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ACNE – A Korean Skincare Perspective

So you’re loving Korean Beauty and Skincare, but you also suffer from acne, what to do? As with anything we obsess over, there’s no one that knows more about acne than those who suffer from it or have suffered it. You might feel like there’s little anyone can tell you about it, but perhaps you’re still not sure how your acne treatments will tie into your Korean Skincare routine.

Sometimes it’s good to go back to the basics to clear your mind for your journey to better skin. Once you understand the basics (or are reminded of it), it becomes easier to select products, whether Western or Korean Skincare, that will not send your skin into pitted hell, but coax it towards clearer, healthier epidermal heaven.

As a primer – what is acne? 

Acne vulgarism at its simplest, is a skin disease or as I like to call it, a dis-ease.

How is it formed?

Acne starts when pores or hair follicles  become clogged with oil or dead skin cells and become infected by bacteria called P.acnes. The pus builds up and causes whiteheads, blackheads, pimples and oily skin. A blackhead, also called a comedone, looks like a black dot because once the sebum plug inside your pore breaks, it becomes oxidized (darkens).

Sebum is the oily secretion of the sebaceous glands of the skin. It’s not a bad thing, in moderation. Enough sebum, and it protects your skin, too much and it clogs your pores resulting in acne at best. At worst, it can develop into cystic acne which is when it’s no longer just a little clogged pimple, but has now morphed into the puss filled little munchkin that you can lose sleep over.

What causes acne?

As with anything, it can be caused by a number of factors like stress, heredity factors, hormone fluctuations (hello period flare ups), medications and of course adverse reactions to ingredients we use on our skin. This is why it’s so important to always do a patch test if your skin is sensitive to certain ingredients.

So how can you treat acne, and specifically, how can you treat it if you’re looking to follow a Korean Skincare routine?

There are literally thousands of acne remedies available, but most of them boil down to the following 5 steps:

  1. Unclog your pores
  2. Kill bacteria
  3. Reduce Oil
  4. Increase skin cell turnover
  5. Nourish

Unclog your pores

Now that you know how acne is formed, i.e. when a pore or hair follicle becomes clogged, it makes sense that unclogging the pores is the first thing you want to do.

By far, the best ingredient to combat clogged pores is Salicylic Acid. Using a Salicylic based cleanser twice a day helps to clean out the pores, reduce oxidization leading to blackheads and prevent pimple formation. Salicylic Acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that comes from trees. It’s a lipid soluble, which means it penetrates the oily sebum that’s plugging the pores.

Not everyone can tolerate BHAs, so if your skin is super sensitive to acids/actives, build up tolerance slowly and always patch test.

For more serious cases, you can even get a Salicylic Acid peel at a dermatologists office once a month.

Even if you suffer from dry skin, you can still benefit from a Salicylic cleanser, as long you follow up with hydrating and nourishing ingredients.

It’s fine to use a Salicylic Acid cleanser every day, but if following up with AHA or BHA toner or essence, there is such a thing as overdoing it and over exfoliating, or your skin might not react well to it. If you’ve never used actives before, introduce it slowly into your routine, like 1-2 a week to allow your skin to build up a tolerance to it.

It’s also important to use a pH balancing toner prior to using an AHA or BHA essence or treatment essence on your skin.

Pore mask or strip

Another highly recommended treatment for clogged pores are the tacky pore strips that a number of brands sell or clay masks that start off tacky then dry out. Pore strips work a lot like Elmer’s glue. It sticks to the sebum plug, dries up and when you pull it off (gently), it pulls the sebum plug along with it.

If you have sensitive skin, it’s important to peel the strip off carefully once it dries, rather than ripping it off or you might just rip your skin off along with it.

A warning to pregnant women: Do not use Salicylic Acid or any BHA for that matter. It’s been established as dangerous when taken orally, and safety in pregnancy when topically applied has not been established. Our pores absorb ingredients, so it’s better to be safe than sorry .

Kill Bacteria

So we know that clogged pores get infected with bacteria. This bacteria accumulates resulting in whiteheads, blackheads and inflammation which is what you see as a pimple. The most recommended treatment to kill bacteria is benzoyl peroxide. It kills bacteria and is anti-inflammatory so it reduces the redness caused by the inflammation.

Reduce Oil

The less oily your skin, the less chance there is of your pores getting clogged. Products with 5% benzoyl peroxide also mop up excess oil.

You can swop your Salicylic Acid cleanser with one that contains benzoyl peroxide, rather than using both at once.Not everyone reacts well to benzoyl peroxide, so again, patch test always!

Increase cell turnover

We shed dead skin cells continuously throughout the day and night. Dead skin cells left to linger can also clog pores, lead to uneven tone and texture and is what makes you look older. However, you need your skin cells to turnover faster when you’re trying to get rid of the dead skin cells that makes you look older and make your acne scars heal faster. Just as long as you’re cleansing properly to not allow the dead skin cells to clog your pores.

The holy grail for skin cell turnover is tretinoin (a drug related to retinol aka Vitamin A) which is a topical ingredient that is usually only prescribed for acne. Non prescription versions can be found in products containing Retinol as an ingredient. It also has tremendous anti-aging benefits. The rate of skin cell turnover decreases as we age, so the tretinoin speeds it back up. The rate of skin cell turnover leads to younger, fresher looking skin.

Tretinoin is extremely drying and can cause peeling, redness and irritation if it’s not used properly or too strong a dosage is used. It should always be used in minute amounts (less than pea sized) and can be mixed with a moisturizer to prevent redness and irritation. Tolerance is built up slowly, so you’d start off with a lower concentration and slowly build up to a higher one. It should always be followed with highly moisturizing ingredients and very high SPF sun protection. The sun should be avoided as much as possible when using tretinoin or any retinoid based product.

