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The Ultimate Guide to J-Beauty

Japanese Beauty 101: The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Skincare


What is Japanese Beauty?

Key Steps in a Japanese Beauty Skincare Routine

Morning Japanese Beauty Skincare Routine

  • Cleanser
  • Toner Category (AKA Lotion/Emulsion/Essence/Skin Conditioner/Softener)
  • Serum
  • Cream/Moisturizer
  • Eye Cream
  • Sunscreen

Evening Japanese Beauty Skincare Routine

  • Double Cleansing (Oil/Balm -> Face Wash)
  • Exfoliation
  • Skin Conditioner/Skin Softener/Essence (Toner Category)
  • Lotions/Emulsion (Toner Category)
  • Serum
  • Sheet Mask
  • Cream/Moisturizer
  • Eye Cream

Do I Need ALL These Products?

Final Thoughts


What is Japanese Beauty?

Japanese Beauty, or J-Beauty for short, has been around for a long, long time. From as far back as the Nara Period, women in Japanese society were obsessed with the idea of fair skin. In the Edo Period, we see this sentiment echoed again in a “skincare bible” of sorts that documented various methods and recipes for achieving translucent, blemish-free skin. Fast forward to 2021, J-Beauty is now a stronghold in the cosmetics and skincare industries globally: Shiseido, one of the oldest beauty companies in the world at 149-years-old, is the FIFTH largest cosmetics company in the world. Scientific advancements in J-Beauty laid the foundation for worldwide trends in cosmetics and skincare. (Fun fact: Shiseido was the first company to produce hyaluronic acid from non-animal sources!)

J-Beauty’s approach to skincare can best be explained through the concept of a coin. One side of the coin is cleansing and exfoliating, and the other side of the coin is nourishing and protecting. Both are equally important in a Japanese Beauty skincare routine and cannot be skipped, or the skin’s balance cannot be achieved. The end result for most Japanese skincare routines should be mochi-like, soft and supple skin.

Key Steps in a Japanese Beauty Skincare Routine

Next, we’ll outline what typical Japanese skincare routines in the morning and evening might look like! The main difference between the two is that the former incorporates SPF, while the latter uses double cleansing to remove the SPF applied earlier. Morning skincare routines also tend to use less product to avoid interfering with makeup application. One could say that the morning skincare routine prioritizes the nourishing and protecting side of the coin, whereas the evening skincare routine adds in the extra step of exfoliation to bring back the coin’s balance.

Of course, you can always alter a skincare routine to fit YOUR skin! We suggest experimenting with different steps and products slowly to find out what works best for you. What’s important to note is that Japanese skincare products often have English labels that are not directly parallel to its Western counterparts, and we’ll cover that in more detail as well. If you’re not sure what a product’s categorization is, a good rule of thumb is to apply your skincare from thinnest to thickest.

Morning Japanese Beauty Skincare Routine

Cleanser

After waking up in the morning, washing the face with a gentle cleanser is important in order to remove excess products from the night before that may not have absorbed fully into the skin. Cleansing in the morning will also help prep the face for the following steps!

Cleansers come in many different textures and forms. Some of the more popular types of cleansers are gel, foam, and powder! When picking a cleanser, it’s preferable to select one that does not leave the skin feeling stripped. A stripping cleanser would leave your skin unbalanced, so look for one that is a mild daily cleanser when in doubt.

Minon Amino Moist Gentle Wash Whip Foaming Cleanser

Minon Amino Moist Gentle Wash Whip Foaming Cleanser


Toner Category (AKA Lotion/Emulsion/Essence/Skin Conditioner/Softener)

That long list of names will often refer to what is essentially, in Western terms, a toner. In J-Beauty, toners go by several names, like keshou-shui (makeup water), nyu-eki (creamy liquid), biyo-eki (beauty liquid). For the sake of simplicity, we will use toner to refer to the above products for the morning routine, and we will break down the categories more in the evening routine section below.

While there are slight variations amongst the labels (emulsions and creamy lotions, for example, are more viscous), the ultimate goal of toner in a J-Beauty skincare routine is to soften and prep the skin for more hydration.
Toner has a light and watery texture that lends itself well to absorption. You can apply toner on your face by simply patting it in with your hands, or using cotton balls/pads. Another common method of application involves soaking thin cotton pads with toner, then leaving it on your face for a few minutes for a “toner pack.”

If you have sensitive skin, make sure to check out the ingredient list for ingredients that might irritate your skin. Alcohol is a common ingredient in toner, and while it is often balanced out with other hydrating ingredients, we recommend patch-testing on your neck just in case.

