For those of us who don’t live in South Korea, the country’s innovative beauty products are the most accessible acne treatments we can get our hands-on. Treatment of zits gently without drying them out is important in Korean skin care.
So much so that when I interviewed dermatologist Cho Yun Joo in Korea in 2020, I asked her for her best advice on how to prevent breakouts, and she immediately replied with “moisture, lots of moisture.”.
Similarly, Seoul’s Thema Dermatologic Clinic’s head dermatologist, Lim Ee Seok, had the same thoughts. In the United States, people tend to focus on excess oil on the skin rather than the fact that they have dry or sensitive skin and their complexion is trying to find a healthy balance.
According to dermatologist Shin Hae Won at Oracle, a major dermatology and skin-care clinic in Seoul, addressing inflammation is essential. To reduce redness and brighten your skin, look for ingredients like circa, allantoin, and niacinamide.
With all this in mind, we gathered up the Korean acne products editors from Allure and Allure Korea swear by, as well as dermatologists.
The Medicube Zero Foam Cleanser is a favorite of Allure editors in New York City, as well as our colleagues in Seoul. Minji Kim, a beauty editor at Allure Korea, says the soap’s rich lather removes dirt and bacteria from the skin while preserving the skin’s natural oil and moisture balance.
There’s no better way to keep oil at bay than with the Innisfree Super Volcanic Clay Mousse Mask 2X, which contains volcanic ash from Jeju Island. In addition to being an antibacterial and an anti-inflammatory, sulfur is also a key ingredient in the rinse-off mask.
The Banila Co Clean It Zero Pore Clarifying Foam Cleanser comes from the makers of Korea’s best-selling cleansing balm. To keep pores from clogging and skin from breaking out and to remove dead skin cells, the acid-spiked face wash uses a gentle yet effective combination of AHAs, BHAs, and LHAs.
Pat the Dr.G Red Blemish Clear Soothing Toner on your breakout to calm it down and stop it from spreading. Salicylic acid, derived from willow bark, removes dirt and makeup from the skin while soothing it with aloe and cica. Water-like consistency and a velvety finish made this Allure Korea Best of Beauty Award winner one of our favorites. According to Howard Sobel, a New York City board-certified dermatologist, the niacinamide in this product also helps to reduce redness while also firming and smoothing the skin and minimizing the appearance of large pores.
After cleansing, swipe on a Neogen A-Clear Soothing Essence Pad, as suggested by Allure’s senior commerce writer Sarah Han. Soaked in a power duo of salicylic acid and allantoin, neither breakouts nor irritation stand a chance with these cotton rounds incorporated into your routine.
Acne spot treatments and acids are popular in the United States because of our impatience with the process of clearing up pimples. To prevent blemishes in Korea, dermatologists emphasise hydration and moisture barrier support. Here, we compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of both treatments.
However, imagine what would happen if we took a more comprehensive approach. Our primary goal would be to prevent outbreaks. Rather than obsessing over pimples, we’d consult a dermatologist first, and our skin-care regimens would emphasize hydration, moisture support, and thorough cleansing.
In South Korea, acne is treated this way. Rather than slamming the damaged area with a harsh acid, Dr. Ko Lamm recommends preventing the problem from occurring in the first place.
Dr. Ko Lamm’s practice is in Charlotte, North Carolina, but she was born in Korea, so her knowledge of Korean skincare is accurate. Throughout the years, I’ve spoken to countless dermatologists in Seoul. Board-certified dermatologist Lim Ee Seok of the Thema Dermatologic Clinic in Gangnam, Seoul’s dermatologist-heavy neighborhood, welcomed me into his office in 2019.
Dermatology in Korea isn’t just about fixing problems; rather, it’s about preventing future ones from occurring.
How Korean Dermatologists Typically Treat Acne
Acne-targeted formulas from Korean beauty brands are noticeably gentler than those from Western beauty brands. In addition to niacinamide and green tea, hyaluronic acid and Centella asiatica (a.k.a. cica), dermatologist Dr. Y. Claire Chang of Union Square Dermatology in New York City tells Allure that these products tend to contain hydrating and soothing ingredients. It’s also worth noting that she spends a good chunk of time each year in Seoul as well.
Retinol-based products are rare in Korean beauty stores. A vitamin A alternative, Bakuchiol, is beginning to have its K-beauty moment.
