Korean skincare is continuing to take the whole world by storm, and every year it continues to evolve and come forward with new and exciting innovations.
Korean skincare continues to be light years ahead of Western skincare, focusing on really listening to your skin’s needs and preventing damage caused by environmental factors such as UV radiation and pollution.
Pivotal to this is the huge focus on active ingredients – which includes avoiding sensitizing ingredients and only using active ingredients your skin really needs. And there is a lot of technological innovation that goes on behind the scenes to create product formulations with the ingredients that are so beneficial for our skin.
2020 is no different, with many exciting trends happening at the moment, including:
- A continuation of more clean, sustainable and cruelty-free products
- A growing focus on beneficial plant-derived ingredients, especially those that soothe red and inflamed skin (such as mugwort and Centella asiatica)
- Products designed to protect the skin against air pollution
- A move away from a 10-step routine to a simpler, yet still effective routine
- An increasing focus on the skin’s microbiome
- The growing popularity of the “cream skin” product category (a lightweight toner-moisturizer hybrid)
What do all these trends mean exactly?
I’ll go over each one next, but before I start I just wanted to say that most of these trends (which I love), are the result of individuals becoming more educated about what their skin needs. This includes learning about skincare ingredients (the good and the bad) and even skin biology!
Trend # 1: A Continuation of More Clean, Sustainable and Cruelty-Free Products
Korean skincare has been moving in this direction for a few years already, but I can see that more and more brands are coming on board.
Also, brands that were hugely popular a few years ago have slipped behind newer brands that offer ‘cleaner’ and cruelty-free products (especially as consumers are becoming more educated when it comes to looking after their skin).
The word ‘clean’ is used to describe a few aspects when it comes to skincare products (it’s a really broad term).
It can refer to naturally-derived (plant-based) ingredients (as opposed to synthetically-derived ones such as parabens, sulfates, silicons, or synthetic fragrances).
But, the term ‘clean’ is also used to describe how and where ingredients are sourced and grown. I’ve noticed brands (such as I’m From and Hanyul giving consumers lots of information about where their ingredients are grown and how they are harvested (and also how these ingredients are processed for the eventual use in their products).
The reasons people are choosing to use more ‘cleaner’ skincare products is because:
- they are less likely to cause skin irritation and are gentler on sensitive skin
- plant-derived ingredients are often high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals which have anti-aging, barrier restoration and UV-protective properties
- they are often more environmentally-friendly
And what does cruelty-free mean exactly?
Cruelty-free means that at any given stage of its development, a skincare product was not tested on animals.
Since 2018, every skincare product made and sold in Korea must be cruelty-free by law. However, Korean skincare products sold in brick and mortar stores in mainland China require animal testing and are therefore not cruelty-free.
Here is a list of some cruelty-free Korean skincare brands (that do not sell in mainland China):
- Beauty Of Joseon
- E Nature
- I’m From
- It’s Skin
- Pyunkang Yul
It’s important to know that cruelty-free does not have the same meaning as vegan-friendly (and vice-versa). However, many cruelty-free brands are going one step further in offering some vegan-friendly products (which means no snail mucin extract or bee extracts such as honey, beeswax and propolis).
Some of these brands include COSRX, Klairs, iNUIK, Purito, and Pyunkang Yul. It’s important to note that not all the products offered by these brands are vegan-friendly, so make sure to check individual ingredient lists.
Trend #2: More Plant-Derived Ingredients
We really are seeing more and more products with high concentrations of plant-derived ingredients, especially those that can help to soothe sensitive skin, such as:
- Centella asiatica (AKA cica) – see my article on the benefits of Centella
- Artemisia (AKA mugwort) – see my article on the benefits of Artemisia
- Licorice root extract (or one of its main chemical components dipotassium glycyrrhizate) – see my article on the benefits of licorice root extract, AND
- Green Tea
There are many more plant-based ingredients that are also becoming more popular as they have other benefits for the skin, such as:
- Aloe vera and other plant-derived humectants (which hydrate the skin)
- Hanbang ingredients such as ginseng (which has anti-aging properties)
- Various non-fragrant plant-derived oils such as sunflower seed oil (which help to keep the skin’s natural barrier healthy), and
- Plant-derived AHAs and BHAs (such as glycolic acid and betaine salicylate which gently exfoliate the skin, helping to prevent blackheads and acne)
Of course, plant-based doesn’t always mean that it is good for your skin (just as synthetic ingredients aren’t all bad for our skin either).
