The Best and Worst Skincare I Used in 2016: A Holy Grail Skincare Routine

2016 was a pretty wild year in a lot of ways. Even my face got a taste of the turmoil. I tried a lot of different products from a lot of different brands this year, and while some of those products were truly great (and I appreciate the opportunity to try them all), others…weren’t. I took a deeply moisturizing trip down Memory Lane, digging through a year’s worth of Evernote entries and Instagram posts to come up with these picks.

Affiliate links in this post are marked with an asterisk(*). Some products in this list were provided for my consideration by brands and retailers and are marked with double asterisks(**).

2016 Asian Skincare Best (and Worst)

I chose a best and worst product for almost all my routine steps, leaving out only the steps for which I haven’t tried a wide enough selection of products to find a true “best” and “worst.” Choices appear in order of product application, so think of this as my 2016 Holy Grail skincare routine. Oh, and I’ve provided alternatives to the higher-end items in the list. Fiddy luhhh you.

Best and worst skincare 2016 Fifty Shades of Snail
And Fiddy luhhhhh mesh bags.

Best Oil Cleanser: Amorepacific Treatment Cleansing Oil**

I had a really, REALLY dreadful time finding a cleansing oil to love this year. It feels like everything I tried was either just okay or outright dreadful. And then I received a couple of gift sets from Sulwhasoo and Amorepacific’s US offices, eagerly opened up the little bottle of Amorepacific Treatment Cleansing Oil, and had my world immediately completely rocked.

GUYS. This cleansing oil. THIS CLEANSING OIL. It’s exactly the right consistency for my tastes: thick enough so that it doesn’t run or drip onto my lash extensions but not so thick that it feels gross or hard to spread. It breaks up makeup and sunscreen in a flash. It emulsifies well with a touch of water. No frantic rubbing to try to produce the milky white stuff. And it rinses off with an ease I’ve never experienced before. It leaves my skin simply clean; I don’t feel any oil residue after rinsing at all. If I found myself out of foaming cleanser (not likely), I’d be comfortable just using the Treatment Cleansing Oil to wash.

I’m not in love with the fragrance, which is more flowery than I prefer these days, but it’s not an unpleasant fragrance at all and is a minor complaint compared to all that I love about this stuff. It’s also very minor compared to the truly horrifying smells of some other cleansing oils I’ve used this year. (Keep reading.)

Ingredients list and CosDNA analysis | Amorepacific* | 30ml mini size included in the Amorepacific Asian Beauty Secret Collection* | Check the special codes section in my right-hand sidebar, as Amorepacific US regularly offers Fifty Shades of Snail readers extra gifts.

Alternative: The only cleansing oil I love the way I love the Amorepacific Treatment Cleansing Oil is illi Hanbang Total Aging Care Cleansing Oil. I raved about it a little over a year ago and used it for many happy months. I prefer the scent of the illi, and it rinses almost as cleanly as the Amorepacific, though it does deliver a more “moisturized” feel rather than a sparkling clean one. (Full reviewAmazon* | Memebox* | Jolse)

Worst oil cleanser of 2016: I hated so many cleansing oils this year. Which one was the worst? I couldn’t decide until I asked myself, “which one did I most dread using?” The answer is Missha Perfect BB Deep Cleansing Oil**, which I received from Missha’s US PR. It performs well but smells like a cosmetics formulator’s hangover, a flaw I noticed more and more every time I  used it. Chemically, with sharp notes of synthetic fruit fragrance and bile. The smell is strong, and it lingers. This is one of the Missha products that Target now carries online* and will be carrying in stores in January, but I plan to stay away from it and snag their M Signature Real Complete BB Cream*, one of my first HGs, and play with their Time Revolution* line, instead.

Best Korean facial cleansers 2016
It’s funny how normal 30ml looks as a serum and how tiny it is as a cleansing product.

Best Foaming Cleanser: Sulwhasoo Snowise EX Cleansing Foam

I had better luck this year with acidic (pH <7) foaming cleansers than I did with cleansing oils. Despite my wealth of enjoyable cleansing options, however, I found myself continuously going back to the pH 6-7 Snowise EX Cleansing Foam when I had it and continuously wanting to repurchase it after I ran out. So I repurchased it, because I have no greater enablement victim than myself.

