Types of Skincare Ingredients
When you first start caring about ingredients in your Korean Skincare products, or beauty products in general, the names can be overwhelming with words bleeding into each other. There are some products with a “clean” ingredients list, i.e. only a few ingredients that are easily understood. Then there are those that look like a mini chemistry thesis. So how are those ingredients categorized? In this post we will try to demystify the different types of skincare ingredients, and make it simpler to understand.
All skincare ingredients can be divided into 3 types:
- Aesthetic Modifiers
- Claims Ingredients
Functional ingredients are the ones whose main function affects the appearance and feel of the skin or hair. This can be one or more ingredient in any product. As an example, Vaseline contains just one functional ingredient: petrolatum (petroleum jelly) while a moisturizer will contain many different functional ingredients like polymers, humectants, occlusives, emollients etc. Common functional ingredients include cleansers, conditioners (like polymers, humectants, emollients), colorants (as in hair dye).
For an ingredient to be considered “functional” it would have to meet the minimum efficacy concentration percentage to be considered functional and not a claim. As an example, Salicylic Acid is a functional ingredient in many acne fighting products, but if it was in a concentration less than 0.5% it would not be considered effective and would thus be considered a “Claim Ingredient” (see below for more on what a claims ingredient is).
Functional ingredients usually appear in the beginning of the list of ingredients and are usually in concentrations greater than 1% in the product. E.g. Water is usually high up on a list of ingredients, so it’s safe to assume that out of 100% of all the ingredients in a product, water makes up more than 1% of the product and will therefore appear higher on the label. This doesn’t mean that all ingredients that are at the top of the list are effective, as mentioned it would have to be in a specific concentration to be considered effective. It just means that the product contains that specific ingredient, but if the concentration is too low, then it’s not a functional ingredient, but rather a claim ingredient.
When reading an ingredient label, as soon as you see an ingredient that couldn’t possibly be higher than 1% in the product, it’s safe to assume that the rest of the ingredients are either aesthetic modifiers or claims ingredients. Unfortunately it’s not always easy to know which ingredient could never be more than 1% in a product unless you’re a cosmetic scientist; But an easy one is Tetrasoda EDTA which is a kelating agent and would never constitute more than 1% of any product. Once you hit this ingredient, you can basically ignore everything below it, unless you’re sensitive to fragrance (which can appear last on the label), then by all means carry on down the list.
Some products also contain functional ingredients that are active drugs like zinc oxide which can be found in sunscreen or a specific drug that battles acne or pigmentation. Functional ingredients as a whole are sometimes referred to as “active” ingredients by some, but this is not entirely correct as not all functional ingredients are “actives”. Actives, like the zinc oxide in sunscreen, can be considered any ingredient that affects the structure or function of the body (skin too) and would classify as a drug that requires FDA approval to determine that it’s safe and effective.
Some functional ingredients can also double up as an aesthetic modifiers.
Aesthetic Modifiers are ingredients that makes delivery of the functional ingredient easier or changes the viscosity (thickness/stickiness/texture) of a product. There are many different types of aesthetic modifiers. It can be a solvent to make delivery of an ingredient easier, like water; a pH adjuster such as Sodium Hydroxide or Chloride, a kelating (binding) agent, a Solubilizer to clear up a cloudy solution, a thicker, fragrance, filler, or color etc. Aesthetic Modifiers follow the functional ingredients on an ingredient label, except for color, fragrance and preservatives which will typically appear at the end.
This type of ingredient also includes Preservatives (which are a good thing!) to prevent the growth of microbes. Parabens is probably the most popular preservative class of molecules with the most popular ones in skincare being Methylparaben, Propylparaben or Butylparaben. These paragons are the most widely used because they’ve proven to be the most effective against bacteria. The reason more than one preservative is used is because each one in isolation is not effective against all microbes. The “no preservatives” label you’ll see on some products is unfortunately a “Claim” as there usually are preservatives in the product even if it’s not labelled directly as such, or the product has been stored and transported in a climate controlled box and is a one time use product with a very very short shelf life. You might see products that claim to be ‘Paraben free” but this doesn’t mean that no other class of preservative was used. It could contain Phenoxy ethanol or other natural preservatives, but are not always as effective as parabens. Parabens can be an irritant however, especially if used in larger concentrations on sensitive skin.
