Say My Name: Fiddy’s Best of Swanicoco Picks

Swanicoco picks

Never heard of Swanicoco? Prepare to hear that fun-to-say name a lot more. With a cream that creates “bounce,” another that resurfaces the complexion, and a couple ampoules that add density to paper-thin skin, Swanicoco’s got Fiddy singing its praises.



SWANICOCO! What does the name mean to you?


If the name conjures up images of cocoa powder-dusted swans leaving a chocolatey trail in their wake, let me assure you that while I understand where you got that idea, you’re totally off base. That’s not what the brand is about at all. Swanicoco is actually a Korean beauty brand with a large portfolio of skincare products, and they’ve just landed at W2Beauty! In celebration of the brand’s launch here, I thought I’d share my favorite Swanicoco picks.


Swanicoco’s products often feature fermented and botanical extracts alongside targeted, research-backed active ingredients, making them serious skincare that retains a sense of beauty and fun. I’ve found their formulations consistently solid and often stellar. Here are my top recommendations, and, as a bonus, the one Swanicoco product that did my skin wrong.


For reference, my skin is normal but can be dry depending on weather and routine, and my main skin concern is aging because I’m not getting any younger, and I made a lot of bad skin choices in my wild youth. (Stay away from tanning beds, kids!)


Power Skin Regenerators: Swanicoco EGF Pure Ampoule + FGF Pure Ampoule

swanicoco Swanicoco picks


These products come separately but become significantly more powerful when used together.


Swanicoco’s EGF and FGF ampoules focus on growth factors to improve skin texture and function. While the topical use of epidermal growth factor (EGF) and fibroblast growth factor (FGF) hasn’t attained the credibility of retinoids, chemical exfoliants, or vitamin C for skincare, there’s some compelling research on both of them. Their effects on wound healing are particularly interesting, since these ingredients’ ability to accelerate wound healing and minimize scarring suggest an ability to both stimulate and regulate proper skin regeneration.


It’s important to note that factors like concentration, formulation, and ingredient quality can make or break the performance of any product, even one with “proven” ingredients. The proof is in the pudding, basically. And the pudding, in this case, is one’s face. My face with the Swanicoco EGF and FGF ampoules was a happy pudding.


Swanicoco EGF Pure Ampoule is a light, fast-absorbing, and scentless milky serum that uses rh-oligopeptide-1, a human growth factor that has been shown to improve the appearance of wrinkles. I used the EGF Pure Ampoule on its own for about month and noticed a subtle but pleasing smoothing and softening effect. After a few weeks, fine lines and minor textural issues were blurred, as if I’d turned up the beauty filter setting on my eyesight — just a touch.


The results weren’t as pronounced as the results of stronger topical treatments I’ve used in the past, but the EGF Pure Ampoule also came without the drawbacks of those stronger topical treatments. No irritation, stinging, dryness, sensitivity, over-exfoliation risk, or chance of peeling; not even any extra sun sensitivity (not that I’d neglect my sunscreen, but it does bear noting). Using this product on its own, I came to think of it as an anti-aging product for those who dislike the potential side effects of the more heavy-duty anti-aging products.


After my trial run with the EGF Pure Ampoule, I took a short break from the product, then repeated the testing period with the FGF Pure Ampoule, which uses rh-polypeptide-11, for which I haven’t found English-language research to reference. A similarly lightweight but clear and more watery serum, the FGF Pure Ampoule gave me similar skin-smoothing results, though I saw more plumping from the FGF Pure Ampoule and slightly more hydration in general.


Then I took another break and this time used the EGF and FGF Pure Ampoules at the same time, as my main contact at Swanicoco had recommended. I mixed half a dropper of the EGF and half a dropper of the FGF ampoules in my hand immediately before each use, then applied the combination to my face. It only took me a couple of weeks to understand why my friend at the brand had suggested I do so.


For me, these products work much better together. I noticed a definite and significant improvement in my overall skin texture, which looked and felt much smoother, more refined, and denser. If you’ve ever noticed how skin tends to get crepey and delicate-looking with age, then you probably know what I mean: this combination of products produced the opposite effect in me. My skin gained a resilience and a tighter and more fine-grained appearance that I didn’t even know I’d been missing until then.


The effect didn’t come from simple hydration or number of skincare steps, either. The routines I did before and after my time with these products contained the same amount of products but didn’t create that same look.


My one complaint with these products is that, given how well they perform when used together, I don’t really see why they need to exist separately. It’s not a huge problem for me that they do, however. I just think of the two separate bottles as halves of a single, larger whole.


Swanicoco EGF Pure Ampoule ingredients (list provided by Swanicoco): rh-Oligopeptide- 1, Tocopheryl acetate, Allantoin, Carbomer, Arginine, Olibanum, Rosa Damascena Flower Oil

CosDNA analysis


Swanicoco FGF Pure Ampoule ingredients (list provided by Swanicoco): rh-Polypeptide-11, Tocopheryl, Allantoin, Carbomer, Arginine, Olibanum, Rosa Damascena Flower Oil

CosDNA analysis


Multi-Tasking Skin Resurfacer: Swanicoco PHA 10% Coco Peeling Cream

swanicoco Swanicoco picks

AHAs and BHAs are well known for their exfoliating properties, but what about PHAs? Polyhydroxy acids, sometimes called next-generation AHAs, are gaining recognition in K-beauty, and Swanicoco’s PHA cream provided me with an excellent introduction to these ingredients.


