For the last half-decade, we have been increasingly worshipping at the altar of K-beauty. But for me, Korean beauty secrets have never been much competition for its neighbor: Japan.
A country that’s more traditional, and more understated than the razzmatazz of Korea.
A country that marries a centuries-long heritage in beauty with natural ingredients and innovative technologies.
A country that is all about quiet luxury and pared down routines that are far more low maintenance, yet equally as efficacious, than the extremes of Korea’s 10-step complexion care. Which, let’s face it, is not something most of us can indulge in most of the time.
A country, whose geishas have been held up as the ideal of beauty since the 18th century.
A country that has already given us cult brands like Shiseido, SK-II and Tatcha.
Japanese beauty concentrates on suppleness and a matte, almost airbrushed finish. The ideal is mochi-hada: Rice cake skin that’s as soft and plump as the coveted Japanese dessert. There’s a translucence that shines through, giving skin an almost ethereal quality that’s uncaked by makeup.
How do they achieve this? By being especially diligent about their skincare, with a lifetime commitment to natural cures and traditional medicine. Flawless skin is a status marker across Japan, and whole tracts of ancient medicine are devoted to keeping it gorgeous.
So holistic well being takes the place of chemical-laden short cuts. Result: most Japanese beauty brands are built around herbs, botanicals and natural ingredients, as opposed to a lot of synthetics.
Time to explore in greater detail and partake some of the gorgeousness ourselves?
Muji Compressed Face Lotion Sheet
One thing the Koreans and the Japanese have in common: Their love for #masking. Japanese women buy face masks in bulk, with most brands selling packs of 30+ single use sheets or pods.
One of the most innovative that I’ve ever come across is Muji, whose compressed face masks come as tiny balls, which expand to full size sheet masks when soaked in an essence or any other liquid of your choice (I usually go for a blend of rosewater and aloe vera gel). They are made from gentle, non-woven cotton and are perfect for deep hydration.
Kao Megrythm Steam Eye Mask
Japan is a high-stress society but they always build time into their schedules for pure relaxation. Cue: Onsen baths, the natural mineral hot springs found all across the country, which the Japanese call upon all the time to relax and recharge.
So, if there is one lesson, I have taken away from this land, it’s the importance of taking some time out every day to slow down and take care of myself, even if it’s for a 5-minute face massage, a soak in the bathtub… or these crazy lovely eye masks, that are the perfect antidote to tech-weary peepers.
These paper-based masks give the effect of a soothing hot towel, sans the damp. Once unfolded and placed over the eyes, they warm up and release a cozy, relaxing scent that soothes tired eyes. There are even ear straps to prevent the masks from slipping off… because the Japanese think of everything.
Lululun Balance Moisture Masks
These are possibly the most popular face masks in Japan. Made with a specialised three-layer cutting system that keeps the sheet from sliding off your face and allows for maximum penetration of the active ingredients, Lululun’s cute-and-cutting-edge formulas eschew fragrance, chemicals and mineral oils. Form and function at it’s very best, I would say.
The most popular variant? The Precious Green variant combats aging with a mix of four hyaluronic acids for deep hydration, avocado for nourishment, and grape leaf extract for skin resilience. Regular users report improved skin texture and the “LuLuLun glow” — a term of endearment for the fresh, bright complexion that emerges with consistent use.
DHC Deep Cleansing Oil
According to Japanese aestheticians, one of the key differences between Asian and American women is the former’s dedication to double cleansing. I have yet to find one Japanese woman who doesn’t practise a cleansing-oil-followed-by-gentle-foam skin routine every single night. Yes: Every. Single. Night. That flawless complexion does not come easy. And it definitely does not come coated in makeup, sweat, grime, grease and pollution.
DHC Deep Cleansing Oil is a clear favorite (one bottle is sold every 12 seconds!), which takes care of even the toughest mascara and eye liner. Its water-soluble formula, rich in olive oil and vitamin E, dissolves stubborn makeup and cleanses the skin without stripping it of its natural moisture or altering its pH.
