Why Korean Skincare Products Typically Shy Away From Retinol


Retinol is probably one of the most beneficial ingredients for your skin and it’s no wonder that everyone seems to be eager to incorporate some form of retinoid into their skincare routine! Retinol has powerful anti-aging properties, as well as the ability to fade hyperpigmentation and fight acne. Research also suggests that retinol is the most effective ingredient for fading fine lines and wrinkles. So why is it then that you generally won’t find retinol in any Korean skincare products?

I’m going to answer this question today and give you some tips on how you can still incorporate retinol into your skincare routine, using either Western over-the-counter skincare products or prescription creams.

What Is Retinol And What Does It Do For Your Skin?

Chances are, you’ve heard about retinol – A LOT. You know it’s king when it comes to anti-aging ingredients. But what is it, exactly?

Retinol is actually a derivative of vitamin A and belongs to a class of compounds known as retinoids (which also includes retinal/retinaldehyde and retinoic acid).

Retinol has some pretty big benefits for the skin, with the 3 main ones being:

  1. The ability to increase the cell turnover rate of your skin (which means dead skin cells are removed faster, revealing new skin cells – making it the ideal ingredient for fading sun spots and other forms of hyperpigmentation).
  2. The ability to increase the production of collagen (which helps to slow down the formation of fine lines and wrinkles).
  3. The ability to decrease oil production (which, together with retinol’s ability to speed up the process of skin cell turnover, makes it the perfect ingredient for fighting acne).

So as you can see, retinol is not only a powerful anti-aging ingredient, it’s also great for preventing acne AND for fading hyperpigmentation. An interesting fact I learned while researching for this article is that retinol was actually first marketed as an acne-fighting ingredient. As people started to use retinol for acne-prone skin, it’s anti-aging benefits became apparent (which has since been supported by scientific studies).

Why Korean Skincare Products Don’t Contain Retinol

Retinol is clearly a very powerful skincare ingredient that can benefit so many different skin concerns. But, have you noticed that retinol is no where to be found in the ingredient lists of Korean skincare products? Why do so many Western anti-aging skincare products contain retinol, while Korean skincare seems to be ignoring it completely?

best korean eye creams for fine lines and wrinkles
Even the best Korean eye creams don’t contain retinol!

I found that there are two main factors that contribute to the absence of retinol from Korean skincare products:

1. Retinol Is Much More Irritating To The Skin Than Other Skincare Ingredients

Although Korean skincare focuses heavily on ingredients that are effective at brightening the skin, the industry prefers to use other ingredients in their product formulations (such as niacinamide, snail mucin and licorice root extract).

This is because these ingredients are a lot gentler than retinol and don’t cause skin irritation like retinol often does. For example, when first introducing retinol into your skincare routine, you may very well experience skin dryness, flaking, burning and redness. It can take some time for your skin to adjust to retinol and unfortunately, a lot of people with sensitive skin can’t tolerate retinol at all.

Korean skincare products therefore avoid using retinol as Korean skincare tends to avoid harsh ingredients, while focusing on providing the skin with hydration and nourishment instead.

korean skincare tips what is snail mucin
Snail mucin is one of my favorite skincare ingredients. It’s so gentle and keeps my skin plump and hydrated all day.

Since I’ve started writing this website, I’ve found that Korean skincare tends to be more about prevention (preventing hyperpigmentation or aging of the skin by wearing sunscreen, exfoliating and keeping the skin hydrated). Where as in the Western world, we tend to neglect our skin a lot more until the signs of aging or hyperpigmentation are already there (I didn’t wear sunscreen until I was 34) – which means we often need to turn to the strongest (and often more irritating) ingredients for help.

But What About Retinyl Palmitate In Korean Skincare Products?

But what if you have seen one or more Korean skincare products with retinol on the ingredients list? Is the ingredients list false? Or do some Korean skincare products actually contain retinol after all?

I was confused at first too when I spotted retinol in the ingredient lists of some products. But let me explain. Some products contain an ingredient called retinyl palmitate (a compound composed of retinol and palmitic acid). Although retinyl palmitate is no where near as effective as retinol, it is much less irritating to the skin.