Take essential oils for example, which are plant-derived too and are comprised of the aromatic portions of some certain plants. BUT, they are highly irritating and often result in allergic skin reactions (even if you’ve been using them with no problems for years).
This is because essential oils are often comprised of hundreds of chemical components, most of which are volatile (evaporate easily into the air) due to their very small size.
Together with their ability to dissolve readily in fats and lipids, their very small size allows them to easily cross the skin’s epidermis and enter the dermis layer of the skin. Once in the dermis, they can enter the bloodstream, oxidize and then easily bind with proteins and elicit an immune response (an allergic reaction).
You will be glad to hear though that it is becoming easier to find Korean skincare products that don’t contain any essential oils, as consumers are demanding this more and more.
In fact, some brands (such as Purito) have released essential oil-free versions of some of their best-selling products. I think that this trend will continue in 2020 and that many skincare brands will begin to follow Purito with product reformulations.
Trend #3: Products To Help Protect The Skin Against Air Pollution
Although sun exposure is the most contributing factor to skin aging, we must not forget about other external factors which can also damage our skin.
One of these factors is air pollution. We know that air pollution is detrimental to our overall health, but the scientific evidence is mounting that air pollution also plays a role in skin aging.
Air pollutants include those of environmental origin, as well as those that are man-made:
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- Nitrogen oxides
- Sulfar dioxide
- Carbon monoxide
- Particulate matter (especially particles in the nanosize range) and soot
- Cigarette smoke
Scientific research (read a large literature review here) has shown that air pollutants have many detrimental affects on our skin, including:
- An accelaration in the formation fine lines, wrinkles and skin sagging (and overall skin aging) as a result of oxidative stress
- Skin pigmentation, such as dark spots (even in the absence of UV light)
- A decrease in the levels of antioxidants in the epidermis (such as vitamin C and vitamin E)
- A loss of function and damage to the skin’s natural barrier
- The development of inflammatory and/or allergic reactions as atopic dermatitis or eczema (and general sensitive skin)
- The formation of certain forms of acne (including chloracne) by blocking pores or causing inflammation, and
- Skin cancer (if the skin is exposed to air pollutants for long periods of time)
In particular, increases in air pollution in Korea (60% of which actually comes from China) is resulting in many people experiencing sensitized and inflamed skin.
This is why anti-pollution skincare is one of the biggest trends in Korean skincare in 2020! This includes oil cleansers and water-based cleansers that are formulated to remove air pollutants from your skin at the end of the day, as well as products containing high concentrations of antioxidant and/or soothing ingredients.
Of course, there is a lot of technological innovation going on in the area of anti-pollution skincare. In fact, AmorePacific has launched an anti-pollution research center in Korea to study how air pollution affects skin health and to to help develop products that are able to protect the skin.
Trend #4: A Move Away From The 10-Step Korean Skincare Routine
This was already trending in 2019 (I even wrote an article on simplifying your skincare routine for better skin last year). But I thought it’s worth mentioning because it continues to be a huge trend in 2020.
Although it’s okay to follow the 10-step Korean skincare routine if you’d like to, it’s important to know that it’s not necessary for obtaining healthy looking skin.
You’re likely to improve the condition of your skin way more by learning about what it is your skin needs – and then finding the right products with the right ingredients.
In fact, using more products can actually end up being bad for your skin in the long run. This is because you may end up over-exfoliating your skin or simply exposing your skin to too many ingredients – some of which might be drying or irritating.
It’s really great to see that people are trying to learn as much as they can about the science of skin health and skincare ingredients. This is giving individuals the knowledge to see what may just be hyped-up products, and what might actually be a really beneficial product for their specific skin concerns.