Gently rub into dry skin, emulsify with a handful of water, and rinse clean. Yes, double cleansing can be that simple.
Kanebo Suisai Enzyme Face Wash Powder
The second step of double cleansing is usually a foaming face wash, or a gentle exfoliator. And nobody does that better than Kanebo, whose “cleansing pods” look like Nespresso capsules and contain a single use of enzymatic powder that lathers up on contact with water. Free of all artificial colors and fragrance, they also contain tofu extract and royal jelly to leave skin super-clean sans dryness.
Because of the pod-packaging, they are also the best on-the-go cleansers and I am never without a couple in my handbag when charitable Japan-going friends stock me up!
Pukku Puku Bubble Soda Underarm Deep Clean Pack
Yes, you read that right. U.N.D.E.R.A.R.M. P.A.C.K.
The Japanese obsession for smooth, fair flawless skin extends to the underarms as well. Pukku Puku (love the name!) is a gentle peel that busts underarm darkness with vitamin C, papaya extract and other AHAs. Perfect for spaghetti top and swimsuit season. I have seriously never seen anything like this anywhere else!
Biore UV Aqua Rich SPF 50+/PA++++
Sun exposure and tanning are absolute taboos in Japan. In fact, the paler the complexion the better, with creamy, porcelain skin being the beauty standard. Not only do Japanese women wear sunscreen come rain or shine, beach or boardroom, you will also find them bringing out the hat, gloves, long sleeve blouses and parasols when stepping out in the sun.
With so much emphasis on sun protection, it’s no surprise that Japan has some of the best sunscreen formulations in the world. The SPF is super-high (50+ with additional UVA protection is the norm, rather than the exception), with super-light textures.
Biore UV Aqua Rich SPF 50+ is a firm favorite, with its cooling water-based gel-like texture that absorbs quickly, without a hint of chalkiness or greasiness. It’s also loaded with hydrating hyaluronic acid, making it seem more like a moisturiser than some of the heavy, pore clogging ‘screens that we are used to Stateside.
Tatcha Rice Enzyme Powder
Tatcha’s The Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powder is a modern take on a geisha’s beauty secrets, transforming the timeless ingredient of rice into a luxurious exfoliating powder. When activated with water, it becomes a creamy, foaming enzyme polish that exfoliates gently yet effectively, designed to leave skin smooth, soft, and aglow as if you’ve just stepped out of an onsen’s rejuvenating waters.
Crafted with Hadasei-3™, a proprietary blend of rice bran, green tea, and algae, Tatcha’s Rice Polish provides not just a thorough cleanse but also a dose of nutrients that are essential to skin health. Papaya enzymes act as the exfoliating agents, sweeping away dead skin cells without the harshness of traditional abrasives. This powder respects the skin’s delicate balance, maintaining its natural moisture while promoting increased cell turnover.
Regular use of The Rice Polish leads to a transformation that’s visible and tangible. Skin becomes more radiant, reflecting the balanced, hydrated, and polished result of this gentle yet powerful exfoliant. It’s more than a product; it’s a daily purification ritual, a promise to honor your skin’s health and the legacy of beauty rituals that have transcended time.
SK-II Facial Treatment Essence
I first found this product not in Japan, but at a London airport duty-free, and it’s been part of my skincare ever since. In Japan, essences are key—they’re lightweight lotions used post-cleanse and pre-serum, designed to hydrate with ingredients like hyaluronic acid and ceramides, not to be mistaken with astringent toners. They’re crucial for achieving “mochi-hada,” or soft, rice cake-like skin.
SK-II’s famous ‘Miracle Water’ essence is renowned for its transformative effects, thanks to Pitera™, a unique blend of vitamins, amino acids, minerals, and organic acids, discovered in a sake brewery. This ingredient rejuvenates the skin’s surface, aligning with SK-II’s belief that beautiful skin is everyone’s right. Applied by patting onto the skin, it promises a clearer complexion with regular use and is a moment of self-care.