In Korea, ingredients that make up compounds are allowed to be listed separately on product ingredient lists – which means that in this case, we would see retinol and palmitic acid listed as separate ingredients (although they are in fact present in the form of retinyl palmitate in the product). Therefore, it may be that you are seeing a direct translation of a Korean ingredients list where retinol and palmitic acid are listed separately (instead of together, as required by law in the United States).

2. Dermatologists Are Cheaper And More Accessible In Korea Than In Western Countries

Where I live, it’s pretty unheard of to visit a dermatologist (unless you have a skin condition such as eczema that needs professional treatment). This is especially true if you are in your 20’s or 30’s. It’s just way too expensive and it’s really not the cultural norm. Therefore we see many more over-the-counter skincare products containing retinol in the West.

However in Korea, dermatologists are much more affordable and it’s much more common for women (and men) in even their 20’s and 30’s to visit a dermatologist regularly for various skin treatments. This means that there just isn’t the need for strong anti-aging ingredients such as retinol in over-the-counter skincare products in Korea – since dermatologists can prescribe retinol creams and monitor their effect on the skin more closely.

Can You Incorporate Retinol Into A Korean Skincare Routine?

Even if your skincare routine consists mainly of Korean products, it’s okay to include Western products as well. For example, I use a Western brand vitamin C serum since I haven’t found a Korean one that is comparable. I also use a Western brand rosehip seed oil which really helps to keep my skin moisturized while maintaining a healthy skin barrier.

korean skincare routine moisturizers cosrx snail mucin  cream rosehip oil
Pairing my favorite Korean skincare product with my favorite Western skincare product. I like to mix these two together and then apply them as the last step in my evening skincare routine and before sunscreen in my morning routine

The same goes for retinol products. You absolutely can include a Western retinol product in your Korean skincare routine! However there are a few important things to know before you start using retinol on your skin:

  1. Over-the-counter skincare products containing retinal are much less irritating on the skin than prescription creams and over-the-counter skincare products containing retinol. A really gentle and soothing cream to start with is the Osmosis Pur Medical Skincare Calm Level 2 Vitamin A Serum, which contains 0.0375% retinaldehyde (available at Dermstore).
  2. Ease into using retinol on your skin very slowly (the same goes for other actives such as AHA and BHA too). Perhaps only apply your retinol product once a week to begin with.
  3. Start with a very low concentration product and work your way up as your skin begins tolerating retinol well. This applies whether you choose to use an over-the-counter product or a prescription tretinoin cream.
  4. Only apply retinol in the evenings. Never apply it in the mornings as retinol thins the skin, therefore decreasing the skin’s protective capacity to sunlight. Also, remember to wear SPF during the day (it’s part of my routine every morning, even if I’m not planning on going in the sun).
  5. Hold off starting retinol until after summer for the same reason above (that retinol decreases your skin’s protective capacity to UV light).
  6. It’s recommended to avoid using retinol and other retinoids during pregnancy and if you’re breastfeeding. This is because vitamin A plays a big role in the development of the foetus. There are many studies that have been conducted in this area (especially on isotretinoin) and it has been shown that ingesting tretinoin orally results in birth defects. Conversely, studies suggest that applying tretinoin and retinol to the skin doesn’t result in birth defects (possibly because they are both poorly absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream). However, experts still recommend to avoid applying retinoids to the skin during pregnancy (especially early pregnancy).


Retinol is likely the most powerful anti-aging ingredient for the skin (with many other benefits too), however Korean skincare products shy away from including it in their formulations.

This is mainly because retinol is a harsh skincare ingredient that often causes skin irritation (such as peeling, flaking, burning and redness). Korean skincare products instead focus on gentler ingredients that are also beneficial for the skin (such as niacinamide and licorice root extract).

It’s also more common (and affordable) for Koreans to visit dermatologists regularly for anti-aging skin treatments (that may or may not involve retinol).

You can successfully incorporate retinol into your skincare routine, even if you use mostly Korean skincare products. However as with any active skincare ingredient, you should ease into using retinol slowly to avoid causing irritation to your skin.