The Snowise EX Cleansing Foam adds a dimension of indulgence to the tedious chore of washing my face twice a day (which is something I need when I’m feeling down and not in the mood to drag myself to the bathroom to start my routine). This cleanser smells of fresh green pine needles and produces dense, sumptuous foam that creates a cushion between my fingertips and facial skin while I’m massaging it around. My skin feels soft and purified after using this, and it never dries me out or causes any redness after cleansing.

Ingredient list and CosDNA analysis | Jolse | Amazon Prime*

Alternative: Lately I take almost as much pleasure in indie Korean brand Simplistic’s Begin Cleanser**, which was sent to me from Beautibi. The lightly minty, pH 5.5-6 cleanser produces a decent amount of foam and cleans my face to a fresh, comfortable state. Simplistic is a small company whose CEO does not only the product formulations, but also the branding, design, and even Instagram photography. (Ingredients list and CosDNA analysis | Beautibi | New Beautibi customers can use my referral link to receive $5 off your first purchase)

Worst foaming cleanser of 2016: I think I made my feelings about Treeannsea Eskimo Mella Liquide Mousse Foam** pretty clear in this review. I don’t even like using this cleanser to clean my makeup puffs and brushes, since it leaves my palms so stripped.

Best First Essence/Fermentation Essence: Naruko Jingcheng Face Renewal Miracle Essence**

After rage-quitting first essences in early 2015 due to Missha’s reformulation of my once-beloved Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence, I finally got back into the FTE game in 2016. Fortunately, one of my first attempts at re-entry was Naruko Jingcheng Face Renewal Miracle Essence, provided to me by Naruko US. The results I got from this first essence far exceeded my expectations; I’ve got backups in the closet and am waiting for an opportunity to get it back into my routine. (Full review | Naruko US*)

Worst first essence of 2016: The legendary SK-II Facial Treatment Essence runs for $100 or more retail, about $85 too much for a product that didn’t do anything for my skin except hydrate. It wasn’t even the most hydrating product I’ve tried in this category. My friend and fellow Snailcast member Tracy (of Fanserviced-B and Racked fame) sent me a travel bottle of this to try. I went through the whole thing without having a single positive thought about the product or its effects.

Best Essence: COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence

How much do I love COSRX’s Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence? So much that I’ve lost count of how many bottles I’ve finished and repurchased over the last couple of years. I sometimes take a break from it to try other snail products, and some of those other snail products are really nice in other ways, but for pure calming, soothing, protective, skin-softening, snail-slimey potency, I haven’t found anything that compares to this. I always notice a steep decline in the softness of my skin when I’m not using this product. Its cream sibling is HG for me, too.

(Full review | Amazon Prime* | Wishtrend* | Memebox*)

Best snail skincare of 2016 Cosrx
An Excess of Snails: The Fiddy Snails Story, coming soon from Imaginary Books

Worst essence of 2016: To me, Huxley’s branding emanates cool from every invisibly tiny pore. I love the way their packaging marries chic minimalism with natural beauty. I did not love the performance of Huxley Secret of Sahara Oil Essence**, which was provided to me by Glow Recipe. I found this supposedly deep moisturizing product to be surprisingly not particularly moisturizing–I can get the same level of moisture from many other serums, some of which also deliver other positive results. The Secret of Sahara Oil Essence didn’t give me any special illuminating or smoothing or firming effects. The perfume and the scent of the alcohol in the product exacerbated my headaches. And my dropper bottle seemed poorly made; I could only ever get a third of a dropper of product out at a time.

Best Serum: Sulwhasoo Capsulized Ginseng Fortifying Serum

It means a lot when I grow dependent enough on a product to repurchase it, and it means even more when that product typically costs $100+. I’ve repurchased Sulwhasoo’s ginseng serum once already and will do so again if I can’t find anything at a lower price point that can give me comparable improvements in skin resilience and elasticity, which so far nothing has. During the times in between bottles of this ginsengy elixir, I find myself constantly and futilely chasing that bounce in other products.

Full review | Amazon* | Sulwhasoo US* | Check the special codes section in my right-hand sidebar, as Sulwhasoo US regularly offers Fifty Shades of Snail readers extra gifts.