Personally, I think you can achieve great looking skin by following only these 4 steps:
- Cleanser (using an oil-based cleanser and a low pH water-based cleanser in the evening and only washing with warm water in the morning)
- Hydrating Toner (even this step is optional, but may really help those with dry and/or sensitive skin types) – see what I think are the 4 best Korean hydrating toners currently on the market
- Moisturizer (even oily skin types should never skip this step)
Of course, there are products you can add to this list to help address specific skin concerns, such as:
- a vitamin C serum (for fading hyperpigmentation and protecting the skin against UV radiation) – see my article on the best Korean vitamin C serums
- a retinoid-containing product (to help prevent skin aging)
- sleeping masks (for intense overnight hydration)
- plant-based products (with ingredients such as Centella asiatica, mugwort or green tea to help soothe red and inflamed skin, and
- products containing AHAs or BHAs (to gently exfoliate your skin to prevent clogged pores, blackheads and acne) – see my article on the best Korean skincare products with AHA
Trend #5: An Increasing Focus On The Skin’s Microbiome
The skin’s microbiome refers to the collection of bacteria and other microbes that inhabit the surface of our skin.
How to control the balance of beneficial and harmful bacteria on the skin’s surface (and how this microbiome affects the health and appearance of our skin) has become a focus of research in the Korean skincare industry.
In fact, AmorePacific (the South Korean beauty conglomerate which operates brands including Sulwhasoo, Laneige, Mamonde, Etude House, and Innisfree) has only recently started working with the Swiss fragrances and cosmetics ingredients manufacturer Givaudan to jointly study the skin microbiome of Korean and French women to find ways to improve skin health.
AmorePacific’s move comes with the increase in air pollution in South Korea and it’s negative affects on the skin. Pollution (and other factors such as exposure to UV radiation) results in a disruption of the healthy balance of good microorganisms living on the skin – which results in a loss of functionality in the skin’s natural barrier.
When the skin’s natural barrier is damaged or not functioning properly, it is unable to protect the skin efficiently from external aggressors and therefore the skin becomes more prone to dehydration, irritation and inflammation.
Although this area of skincare is quite new, it is fast growing and we already know that to improve the skin’s microbiome, we need to:
- Increase the presence of good bacteria on the skin
- Increase the diversity of microorganisms on the skin, and
- Stimulate them so that they are able to perform their protective roles more efficiently
We also know that to strengthen our skin’s microbiome, we need to include the following microbiome-friendly ingredients to our skincare routines:
- Prebiotics (generally a mixture of sugars and fibers which are food for bacteria and help them grow)
- Probiotics (fragments of inactivated bacteria that help live bacteria already living on the skin to grow), AND
- Post-biotics (molecules produced by skin-friendly bacteria which are beneficial for the skin)
Make sure you keep an eye open for Korean skincare products that are targeted at boosting the health of the skin’s microbiome, as this market is really starting to boom.
As an example, AmorePacific has only recently launched the brand “SOON+“, which is focused on probiotics and the microbiome.
Currently, the brand only sells 3 products in South Korea, which are all plant-based and contain kimchi-derived probiotics to help strengthen the skin’s barrier and therefore prevent skin sensitization and irritation.
Trend #6: The Growing Popularity Of The “Cream Skin” Product Category
The last trend of 2020 that I want to talk about is “cream skin”.
Korean skincare is slowly moving away from dewy and glowy “glass skin” to what’s known as “cream skin” – which is a somewhat softer and less shiny look that is a lot easier to maintain (and doesn’t require layering multiple products).
So, instead of using multiple products and many skincare steps to achieve the look of glass skin, the supple and moisturized look of cream skin can be achieved with a lightweight lotion (that is somewhat a hybrid between a toner and a moisturizer).
In fact, the word “skin” is actually used as an alternative name for “toner” in Korea – which gives you “cream toner”.
I know it sounds confusing, but the term “cream skin” is used interchangeably to describe the soft cream skin look, or the new toner-moisturizer hybrid product category.
The idea behind cream skin products is that they allow people to obtain healthy skin with fewer steps and less products. These products both prepare and soften the skin like a toner, but also moisturize and hydratethe skin like a cream.
Again, AmorePacific is at the forefront of this 2020 trend – as they initiated the creation of this product category with the launch of the Laneige Cream Skin Refiner (available at Amazon) in 2018.
This toner-moisturizer hybrid has been flying off shelves in Korea (and it’s become a best-seller overseas now too). This has prompted other brands to follow in the footsteps of Laneige, and create their own versions of “cream skin” products, such as
- COSRX Light Fit Real Water Toner To Cream – available at Amazon and Yesstyle
- Hanskin Avocado Cream Toner – available at SokoGlam
I think we’ll be seeing many other brands releasing their versions of ‘cream skin’ products in the near future – which I’m really excited about as I think these hybrid products make fantastic moisturizers for oily skin or in very hot and humid weather!