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 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.)
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 review | Amazon* | 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 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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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 review | NRK 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.
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!