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18 Korean Skincare Ingredients To Avoid

Jason Park
Published by: Jason Park
Published on:

One of the biggest things in beauty right now is Korean skincare. After all, Koreans are known for their exceptionally flawless skin and people all over the world want the same results. Ever since Korean skincare and beauty products have become high in demand, many new brands and products have been introduced to the market.

Korean skincare is known for using exotic ingredients and achieving miraculous results. While many of the products on the market are great for the skin, the popularity of Korean skincare has also brought along products that can do more harm than good. 

On this page, we’re going to talk about some ingredients that have been used in certain Korean skincare products that should be avoided. We will also discuss what you should know about the Korean beauty market so you don’t buy skincare products with bad ingredients. Keep reading to learn more.

Is Korean Skincare Harmful?

We don’t want to give you a bad impression. There are so many great Korean skincare products that can keep your skin glowing. Korean skincare is popular because they incorporate many different natural ingredients that are great for the skin. However, this doesn’t speak for every Korean product on the market. 

Now that Korean skincare is becoming more accessible for people around the world to order, you need to be cautious of what you’re buying. Whenever a product is high in demand, more brands will try to market on it. This can lead to a lot of knock-off products hitting the market.

While a Korean may be able to spot the difference between a good Korean skincare product and a dupe, this isn’t so easy for people in other regions of the world. Novelty sells and there are many aspects of Korean skincare that attract foreign customers, like exotic ingredients and fun packaging.  

What Every Newbie Should Know About Korean Skincare

With so many unique products and different techniques, we can’t blame you for being interested in Korean skincare. There is a world full of great beauty products in the Korean market, but you need to know of a few things before spending your money on these products. 

Why do Korean skincare products sell so fast? It has to do with what they are promising. These products use ingredients that aren’t common in western skincare. This makes it easier for the companies to embellish on the good points and exaggerate what the product can do for your skin. There are no Korean skincare products that will provide “miracle” results.

One secret about Korean skincare is that many of the people you see from South Korea with beautiful skin are using more than just good products. It is very common in South Korea for people to receive injectables to keep their skin looking fresh and youthful all the time.

There is so much hype around Korean skincare that a lot of influencers and celebrities are raving about the products online. However, many of these celebrities aren’t even using the products. If a celebrity is ever using their online platform to talk about a product, they are being paid to do so. 

Korean Skincare Ingredients You Should Avoid 

Even though the Korean beauty market has a lot of good products, there are still a lot of products on the market with ingredients that should be avoided. The best thing to do when purchasing Korean skincare is to review the ingredients list. If any of the following ingredients that we mention are listed, you should avoid the product.

When purchasing Korean skincare online, never purchase a product if the ingredients aren’t listed. There is a very high chance that products without a list of ingredients are of poor quality and feature ingredients that could irritate your skin.

1: Antimony

Antimony is a heavy metal that was commonly used in skin care products in ancient times. However, it has been discovered that exposure to antimony can irritate people’s skin, eyes, and lungs. Too much exposure to this ingredient could also lead to problems with the stomach and heart. 

While it is safe to use small amounts of antimony in skincare and beauty products, the maximum amount that a product can have is 10 ppm (parts per million). Unfortunately, there have been many skincare and cosmetic companies in South Korea that have had their products taken off of the shelves for containing more than the legal amount. 

Brands like Skinfood and Black Monster were found to have products containing more than 10 ppm of antimony. While we recommend not using a product with this ingredient, if you must, always check how much the product contains. If there is no information on how much antimony is in the product, you should always avoid it.

2: Lead

Lead is another heavy metal that has found its way into some Korean skincare and beauty products. You should never use lead because it is highly toxic. While this is one ingredient you should always avoid, the scary thing is that it can make its way into skincare products, cosmetics, and even hair products. 

The reason why lead is put into skincare products is that it has whitening effects. It was used in ancient times by wealthy women to emphasize that they never spent a day working in the sun. While using skincare products with lead set these women apart from others on a social scale, they paid the ultimate price for the high amount of toxins that their skin was exposed to.

One of the biggest risks of using Korean skincare products with lead is the chance of lead poisoning. You don’t have to swallow lead to be at risk either. Lead can easily be absorbed through your skin, putting you at risk.

3: Hydroquinone

In Korea, having fair skin is a high beauty standard. For this reason, there are hundreds of different skin whitening products on the market in Korea. If you are purchasing a Korean skin whitening product, you need to be very thorough when you read the ingredients list. If hydroquinone is on that list, you should avoid ordering the product.

