Eastern Promises: The Mystery Behind Asian Skin

Why do Asian complexions seem so enviably age-resistant? Elaborate, multi-step beauty rituals treat skin as a precious commodity—and earn healthy returns.


Covetable Asian skin is fabled to be impervious to aging, and the stereotype has some truth: in a 2005 study of French versus Chinese women, wrinkles took 10 years longer to show up in the latter group, reports the Journal of Dermatological Science. Lucky genes may be a factor, but considering product obsessives in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong and Singapore are diligently layering on 14-plus hyper-specific potions a day, maybe nurture plays a bigger role than any of us thought.

In recent years, Asia—the SPF-loving land of canned collagen drinks, handheld “face-shaping” rollers and snail slime creams—has emerged as the world’s most innovative skin-care producer. Consider your favourite BB cream, brightening serum or sleeping mask, or the spate of new paper-sheet face masks—all trends imported from the East. Asians are also the world’s biggest skin-care spenders. Japan, which has grappled with recession since 2008, still ranks number one in face-care spending per capita, with total sales nearly doubling the U.S. figure, says market research firm Euromonitor International. Wealthy China ranks second.

Why the obsession? Class consciousness may be a factor. Having “transparent, luminous, poreless skin” means a woman can afford the time and expense necessary to take care of herself, explains Yongwoo Nam, manager of beauty research at the Seoul-based skin-care giant AmorePacific. Since tans once signified toiling-in-fields hardship, “White skin used to be a symbol of noble status,” he says. “Now it’s a symbol of wealth.”

Whatever the reason, the extent to which Asian women will go to achieve porcelain-doll skin took Sheryll Donerson, 26, an African-American expat from California, by surprise when she moved to South Korea in 2012, where she teaches English outside of Seoul. “The beauty culture shock definitely hit me,” recalls Donerson, who blogs about her love of Korean cosmetics ( “I have seen so many ingredients—like snail creams, bee venom, snake venom, caviar, charcoal—that i never saw in the U.S.”

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But do the elaborate rituals and out-there products really work, or are they merely a mass cultural habit? Donerson is a believer. Before relocating, she was plagued by dull, acne-ridden skin, shunning extras she deemed excessive for her oily face. But fascinated by all her new options, she promptly bought a cleanser, a toner and an emulsion from SkinFood, the Seoul-based brand using preservative-free, farm-to-face ingredients. “Within that first week, my skin started to clear up,” she says, noting that pricey U.S. products she’d tried had flopped. “I knew then I was onto something big,” says Donerson, who posted before-and-after pictures of her makeup-free face on her blog to show the difference.

It’s not just a sheer abundance of products that defines the Asian approach to skin care; it’s also a holistic mindset. “Japanese women believe skin care is closely related to mental conditions,” says Yukie Hayashi, who works in Shiseido’s beauty consultation planning group in Tokyo. “So instead of slapping on moisturizer at the end of a stressful day, if you take time to care for your skin, it’s beneficial to your state of mind.” Enjoyment in the myriad individual steps means less interest in the do-all shortcuts preferred in North America. For instance, in Asia, BB creams (multitaskers that work like tinted moisturizer with SPF, brightening and anti-aging extras) don’t replace any skin care—they’re used in addition.

First and all-important in the average daily routine: cleansing. “Buddhism emphasizes the importance of purity, and the Japanese identify physical cleansing with spiritual purification,” explains Hayashi. Double-cleansing is standard practice: Typically a makeup-melting oil, like the iconic Shu Uemura Anti-Oxi Skin Refining Cleansing Oil, helps break down heavy gunk, then a foamy wash, such as the popular AmorePacific Treatment Cleansing Foam, clears lingering residue. Gentle exfoliants are used to buff away lacklustre cells, but not every day, since sensitive skin is common.

Next comes the “softener,” a relatively unknown step in Canada. New products such as Lancôme Énergie de Vie Dullness Relief & Energy Recharge Daily Lotion, a watery Chinese-inspired “essence” made with root extracts, and Shiseido Ibuki Softening Concentrate are introducing Western women to the concept. They may seem similar to an alcohol-free toner, which leaves you squeaky clean, but the difference is that these formulas add a veil of hydration. “We call it keshou sui—‘cosmetics water’—and Japanese women never skip this step,” says Hayashi, who notes that in Japan two out of the top three best-selling Shiseido products are softeners. Likewise, in Korea, softener is “rooted in the ritual of using mi-an-soo, or ‘water of beauty,’” explains Nam. “Even in the Silla Dynasty [57 BC to 935 AD], women made mi-an-soo themselves to make their skin radiant.” Instead of swiping it on with a cotton pad, women apply softener with their hands.

