Okay, so this is going to be pretty radically different from my usual writing in that it’s not going to involve any dragons or Winchesters or even any pop culture at all (I know I KNOW). Instead, some of you had mentioned that you were interested in reading about my completely amateur journey from using Proactiv to a fairly intense Asian skincare regime, and I am on a twelve-hour-flight and need to kill some time, so here goes nothin’.
I started using Proactiv when I was about 15; I was dancing every day for hours and sweating that much while wearing stage makeup was killing my face. It was preposterously effective; I have no idea if starting birth control about three years later even did anything for my skin because I’ve basically had no issues with skincare since starting the good stuff.
The problem is, no matter what Adam Levine might try to tell you (seriously, why are we listening to that guy anyways in regards to literally anything?), Proactiv was not made to be used by humans beyond puberty. The active ingredient that keeps your skin clear is Benzoyl Peroxide – like, basically you’re bleaching your face on the reg, which is why everyone who uses it ruins their towels. Peroxide basically rips all the moisture directly out of your face, a surefire way to guarantee you’ll have wrinkles by 25; and, despite the fact that I use a moisturizer (Lush Enzymion) and eye cream (Caudalie Reservatrol Lift) twice a day, every day, every make-up artist I’ve ever had chastises me for how scaly and dry my disgusting face is. (But so pimple-free!! Eep.)
SO, in an attempt to stop peroxiding my face, I’m going to try the wild multi-step Asian skincare regime everyone is so bananas over. What I have realized since deciding this is that all this shit is actually SUPER FUCKIN’ COMPLICATED, and involves customizing your routine based on specific ingredients, issues, brands, and more. It’s fucking whack and I am way the hell out of my depth. If only someone could analogize this shit to TNG episodes or something so I could actually understand it all.
In the research I’ve done over the past few days, here’s what I have vaguely managed to glean about Korean skincare:
- It’s all about the double-cleanse, meaning in the evenings you use an oil-based cleaner first to bond to all the gross crap on your face (like sunscreen – a daily must – and makeup), followed by a gentler milk or foaming cleanser to get the oil and any remaining garbage off.
- Knowing the pH balance of your face and the products you’re using on your face is like super hella important. Apparently most cleansers (especially American ones) have a high pH (9+), which is what strips all the moisture from your face. What you want to look for is a cleanser with a pH around like 4-6. (Proactiv is about a 5).
- You have to customize your routine based on products that contain ingredients that will work towards whatever your personal skincare goals are. Which… actually makes a lot of sense, when you say it like that. My main issues are acne and preventative anti-aging, so I want to look for products with ingredients that fight breakouts and wrinkles.
- There are a lot of different, confusingly-named products and you have to use them all in a specific order – layering thinnest to thickest for best absorption.
- You can do an abbreviated routine in the morning, and save the whole massive shebang for before bed.
I think, anyways; please keep in mind I am literally the opposite of an expert and this is what my internet research has led me to believe. If you have a correction for me please, please let me know.
Now, you are supposed to introduce only one new product to your face every couple weeks so that you can determine for a fact what works for you and what doesn’t. This is a problem for me, because I can’t just like use 2/3 of my Proactiv steps; the cream is ineffective without the toner, etc. But I can’t JUST use an oil-based cleanser on my face and nothing else for the next two weeks – so you see my dilemma. I think I’m just gonna go all-in, and try removing things one by one if they make me go all funky in the face. I guess. I’m so scared, you guys. [ETA: The kind folks over at r/AsianBeauty convinced me that this is a TERRIBLE HORRIBLE IDEA FOR BAD BABIES so I am going to be an Adult and go one product at a time while keeping the rest of my routine the same, so I can determine what does or does not break me out. I am going to start with cleanser, then suncreen, then moisturizer, then toner, in two-week increments.]
For acne, I have learned that you have to include something in your routine called BHAs and AHAs, which are acidic chemical exfoliators. For some reason, the thought of putting acid on my face makes me feel way more comfortable than peroxide. These are your “actives” (yours may be different depending on your skin issue; but they’re certainly MY actives) and you use them after your cleanser but before you start moisturizing and shit (that goes on for fucking ever btw, my face is going to be so shiny??). AHAs and BHAs will only work at a certain pH (too high and they do nothing; too low and they give you chemical burns, cute). You have to wait about a half an hour for them to fully absorb into your skin before moving on to your next step, because whatever you put on your face after them is going to have its own pH. This is like chemistry class! I was only good at chemistry until you had to start envisioning molecules in three dimensions, and my brain just doesn’t work like that.