Hydroquinone is a bleaching agent, however, it has been to paradoxical darkening. Unfortunately, many people who have used products containing this ingredient have experienced black and blue discoloration on their skin. That’s not the only side effect either. When using products with hydroquinone, people can experience:

  • Dry skin that can lead to cracking and bleeding
  • A burning or stinging feeling
  • Red marks
  • Blister
  • Itchy skin

Using skincare products with hydroquinone on a regular basis can have very serious side effects. This ingredient is dangerous because it could lead to nail discoloration, ochronosis, corneal degeneration, and conjunctival melanosis.

4: Hydrocortisone 

Hydrocortisone is a common ingredient in anti-itch creams. However, over the years it has become popular in skincare products for treating pimples. It can also be used in creams to treat swelling, which can be beneficial for people that suffer from inflammation. That being said, hydrocortisone is a steroid. Generally, it’s not recommended to use unless a doctor says otherwise.

Koreans are very on top of their skincare routine, so when they have an unwanted breakout they want a product that acts fast. While products with hydrocortisone are known to work fast, there’s a price to pay for these speedy results. One of the worst is that it has been linked to skin thinning.

It isn’t a safe ingredient to use on gentle or sensitive areas of your skin, such as eyelids or anywhere with folds. In fact, unless a doctor has given you instructions to use hydrocortisone on your face, it shouldn’t go anywhere near your face. Many people who use hydrocortisone on their skin experience a burning feeling that lasts for a few minutes.

Although it’s tempting to fall for the hype of instant results, the possible side effects are never worth it due to the damage that it could cause to your face.

5: Triamcinolone

Another steroid that has made its way into popular Korean beauty products is triamcinolone. Similar to hydrocortisone, this ingredient shouldn’t be used on your face unless it has been instructed by a doctor. Some Korean face creams have featured this ingredient because it can reduce redness and swelling. 

If you are reviewing the ingredients of a Korean face cream and you see triamcinolone, you should always avoid it because there are so many side effects. Using creams with triamcinolone could lead to:

  • Skin irritation
  • Dry skin
  • Burning or itchy skin
  • Acne
  • Skin thinning
  • Skin discoloration
  • Increased hair growth
  • Hair bumps
  • Stretch marks
  • Skin infections

6: Dexamethasone

There have been cosmetic products and skin care creams taken off the market in Korea because they contained dexamethasone. It would be found in skincare products that reduced inflammation and dermatitis. While some of the steroids that have been used in Korean skincare products can be safe in small doses, dexamethasone is not one of them.

Dexamethasone should never be applied to your face. There are so many side effects that make this ingredient dangerous, including:

  • Acne
  • Rashes
  • Dry and flaky skin
  • Skin thinning
  • Increased sweating
  • Slows down the healing of wounds
  • Ecchymoses
  • Erythema
  • Petechiae
  • Striae & more

Some users even experience allergic reactions to products with dexamethasone. 

7: Retinol

Okay, so retinol doesn’t have to be completely avoided. If used correctly, retinol can have many great benefits for the skin. It is a popular skincare ingredient for improving the texture of skin by smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles. When people are looking for a great anti-aging product, retinol is a great option to explore.

So, you’re likely wondering why retinol is on our list of Korean skincare ingredients to avoid. Highly concentrated amounts of retinol aren’t good for your skin. While you can safely use products from North America with retinol in them, Korean products are not the same. This is because Korean skincare products use a much higher dosage of retinol. 

American estheticians will always recommend that you start off using a product with a very light amount of retinol, and then gradually work your way up to a higher dose as needed for your skin. That being said, the average Korean skincare product with retinol will contain a higher amount than what is recommended for use in America.

If you want to use a skincare product with retinol in it, only buy it from a company in the US or Canada because the amount of retinol will be regulated. Using a product with a high amount of retinol can lead to:

  • Red skin
  • Flaky skin
  • Peeling skin
  • Irritation
  • Burning or itchy skin
  • Higher sensitivity to the sun
  • Higher risk of skin cancer

8: Prednisolone

Since Koreans want perfect skin 24/7, eczema flare-ups are something they dread the thought of. Prednisolone is a steroid that can be used in treating flare-ups, however, it should never be used in cosmetics or skincare products. This is another steroid that was found in several popular Korean skincare products that were removed from the market.