Alternative: In the same way that I haven’t found anything quite like the Capsulized Ginseng Fortifying Serum for skin resilience, I haven’t seen anything that quite stacks up to Holy Snails Shark Sauce for overall spot lightening and skin brightening. It makes sense, since Chel, the creator of Shark Sauce, originally concocted Shark Sauce to satisfy my personal cravings for lots of seaweed and lots of niacinamide. Shark Sauce is pretty much famous now. I still use it in between trials of other brightening products and love it so much I bought the giant Megalodon size. (Trial size | 30ml Shark Sauce | 50ml Whale Shark | 100ml Megalodon)

Best serums 2016
If I weren’t a blogger and didn’t care about trying new things for review, I’d probably never let myself run out of these two.

Worst serum of 2016: I’ll keep my rant on Blithe Tundra Chaga Pressed Serum** brief. I already ragged on it here anyway. Blithe’s schtick seems to be “standard products forced into odd consistencies,” and this one’s nonstandard consistency seemed to undermine the purpose of the product. The Tundra Chaga Pressed Serum, which was provided by Glow Recipe, refused to sink into my skin or to do much of anything at all. It did smell nice, though, so there’s that.

Best Sheet Masks: MasKingdom Chinese Medi line

MasKingdom’s sheet masks are generally spectacular for me, but the Chinese Medi ones go several steps beyond, which is why I end up grabbing a handful whenever I do a Beautibi order yet never feel like I have enough. The soft, comfortable mask sheets hold a ton of essence, enough for the masks to stay wet for 45+ minutes on my face, and the translucent glow these masks give me lingers for a day after use. I’ve tried many varieties and find that, for me, they all excel at calming redness, evening out and brightening my skin tone, and providing lasting plumpness and hydration. As an added bonus, none of them are perfumey. The herbal scents tend to be quite faint, except for the pleasantly minty but still subtle fragrance of the Peony & Angelica flavor.

Singles at Beautibi (scroll down to find individual varieties) | Chinese Medicine full set | New Beautibi customers can use my referral link to receive $5 off your first purchase)

Maskingdom best sheet masks of 2016
I’ve been saving these mask packets for months.

Alternative: This year I realized that I prefer Taiwanese sheet masks over Korean ones most of the time. I like both the regular pulp and ultra thin silk mask sheet materials better, and something about the essences the T-beauty mask manufacturers use seems to sink in better to my skin, providing more consistently awesome results. So my MasKingdom alternatives are also Taiwanese. I love the Naruko Narcissus DNA Repairing masks for their intense brightening and firming effects and the Naruko NRK Snail Essence Intense Hydra Repair masks for their ultra-calming properties; I buy both by the box.

Narcissus DNA Repairing Mask full reviewNRK Snail Essence Intense Hydra Repair Mask full review | Narcissus Repairing Mask at Naruko US* | Narcissus Repairing Mask on Amazon Prime* | Snail Essence Intense Hydra Repair Mask at Naruko US* | Snail Essence Intense Hydra Repair Mask on Amazon Prime*

Worst sheet masks of 2016: It’s awesome when mainstream US retailers carry Asian products, but not so much so when those Asian products are Blithe sheet masks. Tracy also sent me a flavor each of these to try. She didn’t like them, but we thought I might, since I have a serious marine ingredient fixation and these were in the sea cucumber and abalone flavors carried by Urban Outfitters. My best guess about why UO chose this brand and these varieties is that the packaging looks really cool. The actual masks, as Tracy, I, and other friends agreed, are kind of gross, with thick, heavy essence that doesn’t sink in, but instead sits in an oily layer on top of skin after masking. Never again.

Best Cream: Soo Ae Freeset Donkey Milk 3D Moisture Cream

I’ve tried so, so, so many different creams of different weights and consistencies this year, and most of them were just fine and some of them were really good, but none of them packed the same incredible nourishing and barrier-healing power of my precious Freeset Donkey Milk 3D Moisture Cream. This stuff rapidly repairs my skin when it’s overexfoliated and irritated, provides just enough moisture without “too heavy for day” limitations, and just feels good to use. It was one of the last creams that I used up enthusiastically, now that I think about it.