PHAs are similar to AHAs, with a couple of key differences. One, PHA molecules are larger, preventing them from penetrating quite as deeply into skin as AHAs. Theoretically, this should reduce irritation, particularly for skin that doesn’t handle AHAs well. And two, PHAs are generally considered more moisturizing than AHAs, making them better suited for dry skin.


I reviewed the PHA 10% Coco Peeling Cream on my blog a few months ago. In short, I found this cream an effective exfoliant — effective enough that I couldn’t use it every day, since daily use took my skin a little too close to the edge of over-exfoliation. Instead, I used it every other day. It kept my skin soft, smooth, and free of surface bumps and deep clogs. It also improved my skin tone, brightening up dullness and evening out my complexion nicely: all things I expect from a chemical exfoliant but with the added bonus of a face cream’s moisturizing effects.


The PHA 10% Coco Peeling Cream isn’t quite perfect. It wasn’t moisturizing enough for my skin on its drier days, and its finish was too sticky for my liking. I solved both of these problems easily by adding an extra layer of a lightweight gel moisturizer or sleeping pack on top after waiting for the Coco Peeling Cream to dry fully, about 20 minutes or so.


Swanicoco PHA 10% Coco Peeling Cream ingredients (list provided by Swanicoco): Vaccinium Angustifolium (Blueberry) Fruit Extract, Gluconolactone, Glycerin, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Niacinamide, 1,2-Hexanediol, Neopentyl Glycol Diheptanoate, Glyceryl Stearate, PEG-100 Stearate, Cetyl Alcohol, Potassium Hydroxide, Lactobionic Acid, Hydroxypropyl Bispalmitamide MEA, Stearic Acid, Behenyl Alcohol, Sorbitan Sesquioleate, Tocopherol, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Water, Centella Asiatica Extract, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Juglans Regia (Walnut) Seed Extract, Allantoin, Hydrolyzed Hyaluronic Acid, Polyacrylate-13, Polyisobutene, Polysorbate 20, Polyacrylamide, C13-14 Isoparaffin, Laureth-7, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Macadamia Integrifolia Seed Oil, Argania Spinosa Kernel Oil, Citrus Aurantium Bergamia (Bergamot) Fruit Oil, Pelargonium Graveolens Oil, Rosa Damascena Flower Oil

CosDNA analysis


Ultimate Skin Softener: Swanicoco Ultra Elastic Vital Cream

swanicoco ultra elastic Swanicoco picks


Skin regeneration and resurfacing are both fantastic, but sometimes a skincare addict just wants a nice, non-greasy, non-sticky moisturizer that makes skin feel as velvety as the petals of a freshly blossomed rose. That’s what Swanicoco’s Ultra Elastic Vital Cream delivers for me. It’s not a spectacular effect, just an absurdly pleasant and addictive one — with probably about a dozen creams in my stash, I’ve used over three-quarters of my jar of Ultra Elastic Vital Cream. It keeps my skin bouncy and moisturized on all but my driest days and under all but my most drying sunscreens. When I use it, I can’t stop touching my face.


I consider this cream a runner-up due to the relatively mundane effects when compared to the EGF and FGF ampoules or the PHA cream, but it’s a damn fine runner-up.


Swanicoco Ultra Elastic Vital Cream ingredients (list provided by Swanicoco): Punica Granatum Fruit Water, Sorbitan Laurate/Hydroxyethylcellulose/Acetyl Dipeptide-1 Cetyl Ester, Butylene Glycol, Diheptyl Succinate/Capryloyl Glycerin/Sebacic Acid Copolymer, Caprylic/Capric TriGlyceride, Heptyl Undecylenate, Cetearyl Olivate/Sorbitan Olivate/Hydrogenated Lecithin, Hydrogenated Olive Oil/Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil/Olea Europaea (Olive) Oil Unsaponifiables, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Pentylene Glycol, Cetyl Alcohol, Soluble Collagen, Panthenol, Hydrolyzed Collagen, sh-Polypeptide-1, rh-Oligopeptide-2, Copper Tripeptide-1, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Portulaca Oleracea Extract, Allantoin, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Tocopherol, Punica Granatum Seed Oil, Adenosine, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil, Polyacrylamide/C13-14 Isoparaffin/Laureth-7

CosDNA analysis


Dear God, No: Swanicoco Fermentation Bacillus Deep Cleansing

Now, as promised, the one Swanicoco product I had a bad time with.


Not everyone is into low pH cleansers, and not everyone’s skin responds poorly to high pH cleansers, but I most definitely am into low pH cleansers — for good reasons, I believe — and my skin pretty clearly does respond poorly to high pH cleansers. Like this one.


Swanicoco’s Fermentation Bacillus Deep Cleansing foaming cleanser offers rich foaming action, a bevy of sexy fermented botanical extracts, and (for me) a nightmarishly high pH. It tested between 9 and 10 for me both straight out of the tube and when foamed with water. I’ll go up to pH 7 comfortably, but 9 or 10? My skin recoils at the thought.


Still, I used the Fermentation Bacillus Deep Cleansing cleanser for about three weeks before my face threw in the towel. The moisturizing ingredients in this cleanser kept my skin from freaking out at first, despite getting that alarming squeaky-clean feeling right from the start. By week three, however, my skin was getting drier and tighter with each wash. The damage to my moisture barrier was too much for some emollient extracts to cover.


