Spring/Summer 2016 Flops and Faves, Part 3: Yet More Hanbang + the Return of the AHA

Previously: Part 1: Classics and New Faves Part 2: Best and Worst Ginseng Skincare


This final installment of my spring/summer 2016 skincare routine update took me a very long time to write because so much has been happening with my life and my skin! Which sounds dire but in reality isn’t. Even when I’ve been let down by something I’d been sure I would love, I have fun talking about why. Let’s look at some more hanbang contenders and my recent adventures with acids, prompted by my repaired skin barrier!


Affiliate links in this post are marked with an asterisk(*).


Hanbang Heartbreak (But All Is Not Lost)

I suspect that all the ginseng I’ve been trying out over the last few months has played at least some part in the improvements in my skin, since its increased resilience and glow date back almost exactly to when I hopped aboard the Hanbang Express, so let’s start this list with yet more ginseng!

Sooryehan Red Ginseng Nutrition sheet maskA while back, my friend Tracy from Fanserviced-B and the Snailcast decided it had been far too long since she made my wallet hurt.

(It had been maybe two weeks.)

So she sent me a link to the eBay listing for something that she knew would get me going faster than that Kim Jongin wedgie Pinterest board she curates with Chel from Holy Snails: a pack of 10 Sooryehan Red Ginseng Nutrition Mask*. The masks sounded so promising. Well known hanbang skincare brand? Check. Ginseng? Check. Sheet mask? Check. I tore right into them the very night they arrived.

I’m down to five left out of the original 10 and confident enough in my opinion to say that these masks are, for me, 22g of disappointment, soaked into cheap-feeling fiber sheets crumpled sloppily into the packets. The essence has an odd chemical smell to it and a heavy feel on my face. It doesn’t sink in no matter how long I leave the mask on or how diligently I pat at the excess after removing the sheet. Using these masks did next to nothing to reduce even my very mild patches of end-of-day redness, had no visible brightening or firming effect at all, and only moderately hydrated my skin. Did I mention how sloppily the mask sheets are crumpled up and shoved into the packets? Isn’t Sooryehan supposed to be a moderately fancy brand? Sooryehan Red Ginseng Nutrition Masks get a 1.5/5 from me. I don’t even want to hand the rest of mine out to friends.

(None of this is Tracy’s fault, as she hadn’t tried the masks and only passed the link along to me because they sounded like something I’d be interested in, which they were. This is all my fault. Also Sooryehan’s. And Park Hae Jin‘s.)

A better alternative: Evercos Herbal Sheet Masks in Red Ginseng remain my #1 ginseng sheet mask pick. I get them in large quantities from The Wild Jasmine, where they run $2 apiece and come with 3-day shipping from within the US.

Happily for my face, my recent hanbang experiments haven’t all ended in disappointment. During a recent store credit spree at Memebox, I picked up illi Total Aging Care Cleansing Water, which has since turned into one of my favorite things to use on my face.

illi cleansing water and sooryehan sheet mask

After my hanbang heartbreak, I needed the illi cleansing water to show me that there’s balance in the universe after all.

Lately, I’ve been gravitating towards cleansing waters and away from cleansing oils and balms as my first cleansers. My skin doesn’t need the extra richness and buffer of cleansing oils anymore, freeing me up to try cleansing waters like this one. Or maybe I’ll just stop at this one.

To me, illi’s cleansing water is almost the Platonic ideal of cleansing waters. Soaked onto a cotton pad, it sweeps away face makeup in a single pass at night and, on lazy mornings, offers a super-fast cleansing option that doesn’t require sinks or towels or drippy elbows and wet counters. I’ve even been using it as my eye makeup remover. Doing so takes a little more effort but cleans away even multiple coats of stubborn Japanese mascara without stinging, irritation, or unpleasant residue. illi’s cleansing water also leaves little to no residue on my skin, which makes it great for lazy mornings when I don’t feel like doing a proper cleanse. And it has the same heavenly floral-herbal scent as the illi Total Aging Care Cleansing Oil and Total Aging Care Body Lotion, both of which are HG status for me. I give it a 4/5, while it got 5 out of 5 turtles from my boo Coco from The Beauty Wolf! ($18, Memebox*)

Sulwhasoo White Ginseng Exfoliating Gel review

Sample decanting is a wonderful thing, by the way.

