So I had this revelation while shopping at Target the other day. I was doing an unenthusiastic token pass through the beauty aisles, thinking about how long it’s been since I really stopped and actively looked for beauty products to buy there, when I realized: I don’t even buy freaking cotton pads at the drugstore anymore. I get them delivered (in sizable yet unnervingly lightweight boxes) instead, all the way from Japan or Korea. I’ve gotten in the habit of doing the same with the rest of my beauty tools, too. Using the best tools for my skin has maximized the potential of my skincare routine. Tools won’t make or break a routine, but they can provide a noticeable boost. Here are the Asian beauty tools I find most useful, how to tell whether they could benefit you, and the ones I almost always pass on!
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Asian Cotton Pads: The Workhorse Beauty Tool
They’re simple, they’re basic, they often cost less than $2 a pack at the supermarket or big box store of your choice, and they come in handy in many ways. But while you can totally use regular drugstore cotton balls or cotton pads with Asian or Asian-style skincare products, they aren’t always optimal.
These might be worth it to you if:
- You have touch-sensitive skin that gets red or irritated when applying product or removing makeup.
- Your skincare routine includes prepping toners, beauty waters, or first essences, which are best applied generously but are often pricey enough to make splashing them on like in the commercials a little too messy and wasteful.
- You want to do Chizu Saeki-style Japanese lotion masking.
What I’ve observed about typical Western cotton balls and cotton pads is that they’re designed more for wiping things off than putting things on. Western facial cottons suck liquids in and hold onto them tightly, while their rougher exteriors create a slightly abrasive effect. On the other hand, Asian cotton pads like the COSRX ones to the left transfer liquid more generously onto your skin. That makes a big difference when you’re trying to make the most of watery products like first essences (and also maximizes the results of chemical exfoliants, according to COSRX’s comment on this IG post). The smoother surfaces of these pads also make them much more gentle. I brought up the topic of skincare tools with my snailboos at the Snailcast, and that was one of the key observations Snow made. For people whose skin can’t tolerate much rubbing without going red and uncomfortable, Asian cotton pads make much more sense.
Asian cotton pads don’t perform any less well than Western ones at taking off makeup, either, at least not the way I use them. I let the makeup break down by applying my cleansing oil or balm a couple of minutes before I wipe it off. The makeup comes off easily with just a couple light passes of the cotton pad, no aggressive wiping or scrubby cotton balls needed.
As for lotion masking, most people who do it seem to prefer the multilayer type that can be pulled apart into thin single sheets. There are more specialized options available, though! Like these pads from Kyoto-based brand Kamiya, which Beautibi sent me in one of their one-year store anniversary goodie bags.
The super thin Kamiya pads are coated on one side to prevent evaporation, allowing them to stay moist for three times longer than normal uncoated pads, Beautibi owner (and curator of mothereffing kitty cat face lotion masking cotton pads) explained. That allows you to get more masking time out of them–very helpful if you have dehydrated skin that needs to drink in all the moisture it can!
My preferred cotton pads and where I get them:
- COSRX Naturally Embo Cotton Puffs are $4 for a box of 80 at Memebox* (first-time Memebox shoppers, sign up with my referral link for an extra 20% off).
- Muji 4 Layers Cotton pads are $6.99 for 60* or $11.42 for 120* from Amazon Prime.
Cotton pad tip: If you prefer to use cleansing water or point makeup remover to take off your eye makeup, you can still break the makeup down before wiping. Soak a cotton pad in your makeup remover of choice and press it gently to your (closed!!) eye for about half a minute, then gently press it against the underside of your lashes for another half a minute. Makeup should wipe off easily afterwards. If it doesn’t, consider looking into a better makeup remover, huehuehue.
Konjac Sponges: Everybody Ready for This Jelly
I first discovered my MVP beauty tool almost two years ago, and since then, I still haven’t found anything else nearly as useful. The konjac sponge might come from the roots of the humble konyakku plant, but it’s definitely got a place of honor in my bathroom!
These might be worth it to you if:
- You get flaky skin or dead skin buildup (“The Shell“) but find most physical exfoliators too harsh.
- You know your skin would benefit from a gentler cleanser but don’t feel that gentle cleansers get it clean enough.
- You like bubbles and squishy things and would like to combine these two interests in one conveniently squishy, bubbly step.
I’ve already written at length about konjac sponges, so I won’t spend too much more time on them here. I mostly want to say that I stopped using them for several months while I was dealing with the worst of my tretface, because I was scared of any and all exfoliation. When I welcomed a konjac sponge back into my life a few weeks ago, I immediately questioned my sanity about ever ditching these wonderful little tools.
Konjac sponges are the most useful cleansing tools I’ve tried. They can make a mountain of bubbles out of the tiniest dab of gentle, SLS-free cleanser. Their nubbly surfaces gently massage away flakes and ready-to-shed dead skin, letting me enjoy that super clean skin feeling without tightness or overexfoliation. My favorite konjac sponges come with strings attached (ha) to hang them up in the shower for convenience. And I happen to find them fun. Squish squish. I need to enjoy my skincare rituals in order to keep doing them; konjac sponges make washing my face every morning and night much less of a chore.