For truly oily skin — that is, skin that overproduces oil on a regular basis, not skin that’s presenting as oily due to an already compromised moisture barrier — I think this cleanser might be fine. For me, it’s so not fine. I felt much better after I discontinued use and went back to my neutral-or-lower-pH cleanser stash.


Swanicoco Fermentation Bacillus Deep Cleansing ingredients (list provided by Swanicoco): Water, Stearic Acid, Myristic Acid, Butylene Glycol, Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil, Glycerin, Potassium Hydroxide, Yellow Ocher, 1,2-Hexanediol, Bacillus/Cordyceps Sinensis/Ganoderma Lucidum/Inonotus Obliquus/Lentinus Edodes/Phellinus Linteus/Schizophyllum Commune/Tricholoma Matsutake Extract Ferment Filtrate, Lactobacillus/Bambusa Vulgaris Shoot Extract/Glycyrrhiza Glabra Root Extract/Luffa Cylindrica Fruit Extract/Morus Alba Root Extract/Pueraria Lobata Root Extract Ferment Filtrate, Allantoin, Citric Acid, Saccharomyces/Viscum Album (Mistletoe) Ferment Extract, Saccharomyces/Imperata Cylindrica Root Ferment Extract, Lactobacillus/Soybean Ferment Extract, Carica Papaya Seed Oil, Caesalpinia Sappan Bark Extract

CosDNA analysis


Out of all the Swanicoco products now available at W2Beauty, my favorites (and anti-favorite) are just a drop in the bucket. Check out the selection and draw your own conclusions — maybe you’ll find your new favorites here!


The Search For a Good Sunscreen: A’Pieu Pure Block

A'Pieu Pure Block

Just in time for summer, Fiddy went through a dozen sunscreens and found two standouts for lightweight, invisible sun protection. (Hint: They’re both A’Pieu Pure Block sunscreens.)



Confession: This article went in a totally different direction than what I originally planned. With summer coming up, I wanted to write a roundup of some great sunscreens in multiple categories. After testing over a dozen contenders from the W2Beauty inventory, however, I’d only found a couple that I love enough to recommend. Here are my winners (and a few that I suggest avoiding, plus my reasons why).


The gold medal goes to …


sunscreen reviews


A’Pieu Pure Block Aqua Sun Gel SPF 50+ PA+++

Sometimes we get lucky. The stars align, the heavens smile down on us, and we find a sunscreen that combines everything we prefer in sunscreens, at a price low enough to enable full and generous daily slathering without guilt. At least, that’s how I felt when I realized that my favorite sunscreen of the bunch I tried was also the one that cost the least.


Often seen as Missha’s little sister brand, A’Pieu is known for inexpensive and sometimes quirky products (they’re the ones that make a belly button and ear cleanser officially named the Hole Cleaner, for example). There’s nothing quirky about the Pure Block Aqua Sun Gel, though. Just exceptionally cosmetically elegant UVA and UVB protection for normal, combo-oily, and oily skin types.


Vital stats

A’Pieu Pure Block Aqua Sun Gel SPF 50+ PA+++ is a “chemical” sunscreen, meaning that it uses organic UV filters rather than inorganic mineral filters like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.


While some complexions are sensitive to one or more organic filters, for those who aren’t, these filters tend to offer superior cosmetic elegance. Chemical sunscreens tend to have little to no white cast and lend themselves to generally lighter formulations. They also typically offer better UVA protection.


Since UVA radiation is responsible for the deep skin damage that causes premature sagging and wrinkling, UVA protection is critical for those of us using sunscreen for cosmetic as well as health purposes. A’pieu Pure Block Aqua Sun Gel is PA+++, indicating comparatively strong UVA protection.


The SPF 50+ designation indicates that A’Pieu Pure Block Aqua Sun Gel also offers very high protection against UVB radiation, which causes sunburn.


Ingredients (UV filters marked with an asterisk): Water, alcohol, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (octinoxate)*, octocrylene*, ethylhexyl salicylate (octisalate)*, butylene glycol, butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane (avobenzone)*, dipropylene glycol, methyl methacrylate crosspolymer, bis-ethylhexyloxyphenol methoxyphenyl triazine (Tinosorb S)*, saussurea involucrata extract, citrullus lanatus (watermelon) fruit extract, hydrolyzed hyaluronic acid, andansonia digitata seed extract, dimethicone, sodium acrylate/sodium acryloyldimethyl taurate copolymer, acrylates/C10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer, isohexadecane, polysorbate 80, potassium hydroxide, BHT, polysorbate 60, cetyl PEG/PPG-10/1 dimethicone, cyclopentasiloxane, disodium EDTA, caprylyl glycol, ethylhexylglycerin, 1,2-hexanediol, fragrance


Like most other Asian sunscreens with the word “gel” in their names, A’Pieu Pure Block Aqua Sun Gel is actually a light, watery lotion. To my nose, it smells faintly of citrus and sunscreen. The scent fades quickly.


You know what else fades quickly? The sensation of sunscreen on my skin after I apply this product.


I apply my sunscreen in generous quantities. To ensure that I get the full labeled protection, I aim for the 2mg/cm2 thickness by which SPF and PA are measured. This works out to about 1/4 tsp for face alone, which can be quite a heavy layer if the sunscreen isn’t formulated for lightness. Luckily, the Aqua Sun Gel is. It begins to dry almost immediately upon application.


apieu pure block aqua sun cream


When I first got my big box of testing sunscreens and started swatching them on my arm, I was struck by how quickly the A’Pieu sunscreens sank in. By the time I was done swatching the collection, the A’Pieu products had completely disappeared from sight. Zero white cast, zero greasy residue, nothing but the most minor bit of added glow.