While skincare products with prednisolone may help reduce flare-ups quickly, there can be some very damaging effects of using these products on the skin. One of the main side effects of prednisolone is thinning skin, which is why it’s not okay to use it on your face. There are many other side effects though, including:

  • Excessive hair growth
  • Skin easily bruised
  • Acne
  • Higher risk of skin infections
  • Puffy skin & more

9: Parabens

If you want clean beauty, one skincare ingredient that needs to be avoided is parabens. Luckily, there are many skincare lines in Korea that now make products that are paraben-free. Paraben wasn’t for use in just one type of product, in fact, it can be used widely in almost any cosmetic or skincare product. This is because paraben is an ingredient used to preserve beauty products.

All skincare and beauty products need a preservative to keep the ingredients from spoiling. If they didn’t have a preservative, the ingredients would spoil before they got used. This would be a big waste of money and products. Luckily, there are many great cosmetic preservatives that are friendly for the skin, so companies no longer need to use parabens.

While many Korean skincare companies no longer use parabens, this can be said for 100 % of the brands. Unfortunately, there are still products on the Korean market with parabens, so you will need to check the ingredients list. 

Why should parabens be avoided? There are many bad side effects of using parabens. This ingredient can cause skin irritation. It has also been linked to several cases of cancerous skin damage. 

10: Betamethasone 

One of the biggest concerns with harmful ingredients in Korean skincare products is steroids. Betamethasone is another steroid that was found in some Korean face creams. Like many of the steroids that have made our list today, betamethasone can be found in face creams and cleaners that are targeted at reducing swelling.

Betamethasone is an ingredient that should never be used on the face, especially if you have sensitive skin. Since the skin of your face is delicate, products containing betamethasone can be too harsh. If you feel that you have dermatitis or inflammation, always speak to your doctor about what to use. Falling for the hype of certain Korean beauty products could have damaging results.

Why should you avoid skincare products from Korea using betamethasone? Some of the side effects of betamethasone include:

  • Itchy skin
  • Burning or stinging feeling
  • Irritation
  • Acne
  • Rash/ red bumps around the mouth 
  • Excess hair growth where applied
  • Change in skin color
  • Bruising
  • Redness

11: Fragrance

As mentioned earlier, a big part of Korean skincare and cosmetics is a novelty. Cute and pretty things are very popular in Korean culture. It’s not uncommon to find skincare products that have a fragrance to resemble certain fruits, flowers, or other nice scented things. While these scented products may seem pretty, they can leave you with results that aren’t so pretty.

The fragrance isn’t an important part of skincare, and there are plenty of brands on the market that sell fragrance-free Korean skincare products. After all, many of the natural ingredients used in these products have a nice clean scent to them. 

Why should you avoid Korean skincare products that have fragrances? 

Products that contain fragrances are more likely to cause an allergic reaction or trigger dermatitis. 

Fragrances added to skincare products contain toxic chemicals. Fragrances have been linked to triggering several skin conditions, such as contact dermatitis and contact urticaria.

Many fragrances contain phthalates, which have been linked to birth defects, respiratory problems, and cancer.

12: Phenoxyethanol

Another ingredient that is used to preserve cosmetics is phenoxyethanol, and this ingredient can be just as dangerous as parabens. The FDA has labeled this ingredient as a medium risk because it can cause skin allergies. Some of the side effects that can be associated with this ingredient are:

  • Headaches
  • Skin pigmentation
  • Itchy skin
  • Rash
  • Eczema 

One of the problems with phenoxyethanol is that people who are allergic to it can have very severe allergic reactions. Some of these reactions can even be life-threatening. There are many different products that can use phenoxyethanol as well, including moisturizers, sunscreen, body washes, cosmetics, hair removal wax, and more.

TonyMoly Luminous Goddess Aura BB Cream is one Korean skincare product that was very popular, but FDA discovered that it contained phenoxyethanol, so North Americans are suggested to avoid this product. 

13: Artificial Coloring

When you think of skincare, you think of beauty. It’s natural to buy skincare products that are pretty shades of pink and purple. However, many Korean skincare products that have vivid shades rely on artificial colors and dyes to do this. These products should be avoided because your skin will absorb the dye. When this happens, you’re likely to experience:

  • Clogged pores
  • Irritated skin
  • Inflammation 
  • Acne & blemishes

Another problem that these dyes cause is that they can make skin more sensitive. There are a lot of toxins and chemicals used in dyes to create the colors and your skin absorbs all of them. Want to know what makes dye scary when it comes to skincare? It takes at least 25 different synthetic additives to make a color of dye.

