8 Korean Skin Care Terms You Need to Know to Improve Your Beauty Regimen

For most of my adult life, I’ve used Western skincare brands. But slowly, I’m using more Asian products not only because it’s easier and more affordable to get them from Asia (thanks to YesStyle, of course), but also because more and more brands are emerging so the choices are now practically infinite!

In what I now dub my pre-AB (Asian Beauty) life, a toner was a very alcoholic, watery fluid you applied to mainly get all the remaining dirt and residue from your skin that the cleanser didn’t manage to clean out. But in the world of Asian skincare, a toner serves as a prepping solution, and apparently, so does a first treatment essence. There are also BB creams and CC creams (and their cushion counterparts), packs, essences, serums, lotions, emulsions, masks and patches for seemingly every part of the body – it was a never-ending grocery list and, for a relative newbie to Korean skincare, quite confusing and frustrating.

To help out people like me who still can’t tell the difference between an emulsion and a lotion, or an essence from serum, I reached out to top Asian beauty bloggers Fiddy of Fifty Shades Of Snail and Kerry from Skin and Tonics. Their blogs provide a great wealth of information for both first-timers and veteran Korean skincare users.

These two ladies were gracious enough to allow me to reference some of the skincare terms they frequently use on their blogs for this post. It was quite hard to wade through so much info but I’ve managed to narrow it down to 8 essential terms that will be very helpful any time I need to go beauty shopping!

1. Cleansing Balm

An oil-based emulsifying cleanser formulated and packaged in a semi-solid form. This is usually the first cleanser used to remove makeup and sunscreen from your face. While cleansing oils are common, the balm form is now becoming an alternative due to its firmer consistency.

2. Toner

Fiddy defines toners as “an umbrella term for liquid skincare products applied to bare skin immediately after cleansing.” As mentioned previously, I was more used to toners in the Western sense, meaning a lot of alcohol that left a stinging, dry and tight sensation on the skin. Asian toners are more hydrating and soothing, and essentially prep skin by lowering its pH level for better absorption of products. In Japanese skincare, toners are either watery or viscous and are sometimes called lotions.

3. Actives

Some of the most common actives are chemical exfoliants such as BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid) and AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) which help remove dead skin to stimulate skin renewal. Fiddy makes the distinction between AHA, which is water-soluble, and BHA, which is oil-soluble. AHAs, she says, are effective for treating acne, reducing fine lines, brightening skin tone, smoothing skin and fading excess pigmentation caused by acne or sun exposure. Common AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid. BHAs, on the other hand, are anti-inflammatory and used in the prevention and treatment of acne, and thus can sometimes cause dryness and irritation for those with sensitive or dehydrated skin.

4. Ampoule

Ampoules are thick viscous liquids that deliver a high concentration of actives targeting specific skin problems such as hyperpigmentation, acne, dullness or signs of aging. The terms “ampoule” and “serum” are often used interchangeably. In a Korean skincare routine, essences, serums and ampoules usually follow one another. Because ampoules are so dense and concentrated, one or two drops are usually sufficient.

5. Essence

As Kerry describes in her Skin and Tonics blog, essences are very similar to what are known as serums in the US. They are light and very hydrating, and usually come in watery or gel-like textures. In her blog Fifty Shades of Snail, Fiddy states that Korean essences are formulated with a moderate concentration of actives. On the other hand, first treatment essences, such as cult favorites SK-II Facial Treatment Essence and Missha’s Time Revolution, have a higher concentration of yeast ferment extracts and are used after cleansing and toning. In a typical Korean skincare routine, essences are applied before serums and emulsions.

6. Serum

Serums are quite similar to ampoules as they are both thick, viscous liquids and contain highly concentrated ingredients that address specific concerns like hyperpigmentation or dehydration. Serum application usually comes after toning. In my case, I’m currently using a Vitamin C serum to help fade years-old acne scars. It’s working so far!

7. Emulsion

For Kerry, emulsions are “moisturizing treatments with a lotion-like consistency” but with a lower concentration of actives than essences. Fiddy shares a similar view, describing an emulsion as a “light and slightly runny liquid moisturizing product.” I’m not using an emulsion in my current skincare routine although Kerry writes that people who have oily skin or live in a humid climate (double check for me!) might prefer just using an emulsion as their only moisturizing step.

8. Cream/Sleeping Pack/Sleeping Mask

A cream, sleeping pack or sleeping mask is essentially an additional moisturizing treatment used as the last step of your evening skincare routine. These treatments may come in cream or gel textures, are thicker than emulsions and are recommended for people with dry skin, according to Kerry. On Fifty Shades of Snail, I often see Fiddy describe creams/sleeping masks/packs as “occlusive,” and rightly so because their heavy textures basically seal in all the products previously applied on your face with extra moisture so that they stay there all night while you sleep. I used the Hada Labo Hyaluronic Acid Light Cream a lot last winter to combat dryness but now that it’s more humid, I’m using a honey-based sleeping mask which feels a lot lighter on my face.

Are you new to the Korean skincare regimen like me or already a veteran at it? What are the Asian beauty products that you look forward to using most during your routine?