicator is if it’s "fragrance-free" or has soothing ingredients like aloe, chamomile or colloidal oatmeal listed.)
Dry skin can handle a richer formula like a cream, whereas oilier skin types benefit from a gel or lightweight lotion. (For oily skin, a hydrating serum—especially in the muggy summer months—can double as a moisturizer.) Finally, for normal and combo skin, it’s all about maintaining the balance. A medium-weight lotion will do just the trick.
What is the best Korean moisturizer?
Well, the answer isn’t so simple. (Sorry.) Skin care is not one-size-fits-all. We all have different needs at different times in our lives, but now that you (hopefully) have a better understanding of why we use moisturizer and what to look for, we can narrow things down a bit.
Based on the dozens (if not hundreds) of various Korean moisturizers we’ve tried throughout the years, here are some of our top recommendations based on skin type.
1. For sensitive skin: Klairs Midnight Blue Calming Cream ($25)
This guy has centella asiatica extract (aka the magical ingredient that is also known as tiger grass or cica) to soothe and help regenerate damaged skin. A little goes a long way.
2. For dry skin: CosRx Hyaluronic Acid Intensive Cream ($22)
It’s packed with its namesake ingredient, hyaluronic acid (the MVP for drawing in moisture) and leaves your skin noticeably plumper after each use. Note the texture is a bit heavier than most, so let it absorb for at least five minutes before applying any makeup on top.
3. For oily skin: Missha Super Aqua Ultra Water-Full Clear Cream ($26)
This is admittedly a mouthful to say, but boy does it deliver on its claims. A clear gel formula, it’s cooling on skin, lightweight and non-offensive in every way: no overly perfume-y scent, no tacky residue and no pore-clogging ingredients.
4. For normal to combination skin: Innisfree Balancing Cream with Green Tea ($19)
For starters, it has "balancing" in its name. At first scoop, you’ll notice the lightweight cream texture that’s slightly thicker than a gel, but just as absorbent. It somehow makes the greasy spots on our faces more subdued and the drier parts softer.
Back to K-Beauty for a second
Since its introduction to the States around 2011, K-beauty has gone from a niche sub-category in beauty (that you could only really source through the generosity of your Korean friends and friends of friends) to something you can pick up alongside a box of tissues at a local CVS. In 2019, you can walk into any Sephora, Target or Ulta store nationwide and find entire sections dedicated to K-beauty products. (God bless.)
Confused on what to use and why? The Cliff’s notes version goes like this: You use a toner after washing your face to provide a base layer of moisture and prep your skin for what’s to come. Next, you apply an essence or serum, which has active ingredients like vitamin C or plant extracts to troubleshoot any specific concerns and—you guessed it—add more moisture. Finally, you seal everything in with a cream or a lotion, and when you need a little more TLC, you can sub in a sheet or sleeping mask or pack.
And if that sounds like a little too much, you’re not alone. In recent years, even the women in Korea have been paring down their layered routines in favor of a new trend called "skip-care," which is all about using multi-purpose products that work double duty to whittle down the number of steps involved altogether. Which brings us back to moisturizer...
A final note on moisturizing
Technique is just as important as what you’re using. Ideally, you’ll want to apply your skincare products within three seconds of washing your face—or while your skin is still slightly damp. This is because most moisturizers contain humectants, which are hydrating ingredients that work by pulling water from the surrounding environment into the deeper layers of your skin. If there’s no water to pull from, it can actually have a reverse (an adverse) effect and make you drier than you were to begin with.
Bottom line: Applying your skincare products to damp skin helps to absorb and lock in moisture. As for the application itself, take a cue from our Korean friends and gently pat your moisturizer into your skin (as opposed to rubbing it on, which can cause inflammation if done too vigorously).