Full review | Memebox* |

Worst cream of 2016: When a cream not only stomps all over my Asian skincare nostalgia but also  literally physically hurts my face (by scraping my skin with comically oversized and totally unnecessary gold flakes), I think it’s pretty clear that that cream is the worst of the year. Mizon Gold Starfish Cream, you are no Returning Starfish. You will never return to my stash again.

2016 is almost over (just a bit over four hours for me!). It was a crazy year, full of products and blogging and more products and more blogging and a bit of podcasting too. I’ll be continuing to use my best products in 2017 and trying as hard as I can to forget about my worst. And I can’t wait to see what new skincare goodness 2017 will bring.

Happy New Year!


24 thoughts on “The Best and Worst Skincare I Used in 2016: A Holy Grail Skincare Routine

  1. Thanks for this list! I’m curious what your favorite/least favorite eye creams and sleeping masks would be.

    I love the Freeset Donkey Milk Cream and have started using another jar, and it’s amazing. (This is my second one after a hiatus since last spring.) I also totally agree re: the MasKingdom masks, especially the Chinese Medi line.

    Alas, that Amore Pacific cleansing oil is my least favorite cleansing oil ever. It was my second oil cleanser when I first got into AB, and the overpowering scent ruined it for me (same scent as their sleeping pack, which I ended up chucking). I love the slip of the cleanser, but the scent was so much of a turn-off that I ended up using the cleanser for my brushes and beauty blenders, and then I “accidentally” knocked the bottle into the sink (the cap was off as the pump was no longer working) and finished off the rest of the product. I may have cheered. My favorite oil cleanser that does what I want it to do while smelling heavenly is Blossom Jeju.

    I need to get my hands on the Naruko essence, meanwhile.

    Happy New Year!


    1. Hahaha. It sounds like you feel the same way about the AP cleansing oil as I do about Missha’s. I’ve been meaning to try the Blossom Jeju–I’m just so afraid it’ll be magical!

      I don’t think I’ve tried any eye creams that were downright terrible, but neither have I tried any besides the Sulwhasoo ginseng one that were really great, hence them being left out of the list. The Swanicoco peptin one I’m using right now does well, though I can’t say it does anything special compared to others. Still on the hunt for that HG! And with sleeping packs, I’d say the Sulwhasoo Overnight Vitalizing Mask and Radiance Energy Mask are as close to HG as I’ve found, but again, I haven’t tried anything extensively that’s been really dreadful. Maybe the Lioele Water Drop Sleeping Pack or Laneige’s similar water sleeping pack, but I don’t have enough notes on either of those :/ What kind of sleeping pack are you looking for? Goodal makes some good ones.


      1. I have a deluxe sample of the Sulwhasoo Overnight Vitalizing Mask and love it. I’ll definitely purchase the full size down the road. I really liked the Dr. Jart Firming Mask (or whatever it’s called), but now it’s hard to find, so I’m happy to find a replacement in the Sulwhasoo. I also like the Cosrx Overnight Honey Mask, but I often use it as a light moisturizer instead (I have combo skin, so it works for me).

        The only eye cream I’ve repurchased is the Amore Pacific Future Response Age Defense Dual Eye Crème, which is $$$, but it’s two different eye creams with the set (one for night, one for day). I’d used it early on in my AB journey and just bought another when I was doing holiday shopping last month. The scent on the eye creams isn’t as strong as the oil cleanser. I’ll have to consider the Sulwhasoo one you mention next.

        About the Blossom Jeju cleansing oil, I think it’s cheaper than a full size of the AP, and the bottle lasted me 6 months. By comparison, a jar of Banila Clean It Zero Purity only lasts me 2 months (and is only $10 cheaper). I’m not picky about oil cleansers in general, but I do find the Blossom Jeju very luxe to use. When I get over my laziness, I’ll do a more thorough write-up on Reddit.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Same–their packaging and branding are so on point! I am still craving all their hydrating clear blue liquid stuff though ahahahaha. I’ll never learn apparently.


      1. I kind of like the Huxley Oil Essence — but not for the price. I got it from Glow Recipe as part of their Tester Panel and was more or less happy with the results. It seemed to hydrate well and have some “plumping” effects, but nothing too drastic. I doubt I’ll purchase it.

        But OMG I hate that dropper. I saw them sell the product on QVC and it looked like a real dropper, and I couldn’t believe it. I can barely get a half of a drop from mine.