Another trendy-in-Asia product that has remained under the radar here is the cotton or paper tissue mask. Unlike the messy, mud goop weekly treatments we’re accustomed to, these are part of a daily or near-daily ritual. Lancôme, Sephora and Dior have lately launched their own, and Garnier has introduced the less expensive Skin Renew Dark Spot Treatment Mask. Worn for 10 to 20 minutes, these liquid-soaked, tissue-thin membranes drench skin with moisture and other skin-perfecting ingredients. Cleverly, “some Korean women wear a paper mask when they do their hair, to avoid exposing skin to the heat of the hair dryer,” says Nam.

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Alli Sim, a former senior beauty editor at Singaporean Harper’s Bazaar, follows such a routine and then some. “This doesn’t include masks both for the eyes and for the face. Out of curiosity I recently bought one for the neck,” says the 30-year-old, who has her own aromatherapy line, Mmerci Encore. Her next steps are a pre-serum (“It’s like a booster for all the other products that come after”), a brightening corrective serum, an anti-aging serum, a T-zone pore-care serum and an eye serum. The payoff: no need for foundation on weekends.

Even before wrinkles become a practical concern, young women today are striving for this state of radiant flawlessness that renders base makeup irrelevant. The desire has driven the creation of ever more high-tech skin care touting cosmetic benefits. The new Vichy Idéalia Life Serum, is designed to achieve this natural yet idealized quality. Vowing to correct the sad grey tone and dark spots caused by “behavioural aging” (cigarettes, stress, crappy diet and other lifestyle sins), Idéalia pairs a cell-repairing molecule called LR2412 (a derivative of jasmonic acid) with skin-resurfacing LHA (a form of salicylic acid) in a formula gentle enough for sensitive types.

Since serums are especially thin and sink into cells posthaste, they’re pumped up with active ingredients at much higher concentrations than even the richest creams. In the case of Vichy Idéalia, “LR2412 is a very powerful molecule, but it’s hard to formulate,” explains Florence Benech, L’Oréal’s international director of active cosmetics. Hence the watery serum, which helps the ingredients penetrate to where you need them most. This particular liquid claims to even tone, tighten pores and freshen all over, over time. But the instant-radiance kicker comes from light-reflecting gold and red pearls, sometimes found in makeup primers, ensuring that globally yearned-for rosy-glow effect.

Over the serums go a moisturizer, and here, meticulous techniques rule over haphazard smearing of creams. “I was surprised to find that Korean women tap or pat on products using their fingers or palms,” says Donerson. Others follow a massage-like ritual, which is why some brands, such as Giorgio Armani, include detailed illustrated instructions on how to perform the face-firming hand gestures right in the moisturizer’s box.

And finally comes the SPF. Dermatologists have long preached that sun damage is the express lane to signs of aging. In Asia, they don’t need convincing. “Women in North America tend to leap for creams at the first fine lines and hope for the reversing miracle, whereas here, skin care is used as prevention,” says celebrity makeup artist and former Torontonian Andrea Claire, 42, who lives in Singapore. Some women will even triple up on anti-UV products, says Nam—layering a separate sunscreen plus SPFs in their pre-makeup primer and BB cream or foundation. Eastern Promises 3

What’s more, a bright day can prompt parasols, gloves and long sleeves. “No one wants to see one sunspot. I often joke that I see more umbrellas on sunny days [than on] rainy days,” says Claire. Elle Lee, a Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-based fashion and beauty writer for publications such as Chinese Elle, agrees: “Women in Asia are obsessed with being pale … like Princess Snow White.”

The preference for porcelain can be off-putting to some. “As an African-American, skin lightening is something I never, ever want to do,” says Donerson. “When I first moved, I was terrified I’d accidentally pick up a product with a heavy-duty lightening agent and ruin my skin forever.” Since then she’s found that most women are not striving to bleach their skin, but rather to fend off or fade sunspots and hyper-pigmentation.

Indeed, the tone-evening technology pioneered for Asia has been wending its way across the Pacific—except on this side, it’s trumpeted for brightening, not whitening, a subtle linguistic shift that deletes the stigma. “In the past several years in North America,” says Sim, “we’re starting to see the growth of skin-‘brightening’ treatments—products that create that ‘lit from within’ glow Asian consumers have been chasing for decades.”

Perhaps in the years to come, we, too, will be shelling out to have live snails slithering all over our faces (the treatment, ¥24,150 or $260 a pop at Tokyo’s Ci:z. Labo salon, promises to plump, smooth and hydrate with the proteins, glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid in snail gunk), or gulping lamb placenta capsules — supposedly full of anti-aging nutrients, if you can stomach them. But even if you’re not willing to go that far, Asia’s beauty lesson is basic: Taking your skin seriously could make all the difference, no matter which side of the globe you live on.