Finally we get to the pills

When do you consider hormonal manipulation pills, antibiotics and anti-inflammatories? Typically your dermatologist or skin specialist will recommend oral medication or even cortisone injections into the pimples when topical treatment alone is not working.

Hormonal manipulation treatments are called isotretinoins with brand names like Accutane or Roaccutane. The side effects of these remedies can be a strong deterrent which is why it’s more of a last mile solution. Side effects should ALWAYS be considered.

This is anecdotal, but my normally happy brother was on Roaccutane and suddenly suffered from severe depression and became suicidal. When he was off it, it was like a cloud had lifted. Coincidence or not, it’s important to be cautious when taking any kinds of drugs that could have severe short or long term effects.

Nourish – The Korean Skincare routine for acne

The nourish part of treating acne comes in your Korean Skincare routine. Each step can be considered a nourishing step. Now that we know the basic of acne, how it forms, what causes it and the steps needed to treat it, we can look at a Korean Skincare routine that fits into acne treatment. This is a basic guideline of what it would look like.

  1. Oil Cleanse using your preferred cleanser
  2. Second cleanser using a Salicylic based cleanser, alternating days with a benzoyl peroxide cleanser or an exfoliating cleanser
  3. Exfoliate 2-3 a week using an exfoliating method in the form of either a gentle scrub, manual brush, or an enzymatic exfoliator
  4. Tone with a pH balancing toner
  5. Use an AHA or BHA essence as often as your skin will tolerate it. Start with 1-2 a week
  6. Apply a hydrating treatment essence
  7. Apply a hydrating serum or emulsion
  8. Nourishing and soothing mask
  9. Topical medication, retinol or tretinoin
  10. Moisturizer
  11. Sunscreen. This one can be difficult for those who are acne prone as many can be oily or contain pore clogging ingredients. A tip is to use a moisturizer or foundation that contains an SPF with broad spectrum protection (UVB and UVA protection) and avoid the sun as much as possible.

The specific products and brand names to use matters little, what matters are the ingredients inside those products and the concentration. If a product has salicylic acid but it’s low down on the list of ingredients and less than 2%, then it’s not going to be effective. A final tip on selecting Korean Skincare products is not to listen to marketing hype or believe the before and afters in marketing ads, rather, look to the Korean Beauty community for reviews, and do your own research on what’s inside the products. Most importantly, test different products to see which combination works for you.

Even with our own BomiBox selections, although we have quite a few testers with different skin types, for me as the person with the most sensitive skin, if it irritates my skin at all, or causes a breakout, then no matter how hyped it is, I will not recommend it to anyone else. As with anything YMMV.

The after effects of acne

The after effects of acne are usually scarring and/or hyper pigmentation. To battle pigmentation is a whole other post, but in essence, this is where exfoliation, peels, cell regeneration and brightening products come into play.

The treatment of acne is harsh by nature, which is why it’s so important to always follow up with nutrient rich and hydrating ingredients that will not clog your pores.

Ingredients to look out for

If you suffer from acne and are looking at the ingredients of products you’re using, look for ones that are non-comedogenic, that is, they do not clog pores, thus less likely to cause blackheads.

This doesn’t mean that just because the label says it’s non-comedogenic, that it is. It means that the product does not contain high amounts of an ingredient that is known to cause pore clogging.

By “high amount”, we mean  it’s high in concentration and high on the list of ingredients, which means there’s a lot of it, which means it might cause major clogging. However, it’s not just the presence of an ingredient that makes it a comedogenic, but how much of it is present in the formula.

It’s important to note that cleansers are an exception as they don’t tend to remain on the skin. As an example you may find that some cleansers contain mineral oil, but as long was you’re not leaving it on your skin the whole day and following up with a foam cleanser, then the mineral oil is not likely to clog your pores.

As an example, you’ll see that Lauric Acid is an ingredient in many cleansers, an ingredient sensitive skins don’t react well with, but it’s a rinse off. I have sensitive skin, but I safely use Lauric containing cleansers without any issues.

Clogging ingredients to avoid pertain more to the stuff you tend to leave on your skin like essence, serums, sunscreen, moisturizer, creams etc.

The list of the most common comedogenic (clogs pores) ingredients to try to avoid is non-exhaustive and can be hit and miss, hence I won’t list them all here, but some guidelines include:

Beeswax, Polyglyceryl-3-diisostearate, Isopropyl myristate, most oils. These are your top clogging ingredients and show up in products as benign as concealers.  You should also try to avoid products that are overly thick, oily, contain strong alcohol, or synthetic fragrance. These are irritants which cause inflammation.

For a full list of ingredients that are not acne friendly, this is a good resource http://media.wix.com/ugd/a43716_96ac70539cc44a11ad6417f00391b142.pdf

Finally, acne is not the end of the world. With dedicated focus and the right treatment and skincare, it can be conquered. Don’t lose hope and keep reading inspirational stories of others who have overcome it using Korean Skincare and other treatments.

4 thoughts on “ACNE – A Korean Skincare Perspective”

  1. What a great post! This is very informative and interesting to know how to use Korean skincare products to battle acne. Thank you!

  2. As someone who suffers from hormonal acne, I have been adamantly against taking any of those isotretinoids you mentioned because of the alarming side effects. I’ve found that natural supplements such as DIM and spearmint capsules have really helped balance my hormones and decrease horibble hormonal adult acne (in conjunction with a great skincare routine).

    • Very good point, thank you! I’ve used Retin A for a number of years without issue, but a friend of mine gets horrible migraines. I think it’s definitely a choice that must be made with a medical professional and fully aware of all side effects. Thanks for the insight and tips on alternatives!

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