Among online beauty communities, the international community of Asian cosmetics enthusiasts located in, or originally from, the Western hemisphere–commonly known as the Asian Beauty or AB community–is considered one of the friendliest and most drama-free. But there are dark currents of controversy hidden beneath the placid surface of the AB ocean.
Some of those controversies are practical. Are Asian (particularly Korean) skincare products inherently superior to Western ones, to the point where a “real” AB fan should chuck their non-Asian products altogether? And some of those controversies are political and philosophical. Where does appreciation end and appropriation begin? How much does AB owe its cult status in the West to hype that’s fueled by fetishization of “exotic” Asian people and practices?
These are serious topics that deserve serious examination. Today’s guest blogger is Elizabeth Tweed, who blogs thoughtfully about beauty topics (and tea, and more) at Tea Leaves and Tweed. Let’s see what Elizabeth has to say about Asian vs. Western skincare and the challenges of mindfully enjoying AB.
Beauty Globalization: Incorporating Non-Western Beauty Mindfully
Those of you who read Fiddy’s blog regularly are no strangers to Asian beauty. Since beginning my own skin care journey years ago, I’ve found myself drawn to Asian products and beauty philosophies. The ritual of applying skin care and the minimalist approach to makeup appeals to my vintage side as well. But incorporating Asian skin care philosophies and products into a Western beauty routine comes with its own special set of pitfalls to navigate, particularly because I am not of Asian descent. I want to draw on these traditions, but not in a way that feels appropriating or exoticizing, which can be a fine line to walk.
Now, the last thing the world needs is to hear the thoughts of another white lady blogger, but I thought perhaps some of Fiddy’s readers would be interested in hearing about my experiences building a routine that includes Asian inspiration, without falling victim to common misconceptions about the Asian beauty world.
I can’t remember exactly how I found Korean (and later Asian) beauty, but I know it was from a Western-focused beauty website. I had recently discovered the joys of hydration and so I devoured these stories of many layers of hydration and plump, glowing skin. I fell hook, line, and sinker for that dewy skin glow. I had already discovered Sephora sheet masks and so my first “Asian Beauty” purchases were two sets of Korean sheet masks.
From there, hydrated and enabled, I fell down the rabbit hole of the Reddit Asian Beauty community. I bought snails. I bought ferments. I bought gel-creams and so many sunscreens. And so, so many sheet masks. I even came up with a great way to both store my sheet masks and enable myself to buy more.
At some point, I realized that I was becoming one of those people. You know, the ones who go looking for Asian replacements for their entire current routine. The ones who think that Asian is better. The ones who think that bee spit and snail slime are going to magically cure their acne.
The ones who buy Asian products for the sake of buying Asian products.
And that’s when I took a big step back to look at my big picture. You see, as a white lady, I’m immensely privileged to be able to dabble in all sorts of culture without ever having to suffer the negative consequences of actually being a member of that group. Which means that it can become really easy to fall into fetishization and exoticization without really realizing it (here is a really good discussion of what I mean). And I was tiptoeing ever closer to that line.
So I decided to take stock of my skin care routine and determine what I was using because it was really and truly a product and effect that I couldn’t find elsewhere, and what I was using because of hype or exoticization. And, yeah, it meant facing some things that didn’t really make me feel like a very good person. It’s important to sometimes feel like an asshole. It’s how we grow.
I’ve come out the other side with a globe-spanning routine of products that are chosen on their own merit.
Ironically enough, I got to this place using a variation of popular Japanese lifestyle guru Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering. Each product I had or wanted to try had to pass this test: Does the product thrill me or does the idea of the product thrill me?
For products I already owned, this meant being honest with myself about what it was really doing for me versus what I imagined while using it. For products I wanted to try, it was about what I expected of the ingredients versus climbing aboard the hype train.