And finally, right in between the sadness that is the Sooryehan ginseng sheet mask and the happiness that is the illi cleansing water, sits Sulwhasoo Snowise EX White Ginseng Exfoliating Gel. I picked these up in bulk sample form on Amazon*, no full-size YOLOing here the way I did with the First Care Activating Serum EX. Good thing, because this stuff is not at all something I’d be happy to buy at full size and full price. Not because the White Ginseng Exfoliating Gel is terrible, but because it’s so distinctly not awesome. The powdered ginseng suspended in the smooth, watery gel delivers gentle, non-abrasive exfoliation, but so does the vastly more affordable Mizon Seaweed Jelly Scrub. I finished off my samples and haven’t thought about them again since. 2.5/5.

Sulwhasoo Snowise EX White Ginseng Exfoliating Gel ingredients: Water, glycerin, dimethicome, methyl gluceth-20, propanediol, PEG/PPG-17/6 copolymer, alcohol, panax ginseng root powder, PEG-15 glyceryl isostearate, PVP, butylene glycol, broussonetia kazinoki root extract, glyceryl polymethacrylate, glycyrrhiza uralensis (licorice) root extract, ophiopogon japonicus root extract, oldenlandia diffusa extract, hydrolyzed ginseng saponins (hydrolyzed white ginseng saponins), panax ginseng root extract, paeonia albiflora root extract, nelumbo nucifera seed extract, polygonatum officinale rhizome/root extract, lilium tigrinium flower/leaf/stem extract, rehmannia glutinosa root extract, honey, glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice) root extract, gingko biloba leaf extract, beta-glucan, cyclopentasiloxane, acrylates/C10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer, dimethiconol, ammonium acryloyldimethyltaurate/VP copolymer, cellulose gum, xanthan gum, ethylhexylglycerin, sodium polyacrylate, 1,2-hexanediol, methoxy PEG-114/polyepsilon caprolactone, tromethamine, disodium EDTA, phenoxyethanol, fragrance (CosDNA)

Acids: A Peel with Appeal (And One Without)

Speaking of exfoliation, back in the spring I decided it was time to give chemical exfoliants another shot after having gone a couple of months without them to allow my skin barrier to better adjust to my Curology prescription. I quickly found that I like weak Korean AHAs enhanced with fruit enzymes, like Papa Recipe All Kill PeelingBong and Prelab Toning Peeling Tap. With less AHA and slightly higher pH levels than standard acid exfoliants, these low-powered peels keep my skin smooth and clog-free without as much risk of overdoing things. Neither the Papa Recipe nor the Prelab products are ideal for long-term daily use due to higher per-use cost and excessive packaging, though.

My search for more weak exfoliants to try led me to Ciracle Skin Renewal Home Peeling Pads. Ciracle is a sister company to COSRX, which makes my favorite standard-strength AHA and BHA, so I figured the odds would be good that I’d like the product, or at least find it effective and inoffensive. (When you read about the other product in this section, you’ll see why inoffensiveness is kind of a big deal to me.)

Ciracle Skin Renewal Home Peeling Pads packaging

Ciracle packages the pads and juice separately. I have a feeling the pouring is more to give a sense of accomplishment than for any real functional reason. That’s okay with me. I’ll take a sense of accomplishment wherever I can get it.

Ciracle provides just enough liquid to fully saturate all 35 cotton pads without overwetting them or making a big drippy mess like Stridex pads, and the serum has a pleasant citrusy/soapy smell that dissipates quickly after application. Even better, the pH 4.5 serum did exactly what I expected it to do: give my skin some consistent light exfoliation without stripping or irritation. When I used the Skin Renewal Home Peeling Pads as my sole exfoliant, my skin retained a smooth, soft texture and bright, even tone. I  also regularly got grits when oil cleansing, showing that the peel was helping keep my pores unclogged. These aren’t the most exciting product around, but they got the job done and landed on my shortlist of options to go back to when I’m done with my current round of new exfoliant testing! 4/5 (RRS | Jolse | Wishtrend*)