Parabens are a whole other post, but suffice to say that current scientific research has determined parabens to be safe. Parabens in the correct concentrations are a VERY good thing for your skin, especially if you want to prevent possible life threatening skin infections caused by bacteria that would have normally been destroyed by preservatives or a preservation process.
Claims ingredients are what you’d call the “hype marketing”, “fairy dust” or “gimmick” ingredients. Some may very well work, but unfortunately the majority of claims ingredients are sometimes in such small concentrations that it has no effect on your skin, but manufacturers will include it to make the product more appealing. Some of us do love fairy dust so it’s not always a terrible thing, but it’s important to focus more on the functional and aesthetic modifier ingredients and less on the claims labelling.
The pH of your skin is how acidic or alkaline (basic) your skin is. When your skin’s pH is imbalanced, it shows up as wrinkles, acne, dry skin or oily skin. When your pH is balanced, your skin more dewy and plump. It makes sense then that you have to balance your skin’s pH.
Balanced pH of your skin should be around 5.5 which is slightly acidic. The thin outer layer of your skin is called the acid mantle which is a protective layer that keeps the good stuff (like moisture) in and the bad stuff (like bacteria) out. Overusing products or tools that disrupt the skin’s pH and thus the acid mantle, leaves your pores wide open to the bad stuff getting in and causing more damage in the deeper layers. Products that destroy the acid mantle are typical anything that works as an exfoliator. There’s nothing wrong with exfoliating, but it should be done sparingly and using gentler methods. It’s a good idea to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines. If the bottle says to use it once a week, then don’t use it on a daily basis.
Balanced skin is slightly on the acidic side, as being too alkaline can also lead to other issues.
Skin is too Alkaline?
Very oily, acne prone or very dry skin are often signs of skin’s pH being too alkaline. The alkalinity can cause your skin to be extremely brittle and dry resulting in fine lines and wrinkles or acne flareups as your skin produces more oil to makeup for the dryness. Alkaline skin that is not pH balanced accelerates the break down of collagen and increased inflammation leading to faster aging.
Skin is too Acidic?
Even though the skin pH needs to be on the acidic side, if it’s too acidic it can also lead to issues like being too sensitive. Sensitive skin is easily irritated, red and inflamed. Skin becomes too acidic when it is over processed by the overuse of harsh cleaners, harsh scrubbing or exfoliants. Skin becomes stripped down and results in red, irritated and inflamed skin.
So how do you balance your skin’s pH?
Fortunately the skin’s resilience means your skin barrier will return to its naturally slightly acidic pH fairly quickly provided you do the right things.
The skin’s pH can only be balanced by using the correct products, and not over processing the skin with stripping agents. Below are the 3 key tips to balancing your skin’s pH:
- Use a pH balancing toner. Fortunately most toners have pH balancing as its primary function, so just about any toner will do, unless your skin is easily irritated (acidic), then it’s best to use a toner that’s alcohol free.
- Gentle face washes and face washing methods should also be used. It’s better to use a low pH cleanser, but for those with acne who might still need foam cleansers, following up with a toner is essential.
- Avoid overly scented products with harsh ingredients.
- Cut down on exfoliating your skin. If you need to repair your skin’s barrier, try not to exfoliate for a fee weeks You can then do it once a week using a gentle enzyme peel or gentle manual exfoliation. Avoid overly chemically scented products and harsh scrubs.
It takes up to 6 weeks for your skin’s barrier to be renewed and restored, so stick to a routine and you will see results.
Moisturizing your skin is probably one of the most important steps in any Korean Skincare routine, well any skincare routine. There should usually be a different moisturizer for day and night time. This may seem odd to neophytes to skincare, but the benefits of two different moisturizers can be the difference between good skin and great skin.
