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Does Korean Skincare Use Retinol?

Jason Park
Published by: Jason Park
Published on:

Korean skincare is a great way to improve your sensitive skin, but retinol is an ingredient that most people don’t want in their routines.

Because it can cause sensitive skin to get extremely irritated, red, or even damaged.

So why does Korean skincare use retinol, and which brands are safe to use?

Let’s get started.

In short: Authentic Korean skincare products rarely, if ever, contain retinol. Yet a few do list it as an ingredient. Many factors play into this, such as the manufacturer and the country of production. 

What Is Retinol & What Does it Do?

In many Western skincare products, retinol is a major ingredient in ones targeted for anti-aging. It’s essentially a compound derived from vitamin A and is one of the many retinoids contained therein. Other ones are retinal or retinaldehyde and retinoic acid.

Retinol can provide many benefits to skin. It’s a very celebrated constituent for its ability to increase cell regeneration. Therefore, it removes dead skin cells quicker and reveals new, healthy skin. This is why people love it for its handling of hyperpigmentation issues, such as sun spots.

Also, it helps increase collagen production, which reduces wrinkles and fine lines. It also has the capacity to decrease oil production. So, people with oily skin or who are acne prone love it.

Why Don’t Many Korean Skincare Products Contain Retinol?

There are two main reasons why Korean skincare products don’t often have retinol. The first is how irritating retinol can be and the other is how skincare specialists are more available in Korea. Yet another reason is the basic differences in skin care philosophy that vary greatly between the West and Korea.

Retinol Is Harsh on Sensitive Skin

Korean skincare focuses on effective ingredients that brighten the skin which are also oil controlling and gentle. Many people in Korea have sensitive skin issues and retinol is far too harsh. Therefore, they use things like bamboo or niacinamide, which are far gentler on skin.

When anyone introduces retinol into their skincare regimen, it takes the skin some time getting used to it. Whenever anyone uses it the first time, it creates flakiness combined with extreme dryness, burning and redness. Such effects are antithetical to the philosophy behind Korean skincare and its intolerable to those with sensitive skin. [1]

Skincare Specialists Are Common in Korea

The other reason is that dermatologists and skin specialists are more available and affordable in Korea than in any Western country. Estheticians and dermatologists are expensive in the West. So, places like the US or UK will include retinol in their products as a means of trade off.

In Korea, if someone’s skin requires retinol, the dermatologist will prescribe it. This allows for close monitoring in how the retinol affects the state of someone’s skin. In the West, people will continually use retinol and deal with the side effects, quite possibly to their detriment.

Korean Skincare Philosophy

All this culminates into the final reason why most Korean skincare products don’t often contain retinol, which is the philosophy around skincare. In Korea, they value a sheer, dewy and translucent appearance. This means having a consistent skincare regimen that leads to great results over time and they begin caring for their skin at as young as six months old. [2]

Koreans believe in preventing skin problems before they have a chance to start. This means taking a holistic approach to skincare combined with a healthy diet and active lifestyle.

Western Skincare Philosophy

In the US and Canada, for example, they value instant results with dramatic transformation. People usually don’t start taking care of their skin until they reach teenage years. So, when fine lines appear or in the event of a breakout, then it’s when people apply products to treat the symptoms, like retinol.

Therefore, it seems Americans and Canadians hunt for the miracle product that will take care of all their skin woes. But, such a thing doesn’t exist. It’s all about cleansing and moisturizing while staying hydrated.

Why Do Some Korean Skincare Products Have Retinol?

There are several factors involved when you see retinol on the ingredients list of a Korean skincare product. In one way, the product could come from the United States or China, where they will include retinol outright.

However, authentic Korean skincare products will incorporate retinyl palmitate, which comes from the same compound family as retinol. While this isn’t nearly as effective as retinol, it is much less irritating to skin. This means it comes down to labeling euphemisms and understanding what certain ingredients mean combined with English translations.

In Korea, compound ingredients can appear separately on a product. Therefore, if you see retinol, it’s usually followed by palmitic acid when in fact it’s retinyl palmitate. US law requires skincare products to list these as one ingredient. [3]

Is It Okay to Use Retinol with a Korean Skincare Regimen?

If your skin benefits from retinol, it’s definitely okay to include it into your Korean-style skincare regimen. You can apply it during the serums, ampoules and treatments phase. But, there are a few things to understand about retinol before including it in your daily skincare routine:

OTC versus Prescription Retinol: Over the counter products in the West containing retinol are not as irritating as prescription ones. But, it’s imperative to know how much is in the product before applying it. Newcomers should begin with the lowest concentration possible.

Slowly Accustom Skin: When you first start using retinol, it’s of the utmost importance that you slowly accustom your skin. Start with once per week and closely monitor your skin. Pay attention to how it looks and feels. Once you’re confident your skin is okay, increase the frequency little by little.

Only Use Retinol at Night: One pitfall with using retinol is that how it can decrease the skin’s ability to protect itself against harsh UVB and UVA sunrays. So, never ever apply retinol during the day and use it only at night. An SPF should be for daytime use.

Start Retinol in Winter or Autumn: The summer sun tends to be hot and its far more difficult to protect skin from its effects during this time. So, people starting to use retinol must take care and begin their regimen in autumn or winter, when the sun isn’t nearly as strong.

Never Use While Pregnant or Nursing: If you’re an expectant or nursing mother, never use retinol. There aren’t enough studies to support its safety, since many derivatives of vitamin A have proven to cause birth defects.

How Can Korean Skincare Be Effective without Retinol?

Unless your skincare specialist tells you that you need retinol, there’s really no need to use it. The famous 10-step daily Korean skincare routine will provide your skin with all that it needs. But, you have to make sure you select the right products and follow through two times each day.

Starting with the dual cleaning is key. This involves first cleaning with oil and then following it with a water-based foaming cleanser. Exfoliation is also essential to keep the pores clean and clear of debris. The remaining steps in the process should focus on hydration but not in a way that creates an oily effect.

When you use the right emollients and humectants, these will do the job of retinol but much better. However, it is a process and results aren’t immediate. With patience, persistence and perseverance, improvements will become noticeable.

Wrapping Up

Most Korean skincare brands don’t contain retinol. However, you should always read the ingredient list to make sure it doesn’t. Some Korean retinol skincare products can be very harmful to people with acne-prone skin, for example.

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    About The Author

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    Jason Park

    Jason has been living in Seoul for over 4 years, and during that time, he has experienced many of the city's hidden stores. He loves to write about his experiences and share them with others. Jason has been quoted and referenced by different major media companies like Mashed, Distractify, ThePrint and TastingTable. In his free time, he likes to watch Korean dramas and learn more about Korean culture.

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