  2. Thanks for the post! Am taking notes and loading my amazon cart 😉
    I’m a faithful Illi cleansing oil adherent (same goes for their cleansing water.) I haven’t tried the AP version, but I do love AmorePacific’s foaming and powdered cleansers. Actually, I don’t think I’ve used a single AP product that I didn’t love, and I’m a fan of the strong floral scent 🙂
    I bought some Naruko sheet masks based on reviews here. The Narcissus is really nice, as is the Rose. I tried some from the NRK line and found them to be drying, though. The Snail is the craziest mask I’ve ever used and not one I break out often because of the commitment required (lately I prefer the quickie route with sheet masks – get ‘er done in 20 minutes.) I also generally prefer Taiwanese masks, my favorite line being LoveMore, though my finds of the year are the Banobagi Vita Genic Jelly and Leaders Mediu Amino masks, both of which are Korean if I’m not mistaken.
    I do have to give a shout out to Blithe. I bought the Tundra Chaga Pressed Serum and returned it, then earlier this year while looking for a gel-cream and ended up with the Crystal Iceplant Pressed Serum. It easily gets my award for fave find of the year. It’s super soothing, hydrating and my skin just drinks it up. I’ve also been using their Vital Treatment Essence for Hydrating, which I’m liking more and more as I use it.
    Also, thanks for reminding me to pick up the CosRx Snail Essence. I finally finished off the AIO cream, which I’ve never loved. It feels too thick and filmy on my skin and isn’t very hydrating. I much prefer the texture of the Essence. It sinks in more quickly and seems to provide more moisture.


  3. Hi Jude,
    In your ‘how to build your own skincare routine’ you listed the Mizon Starfish Cream as ‘delightfully weird and indescribable’. Since it’s now on your worst cream of 2016, maybe you should remove it from the how to build your skincare routine post… I only realized it since i’ve just started reading your blog and everything is pretty fresh in my memory… just thought id point it out 🙂


    1. Not the same cream! The one that I hate is the Gold Starfish Cream, a very poor substitute for the OG Returning Starfish Cream (which I wish would return).


  4. I have been a longtime follower and fan of your blog. Love the no fluff reviews and how willing you are to try all thes products so the rest of us can benefit from your experiences. I would like to ask for some recommendations for a few steps, I apologize for the long message, it’s the first time I have ever asked for advice and I trust your opinions.

    I was wondering what you’re favorite sleeping masks/packs are. I love them, I fell like I am doing something so luxurious- extra special treatment after a long day. I like the water droplet packs, but mostly because they are just fun, I don’t know how effective they are. I know they have different purposes, but what are your favorites? I’m 45 and looking for glowing, lightened, moisturizer, dewy skin. Basically the skin I had when I was twenty- but who isn’t! (I use Retin-A, and I think the sleeping packs are amazing as a final topping).
    I’m almost out of my Misha FTE essence (original formula) and I’m on the edge of a panic attack. I love fermented skincare products, but don’t know what to purchase next. I am at an age where I spare no expense when it comes to skincare- you only get one face. What fermented essence would you recommend?
    Favorite serum. The Shark Sauce sounds wonderful, but is it your favorite. Do you use the same one for daytime under sunscreen (admitted sunscreen addict here- I’m very fair) and a different one for nighttime?
    Last, but in no way, not least – SUNSCREEN!! I’ve been using the Biore Aqua Rich Watery Gel for about a year based on your reviews, but the watery gel texture is a little heavy for my oily T-zone. I assumed the gel would be thin an light textured, but it’s kinda gooey. Is there another Biore texture you would recommend? I did well with Misha milk, but don’t know if the sun protection was as good as Biore.

    Thank you for all the time and hard work on your blog. It’s very much appreciated by those of us who want an honest opinion from someone who isn’t trying to sell a product.


  5. Are you using Tret at all these days? I’ve gotten my skin to a place with my actives that it’s about as good as it can get with mild hormonal breakouts.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi!! Was wondering what you do with products you disliked? I have a bunch of things I’ve tried and didn’t like and they’re just sitting there collecting dust. Also, what would you do if you have a whole ton of samples that are about to expire soon? (By a bunch I mean almost 100 of them…) I never used them because I just continued using my full size products.


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