The reason we need two moisturizers is because we have different needs during the day vs the night time. Moisturizing itself is not just for hydration, but also for its protective, preventative and treatment benefits, and different ingredients work differently at different times.
In the mornings you’d use a moisturizer for hydration and protection against the sun’s UVB/UVA rays, environmental elements and antioxidants. At night you would use a moisturizer that has nourishing ingredients, as well as preventative and treatment benefits, e.g. something with AHAs, BHAs, peptides, peeling agents, exfoliating agents, anti-aging, retinol, or other specific treatments your skin needs.
Simply put, mornings are for hydration and protection and evenings are for hydration and treatment.
But how do you know which ingredients in your moisturizers are good for you during the day vs at night?
Two common words in skincare is “occlusive” and “humectant”. You’ll hear these words often, and if you’re new to skincare, you might even able to associate them with certain ingredients. There are highly scientific explanations for both terms, but in this post, I wanted to simplify it and make it understandable for anyone to know the difference, and know what to look for in moisturizers.
As an aside, in my own quest to heal my troubled skin, I read a lot of books that used scientific naming conventions, but were too long winded. Although they were understandable, it was just not written in a format that made it reader friendly. I love learning new words, but dammit give me some brevity.
What Are Occlusives?
I always mind-associate this word with “exclusive”, like an exclusive club that has security blocking off the entrance. Which in a round about way relates to what an occlusive is. In medicine, “occlusive” means the closing or blockage of a vessel or organ. In skincare, occlusives are the ingredients that prevent the loss of water from the skin.They literally create a barrier so moisture can’t escape from the skin.
Those of us with dry skin will know the pain of having a desert for a skin mantle. No sooner is our skin moisturized when that little thing called evaporation happens (fast) and our skin is bone dry again. For those with dry skin, occlusives can be a heaven send.
We also sometimes hear people complaining about a product because it feels like it just “sits on the skin” with no real absorption. This is a tell tale sign of an occlusive being present in the formula. It’s sitting on top of the skin doing what its meant to do, that is, block water from escaping.
It makes sense then, that many healing and super moisturizing products like Vaseline and Cocoa Butter contain occlusive ingredients. Vaseline is probably the most well known, made up of petroleum jelly also known as petrolatum. Other occlusive ingredients include mineral oil, dimethicone, shea butter, beeswax or lanolin. They can be excellent for those with dry skin, but a nightmare for those with acne. The problem with occlusives, is that in blocking your pores, it can also clog your pores, leading to acne.
It should be noted that if occlusive ingredients are present in cleansers, they are fine to be used as it’s not left on the skin, provided its followed up with a second cleanse that dissolves the oily film left from the occlusive.
However in a moisturizer, or any other product that is left on the skin, occlusives can potentially lead to breakouts from the pore clogging and blackhead forming (comedogenic) effects.
What Are Humectants?
Humectants attract water from the air and deep within the skin to the upper layer of skin. It’s a better option for those who suffer from acne as it’s less comedogenic. Added benefits of humectants include wrinkle reduction due to the plumping effect.
Common humectant ingredients include urea, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, actin acid, and propylene glycol.
There is however a slight downside – because humectants draw moisture from deep inside the skin , it can lead to water loss if the skin barrier is compromised which can result in even dryer skin. For this reason humectants are often combined with an occlusive to prevent this water loss.
The best night time recovery moisturizers have a balance between occlusives and humectants.
But as stated the pore clogging can be an issue for certain skin types, especially if you’re acne prone. In these cases you need something that helps you retain moisture, but does not break you out. This is where the good stuff like hyaluronic acid, snail secretion filtrate, green tea, tea tree oil and jojoba oil based moisturizers come in. If you’re not sure on the ingredients, then choose a lotion over the thicker and oilier cream type moisturizers. Light weight lotion type moisturizers that are mostly water are good for all skin types.