The alcohol in this sunscreen definitely helps the rapid drying time. For people with a sensitivity to alcohol in skincare, this is going to be a problem, but for people with skin like mine, which isn’t bothered by alcohol in the amounts found in skincare, it’s a very good thing. Faster drying time means less waiting in the morning, which means more sleep or an earlier start to the day’s tasks.


(And the next sunscreen I’m going to talk about is alcohol-free, so bear with me if that’s what you need!)


A’Pieu Pure Block Aqua Sun Gel plays remarkably well with my makeup. Many sunscreens I’ve tried seem to dry down fine until I try to apply makeup, at which point they ball up into a mess of white flakes. I’ve experienced no problems with pilling while using this sunscreen, and I find its subtle glowy finish helps give my makeup a gorgeous silky texture. It’s the definition of “cosmetically elegant”!


As far as sun protection goes, the Aqua Sun Gel performed as well as the high SPF and PA ratings led me to expect. My skin tans and freckles easily when exposed to the sun: It only takes a day of lackluster sun protection for my foundation to become too light and for new spots to appear on my cheeks. Neither of those things happened during my time with the Aqua Sun Gel. In fact, I’ve gotten multiple comments on the continued fading of my freckles and hyperpigmentation issues. I find the Aqua Sun Gel very reliable for daily use.


It’s important to note that this is not a water-resistant or sport-type sunscreen. If you’re planning to do a lot of outdoor physical activity or to get wet, look for one designed as water-resistant. For everyday life, however, A’Pieu Pure Block Aqua Sun Gel is an exceptional choice. I’m about to put in an order for several more tubes!


But maybe the Aqua Sun Gel doesn’t sound moisturizing enough for your skin’s needs. I sympathize. My skin has its fair share of dry days, and I live in a dry climate. Or maybe you can’t deal with the alcohol content. Luckily, there’s a more moisturizing, alcohol-free sister sunscreen.


A’Pieu Pure Block Natural Sun Cream SPF 45 PA+++


apieu pure block natural sun cream


Like the Aqua Sun Gel, the Natural Sun Cream is an everyday-type sunscreen that uses only organic UV filters rather than mineral ones. Unlike the Aqua Sun Gel, the Natural Sun Cream does not contain alcohol and does contain more emollient moisturizing ingredients, making it more suitable for drier skin types and climates.


The Natural Sun Cream is SPF 45 rather than 50+, but don’t let that turn you off. The actual difference in UVB protection is minute. In fact, the actual UVB protection difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50 is only 1 percent, so SPF 45 is nothing to worry about. The PA rating is the same as the Aqua Sun Gel’s, PA+++.


Ingredients (UV filters marked with an asterisk): Water, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (octinoxate)*, ethylhexyl salicylate (octisalate)*, butylene glycol, phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid (ensulizole)*, caprylic/capric triglyceride, butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane (avobenzone)*, bis-ethylhexyloxyphenol methoxyphenyl triazine (Tinosorb S)*, methyl methacrylate crosspolymer, glyceryl stearate, citrus aurantifolia (lime) flower extract, cetearyl olivate, sea water, prunus persica (peach) flower extract, cetearyl alcohol, nylon-12, sorbitan olivate, sodium hydroxide, pyrus malus (apple) flower extract, dimethicone, polyacrylate-13, panthenol, polyisobutene, PEG-100 stearate, tocopheryl acetate, punica granatum flower extract, sorbitan stearate, oryza sativa (rice) bran extract, malpighia emarginata (acerola) fruit extract, aloe barbadensis leaf extract, eucalyptus globulus leaf extract, rosa centifolia flower water, prunus avium (sweet cherry) flower extract, citrus aurantium dulcis (orange) flower extract, citrullus lanatus (watermelon) fruit extract, sorbitan isostearate, polysorbate 20, BHT, disodium EDTA, 1,2-hexanediol, ethylhexylglycerin, caprylyl glycol, fragrance


A’Pieu Pure Block Natural Sun Cream has a thicker and more substantial cream texture (and slightly more noticeable citrus scent) than the Aqua Sun Gel but still feels lighter by far than the vast majority of sunscreens I’ve tried. As expected, it takes a few more minutes to dry down — a perfectly manageable five extra minutes, in my experience — and feels more moisturizing once it does.


Don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a heavy, suffocating cream sunscreen, though. Once dried, the Natural Sun Cream feels nearly as weightless as the Aqua Sun Gel and lies just as nicely under makeup: no oily or sticky film, no pilling, and absolutely no white cast whatsoever — just a smooth, satiny base that feels like nearly bare skin. The Natural Sun Cream also fares equally well at protecting my skin from burning, tanning, and freckling.


While I ranked the Aqua Sun Gel higher than the Natural Sun Cream due to the Aqua Sun Gel’s drying speed, the truth is that I enjoy using the Natural Sun Cream just as much. I opened the Natural Sun Cream right after finishing my tube of the Aqua Sun Gel and didn’t feel like I lost anything by switching over. Ultimately, I think either of these would be a great choice for everyday sun protection. Which one to choose just depends on your skin type.


And now that we’ve covered the two clear winners of my 12-sunscreen testing spree, let’s look briefly at a few products that didn’t make the cut!