Okay, so based on that information, and a ton of online product reviews, here are the products I’ve gotten either in full or sample sizes to test out on my face in the next few months and hope that I’m not just one giant ball of zits by the time convention season/book tour season starts in March, or like… the next time I have to be on a 40-foot IMAX screen (do you know how big that makes a pimple?????) LET’S-A GO:
Oil-Based Cleanser: DHC Deep Cleansing Oil
This is actually a Japanese product, but it’s a huge seller there and people love it so??? In future, I may try The Face Shop’s Rice Water Cleansing Oil if I’m not pleased with this. If you’ve never used an oil-based cleanser (my first was Lush Ultrabland) it’s WILD how much gunk comes off your face with it.
Foaming Cleanser: Hada Labo Gokujyun Foaming Cleanser
Another top-selling Japanese product that beauty bloggers swear by. The key here is that it has a low pH of 5.5. I also grabbed Skinfood Wildberry Cleansing Foam, but it has a much higher pH of 7.5 (it just smelled so nice, you guys). People say the Su:m37 Miracle Rose Cleansing Stick will change your life so hard but it’s sold out like everywhere on this green earth so fuck it.
Actives Party!!! This is the fun and slightly terrifying stuff I don’t really understand yet, but here we go regardless. You start using these once every few days and try to build up a tolerance before using it daily. At first they’re supposed to make your skin flip the heck out as it spits out all the garbage inside it, and then it evens out (so they’re products with diminishing visible returns, but keep you constantly a-okay – kind of like Proactiv!)
- COSRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A Sol – this is a toner you use to bring your skin down to the proper pH for the actives to work properly. I think when I use the Hada Labo Cleanser I won’t need this, but I’m scared of ballsing up the actives so I’m going to use it anyways. Wait 15 minutes.
- COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid – the Internet agrees that this is The Stuff. The Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid apparently leaves you greasy like a oil slick so no thanks. Wait just til it absorbs, and then
- COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid – for all that other gross crap in your skin. Wait 20 minutes so they can neutralize and so you don’t mess them up with your next product.
Exfoliator: This is a 2-3 time a week thing; you don’t want to go nuts with it. Unless doing it more frequently works for you, I guess, apparently. God. I hate this.
- SkinFood Black Sugar Wash-Off Mask – people lose their minds over this, idk. Scrub that shit on your face and then wash it off.
- Cure Natural Aqua Gel – another Japanese product women swear by. This is a chemical exfoliator – you use it one or two times a month in place of the regular scrub. Basically what happens is you put a thin layer on your skin and then you see it turn into all these little balls all over your face and they are BALLS OF YOUR OWN FUCKING DEAD-ASS SKIN HOLY SHIT
Toner: Etude House Moistfull Freshener
I can’t believe I’m using a product line called “Moistfull” on my face but these are the depths to which I have fallen in my desperation. Toner in K-beauty is way different than American heavy-alcohol, rip-every-drop-of-moisture-from-your-faceholes toner; this stuff just preps your face to absorb all the moisturizers you’re about to stack on top of it (whatever that means). The Moistfull line has a lot of collagen so it’s good for anti-aging; it was also readily-available in Japan, so I got a lot from them. In future I may try Su:m37’s Waterfull Refresher or SkinFood Peach Sake Toner (good for acne apparently!)
Essence: Etude House Moistfull Essence
Basically the entirety of the Internet wants you to know that Essence is the reason Korean women look as good as they do all the damn time, but despite that I still can’t figure out what the fuck it actually IS. It’s like… a light, liquid-y moisturizer?? Fuck if I know. I’m using this collagen one, but got samples of the slightly more expensive Missha First Treatment Essence, which is supposed to be comparable to the holy grail of essences, the $100+ one made by SK-II; but I would literally only ever shell out that much money for a made-up beauty product if Jensen Ackles himself descended from the sky to apply it lovingly to my face before returning to the clouds whispering “Destiel is canon.”
