The best Korean skincare products to have on your radar

·10-min read
Each of these items helped bring us a step closer to achieving K-beauty’s gold standard of healthy, luminous ‘glass skin’ (iStock/The Independent)
Each of these items helped bring us a step closer to achieving K-beauty’s gold standard of healthy, luminous ‘glass skin’ (iStock/The Independent)

From sheet masks to double cleansing, the skincare industry owes a lot to South Korea. But what really makes Korean skincare so amazing is its focus on hydration. Famed for its multi-step routines, every thin layer of product has a distinct role, but comes together to achieve one purpose: creating the ultimate glow.

These are high expectations, but K-beauty products tend to be backed with years of scientific research and formulated with only the best ingredients.

While this can make building the renowned 10-step regime overwhelming for newcomers, the important thing is to tailor every regimen to your skin type and start slow so as to not overwhelm your skin.

We know from experience how tempting it is to dive in the deep end once you start discovering exciting new products. To make the process easier, we picked out some of our favourite budget-friendly and luxury products that will slot easily into your existing routine and introduce you to the world of Korean skincare.

Each of these items helped bring us a step closer to achieving K-beauty’s gold standard of healthy, luminous “glass skin”. We trialled every product over the course of a few weeks, avoiding anything that would block pores or compromise our skin barrier. It’s tough to pick the best of the best in such a competitive field, but here are our favourite Korean skincare products to shop right now.

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The best Korean skincare products for 2021 are:

  • Best overall – Dr Jart+ ceramidin cream: £30,

  • Best for hydration – Neogen real ferment micro essence: £33,

  • Best sheet mask – Laneige water pocket moisturising sheet mask: £5,

  • Best for oily, acne-prone skin – COSRX salicylic acid daily gentle cleanser: £13.25,

  • Best for brightening – Dear, Klairs freshly juiced vitamin drop: £23,

  • Best for blackheads and breakouts – COSRX BHA blackhead power liquid: £20.75,

  • Best for soothing the skin – Holika Holika aloe 99% soothing gel: £7.25,

  • Best korean skincare serum – iUNIK black snail restore serum: £18.60,

  • Best for dry skin – Erborian yuza double lotion: £26,

  • Best cleanser– Aromatica natural coconut cleansing oil: £33,

Dr Jart+ ceramidin cream

Best: Overall

Active ingredients and retinoids work wonders for your complexion, but damaging your skin barrier is easier than you’d like to believe. That’s where this magic cream from Dr Jart+ comes in handy. Following the brand’s trademark science-first approach, it’s packed with ceramides, hyaluronic acid and botanical extracts and is designed to boost damaged, rough or dry skin. It works by locking in moisture without clogging your pores.

We had doubts over its consistency (it’s much thicker than any moisturiser we’ve loved before) but it sinks quickly into skin and leaves you dewy not greasy. Usually, our tester’s complexion ends up devolving into oiliness anyway after a while, but even by the evening shine was still well under control. After a week of consistent use, the difference in our skin’s glow was unbelievable. Forget skincare, this is just generally one of our favourite things in the world.

Buy now £30.00,

Neogen real ferment micro essence

Best: For hydration

Essences are one of the Korean beauty industry’s best kept secrets. Think of them as a primer for your moisturiser – they’re there to bolster the benefits of the rest of your routine, allowing active ingredients to penetrate deeper into your skin. This essence from Neogen is pricey, but basically works magic. We patted a few drops across our entire face and left it to absorb before moving onto our next step.

While we expected to wait for a few days to see the results, just one day in saw a marked improvement in hydration; the apples of our cheeks had more of a glow than usual, and our under eyes were far less tired. We’re talking the same levels of hydration provided by thick, powerful moisturisers, but with ten times less greasiness or clogged pores. It looks and feels like water so it’s easy to use too much at first. However, a little goes a long way.

Buy now £33.00,

Laneige water pocket moisturising sheet mask

Best: Sheet mask

We used to think the disposable nature of sheet masks made them pointless, but then we started saving the excess serum in every packet and now feel like we’ve hacked the system. You’d better believe we preserved every drop of this Laneige mask. Infused with active ingredients, it’s intensely hydrating.

Popped over a freshly washed face for 20 minutes, we patted in the excess product and looked like we’d just gone for one of the best facials of our life. Our skin was plump and glowing, and the effects lasted well into the next day (a rarity for sheet masks). While it worked a treat on our oily skin, it’s the dry skin types who see the most benefit.

Buy now £5.00,

COSRX salicylic acid daily gentle cleanser

Best: For oily, acne-prone skin

Salicylic cleansers are pure magic when it comes to battling acne and blackheads, thanks to the acid’s exfoliating abilities. We’re happy to report that this cleanser is no exception, and is gentle enough to use once a day without stripping away natural oils (although we recommend easing into it to check your skin’s tolerance).

It’s a foam based product, so works best when lathered with warm water. Our skin felt baby smooth after the first wash, but we were three or four uses in when we started to notice a substantial difference. Congestion and texture improved on our forehead and we were much less oily than usual.