Graymelin Moisture Sun Essence SPF 50+ PA+++


UV filters: Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (octinoxate), homosalate, bis-ethylhexyloxyphenol methoxyphenyl triazine (Tinosorb S), octocrylene


I was immediately taken in by the sleek black pump bottle that houses this sunscreen, and immediately taken right back out by the intense shine this sunscreen produces on my face. The Graymelin Moisture Sun Essence doesn’t actually feel all that moisturizing on my skin but somehow makes me shine like I dipped my head into a bowl of oil. It’s also far too strongly fragranced. Finally, that sleek black bottle is far too easy to knock over.


Innisfree Daily UV Protection Cream (No Sebum) SPF 35 PA+++


UV filters: Zinc oxide, titanium dioxide


White cast is a major problem for all-mineral sunscreens like this one. Like the Missha All Around Safe Block Mild Sun SPF 30 PA++ that I reviewed on my blog, the Innisfree Daily UV Protection Cream (No Sebum) gives me gray cast for days. Innisfree isn’t kidding about “no sebum,” either. This sunscreen sucks all the moisture, glow, happiness, and life out of my skin, even when used over a heavy moisturizer. Could be good for very oily skin types, of course, but I’d be cautious of that gray cast.


Hera Sun Mate Leports Pro Sweatproof SPF 50+ PA++++


UV filters: Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (octinoxate), diethylamino hydroxybenzoyl hexyl benzoate (Uvinul A Plus), bis-ethylhexyloxyphenol methoxyphenyl triazine (Tinosorb S), titanium dioxide


Something strange happens whenever I apply this product. As I spread the Sun Mate Leports Pro Sweatproof over my skin, the emulsion breaks, resulting in a mix of distinct powdery beads of product on top of a slick and shiny base. It takes a lot of rubbing to get rid of the beading, at which point I always feel like I’ve accidentally rubbed off a lot of my protection yet am left with a sticky, shiny layer of product that doesn’t fully dry down. Not a fan.


As with all skincare products and product reviews, your mileage may vary, so don’t despair if you see one of your favorites in my not-favorites section. Just be glad you’ve found something that works out for you! But if you’re not sure what would work out for you, I have to say, I think it’d be a good idea to start with the favorites section.


Happy sunscreen hunting, and be sure to let us know how you like the ones you try!


The Beginner’s Guide to Cleanser pH: Why It Matters to Your Skin

cleanser pH

The culprit to a number of your skin problems could be hiding right in plain sight (in other words, your bathroom sink).



Attention! If you’re perfectly happy with your skin on all levels and totally confident in your cleanser choice (whatever its pH may be), then this article is not for you. As much as I like to experiment with skincare, there really is truth in the saying that you shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken. But if you’re at all unhappy with any aspect of your skin and feel like you’ve tried so many things without finding the solution, read on.


First, think hard about your skin. Despite what you do, do you still have struggles with any of the following:

  • Sensitivity or frequent irritation
  • Recurring breakouts that don’t respond consistently to treatment
  • Frequently dry, dehydrated-feeling skin
  • Excessive or unusual oiliness
  • General lack of radiance, plumpness, bounce, and glow


Now think about your skincare routine. You’ve likely researched just about every treatment product in it, but have you given much thought to your cleanser? Maybe not. Cleanser is such a basic thing that it’s easy to overlook the critical role it plays in skin health and appearance. But the simple ability to clean skin isn’t all a cleanser needs to offer. For optimal results, your face wash needs to clean your skin without doing damage to it, and that’s something that hardly any basic cleanser can achieve — “basic” as in high pH!


(At the bottom of this article, I’ll be linking to a couple more intensively detailed discussions on the topic, but for our purposes here, let’s boil it down to the basics. Har har har.)


But first, the skin


The outer layers of our skin are composed of dead skin cells and essential fatty acids, arranged in a kind of brick and mortar structure, with the skin cells as the bricks and the fatty acids and lipids as the mortar. Think of this as the lipid barrier or moisture barrier. The outermost layers of this structure form a mildly acidic film known as the acid mantle. As you might have guessed, the acid mantle in its natural, healthy state is at an acidic pH — somewhere between 4 and 6 generally.


The acid mantle and the layers beneath it serve a vital role in preserving the health and beauty of your skin in several ways. First of all, the acidity of the acid mantle creates an inhospitable environment for bacteria to survive and breed — bacteria including those commonly responsible for breakouts. It keeps the bad stuff out of your face, reducing the occurrence of bacterial acne.


Second, the acid mantle and the lipid barrier also serve to keep good stuff in your skin. By “good stuff,” I mostly mean water — the water responsible for keeping skin feeling comfortable and looking plump and supple. That water is also responsible for the dewy glow that K-beauty is famous for promoting. The interaction of light with the water in skin produces an unmistakable inner glow that no highlighter or illuminator can really reproduce.


How pH affects the skin


pH cleansing cleanser pH


So what happens when you use a “basic,” high-pH cleanser?


For many people, the alkaline pH of a “basic” cleanser will severely disrupt the acid mantle and the lipid barrier. A cleanser at too high of a pH weakens those skin structures, allowing the cleansing agents in the product to strip away too many of the skin’s natural lipids, compromising its overall integrity and allowing bacteria and irritants to invade and water to escape. As a side consequence, skin often appears oilier than normal. My personal theory is that the breakdown of the lipid barrier’s healthy structure allows too many of skin’s fatty acids to leak out to the surface.