Labo Labo Super-Keana (Pores) Lotion

Labo Labo Super-Keana (Pores) Lotion


Serum

Serums are thicker in texture than the grouping of toners and similar products, and are formulated to target specific concerns, such as anti-aging and brightening. In J-Beauty, serums are important for nourishing the skin since its ingredients are more concentrated and its effects are more potent than other steps.

Serums are best applied sparingly, and over areas that you would like to target the most. Use your fingers to gently pat in serum, letting the warmth of your fingertips do most of the work.

Melano CC Intensive Anti-Spot Essence

Melano CC Intensive Anti-Spot Essence


Cream/Moisturizer

If you don't use any products from the toner category, definitely make sure you use a cream to hydrate your skin. In addition to hydrating, creams and moisturizers are also meant to lock in moisture with their thick texture.
Because creams and moisturizers are much heavier than products used in earlier steps, creams are more favored by those with very dry skin. Creams and moisturizers are especially helpful during the winter, when weather conditions are drier and cause more water loss. Other skin types will also find creams and moisturizers helpful, but may want to look for one with a lighter texture.

Creams and moisturizers should be applied delicately, and preferably after the previous products have mostly absorbed into the skin. Pat in the product with your fingertips, being careful not to drag the layers underneath.

Naturie Hatomugi Skin Conditioning Gel

Naturie Hatomugi Skin Conditioning Gel

Eye Cream

This is an optional step for your morning skincare routine! Eye creams are obviously popular as an anti-aging measure, but they’re also important for preventative aging. The area around the eyes is especially thin and prone to fine lines and wrinkles, so using an eye cream to give extra care to the eye area can help plump the cells for a firmer look.
Take your skin type into consideration as you choose an eye cream; for example, those with more easily clogged pores will want to look for a lighter eye cream, and those with more mature skin may want an extra nourishing eye cream.

Also think about whether you want to apply eye creams during your morning or evening routine. Morning eye creams are generally lighter in texture so as to avoid interfering with makeup application, whereas evening eye creams are heavier for restoring while sleeping. You can apply eye cream twice a day if you feel the need, but take into account the fact that eye creams are extremely concentrated.

Starting from underneath your inner corner, use your ring finger to pat a pea-sized amount outwards in a semicircle, being careful not to apply too closely to the eye. Pat until you reach your brow bone underneath your eyebrow. This patting motion will stimulate circulation for a more refreshed, awake look.

Sunscreen

It goes without saying that sunscreen is arguably the most important part of a morning skincare routine. This is doubly true in Japanese skincare, where facial sunscreen reigns supreme for its ability to lower the risks of skin cancer, skin aging, and dark spots while presenting a cosmetically elegant formulation.
Look for Japanese sunscreens with both SPF and PA to block both UVB and UVA rays. The higher the SPF and PA, the better the sunscreen will block UVB and UVA rays.

Japanese sunscreens are often far more effective than Western sunscreens because they are considered cosmetic products as well, so their ingredients and formulations are not limited by a topical drug label. As they are considered cosmetic products, Japanese sunscreens come in many different variations, many of which are intended for layering under makeup. Some Japanese sunscreens “tone up” the skin as a makeup base, and some Japanese sunscreens come in spray form for easier touch-ups after makeup application. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours, so using a sunscreen spray is especially convenient to avoid disrupting your makeup.
It’s best to apply sunscreen after the previous products have fully absorbed into the skin, and to apply 30 minutes before sun exposure.

Anessa Perfect UV Sunscreen Skincare Milk SPF50+ PA++++

Anessa Perfect UV Sunscreen Skincare Milk SPF50+ PA++++


Evening Japanese Beauty Skincare Routine

Double Cleansing (Oil/Balm -> Face Wash)

In Western skincare, there is an emphasis on stripping the skin and achieving that “squeaky clean” feeling before jumping into the rest of the skincare routine, hence why we see the popularity of cleansing toners, astringents, and exfoliators. However, Japanese skincare differs in that even the cleansing part of a skincare routine should be gentle but effective.
Double cleansing, for example, uses an emulsifying oil or balm to remove makeup and sunscreen thoroughly before using a lathering face wash. The more involved cleansing process might seem like a pain, but is a key in Japanese skincare for many reasons: not only does double cleansing properly clear the pores of any leftover dirt, makeup, build-up, and the like that might clog them and lead to a break-out emergency the next day, double cleansing also makes the nourishing part of the routine far more impactful. Without the extra grime on your face, lotions, serums, and sheet masks absorb into the skin with minimum resistance.

DHC Deep Cleansing Oil

DHC Deep Cleansing Oil

Senka All Clear Gel Cleanser and Makeup Remover

Senka All Clear Gel Cleanser and Makeup Remover


Exfoliation

As mentioned earlier, a difference between the morning and evening skincare routines is the addition of exfoliation. Exfoliation in a J-Beauty routine generally takes place in the second step of double cleansing, and is also a function of some toners.