Long-term users note substantial benefits in their skin’s texture, evenness, and a visible decrease in wrinkles and lines. The essence prioritizes skin’s natural renewal process over masking flaws. It’s a simple yet powerful formulation, effective for all skin types, including sensitive ones, and is free from unnecessary chemicals, honoring the skin’s natural balance while delivering significant results. A cornerstone for those who value lasting skin health and a youthful appearance.
Shiseido Ultimune Power Infusing Concentrate
Shiseido’s Ultimune Power Infusing Concentrate is a serum that acts as a shield for your skin, enhancing its natural repair and defense mechanisms. It contains a special mix of botanicals like gingko biloba, thyme, and shiso, offering more than just nourishment—it’s a skincare ritual. These ingredients elevate the skin’s immunity, crucial for maintaining its glow and health, while hydrating and calming the skin like dew, leaving it soft and radiant.
The application of this concentrate is a sensory experience; it’s massaged in, allowing its plant-based benefits to permeate deeply. It not only nourishes the skin but also amplifies the benefits of other skincare products used afterward. With regular use, it aims to strengthen the skin against environmental stressors, enhancing your natural glow.
Long-term users report visible decreases in fine lines and improvements in skin firmness and elasticity. The serum strikes a balance with a texture that’s lightweight for layering yet rich enough for intensive hydration.
Hydra-Heaven: Hada Labo Gokujyun Lotion
Hada Labo’s Gokujyun Lotion is celebrated for its deep hydrating qualities, often called “super hyaluronic acid” lotion for its ability to draw and lock in moisture from the air into the skin. Embracing the ‘moisture is the essence of beauty’ philosophy, this product exemplifies the Japanese minimalist approach.
Praised for its simplicity and effectiveness, this clear, unscented liquid is free of additives, alcohol, and colorants, making it suitable for all skin types, even sensitive ones. Its light formula is potent in enhancing skin texture, leaving it hydrated, smooth, and plump.
The lotion’s effectiveness comes from three types of hyaluronic acid, each targeting different skin layers for thorough hydration. Application by patting helps the skin absorb it better, providing deep hydration.
Consistent application can visibly reduce dryness-related fine lines, improve skin firmness, and give a dewy, ‘mochi-like’ appearance. It works as a moisture magnet, ensuring lasting hydration and boosting the performance of subsequent skincare products.
Ocean Elixir: Astalift Jelly Aquarysta
Astalift Jelly Aquarysta is a pre-serum treatment designed to prevent premature aging, featuring a striking ruby-red color from its key ingredient, astaxanthin. This powerful antioxidant, derived from marine algae, combats oxidative stress. Fujifilm’s expertise in nanotechnology and collagen is applied to create this jelly, which aims to support the skin’s structure, enhance firmness, and provide a radiant glow reminiscent of the sea’s healing qualities.
The jelly’s unique consistency, which turns into a silky fluid upon application, allows for deep penetration, delivering ceramides to strengthen the skin’s barrier and three types of collagen for hydration and improved elasticity.
To use, apply it after cleansing and before layering other serums or moisturizers. This pre-serum step enhances the effectiveness of your skincare routine, providing a calming ritual that echoes the soothing nature of the ocean.
Glow Getter: Naturie Hatomugi Skin Conditioning Gel
The Naturie Hatomugi Skin Conditioning Gel is a favorite for achieving ‘glass skin,’ thanks to its key ingredient, Hatomugi (Job’s tears), known for its anti-inflammatory benefits in Eastern medicine.
This gel, rich in vitamins and amino acids from the Hatomugi seed, nurtures the skin’s barrier, encouraging a hydrated, smooth, and resilient complexion. Its non-sticky texture allows for deep moisture penetration without the heaviness of creams.
It cools and refreshes upon application, suitable for use as a light moisturizer or a hydrating layer under thicker creams, depending on the season. Naturie’s gel is free from fragrances, colorants, and oils, ideal for sensitive skin.
It hydrates oily skin without increasing oiliness and adds moisture to dry skin when layered. With regular use, it can enhance skin tone, minimize pores, and impart a supple texture, leaving skin glowing as if illuminated from within.