Dr. Cho Yun Joo, a board-certified dermatologist in Seoul, South Korea, recommends “moisture, lots of moisture” as the best way to treat acne. He says she uses two jars of moisturiser a month to keep her acne-prone skin balanced and clear.
According to her, this is because people with dry skin produce more oil to protect their skin from further damage. In addition, as the demand for oil rises, so do the chances of a spill. For ease of application, she uses a spray bottle to store her beloved toner.
Dr. Ko Lamm says that hydration is essential for detoxification “no matter where in the body it occurs, whether it’s pancreatitis, colitis, or dermatitis. According to the author, dry skin is a breeding ground for bacteria and clogged pores, particularly in the winter months. Acne is a disease that affects the entire body; therefore, treating it holistically by applying topical hydration and drinking plenty of water is the best way to treat it.
Laser treatments and radiofrequency-charged micro-needling became popular with acne patients about five years ago, according to Dr. Ban.
Dr. Sang Wook Lee, a board-certified dermatologist at Seoul’s Yezel Clinic, prefers gold photothermal therapy (or Gold PTT) for treating patients with severe acne. The results of this treatment are visible and non-invasive for my friend, who has had it done by Dr. Sang. To put it simply, a serum laced with gold nanoparticles is applied topically to the skin. As a final step, ultrasound waves are used to stimulate cellular uptake.
Dr. Cho, on the other hand, has used a more powerful laser to treat her acne, a procedure known as Fraxel, which requires a significant amount of recovery time. As a result, Dr. Ban says, “It slows down breakouts for those who frequently experience them.”
Injectables are also a viable alternative. In dermatologist offices, cortisone injections are routinely administered to quickly treat cystic pimples, just as they are in the United States. Skin booster shots, on the other hand, are a step further in the injection process in Korea. While researching what K-future beauty holds, as well as using a few myself, I did extensive research on these products. As dermatologist Dr. Choi Bo Youn of Seoul explains it, the most popular acne treatment is called Rejuran Healer. Injecting the elixir with the help of salmon DNA helps regulate oil production and moisture levels. As she goes on to say, “It helps with redness and rejuvenating.”
In addition to over-the-counter creams, prescription medications are also available. According to Dr. Choi, they are the most effective treatment for clearing up acne. By Dr. Ban, the most commonly prescribed antibiotic-based ones and Epiduo are the most widely used in Korea. Cystic acne is often treated with the latter, as well.
Consistency is crucial to the most effective K-beauty acne skin-care routine, Dr. Chang says. Once you find products that work for your complexion, stick with them daily. I asked the dermatologists what their favorite ones were — just in case you need some suggestions.
For cleansers, Dr. Chang recommends the Neogen Real Cica Micellar Cleansing Foam. Alongside the skin-loving ingredients circa and hyaluronic acid, the gentle face wash also helps rinse away impurities without leaving it tight and dry with the help of ceramides.
Dr. Ko Lamm, on the other hand, suggests the Medicube Zero Foam Cleanser. The frothy formula, which is also a must-have among Allure Korea editors, pairs emollient-rich fatty acids with calming plant extracts to sweep away dust and bacteria sitting on the skin and polluting pores.
In that case, the Cosrx AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner is a “gentle exfoliating toner that can be used daily to remove dead skin cells and de-clog the pores,” Dr. Chang says. It also features a combo of ani-inflammatory ingredients, particularly allantoin, and gentle acids, like willow bark water, betaine salicylate (both are derivatives of salicylic acid), and apple fruit water (a form of malic acid).
In the world of serums, the Goodal Green Tangerine Vita C Dark Spot Serum, as suggested by Dr. Ko Lamm, is a great daytime option to help out the texture and tone of your complexion with citrusy vitamin C derivatives. even
The Dr.G Red Blemish Clear Soothing Cream is Dr. Chang’s go-to moisturizer pick as the lightweight gel formula calms inflammation with niacinamide, panthenol, and several forms of cica. The Dr. Jart+ Teatreement Moisturizer is another stellar weightless option. The green gel is packed with green tea extract and tea tree leaf oil, as well as a tolerable amount of salicylic acid and ceramides, to combat acne while nourishing the skin, Dr. Chang says. By the way, rose is a soothing skin-care addition as it contains “anti-inflammatory and antiseptic healing properties,” according to Ava Shamban, a Beverly Hills-based dermatologist.