There are two types of exfoliation: physical and chemical.

Physical exfoliation relies on physical friction to remove dead skin cells, with some popular physical exfoliants being face cloths and powder face washes. Powder face washes, for example, are especially loved in Japan due to their slightly grainy texture, which gently removes dead skin cells to reveal softer, smoother skin. Interestingly enough, many powder face washes in Japan also integrate chemical exfoliation!

Chemical exfoliants use BHAs, AHAs, and enzymes to remove dead skin cells and any leftover build-up in the pores that the double cleansing process may have missed. The name sounds scarier than physical exfoliation for sure, but can actually be the less aggressive option.

Exfoliation preps the face for later steps, therefore making absorption of toners, serums, creams, and what-have-you into newer skin cells more effective. Since exfoliation sounds like such an important step in a J-Beauty routine, many newbies will make the mistake of exfoliating every single day. How often you should exfoliate depends on the kind of exfoliation you are incorporating—for physical exfoliation, 1-3 times a week is ideal, whereas gentler chemical exfoliants can be used daily. More potent chemical peels with higher concentrations of acids should be used once a week or as instructed by the product packaging.

While you should always be using sunscreen during your morning skincare routine, it’s extra important to do so if you are using chemical exfoliants, as certain ingredients like glycolic acid will increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun.

Rosette Gommage Peeling Gel

Rosette Gommage Peeling Gel


Skin Conditioner/Skin Softener/Essence (Toner Category)

As mentioned earlier, J-Beauty brands have a LOT of names for toner-adjacent products. The naming conventions are largely arbitrary when considering how one essence from one brand may have the same function and feel of an emulsion from another brand. Regardless of the label of the product, applying thinnest to thickest is generally a solid place to start.

Skin conditioners and skin softeners are a crucial buffer step between cleanser and moisturizer. By applying skin conditioner or skin softener, you can prevent moisture loss by providing hydration and sealing moisture in. They are meant to soften, hydrate, and prep the skin for even more hydration.

Essence, or biyo-eki, translates literally to beauty liquid. Unlike lotions, which are slightly thicker and more viscous, essences have a lighter texture. While the look and feel of lotions and essences are extremely similar, the biggest difference between these categories is that essences are more “specialized” in their function. Some may opt to skip essence if they feel their current skincare routine takes care of general concerns, while others will add essence to their routine to treat fine lines or dullness specifically.

You can apply skin softener, skin conditioner, and essence on your face by simply patting it in with your hands, or using cotton pads. Another common method of application is a toner pack, which involves soaking thin cotton pads with skin softener, skin conditioner, and essence, then leaving them on your face for a few minutes.

ALBION Essential Skin Conditioner

Rosette Gommage Peeling Gel

Lotions/Emulsion (Toner Category)

“Lotion?” you question. “You mean the cream stuff I put on my body?”
Well, in name, yes! But what lotions actually refer to in Japanese Beauty is keshou-shui, which translates to “makeup water.” As mentioned in our morning skincare routine section, the most similar comparison to Western skincare would be toners (which often emphasize cleaning or stripping the skin), although Japanese lotions are meant to moderately nourish the skin. Emulsions are also similarly textured, which lends well to absorption. There’s also creamy lotion, or nyu-eki, which translates literally to creamy liquid. Creamy lotion is meant to be used after the thinner lotion to seal in moisture. As the two lotions and emulsion help prevent water loss, those with especially dry skin may want to consider adding them to their skincare routine.

You can apply lotion and emulsion by patting them into the skin gently. Like with skin softener, skin conditioner, and essence, you can also make a toner pack by soaking thin cotton pads with lotion and emulsion, then leaving them on your face for a few minutes.

If you have sensitive skin, make sure to check out your lotion’s ingredient list for possible irritants. Alcohol is a common ingredient in lotions, and while it is often balanced out with other hydrating ingredients, we recommend patch-testing on your neck just in case. Emulsions are less likely to include alcohol, but it may be a good idea to double check your specific product as well!


Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Hyaluronic Milky Lotion

Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Hyaluronic Milky Lotion

Serum

Like essences, serums are also formulated to target specific concerns while nourishing the skin in general. Serums, though, are much thicker than essences and have more concentrated ingredients, leading to a stronger effect on the skin.

Because serums are more potent, they are best applied sparingly, and over areas that you would like to target the most. Use your fingers to gently pat in serum, letting the warmth of your fingertips do most of the work. Take care to not rub it into the face, or you might risk disrupting the previous layers of products. Patting will also decrease your chances of pilling.

Sheet Mask

Using a sheet mask after ALL the aforementioned steps can seem like overkill, but if you really want to lock all the amazing benefits of your toner, essence, serum, and the like, sheet masks can be a great option. The fabric of the sheet mask allows its formula (and the products from previous steps!) to really seep into the skin in the span of 5-30 minutes.