Buy now £13.25,

Dear, Klairs freshly juiced vitamin drop

Best: For brightening

Containing five per cent vitamin C, this serum treads a fine line between gentle and powerful. It’s designed to rejuvenate tired, dull complexions and is perfect to use either alone or mixed in with a moisturiser, depending on the sensitivity on your skin. We opted for the latter method before deciding to take the plunge and use it solo, and while it did tingle at first it was more than bearable and our skin adapted after a few days.

Used daily, it helped boost our skin’s radiance. While we still had a small breakout at the time, we thought the skin around it looked much healthier and there was significantly less scarring once it died down. Even our long term acne scars seemed to fade for the first time in months. As it contains ascorbic acid, it also helps protect skin from sun damage, making this an ideal choice for anyone prone to hyperpigmentation.

Buy now £21.00,

COSRX BHA blackhead power liquid

Best: For blackheads and breakouts

So influential is COSRX that it features on this list twice. The brand name is a portmanteau of cosmetics and prescription, which tells you everything you need to know about its approach to skincare. Its BHA blackhead power liquid has accumulated a cult following over the years, thanks to its ability to purify pores and minimise breakouts through a blend of BHA, willow bark water and niacinamide.

We used it a couple of times a week as you would any acid, swiped over our troubled areas with a cotton pad. Our skin did purge at first; it cleared up quickly, but those with severely acne-prone skin might want to tread carefully. Once this cleared up, the magic started. While we know there’s nothing that can actually shrink your pores, ours began to look clearer and tighter after a few weeks. Our T-Zone also appeared brighter than usual.

Buy now £20.75,

Holika Holika aloe 99% soothing gel

Best: For soothing the skin

Holika Holika’s soothing gel contains 99 per cent pure aloe vera leaf juice sourced from Jeju Island, with the other one per cent made up of lotus, bamboo, cucumber, watermelon, cabbage leaves and centella asiatica extracts. Aloe alone has legendary healing properties, treating everything from minor burns to dry hair. This gel is optimised to fulfil all these expectations, but we used it almost exclusively as a moisturiser.

There are plenty of ways to do this – some nights we popped it on before our usual moisturiser for an extra shot of hydration, while on other days we used it solo or targeted specific areas with hopes of reducing redness. It excelled in every area, particularly the latter. We had a rough breakout and it helped reduce inflammation overnight. Those with sensitive or very dry skin will find it particularly useful. To bolster its soothing, cooling effects, we recommend popping it in the fridge before use.

Buy now £7.25,

iUNIK black snail restore serum

Best: Korean skincare serum

Yes, this is made with excretion from a real snail, and yes, it’s amazing. Our slimiest little friends have long been hailed for their extract’s ability to improve skin elasticity. This serum takes that and mixes it with centella (a plant renowned as an antioxidant) to deeply moisturise and promote cell turnover. Texture-wise, this feels incredibly silky on your skin and absorbs quickly so doesn’t leave you tacky (or snail like).

While we did experience a brief breakout after first using it, this cleared up in a matter of days and didn’t repeat itself. We didn’t see much improvement in hyperpigmentation, but our skin has never looked quite so smooth or fresh faced.

Buy now £18.60,

Erborian yuza double lotion

Best: For dry skin

A must-have for rapid hydration, this is a bi-phase lotion. This means it combines two different stages – one an aqueous phase to boost radiance, and the other oily to soothe and nourish – for optimum performance. While this sounds complex, all you need to do is shake the bottle before use and massage it into skin after cleansing. It sits as a very sheer layer and absorbs quickly, allowing you to continue with moisturising.

We thought this would just be an unremarkable addition to our skincare routine, but we saw a surprising impact on the brightness of our complexion which left us confident to go concealer or foundation-free far more than usual. It sounds counterintuitive for a hydrating product, but it even seemed to help balance out oiliness. Also, it smells incredible. Our only issue is that we can see it running out very quickly.

Buy now £26.00,

Aromatica natural coconut cleansing oil

Best: Cleanser

Few cleansers are quite this effective at removing makeup. Fortified with lavender and organic coconut oil, this feels luxurious but not too heavy on your skin. Gently massaged into dry skin, it dissolved our tester’s full-face of foundation and mascara without any trouble, and didn’t leave any of the greasy residue many fear with an oil cleanser. Once rinsed off, we found our skin looked healthy and luminescent. There’s no heavy coconut scent and, contrary to what you’d expect, it works well with oily and dry complexions alike. We recommend it as stage one in a double cleanse.

Buy now £33.00,

The verdict: Korean skincare products

There are so many highlights in this list, but our all-time favourite has to be the Dr Jart+ ceramidin cream, which slipped easily into our usual routine and improved our skin from day one. We’re also big fans of Erborian’s Yuza double lotion and the COSRX salicylic acid daily gentle cleanser, which are game changers for dull and acne-prone skin respectively.

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