And for days when you want to indulge in a face mask after washing your face, the Mediheal Tea Tree Essential Blemish Control Mask is a top seller in Korea and a favorite among Korean dermatologists. It zaps away sits with willow bark extract and tea tree leaf extract while calming skin with circa, allantoin, and chamomile. Implement this in place of your serum step, and follow up with a moisturizer
Best For All Skin Types: Heimish All Clean Balm – Oil Cleanser To Keep Your Skin Clear
Koreans believe in double cleansing, and an oil cleanser is the first step in any Korean skincare regimen. This oil cleanser has a solid cream-like consistency. It contains tea tree oil, which is an excellent Korean acne cream for acne-prone skin. This cleanser cleanses your skin thoroughly and clears the pores to fight acne. It also contains citrus oil that helps fade spots and marks and a white flower complex that brightens your skin. It is the best Korean skincare for acne.
Best Natural Formula: Neogen Dermalogy Green Tea Real Fresh Foam – A Gentle Cleanser For The Second Cleansing Step
After cleansing your skin with an oil, you need to follow up with a gentle cleanser. This cleanser cleanses your skin thoroughly without irritating it. It contains fermented green tea extracts and is loaded with antioxidants that soothe acne-prone skin. It does not contain any harsh cleansing agents. Also, it is the best Korean cleanser for acne.
Best Fragrance-Free Formula: Cosrx Bha Blackhead Power Liquid To Gently Exfoliate Your Skin And Pores
BHA exfoliants are excellent for acne-prone skin because they are gentle and effective. This product contains 4% BHA (betaine salicylate, a cousin of salicylic acid). This ingredient exfoliates the skin slowly and gently. Even long after the product has evaporated from your skin, the effect of the ingredient remains, and the exfoliation process continues. It also contains vitamin B5 and willow bark extracts that keep the skin hydrated. It is the best Korean acne treatment.
The Korean approach can’t stress enough the importance of keeping your skin hydrated while treating your acne. This means that aside from acne treatment products, a good moisturizer should also be included in your routine. This step not only adds another layer of moisture to prevent dryness caused by acne medications, but it also “locks in” previous layers of treatments to make them more effective.
Other than sheet masks, my favorite moisturizers are facial oils. While using oil over your pimples might seem like a crazy idea, if you use the right oil, you will see major differences in your skin over time. For oily and acne-prone skin, choose a lightweight, dry oil such as Huxley Oil Light and More, which is a combination of cactus seed, jojoba, and sunflower oils that can penetrate into the deepest layers of your skin, providing the much-needed hydration without leaving a greasy finish.
The skin’s acid mantle (the skin’s thin, protective coating) has a pH level of 4-5, which is slightly acidic. In order to maintain the skin’s natural pH level, it’s best to use a cleanser with a similar pH.
The pH scale goes from 0-14. Battery acid has a pH value of 0 (VERY acidic), water has a pH of 7 (neutral), and household ammonia has a pH balance of 11 (alkaline).
If you use a cleanser that is too alkaline, it damages the skin’s acid mantle. Symptoms of a disrupted acid mantle include dryness, tightness, excessive oil, and sensitivity.
AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) and BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid) are both acids that serve different purposes.
Basically, it boils down to this:
- If you have aging, sun-damaged, or dry skin, use an AHA toner like this one.
- If you have oily or acne-prone skin, use a BHA toner like this one. It is the best Korean toner for acne-prone skin I’ve found, and my all-time favorite toner for closed comedones. If you want to use Korean skincare for whiteheads or blackheads, use this.
Fun fact – the SPF numbers attached to sunscreen are fractions. For example, SPF 15 allows 1/15 UVB rays to pass through to your skin, SPF 30 allows 1/30 UVB rays to pass, and so on.
That’s why there isn’t a big difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50 – the former protects you against 97% of UVB rays, the latter against 98%.
No. Just because a product is Korean doesn’t mean it’s good. Some are gimmicky but useless, i.e. this adorable snail moisturizer that does nothing.
That being said, the best Korean skincare routine for combination skin will definitely make use of snail essence, as it is plumping, hydrating, and repairing damaged skin. So definitely consider integrating it into your routine.
Closed comedones are small under-the-skin bumps that usually form as a result of using skincare or beauty products that are occlusive. Occlusive basically means pore-clogging – they seal off the top layer of skin, trapping bacteria underneath.
The best moisturizer for closed comedones isn’t actually moisturizer – it’s a toner or solution with one of the following ingredients: benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or BHA. A BHA toner like this one is a must in any skincare routine for closed comedones.
Thank you for reading!