It’s important to note that this damage doesn’t happen all at once, but cumulatively. From my own personal experience, I’ve tested several high-pH cleansers since starting my blog. In every instance, I thought (and usually hoped) that the cleanser I was using would be fine for my skin. I’d love to disprove the idea that we need low-pH cleansers for optimal skin health and appearance! But over long periods of use — in some cases, mere days; in others, weeks — I’d find my skin getting more and more sensitive, feeling drier and tighter after cleansing, and in the worst case actually getting red and irritated by cleansing itself.


In contrast, I’ve been using my favorite neutral-to-low-pH cleansers for months or years without similar adverse effects.


Does any of this make sense when you consider your own skin issues and all the solutions you’ve tried? If so, I strongly suggest grabbing some pH testing strips and checking out the pH of your cleanser. While blogger recommendations may vary, I personally find that cleansers of pH 6.5 and under are generally fine for my skin, while I start moving into trouble territory very quickly at 8 and above. And if your cleanser turns out to be a high pH? Time to grab a low pH cleanser and see if it might make a difference.


Low pH cleansers I’ve tried and approve


Sulwhasoo Snowise EX Cleansing Foam, my ultimate HG. This cleanser products a thick, lavish foam with a refreshing forest scent and gets my skin clean and soft every time, with no drying or irritation.


Missha Super Aqua Oxygen Micro Visible Deep Cleanser is a fun cleanser that comes out of the pump as a gel. Spread the gel over a dry face and watch it transform to a tickly, fine foam that clears pores and leaves skin bright and clean.


Innisfree Blueberry Rebalancing 5.5 Cleanser is a gentle and lightly moisturizing foaming cleanser that gets the job done with a minimum of fuss and a minimal hit to the skincare budget.


Extra reading


There’s been an understanding in scientific circles of the effects of cleanser pH on skin health for quite some time, but the bloggers who brought the issue to the forefront of Western K-beauty were Kerry from Skin and Tonics and Cat of Snow White and the Asian Pear. Both have written extensively researched and informative posts on the topic. Check them out:


Skin and Tonics: The Importance of Fatty Acids, pH, & the Moisture Barrier


Snow White and the Asian Pear: Skincare Discovery: Why the pH of Your Cleanser Matters


As a final note, it is true that many people do not find the pH levels of their basic cleansers to be problematic, and some feel that placing importance on cleanser pH can be dogmatic. There are plenty of “I/my cousin/my friend’s kindergarten teacher with the great skin wash their face with bar soap every day and are fine” stories floating around. But there are also plenty of compelling stories like Kerry’s around, of skin conditions utterly transformed by attention to the single detail of pH in cleanser.


Like I said, if you’re absolutely happy with every aspect of your skin and totally confident that your cleansing step is right for you, then just ignore me. But if you, like many of us, have dealt with skin issues that seem to have no clear cause and no clear solution, consider the pH of your cleanser. You might be surprised at what you discover.



10 Cult K-Beauty Skincare Products Everyone Should Try

k-beauty cult skincare banner

Whether you’re a K-beauty newbie or a long-time devotee, these are the cult favorite Korean skincare products that are tried and true.



With Korean beauty on the shelves of Sephora, Ulta, Target, Walmart, and now CVS all over the U.S., I think it’s fair to say that K-beauty has passed farther into the mainstream than many of us longtime fans expected. But not every Korean beauty display in a big chain store passes muster with a die-hard. Here are 10 Korean skincare products that have been beloved by K-beauty fans since long before Korean beauty hit the West big time.


1. Skinfood Black Sugar Strawberry Mask Wash Off

(awkward label diction preserved)

Do you want baby-smooth cheeks achieved with the help of a scrub that smells exactly like the most delicious strawberry jelly ever concocted? Do you enjoy the distressing confusion of using a skincare product masquerading as food, but that really, really should not ever be tasted? All the way back in 2014, Kerry from OG English-language K-beauty blog Skin & Tonics raved about the Black Sugar Strawberry Mask Wash Off. I gave it a 5/5 in 2015 (a long time before I knew how to take a proper photo, apparently). These days, Skinfood Black Sugar Strawberry Mask Wash Off is a classic physical exfoliator and must-try for those of us who like the occasional scrub.


2. Son&Park Beauty Water

What is a “beauty water”? Many different things, according to Tracy from Fanserviced-B: A quick makeup remover, a cleansing toner, a pH adjuster, and more. Sheryll from The Wanderlust Project adds gentle exfoliant to the list. Created by Korean celebrity makeup artist brand Son&Park for backstage use, Son & Park Beauty Water seems to be everything to its devotees. Founders Son Daesik and Park Taeyun are no longer with Son&Park, but the Beauty Water lives on.


top 10 cult k-beauty skincare


3. Banila Co. Clean It Zero

Balm-type cleansing oils are a dime a dozen these days, but they were once a revelation, and Banila Co. Clean It Zero is a big reason why. This makeup remover in sherbet form melts into a smooth, non-drippy cleansing oil on skin, gently breaking up and lifting off stubborn makeup from skin before emulsifying on contact with water and rinsing cleanly away. Skin & Tonics granted Clean It Zero a positive review back in the Dark Ages of 2013, and plenty of K-beauty fans continue to start their evening cleanse with Clean It Zero today.