An example of this would be my propolis serum. I was convinced that this was a gentle, hydrating way of helping with my occasional hormonal spots. In reality, I just liked the idea of using this pale golden liquid in a fancy apothecary bottle, chock full of ingredients that make me feel like Cleopatra or something. Azelaic acid has been ten times more effective at controlling my breakouts, even though it’s so not sexy. I still like propolis, but I save it for an occasional sheet mask for some immediate soothing.
This also made me think about what products Asian brands really do well.
- Sunscreen. This is number one, because I really and truly believe that Asian sunscreens are superior in most ways to other sunscreens. They’re more effective because they use more advanced filters than American sunscreens, and they’re cheaper than French sunscreens. And because Asian people really do wear sunscreen every single day, there is a lot of market competition for cosmetically elegant formulations. So my go-to sunscreen is still a Shiseido SPF 50 PA++++ that gets shipped from Japan.
- Snails/ferments/propolis/ginseng. If you have a skin issue that is really and truly helped by one of these ingredients, it makes sense to get it from an Asian brand. Particularly ginseng. Korean ginseng was once a form of currency. It’s their thing. Koreans know their ginseng. Korean ginseng products actually smell like ginseng. I limit my ginseng to what’s in my toner and what’s in my sheet masks.
- Traditional herbal medicine-inspired products: I think this deserves a mention apart from the previous thing because I’ve found that Asian brands really do herbal products right. Examples of these would be Hanbang or Ayurvedic products. When an Asian brand does an herbal product, they aren’t stingy. Unlike American brands that are nominally “herbal” but still clear, many Asian herbal products are obviously the natural color of the herb, often brown. And because herbal treatments are considered less of a fringe, Asian herbal products often don’t avoid the chemicals that make mainstream products more effective, unlike American health food store brands.
- Light, hydrating layers. This isn’t your Clinique 3-Step system, guys. I have two or three cleansing steps (counting toning) and then many more steps of hydration. If you have oily skin, applying light layers of hydration beats out one rich cream. If you have dry skin, you’re going to absorb moisture so much more if you layer under that rich cream anyway. This includes mists, by the way. While a lot of Korean mists are just fragrance for your face, there are plenty of formulations that are just diluted serum in a spray bottle. I keep one at my desk to spritz when I’m feeling dry, whether it’s from winter air or air conditioning. And I have yet to find a real replacement for an Asian “essence” or “lotion” step that isn’t explicitly inspired by Asian products anyway. Might as well buy from the source, right?
- Oil Cleansers. While Americans were mucking about mixing castor oil and olive oil and steaming the concoction off their faces, DHC and Shu Uemura were making cult-favorite cleansing oils. Now everyone and their mother makes a cleansing oil, but I find that the utilitarian nature of Asian brands’ oils makes them superior. Asian brands tend not to shy away from mineral oil, and they don’t usually try to shove in lots of extras. I’m not using this oil to nourish my skin; I’m trying to dissolve my mascara into black puddles and rinse it off my face efficiently. While some Asian cleansing oils provide some sort of sensory experience, for the most part they focus more on attacking makeup and sunscreen and less on ingredients that are there for “label appeal.” The only reason I’m not still using my previous favorite from Kose is because they reformulated it to include an oil that is common to oil cleansers but happens to make me break out.
So there are plenty of things that Asian brands have to offer to the skin care world apart from just the whiz-bang factor of something new, different, and outlandish. But on the flip side of that is the list of things that I really think Western brands excel at. That’s not to say that no Asian brands offer them, just that it’s not necessary to import items from Asia unless you’ve tried the ones available domestically.
- Over-the-counter actives. I’m talking about chemical exfoliators and retinoids. Whether it’s because Asian women only treat their skin with the feather-lightest of touches or because dermatological treatment is more accessible and less expensive in some Asian countries, there aren’t a lot of truly effective active products from Asian brands. I’m not going to settle for something just because it’s from an Asian brand. If I want an acid, I’m going Western. I currently use azelaic as my regular acid treatment, with a biweekly 30% glycolic peel, both from Western brands.