Ampoule: Etude House Moistfull Ampoule
I don’t even fucking know anymore; I guess ampoules are like super-concentrated liquids that intensely do whatever specific thing that particular ampoule is supposed to do (??? What). Anyways, sticking with the collagen, though I might later try the Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Science Activator Ampoule, purely because it promises to active science on my face.
Face Mask Party!! Here’s where you put on those weird Jason-looking motherfuckers, the sheet masks that are soaked in different ingredients. The Korean ones are meant to be used about twice a week and come in all different flavours (brightness, anti-aging, moisture, etc. – the Etude House variety pack is great for first-timers); but everyone in Japan is legit ALL ABOUT LuLuLun masks, which are designed to be used daily. I got a box of the pink ones (normal, hydrating) and a box of new ruby ones that came out for Christmas that I don’t know what the heck they do because it was all in Japanese and they’re too new for online reviews, but they had bees on the sign so I went for it. I got a Tony Moly Lip Patch, too, because I hate my perpetually-dehydrated lips, and some Etude House Collagen Eye Patches just for the under-eye area. You leave these on for like 20 minutes to an hour while whomever you live with makes fun of you.
Emulsion: Okay, I guess this is like the K-beauty version of moisturizer, though apparently there are “emulsions” (lighter) and “creams” (heavier). There are also gels which are like for daytime??? Fuck me, I don’t know, I got three in a blind panic.
- Etude House Moistfull Emulsion – moist
- Mizon Snail Recovery Gel Cream – apparently (ethically harvested) snail shit is like healing face magic and you’re supposed to rub it all over yourself to look good forever?
- Kosé Sekkisei Emulsion – this is THE fancy-ass moisturizer in Japan.
Eye Cream: Etude House Moistfull Eye Cream
The internet’s favorite Moistfull product. I’m gonna be so fuckin’ moist, you guys.
Night Pack: Tony Moly Dual Effect Sleep Pack
I think this is called an “occlusive” maybe? It seals in all that garbage you just put on your face overnight. I also got samples of the Laneige Water Sleep Pack, which people say is a Korean skincare gateway product; but as you may have noticed, my gate is way the heck down already.
So… that’s it. That’s the whole shebang. At night, on days where I would exfoliate and face mask, that puts me at like 14 steps? With wait times for the actives and the mask? That being said, I doubt there would be a day where I would have to do ALL THE THINGS. Plus, in the mornings you can reduce your routine – I think Foaming Cleanser, Toner, Eye Cream, Essence, Emulsion (exactly the number of steps I do currently with Proactiv, which is 3 steps, plus eye cream and moisturizer). Some people add a “facial mist” but am I not already so fuckin’ moist?????? Same with the v. popular “facial massage,” like, I just don’t know, man. I don’t know.
The other important thing to note here is how huge sunscreen is as a daily under-make-up thing. When I first read that, I was hella grossed out because sunscreen is thick and white and gloopy and break-out causing no matter how “face friendly.” But fear not, friends; apparently Asian sunscreens are WAY different, and the best ones are Japanese. They’re all SPF 50+ (UVB protection for sunburn), and they have this second rating system called “PA” for UVA protection as well, (against aging and cancer). The newest and best rating is PA++++ (lmfao what even, damn). I nabbed Bioré UV Aqua Rich (people love this stuff and it has no white tint) and Shiseido SENKA Mineral Water (nearly impossible to find in stores in Japan, even, it’s so popular). The other point of interest here is that AHAs are photosensitive, so you’re basically fucked to hell if you don’t protect your face.
This is way longer than I thought it would be, but that is all the knowledge I have to give. If you have knowledge you would like to give me, please hit me up on Twitter @SamMaggs. Let it never be said that I don’t take clear skin seriously. I know it would be so much easier to just stay on Proactiv, but I’m really afraid I’m going to look like the cryptkeeper by 35 if I keep it up.
I’ll be posting about my progress as I go so, you know, try to contain your excitement about the future state of my potential facial outbreaks. THANKS FOR READING IF YOU’RE STILL HERE.
PS That took two and a half hours of flight time, heck yeah. 9 more to go.
PPS Before you have a heart attack over my wallet, everything was SO CHEAP in Japan – that DHC Oil Cleanser was $6 as opposed to the $28 it retails for on Amazon. So don’t worry!