Blossom Balm: Melano CC Intensive Anti-Spot Essence
Melano CC Intensive Anti-Spot Essence stands out for its effectiveness in enhancing skin clarity and radiance, thanks to its primary ingredient, vitamin C. This ingredient is celebrated for reducing dark spots and inhibiting melanin production, which can cause pigmentation. The essence’s strength lies in its stable formula, ensuring that the vitamin C remains effective throughout its use.
The essence also contains vitamin E, which works with vitamin C to combat free radicals, boost collagen production, and protect the skin from oxidative stress, which can cause aging. Additionally, it soothes skin with anti-inflammatory properties, reducing redness and irritation.
Its precise dropper bottle allows for targeted application, quickly absorbing into the skin without leaving residue, suitable for use both day and night. Despite its lightweight feel, it is powerful in maintaining skin clarity.
With regular application, Melano CC Intensive Anti-Spot Essence not only brightens the skin but also strengthens its defenses, diminishes spots, and evens out the complexion, giving the skin a vibrant, rejuvenated appearance.
Minimalist Might: Cure Natural Aqua Gel
Cure Natural Aqua Gel exemplifies the effectiveness of a minimalist approach in skincare. This water-based exfoliator eschews harsh particles for a gentle process using aloe vera, gingko, and rosemary extracts to remove dead skin cells and encourage healthy skin renewal while maintaining the skin’s natural equilibrium.
Its formula is devoid of artificial fragrances, colorants, and preservatives, catering to all skin types, even sensitive ones. The exfoliation method is non-abrasive, avoiding vigorous scrubbing and ensuring the skin stays calm and soothed.
When applied to clean, dry skin, the gel binds with oils and impurities, forming small granules that softly remove dead skin cells. This not only clears the complexion but also prepares the skin to better absorb subsequent skincare products, boosting their effectiveness.
Cure Natural Aqua Gel has won international acclaim for its straightforward, non-complicated skincare philosophy. It consistently delivers clearer, smoother skin, making it a go-to choice for those who value a simple yet effective skincare staple.
Starlit Skin: Minon Amino Moist Charge Milk
Minon Amino Moist Charge Milk is a nightly moisturizer designed to work with the skin’s natural overnight repair process. Infused with amino acids, it aims to enhance the skin’s moisture retention abilities. This product is particularly formulated for sensitive skin types, focusing on strengthening the skin’s barrier to deliver a hydrated, revitalized complexion by morning.
The lotion’s texture is creamy yet light, offering substantial hydration without clogging pores. It combines nine essential amino acids with 11 moisturizing ones to maximize hydration, refine skin texture, and boost skin clarity.
The application is soothing, absorbing quickly without leaving a sticky residue, and providing lasting moisture throughout the night. Its gentle formulation is devoid of common irritants, making it safe for reactive skin.
Regular use of Minon Amino Moist Charge Milk can lead to reduced fine lines and a lessening of dullness, as it repairs daily skin damage. It addresses dryness and roughness, nurturing the skin back to health and resilience.
This moisturizer goes beyond immediate hydration; it utilizes amino acids to offer enduring skin health benefits, reinforcing the skin’s foundation for long-lasting youthful vitality.
Renewal Rapture: Rohto Melano CC Intensive Measures
Rohto Melano CC Intensive Measures is a serum designed to address skin discoloration by targeting excess melanin production. Enriched with vitamins C and E, it’s recognized for its brightening effects and ability to protect against oxidative stress, which can cause skin tone irregularities.
The serum’s effectiveness is attributed to its oil-soluble vitamin C derivative that deeply penetrates the skin to tackle dark spots. Vitamin E acts as an additional defense, protecting skin from free radical and UV damage while enhancing overall brightness and uniformity.
Application involves treating the skin to a few drops of the serum daily, massaging it gently to exfoliate and stimulate the skin’s natural healing. Its light, non-greasy formula is ideal for daytime use under sunscreen and makeup, reinforcing its brightening benefits.
Regular application leads to a noticeable decrease in dark spots and hyperpigmentation, yielding a radiant complexion indicative of revitalized skin.