Ciracle Skin Renewal Home Peeling Pads serum ingredients:  Water, alcohol, butylene glycol, glycerin, sodium lactate, sodium hyaluronate, caprylic/capric triglyceride, PEG-60 hydrogenated castor oil, glycolic acid, malpighia emarginata (acerola) fruit extract, carica papaya (papaya) fruit extract, citrus unshiu peel extract, ananas sativus (pineapple) fruit extract, camellia sinensis leaf extract, aloe ferox leaf extract, rubus coreanus fruit extract, opuntia coccinellifera, methylparaben, phenoxyethanol, fragrance, disodium EDTA, pyrus malus (apple) flower extract  (CosDNA)

You know what product is not on my repurchase shortlist? Papa Recipe White Flower Clear Up 8% AHA Gel, the first standard-strength AHA I’ve used in months. I decided that my skin had recovered sufficiently and that it was time to give full-strength acids another chance when I noticed the following signs of a repaired barrier:

  • Reduced skin thirst: Where my face used to drink up the essence of two hydrating sheet masks a night, no problem, lately one has been enough.
  • Better moisture retention: I never get dry forehead or cheeks anymore, not even on days when I use more lightweight emulsions and creams.
  • Improved skin texture: When my barrier is healthy and full of the lipids it needs to keep my skin moist and glowy, it feels buttery to the touch, even right after cleansing.
  • Decreased sensitivity: My skin these days is much less sensitive and prone to irritation. It doesn’t get red as easily and blemishes aren’t an issue.
Papa Recipe AHA review

I find the “white flower” in the name very misleading.

Too bad my first full-strength AHA in months turned out to be a bust.

It’s not that the Papa Recipe White Flower Clear Up AHA gel isn’t effective. With an 8% AHA concentration at a pH of about 4, this clear gel does exfoliate well. During the weeks that I spent forcing myself to use it on my face, it freed up grits and kept closed comedones away just as well as Ciracle’s peeling pads. It also brightened my overall skin tone more noticeably. I’ve since discontinued use on my face and am finishing the bottle out on my arms and legs instead, where the White Flower Clear Up 8% AHA Gel now does an excellent job of continuing to fade the farmer’s tan I’m fighting and keeps my limbs silky and free of razor bumps. It really is a good product. There’s just one thing.

This stuff smells so, so bad.

Look, AHAs just don’t smell pretty. A couple of months ago, Chel sent me an AHA prototype she’d been working on, which we all agreed had the distinct smell of sweaty buttcrack. Most AHAs are produced through fermentation, she explained; that’s what gives them that funk. I don’t mind the notorious smell of COSRX’s AHA at all (and the manbutt Holy Snails prototype was fine, too). But for me, the odor of the Papa Recipe AHA is absolutely repulsive. It smells like a compost fire burning atop a pile of lightly fermenting tuna. It’s bad enough to give me headaches if I use it on my face. And unlike the smell of COSRX’s AHA, which is sharp but fast-fading, the smell of the Papa Recipe AHA lingers. The only reason I find it usable on body is because I can throw on clothes after it dries to hide the odor.

It’s unfortunate, since the White Flower Clear Up AHA gel really does work well as an exfoliant. Smell is a very personal thing (I know some people find the smell of COSRX’s AHA much worse, which I don’t understand but can accept) and I envy anyone who can take this one. Based on my experience, however, I definitely recommend giving this product a hard pass. 2/5

Papa Recipe White Flower Clear Up 8% AHA Gel ingredients (via ColorCrrush): Water, Glycolic Acid, Potassium Hydroxide, Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Niacinamide, Lactic Acid, Nelumbium Speciosum Flower Extract, Iris Versicolor Extract, Leontopodium Alpinum Extract, Lilium Candidum Flower Extract, Jasminum Officinale Flower Extract, Freesia Refracta Extract, Rosa Centifolia Flower Extract, Chamomilla Recutita Extract, Allantoin, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice Powder, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Centella Asiatica Extract, Sodium Hyaluronate, Glyceryl Caprylate, Hydroxyethylcellulose, PEG-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil (CosDNA)

What are your recent hits and misses? And how’s your skin doing lately?