- Low-pH water-based cleansers. The simple fact is that most of the beauty gurus and brands in Asia (particularly Korea, China, and Japan) just haven’t gotten on the low-pH bandwagon. I happen to know my skin reacts poorly to high-pH cleansers, so my second cleanser is Western and pH 4.5.
- Non-active, science-based ingredients. I’m mostly talking about ceramides here, but also hyaluronic acid. If you want multiple weights of hyaluronic acid, yes, the Hada Labo products are fantastic. But you don’t need to wait for shipping from Japan. It’s a bit more expensive, but Hylamide’s products are also chock full of multi-molecular weight hyaluronic acid ingredients. I also stick to Western brands for things like peptides simply because I don’t think there’s anything particularly ground-breaking coming out of Asia that I can’t get by using a product that comes from closer to home. It’s not that the Asian products are bad, and if I ever moved to Japan, that’s probably what I’d use. But for little old American me? I can get my science from Canada and the US. As far as ceramides are concerned, while most Asian moisturizers don’t tend to treat shea butter as a given in creams, the ceramide moisturizers are often formulated for very dry skin and come hand-in-hand with shea butter, which I can’t use. I’ll take my Liquid Gold and CeraVe, thanks.
- Thayer’s toner. I thought I’d make a special mention of this product because it’s an interesting special case. Thayer’s toner is like a beauty diplomat. Despite the fact that I generally prefer hydrating toners and essences from Asian brands, Thayer’s toner is actually a favorite in Korea. They even make a mist product that is only sold in Asia because there’s such a culture of mist hydrating that doesn’t happen in the US. So if you’re in the health food store in the US, you can buy yourself an honest-to-goodness, popular-in-Korea product without worrying about shipping times or websites. It’s right there on the shelf.
- Small start-up beauty brands: This includes brands like Glossier, Stratia, or Holy Snails. These are brands who are started by women who are active in the online skin care community, and even the Asian beauty community in particular, but they are not actually from Asia. But they make wonderful products, coming from a place where the consumer can feel closer to the product’s conception than when buying a product from a major brand. I think it’s important to remember the little guy when choosing skin care.
Okay, so now I had a framework of what I actually liked from Asian brands and where I could stick with my Western brands, in general. But I didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s true that, from the time I was a spotty teenager, I’ve been told that minimalist skin care is queen. The myth goes that French women achieve glowing skin with nothing but a splash of water and some Embryolisse. Clinique claims you can have perfect skin in three easy steps. My aunt’s friend’s cousin has the best skin you’ve ever seen and she does the Caveman method. And of course, women use 463 products every day and are absorbing all sorts of “toxic chemicals” from them. Minimalist is better. Simple is better. “Chemical-free” is better.
No. I say no to that.
Give me ten layers of watery hydration and a bit of emulsion to seal it in before I put on my (chemical) sunscreen over any 3-step system. Water is the essence of skin, or something.
So I’m going to stick with my multi-step, layered skin care routine; I’m just going to use a mix of products from around the world to do it. So I might use my American cleanser, French clay mask, British toner, Korean essence, Canadian serum, and Japanese sunscreen all in the same routine. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not less “AB” because you don’t use all Asian products. The bottom line is to figure out what your skin wants, what your skin needs, and what you’re just using because it seems cool, whether that’s a mix-it-yourself copper peptide serum that’s a neat shade of blue or a gel made from 96% mucin from very coddled and not-at-all-abused snails.
NB: All products I mention in this article are either purchased by me or not purchased at all. I haven’t received any of these products in exchange for a mention or review, and I, Elizabeth, am not sponsored by any of the Fifty Shades of Snail sponsors. In addition to Fiddy, I would also like to thank Tracy at Fanserviced-B, Cat at Snow White and the Asian Pear, Stephen of Kind of Stephen, and the Redditors of r/AsianBeauty for being my guides and companions on my beauty journey.
Elizabeth Tweed blogs about beauty, tea, and whatnot at her blog Tea Leaves and Tweed. She lives in the US with her fiancé , who barely moisturizes, and their very talkative cat.