If one of the main reasons you’re attracted to Korean skincare is because of clean beauty, then you need to avoid products that use artificial colors. While these products may look pretty, they won’t leave your skin in pretty shape.

14: Cetyl PEG

If you have sensitive skin, then you should avoid Korean skincare products that use cetyl PEG. This ingredient makes its way into several Korean skincare products. Cetyl PEG is an emulsifier for cosmetics and skincare products. Every skincare product needs an emulsifier to prevent ingredients from separating. This is because most skincare products contain both water and oil, which don’t stay together naturally. 

There are a lot of skincare products that rely on an emulsifier, so cetyl PEG could be found in facial moisturizer, eye cream, sunscreen, foundation, and many anti-aging treatments. This ingredient is on the FDA watchlist because it is an allergen. It is also a synthetic ingredient that could be contaminated with toxic ingredients.

Why should you avoid Korean skincare products that use cetyl PEG? There have been cases of allergic contact dermatitis from using skincare products containing cetyl PEG. There is use restriction when it comes to this ingredient because it has been linked to immunotoxicity, developmental toxicity, reingredientive toxicity, and cancer. 

15: Methylparaben

 Another preservative that can often be found in Korean skincare products is methylparaben. One of the main reasons why you should avoid products with this ingredient is that it is a type of paraben. All of the reasons we discussed earlier on why parabens are an ingredient to avoid apply to methylparaben as well.

Using products with methylparaben could present a low to moderate hazard to your health. Luckily, methylparaben isn’t linked to toxicity or causing cancer. However, it can cause allergic reactions and skin sensitivities. Some of the side effects that people have experienced from using this product include:

  • Itchy skin
  • Swelling
  • Burning feeling
  • Tender skin
  • Dry skin
  • Blisters

16: PEG-5

PEG-5 isn’t necessarily a harmful ingredient for skincare products, but it may be one that you want to avoid. There are several Korean skincare products that use PEG-5 because this ingredient is beneficial for skin conditioning. Having soft and supple skin is very important to people in Korea when they are choosing skincare products.

While PEG-5 has been listed as a fair ingredient to use, some people have experienced unpleasant reactions when using products with this ingredient. If you have acne, breakouts, or blemishes on your skin, you shouldn’t use products with PEG-5 because the ingredient can irritate your skin. 

You should also avoid using products that contain PEG-5 after you have had your skin waxed, if you have a bug bite, or if you have any scratches or a wound. 

17: Butylparaben

Another member of the paraben family is butylparaben, and this is an ingredient you don’t want to find in any of your Korean skincare products. Unfortunately, it has been found in some eye creams and anti-aging treatments. While butylparaben may be safer to use than paraben, it comes with its fair share of problems.

Many people who have used Korean skincare products with butylparaben have experience skin irritation. It may cause the skin to become very itchy and red. Since butylparaben can be found in Korean eye creams, there is the risk of getting this ingredient in your eye, which can be very painful. 

18: Triethanolamine

While triethanolamine isn’t as common in Korean skincare as other ingredients on this list, it’s still one that you should look out for when buying Korean skincare products. This ingredient is a pH adjuster that can be found in sunscreens and lotions. If it is used in a North American product, it will have a 1 to 3 % concentration rate.

One of the problems with buying Korean skincare products is that the products often contain a higher concentration of harsh products. If you use a skin product with a low triethanolamine concentration, there should be any problems (unless you’re allergic to the ingredient). However, if you use a product that contains more than 3 % concentration, you could experience: 

  • Burning feeling
  • Itchy skin
  • Hives
  • Scaling
  • Blisters

Final Thoughts

All of the beauty magazines and influencers are praising Korean skincare. From the unique products to the routines that feature anywhere from 7 to 12 steps, there are so many aspects of 

Korean skincare that have people fascinated. However, Korean skincare isn’t always worth the hype. There are many products on the market that feature ingredients that aren’t safe.

While there are many products that feature harmful ingredients, that doesn’t mean that Korean skincare should be completely avoided. 

There are many great Korean skincare products that use natural ingredients that are safe and nourishing for the skin. As long as you know what to look for, it’s easier to pick out good-quality Korean skincare products.

About The Author

Photo of author

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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