My preferred konjac sponges and where I get them:
- My current konjac sponge is the Innisfree Eco Beauty Tool Volcanic Konjac Cleansing Sponge, which I get for $5 apiece from Memebox*. These sponges come already moistened, eliminating the need to soak before the first. They’re soft, puffy, squishy, and extra gentle on my skin.
- I’ve also used box after box of The Beauty Shelf konjac sponges, which I get for about $12 for a pack of 3 on Amazon Prime*. These sponges come dried and need to be soaked in warm water for about 20 minutes before the first use, but once they’re fully rehydrated, they’re nearly as soft and squishy as the Innisfree sponges. They’re a better choice than the Innisfree if you want a little more oomph in your konjac experience; they’re also durable enough to last a few months as long as they’re kept clean.
Konjac sponge tip: I don’t buy the idea that konjac sponges infused with various special ingredients (charcoal, green tea, pink clay, etc.) are substantially different than plain konjacs, because I don’t believe the claims that fancy ingredients in cleansing products can have much effect. You’re just washing them off anyway.
Konjac sponge tip 2: Most manufacturers recommend that you replace konjac sponges every 3 months. I actually prefer to replace them monthly to ensure that I’m always using a sponge in top condition.
Spatulas: The Most Useful Freebies in Korean Skincare
You know those little plastic spatulas that come with many of your Asian beauty products in jars? I hoard those. I love those. Spatulas are the sliced bread of skincare routine. That is to say, they’re about the greatest thing ever when I use them.
These might be worth it to you if:
- Don’t worry about it. You probably won’t ever be in a position to need to pay for one, because you probably already have four or five. A pile of these can happen very naturally.
The most common misconception about moisturizer spatulas is that they’re intended to help reduce the risk of bacterial contamination of skincare products. In reality, a product that contains standard preservatives and is used up in a timely manner will be more than adequately resistant to contamination. Properly preserved creams packaged in jars are not equivalent to petri dishes! A while back, Tracy from Fanserviced-B actually cultured a variety of creams to demonstrate this.
So the germ thing is not what makes the ubiquitous spatulae of K-beauty moisturizers so handy. Nope, the thing I love about them and the reason they’re on this list is because they’re so handy…for my hands!
I don’t know about you guys, but I really, really, really, really hate getting stuff stuck under my nails. Any stuff. Soap, sand, lotion, cream, cupcake batter, the skin of my enemies as I claw at them until they leave my beauty product hoard alone, it doesn’t matter–if it gets under my nails, it grosses me out so much and I end up sitting around digging everything out for long, disgusted minutes afterwards. And I don’t even have long nails. I have short little mom nails. But they’re apparently long enough to trap my creams if I use my hands to scoop products out of jars.
Spatula tip: If you lose spatulas a lot, get some cute elastic hair ties to secure spatulas to the jars you use them in, as I demonstrated in this old-ass post that is totally still relevant to my life.
Asian Beauty Tools I Don’t Love
Not every Asian beauty tool is a winner for me. There are plenty I don’t find useful. The three that come to mind most readily are:
I still remember the very first time I saw a pore brush*. I was fourteen, visiting family in Taiwan, and saw one next to the sink I shared with my cousin. I was curious, but even back then, just a couple of uses convinced me that pore brushes weren’t a necessity. It’s nice that these brushes’ bristles are generally super soft and non-irritating, but they never do much for my pores or anything else. I’ve used several varieties of them, none of them to any noticeable effect. So even though they’re cute and fluffy and feel like kitten tails, which is always a plus, I pass on pore brushes nearly every time (and usually pass them on to friends when I end up with new ones, since YMMV and someone else may find them indispensable!). The only time I use one of my pore brushes is when I’m washing off a particularly stubborn clay mask, since I do find scrubbing the mask off with a kitten tail a bit less irritating than scrubbing clay off with my bare hands.
Foaming nets* are another cleansing tool that I could never get into the habit of using on a regular basis. These little net contraptions are made to generate the maximum foam from water-soluble cleansers.
I like bubbles. I like bubbles a lot! But bubbles aren’t everything, and the only purpose of a foaming net is to create bubbles. You’re not really meant to use the net to wash your face directly. Foaming nets add an extra step to the cleansing routine without providing any real extra benefit. If I want extra bubbles, I just use my konjac sponge, which does the trick and also gently exfoliates.
Some other people do see a real use for foaming nets, though. Snow reminded me that they can be helpful for people transitioning from super-foamy high pH cleansers to the gentler but less foamy low pH variety, since most of us are brainwashed to associate foaminess with cleanliness and may find less foamy cleansers less satisfactory. Again, though, I get that same foaming effect from my konjac sponges, so I’m good.
Snow and I also disagree on the usefulness of pack brushes*, which use a pliable “brush” head made of silicone to evenly distribute clay or creamy masks on skin. Snow and others find the feel of wash-off packs unpleasant, so for them, pack brushes help make the occasional masking session more tolerable. I totally get that. But since wash-off masks don’t really bother me unless I get them under my nails (which my spatulas ensure I never do), I don’t bother with pack brushes. I’m not concerned about applying masks in an uneven layer on my face, as long as I’ve applied enough of them to get their full effects.
Beauty tools like cotton pads, konjac sponges, and spatulas can make a skincare routine more enjoyable and more effective, but not every beauty tool is equally useful. What are your favorite and least favorite tools to use?