4. Sulwhasoo Overnight Vitalizing Mask

The sleeping pack is a standard feature of many K-beauty skincare stashes. Meant to be applied as the last step in your evening skincare routine, a sleeping pack is an overnight treatment designed to produce wondrous skin improvements come morning. I’ve tried a few gallons of different sleeping packs myself, and very few hold a candle to Sulwhasoo Overnight Vitalizing Mask, which never fails to leave me with noticeably brighter, plumper, more radiant, and more supple skin come morning. Don’t take my word for it, though. Skin & Tonics and The Wanderlust Project were spreading the word three years ago!


5. COSRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol

For people used to harsher acne treatments, the bewilderingly named COSRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol can be a mystery. It’s not actually a BHA chemical exfoliant — the concentration of the BHA is too low and the pH of the product too high for significant exfoliation. Instead, this propolis-based soother is known to dramatically reduce the inflammation of breakouts; many of us find that when applied to a brewing pimple, this A-Sol can stop the spot in its tracks or at least significantly reduce its duration and intensity. Sam from ColorCrush brought COSRX’s A-Sol to English-speaking K-beauty fans’ attention in 2015. Dee from AdoreDee adores it as well, and so do I.


6. Su:m37 Miracle Rose Cleansing Stick




Not all cleansers are created equal, and very few have driven the kind of craze that surrounded the Su:m37 Miracle Rose Cleansing Stick at the peak of its popularity. This low-pH facial cleanser in stick form hooked users with its beautiful scent, lush foam, and the rose petals embedded throughout the product. It received the Skin & Tonics stamp of approval in 2014. My fellow W2Beauty Contributing Editor Coco Park loves it too. Years after a run on the product led to a dramatic spike in prices, the MRCS still shows up in many a skincare routine in the Instagram K-beauty community.


7. Mizon Snail Recovery Gel Cream

For Western K-beauty fans, particularly those who got their start on Reddit’s Asian Beauty community, snail mucin is an iconic ingredient. Known for its soothing, smoothing, calming, and healing properties, snail mucin is a key ingredient in Mizon Snail Recovery Gel Cream. This inexpensive multitasker has been a staple of Snow White and the Asian Pear’s skincare for years. It helps heal irritated or broken-out skin; in my house, we exploit its rapid recovery capabilities on minor cuts and scrapes, too. And though it isn’t particularly hydrating or moisturizing, the smooth silicone film it creates serves as a fantastic sealing step over skincare and creates a primer-like surface for makeup.


8. Leejiham (LJH) Vita Propolis Ampoule

There aren’t as many reviews of LJH Vita Propolis Ampoule available as there are for most of the other products in this list, but I have to stick my nose in here and sing the praises of these tiny bottles of golden elixir. Remember how I mentioned propolis as a key component in COSRX’s Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol? The anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, wound-healing properties of propolis seem even more concentrated in the Vita Propolis Ampoule, which also imparts a serious glow to skin. I like to mix a few drops of it into other skincare steps (like a nice snail essence, for example) for extra luminosity every day.


9. AmorePacific Treatment Enzyme Peel

Don’t let the “peel” in the name fool you: This isn’t a harsh chemical peel that’ll leave you red and raw for days. Instead, Amorepacific Treatment Enzyme Peel is a foaming powder exfoliator that uses the naturally exfoliating enzymes found in papaya extract to instantly brighten and smooth skin. Despite its higher price compared to most of the items in my list, The Wanderlust Project swears by it, and so do I. There are few more effective, quick pick-me-ups for dull skin, particularly on busy mornings. It takes only 45 seconds and leaves skin a clean and silky canvas for whatever comes after.


10. Evercos Luxury Bogam Herbal Clinic Mask Sheets

There are few concepts more revered among Western K-beauty fans than fermentation and hanbang. Fermentation is the process by which biological components are broken down into smaller and theoretically more bioavailable units, intensifying their benefits. Hanbang is the use of traditional medicinal herbs in skincare — often, those herbs have some scientifically substantiated antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and skin-brightening effects. Evercos’s fermented hanbang sheet masks bring the two concepts together in beautifully budget-friendly form and are beloved by Snow White and the Asian Pear, Vanity Rex, and me, among hordes of other fans.


K-beauty is about so much more than the select few brands that have negotiated their way into contracts with big Western retailers. Thousands of fans started their journeys to more beautiful skin and far more enjoyable skincare routines using the cult products on this list — I can’t think of a better way to begin!


How I Do K-Beauty: The Fifty Shades of Snail Skincare Routine

jude skincare routine resized BANNER

Just like everyone’s skin is unique, the way everyone cares for their skin is also unique. After all, there’s no right or wrong way to do K-beauty; it’s what works for you. In this series, we take a deep dive into the individualized skincare regimens of some K-beauty insiders. Here, W2Beauty contributing editor Jude Chao of Fifty Shades of Snail gives us a peek into her 9-step routine.



If you’ve read any articles about K-beauty in the past few years, you’ve no doubt come across at least one eye-catching “method” for curating a skincare routine. From the “7- (or 10- or 12-) Step Korean Skincare Routine!!!” to today’s “7-Skin” toner layering trend, these techniques can be a useful framework, but they’re not unbreakable rules. (And those numbers are preeeeetty arbitrary). The best skincare routine for your skin is one that you’ve tailored to your needs. To help get you thinking about what would work best for you, here’s my personal skincare system, along with some of my personal favorites in each category.


For reference, my skin is normal with some dry tendencies. My key concerns are aging and hyperpigmentation.