There are also other moisturizing ingredient types like emollients and rejuvenators, but those have more an effect on the texture of the skin rather than the moisture levels.
A tip on moisturizing: Use a mist or water spray just before your moisturizer so that your skin is slightly damp. This will allow your moisturizer to lock in the moisture from the mist.
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:
- Unclog your pores
- Kill bacteria
- Reduce Oil
- Increase skin cell turnover
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 .
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.
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.
- Oil Cleanse using your preferred cleanser
- Second cleanser using a Salicylic based cleanser, alternating days with a benzoyl peroxide cleanser or an exfoliating cleanser
- Exfoliate 2-3 a week using an exfoliating method in the form of either a gentle scrub, manual brush, or an enzymatic exfoliator
- Tone with a pH balancing toner
- Use an AHA or BHA essence as often as your skin will tolerate it. Start with 1-2 a week
- Apply a hydrating treatment essence
- Apply a hydrating serum or emulsion
- Nourishing and soothing mask
- Topical medication, retinol or tretinoin
- 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.
Just about everyone knows that sun protection is the number one method to prevent premature aging of the skin and related skin conditions like sunburn, hyper pigmentation, melanoma, melasma, wrinkles etc. It’s been drummed into our heads that we should be using products with a high SPF (Sun Protection Factor), and ingredients that protect against the sun’s UVB rays and UVA rays.
What exactly are UVB and UVA rays and what’s the difference?
Ultraviolet B rays (UVB) penetrate the top layer of skin and is what causes our skin to burn or tan. The SPF in products protects only against UVB rays. Ultraviolet A rays (UVA) penetrate much deeper into the skin layers (the dermis) and is what causes major damage to our skins; the least of which is premature aging and the worst, skin cancer. UVA also penetrates through glass which is why you need sunblock or sunscreen even if you’re indoors.
Why do we say sunblock or sunscreen as if there’s a difference? Well because there is a difference. Sunscreen absorbs the sun’s UV rays before it hits the skin, whereas a sunblock blocks the sun’s rays completely.
If you choose to wear a sunblock, look for one with Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide as both of them protect against UVA and UVB rays. In sunscreens, look for oxybenzone, avobenzone and mexoryl as they all protect against both UVB and UVA, but make sure to reapply your sunscreen it often as it wears off faster than sunblock.
Fortunately most Korean and Asian sunscreens in general protect against both UVB and UVA rays and will have both an SPF number for UVB protection and a PA level for UVA protection. PA levels are ranked with a “+” sign next to it. The more +s, the higher the level of protection against UVA rays. The highest level is PA+++ (3). Western sunscreens might not always have a PA rating, but it will have wording such as “broad spectrum” or state specifically that it guards against both UVB and UVA rays.
A word of caution on sunscreens:
I’m not a fan of sunblock and prefer the lighter sunscreens, but I have to do my beauty duty and mention this warning: Sunscreens can also form free radicals on the skin. Free radicals can be explained in scientific terms, but to simplify: Free Radicals are basically greedy thieves who want to steal energy from healthy skin cells and destroy them.
Free radicals leave behind a trail of destruction in the form of damaged skin. The more free radicals there are, the more damage to your skin. It’s not just sunblock that can form free radicals, they can also form as a result of pollution which is not easily preventable.
How to guard and combat free radicals?
You can use an anti-oxidant such as Vitamin C, Vitamin A or E to combat those nasty free radicals.
A final sun protection tip: If you don’t want the white cast that most sunscreens cause, then choose one that is lighter in consistency. Great ones as researched by Chichibanban which you can read on her blog here include:
the A’pieuPure Block Aqua Sun Gel, The Saem
Eco Earth Power Light Sun Cream, Etude House Sunprise Must Daily, BeyondHug Sun Moisture Milk, The Face Shop Natural Sun Eco Sebum Control Moisture Sun, It’s Skin UV Away Perfect Sunblock and the Missha All Around Safe Block Essence Sun.