Sheet masks are so popular in Japan that they often come in huge tubs akin to resealable wet wipes! Instead of investing in one of those huge tubs right off the bat, do buy a single mask first to make sure your skin agrees with the product.

Sheet masks come in all different shapes, sizes, and materials. Some may be 100% cotton fabric with thin, toner-like liquid, while others are silk fabric with a thicker, serum-like liquid. You can find almost any combination of materials and liquid, so run wild and experiment!

Momopuri Milk Jelly Mask

Momopuri Milk Jelly Mask


Cream/Moisturizer

Creams and moisturizers are meant to lock in moisture with their thick texture after all the earlier steps with lighter products. They’re applied near the end of a nighttime skincare routine to ensure that the more watery products are sealed and absorbed into the skin.

Especially if you don’t use any products from the toner category, you should invest in a high quality cream or moisturizer to hydrate your skin and prevent moisture loss.

Even though creams and moisturizers are more favored by those with very dry skin, other skin types may also find them helpful, particularly in drier seasons that cause more water loss. Other skin types may want to look for creams and moisturizers with a lighter texture, like a gel cream or gel moisturizer.

Creams and moisturizers are best applied delicately after the previous products have mostly absorbed into the skin. Pat in the product with your fingertips, being careful not to disrupt the layers underneath to avoid pilling.

Minon Amino Moist Charge Milk Moisturizer

Minon Amino Moist Charge Milk Moisturizer


Eye Cream

At last, we reach the end of a long-winded Japanese skincare routine! Nighttime eye creams tend to be heavier in order to nourish and restore throughout a good night’s rest. If you’re looking to prevent aging or reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, incorporate a good nighttime eye cream into your skincare routine for a firm and lifted undereye area.

When choosing an eye cream, think about your skin’s ability to absorb product, as well as major benefits you’d like. For instance, some may want a cooling eye cream for depuffing purposes, while others may want a caffeine-infused eye cream to remedy dark circles.

Starting from underneath your inner corner, use your ring finger to pat a pea-sized amount outwards in a semicircle, being careful not to apply too closely to the eye. Pat until you reach your brow bone underneath your eyebrow. This patting motion will stimulate circulation for a more refreshed, awake look.

Do I Need ALL These Products?

The short answer is no! The longer answer is no, for two main reasons.

  1. Even if you don’t have sensitive skin, you might find your skin overwhelmed by all the different ingredients, textures, and layers. This is especially true for the more concentrated products, like serums and eye creams. Again, go slow to find what your skin likes. Introduce new products to your skin one at a time or through patch tests on your neck, just to err on the side of caution.
  2. From reading the “Key Steps" section, you might notice that different categories seem to overlap in function or feel. If one product is labeled nyu-eki and another is labeled biyo-eki but both look about the same, do your research to see what benefits you want for your skin. If you find that one essence is more than enough to moisturize your skin, don’t feel the need to grab an emulsion!

Final Thoughts

Japanese skincare is a tried and true cultural phenomenon that uses both scientific advancements and naturally-derived ingredients to improve your skin. Even though the sea of confusing terminology from labeling discrepancies may seem steep, the benefits of J-Beauty are well worth the effort!

As long as you know what effects you want for your skin from your morning and evening skincare routines, navigating different products should become a lot less challenging. Do your due diligence in researching products to get the most out of your J-Beauty experience!

Sources:

https://www.shiseido.com/us/en/exclusives/japanese-beauty/
https://murasakicosmetics.com/blogs/j-beauty/what-s-the-difference-between-japanese-lotion-and-emulsion
https://nomakenolife.com/blog/japanese-drug-store-vocabulary
https://www.elle.com/uk/beauty/skin/a36728/double-cleansing-skin-what-is-it/
https://www.vox.com/2017/11/1/16572068/j-beauty-japanese-skincare-makeup-product-guide
https://www.nippon.com/en/views/b02602/
https://highereducationskincare.com/blogs/the-glow/exfoliation-101-physical-vs-chemical
https://cooljp.co/article/japanese-sunscreens-benefits-cj-7166#:~:text=This%20is%20why%20Western%20sunscreens,added%20skincare%20benefits%2C%20and%20more.&text=SPF%20is%20the%20parameter%20used,sunburn%20and%2For%20skin%20cancer.
https://www.dermstore.com/blog/how-to-apply-eye-cream-properly/

https://www.tatcha.com/blog/correct-order-to-apply-skin-care-products-morning-and-night-routine.html

https://sekkisei-usa.com/pages/morning-skincare-regimen
https://www.japanbullet.com/life-style/shiseido-cosmetics



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