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20 responses to “Spring/Summer 2016 Flops and Faves, Part 3: Yet More Hanbang + the Return of the AHA

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences with these products. I’m putting the pads on my wishlist. I also wanted to share that I am trying a new product, Etude House EverDew Boosting oil. I’ve been using it for three weeks now and it seems to work very well in the hot humid weather we’re having; my skin is soft and not at all greasy. I also bought the Etude House EverDew Wrapping oil but I am saving that for the cooler months as it is a heavier consistency. Have you tried or heard anything about these EverDew oils?

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  2. I was actually glad you didn’t like the papa recipe gel because the smell i started reading and got nervous you didn’t like it because i just started using it luckily for me it doesn’t smell bad mine’s just has a light floral scent.

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      • It could be that one of them is a fake, which is sometimes unfortunately common when ordering kbeauty products online

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      • That’s definitely a possibility, though I’m inclined to doubt it in this case just because Papa Recipe doesn’t seem to be a particularly popular or trending brand that would be worth it to counterfeiters to copy–personally I have a feeling it’s down to either batch inconsistencies or just our differences in sense of smell. That seems to be the most unreliable sense!

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  3. Missed you on the Snailcast today Fiddy! Glad to see you posting today, and I hope you’re feeling better.

    Lol, I’m can’t say I’m disappointed that Chel won’t be offering that AHA for purchase.

    I’ve been using an Western product as my AHA (acne.org’s 10% glycolic acid lotion – formulated with licorice root, my skincare-boner ingredient) for the past couple years and it smelled… not like my favorite perfume, but not terrible. Kinda like yogurt? It was the only AHA I had ever used, so I had no idea what I was getting into since I started branching out. Man oh man. Good way to keep my husband from bothering me, for sure – no faking a headache required!

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  4. I have had my Curology rx for just over 3 weeks and my moisture barrier is not happy. My under eyes are dried out and I can’t find an eye cream anywhere to fix it. In desperation I finally tried some coconut oil on them and it seems to have done the trick, although it’s given me some whiteheads. I really want to try some ginseng, and the illi cleansing water. Oddly enough, my bottle of Cosrx AHA, nor the BHA, do not have a smell at all.

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  5. I use papa recipe gel and to me it doesn’t smell of much really. Never bother me and it works as an exfoliating really well! I would also recommend papa recipe white flower toner. It’s lovely!

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  6. I’m surprised you didn’t like the papa recipe aha because I think it smells 100x better than the cosrx one. For me it’s the exact opposite, the smell of the cosrx one lingers and it smells like fish.

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    • Same here. I love that I can’t smell the Papa at all, and I usually hate the fermented stank of AHAs. My worst scrub-it-off-scrub-it-OFF experience was a Sephora sample of Sunday Riley Good Spoiled Milk Garbage Juice Genes. And the only way I can use the Cosrx is to apply it with the fruity-smelling St. Ives Exfoliating Pads, and even then it’s barely tolerable.

      AHA: a good reminder that I should put on a sheet mask and clean out my fridge.

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    • I sure am! I’m on my second bottle of 0.07% tretinoin and my third bottle at that strength (fifth or six bottle overall, I don’t remember) will be shipping out on Monday. I think I’ll never stop using it as long as they stay in business!

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  7. Thank you for the reviews! I should venture out when it comes to sheet masks, but after trial and error I’m quite in love with My Beauty Diary. Ginseng is a ‘flavor’ they’re missing though! I used to love the ginseng masks I picked up in a drug store in Japan, but I can’t recall the name of the brand. They smelled strongly like ginseng though!

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  8. Thanks for confirming that the Papa Recipe AHA funk I keep hearing about is due to fermented goodness and not formulation badness. I was trying to determine which ingredient was being used as a preservative and couldn’t figure t out, which had me worrying that there was none in the formula and that skunk smell was outright contamination. I’m still dying to try it though, so off I go to hunt up a sample while I practice breathing through my mouth (sexy, I know).

    PS: A belated welcome back after your hiatus. It’s always fun to read your about your AB adventures, but it’s even better seeing you hitting your stride again after that moving-induced rough patch. Onward and upward (and virtual hugs)!

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  9. Thank you for enabling me into ginseng! I’ve only been able to afford the less expensive options so fat, but I like them. Have you tried the secret key red ginseng oriental cream? I believe I got it from RRS, and it seems to work well but I am not great at noticing differences on my face. It is much lighter the its skin prestige ginseng cream.

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