My Evening Routine

Since I have more time in the evening and don’t (usually) have to go out in public, I save most of my skincare for after dark. (After my son goes to bed, if we’re being honest.) The work I do on my skin at night lets me get away with a super-basic morning routine. And so that my evening routine doesn’t prevent me from doing other things (like bingeing on dramas or working on my blog or, uh, online shopping), I keep my products in a little basket that I put next to me wherever in the house I happen to be parked.


jude skincare routine


1. First cleanser

For healthy, unclogged skin, thorough sunscreen and makeup removal is a must at the end of every day. I love emulsifying cleansing oils that quickly break up everything on my face so that I can rinse gunk off in a flash.

Innisfree Apple Juicy Cleansing Oil

Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Oil


2. Second cleanser

After removing all my sunscreen and makeup, I like to use a gentle, low-to-neutral pH foaming cleanser to remove any cleansing oil residue and get my skin sparkling clean without drying it out. These cleansers leave my skin purified and ready to receive maximum benefits from my treatment products.

COSRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser

Sulwhasoo Snowise EX Cleansing Foam


3. Actives

Actives are the heavy lifters of skincare. If chosen and used carefully, chemical exfoliants, retinoids, and vitamin C serums can deliver deep, substantial improvements to skin texture, tone, and even collagen levels. I apply my actives immediately after cleansing to take advantage of bare and optimally absorbent skin.

COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid


4. First essence/booster

After my actives have had time to absorb (20 minutes or so), it’s time to move on to the hydrating steps of my routine. But wait! It’s been a while since my skin was damp, so it won’t absorb as much product as it could right after cleansing. A first essence-type product will rehydrate skin and boost its ability to take in subsequent treatments, as well as add some extra glow.

Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX


5. Hydrating toner

For me, this is where the real fun begins. You know that juicy, dewy, plump, and bouncy K-drama skin we covet? Skin like that owes its texture and glow to lots of hydration. Humectants like hyaluronic acid bind water in the upper layers of skin, smoothing the surface and bringing light to your face. Hydrating toners are key to this look, so I always use one to keep my skin packed with moisture. The best hydrating toners also provide anti-inflammatory ingredients to calm redness and even out skin tone.

Klairs Supple Preparation Facial Toner

Banila Co. Miss Flower & Mr Honey Toner (for dry and very dry skin that needs an early hit of rich moisture as well as hydration)


6. Essence

A multi-step K-beauty routine involves a series of progressively thicker products layered for efficient absorption. In terms of consistency and potency, essences are right in between toners and serums. They generally offer more targeted benefits than toners while remaining lightweight. The extra hydration of an essence also intensifies the effects of my hydrating toner.

COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence

Goodal Waterest Lasting Water Oil

Innisfree Jeju Lava Seawater Essence


7. Serums and ampoules

Typically, serum and ampoule products are the most concentrated and targeted steps you’ll find in K-beauty skincare lines. I use this stage of my routine to pack my skin full of anti-aging antioxidants and to improve elasticity, resilience, and skin tone.

Mamonde First Energy Serum

Sulwhasoo Capsulized Ginseng Fortifying Serum


8. Sheet masks

I do a sheet mask almost every night. In addition to topping up my skin’s hydration levels far better than wipe-on products ever can, sheet masks used after toner, essence, and serum help to push those products deeper into skin and can also provide instant brightness and improved texture. Plus, it’s nice to have an excuse to lie around with a mask on. A chilled sheet mask is wonderful for both redness and headaches!

COSRX Holy Moly Snail Mask


9. Cream/sleeping pack

After all those layers of hydration and nutrition, the only thing that’s left is to seal it all in with a moisturizing cream or emollient sleeping pack. Without a final moisturizer, skincare will start to evaporate and water will escape from skin overnight. Using a last-step moisturizer traps all the goodness in skin so that it can work at full power while I sleep.

It’s Skin Prestige Crème Ginseng D’Escargot

Sulwhasoo Overnight Vitalizing Mask


My Day Routine

Whew! Are you still with me? Now it’s time to cover my morning skincare routine, which is much simpler than my night routine. Nights are for treatment. Days are for quickly achieving smooth, bouncy, radiant skin, then getting out the door. My kid’s school doesn’t allow “Mom’s skincare routine” as an excuse for tardiness.


jude skincare2 resized


1. Cleanser

In the morning, I cleanse off any residue from the night before with one of my gentle foaming cleansers.


2. First essence

The first essences I like help to stimulate my skin’s circulation and boost its glow while speeding up product absorption.


3. Hydrating toner

This step is even more essential during the day than it is at night, since during the day, people might actually get to see my dewy, hydrated glow.


4. Lightweight moisturizer

A final sealing step is still important in the morning, though I keep it light for day to reduce shine and shorten the time I have to wait before applying sunscreen and makeup.

COSRX Advanced Snail 92 All In One Cream


5. Sunscreen

I always, always wear sunscreen during the day. UVA radiation can penetrate cloud cover, and UVA radiation is the one primarily responsible for accelerating visible signs of skin aging. After my moisturizer sinks in completely, I apply sunscreen generously with a clean cushion puff and let it dry before moving on to makeup.


And that’s it! I hope this was helpful to you as you put together your own K-beauty skincare routine. You can find reviews for most of the products I’ve listed above on my blog, Fifty Shades of Snail. If you have any questions or feedback about your own skincare routine, please let me know in the comments below!


Sign Up For Our Newsletter