Americans want quick fixes for our acne with spot treatments and acids. To prevent blemishes, Korean dermatologists emphasize hydration and moisture barrier support. We break down both the benefits and differences of each treatment option.
Imagine this: Your skin is bursting out. You can see it’s inflamed and angry so you use salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide to calm the situation. The spots will become redder and more flamboyant, but that’s acne vs you.
Zion Ko Lamm M.D. is a board-certified internal medicine doctor. Imagine a holistic approach. Our primary goal would be to prevent breakouts. Our dermatologist would be our first stop before we get depressed and cry over pimples. Skin-care routines would always focus on hydration and supporting the skin’s moisture barrier.
That’s South Korea’s way of dealing with acne. Dr. Ko Lam shares that acne can be treated with mild acid or a combination of both.
Although Dr. Ko Lamm is based in Charlotte (North Carolina), her practice is actually based in Korea. Her take on Korean skin care is accurate. I have interviewed many dermatologists in Seoul over the years. Back in 2019, I sat down with board-certified dermatologist Lim Ee Seok in his office at the Thema Dermatologic Clinic in Seoul’s dermatologist-dominated neighborhood Gangnam.
He also stressed that dermatology in Korea does not only address problems, but prevents them from ever happening. How can breakouts be eliminated in Korea? Let board-certified Korean dermatologists, based in Seoul or New York City, explain.
K-beauty products are much gentler than Western brands. According to Dr. Y. Claire Chang (a board-certified dermatologist at New York’s Union Square Dermatology), they often contain hydrating, calming substances, such as niacinamide and green tea. She also spends several months per year in Seoul to learn more and practice.
Retinol-based products are rare to find on the shelves of beauty shops in Korea. Bakuchiol is a low-key alternative to vitamin A, but it’s starting to make a comeback in K-beauty.
Because people with acne have sensitive skin, high levels of acidity and tretinoin are preferable to these soothing and healing ingredients. Dr. Chang says that over-exfoliating the skin and drying it out would only exacerbate the irritation. She adds that Koreans value glowing skin and would be disappointed if their skin began to peel or become dry.
Moisture Is Essential
Dr. Cho Yun Joo, a Seoul-based board-certified dermatologist, has a top tip for anyone suffering from acne. Her skin is sensitive and she uses moisturizer twice a month. She explains that dry skin produces more oil to protect it. More oil means more chances of breaking out. She is also a big fan of toner and sprays it in a spray bottle to make easy application.
Dr. Ko Lam mentions that hydration is the key to clearing out toxic substances. She says that dry skin is a breeding ground for bacteria, and can lead to clogged pores. You can treat acne holistically by combining topical hydration and drinking seven glasses of water.
Always on the Schedule
Patients with acne in Korea take their relationship to their dermatologists very seriously. Many have weekly or even twice-weekly appointments, as Dr. Chang and Dr. Hwang Joong Ik at Seoul’s ID Hospital point out. This was also the case with pH-1, a Korean rapper who makes it a point to visit the dermatologist at least once per week, despite his music career and collaborating with some of the most prominent Korean artists. He isn’t just getting a skin check, but he also leaves with a list of recommendations or a prescription.
People instead visit the dermatologist’s office to get medical-grade facials. This is not only for when their skin is suffering but also for when it is doing well. These facials often include everything your skin needs to thrive, including deep cleansing, gentle exfoliating (often called “scaling”), calming masks and moisturizing ampoules.
The ID Hospital was the place I received one of these treatments when I was last in Seoul. It was amazing, even though it wasn’t in a spa environment. Each step was so clinical and intensive.
Korea’s universal single-payer health care system makes in-office treatment much more affordable than in America.
About five years ago, skin-care technology started to advance, and acne patients started adding laser treatments and radiofrequency-charged microneedling to their weekly visits, Dr. Ban says.
Dr. Wook Lee is a fan of gold photothermal therapy (or GoldPTT). Sang Wook Lee is a dermatologist at Seoul’s Yezel Clinic who treats severe cases of acne. This treatment is even offered to my friend by Dr. It is a non-invasive treatment that Sang swears by. A special serum containing gold nanoparticles is applied to the skin. An ultrasound wave device is then used to stimulate pores to absorb the serum.
A long-pulsed diode light, commonly Vbeam, heats the gold molecules. This can shrink pores, stop oil production, and kill acne-causing bacteria. Gold PTT has been the subject of major research over the last three years. It is not yet available in the United States. VBeam, however, is available in dermatology offices all over the U.S.
Dr. Cho has had personal experience with Fraxel, a heavier-duty laser that is used to manage her acne. It can cause significant downtime. Dr. Ban says that it slows down the appearance of breakouts in people who have them all the time.
You also have the option of injectables. Cortisone injections can be done at dermatologist offices in order to quickly treat cystic pimples. This is just like what they do in America. Korea goes one step further and offers skin booster shots. (I have tried a few and I’ve shared my thoughts on the future of K-beauty.) According to Dr. Choi Bo Youn (a Seoul-based dermatologist), Rejuran Healer is the most popular for acne. The elixir can be injected in small amounts to balance oil production and moisture levels. She adds that it also aids in redness and rejuvenation.
Topical creams can also be prescribed. These are the most effective way to clear up acne, Dr. Choi states. Dr. Ban adds that Epiduo and antibiotic-based ones are the most commonly prescribed in Korea. This medication is also prescribed frequently in America, especially for cystic acne.
Stay True to Your Goals
Korea is home to pimple patches. Dr. Ko Lamm says the small, round, hydrocolloid stickers can be used to treat acne and protect skin from environmental aggressors. Dr. Chang says that the stickers will prevent you from picking at your pimples or popping them. Every person I see has at least one pimple on their face, whether they are at home or out with friends in Seoul. You can also find them easily in any beauty store, as there are many racks full of them. They are also easily available in the U.S. thanks to Hero Cosmetics or Soko Glam.
Dr. Ko Lam mentions that although most acne stickers don’t contain any medication, some do contain gentle, but effective, anti-inflammatory ingredients. The Cosrx Master Patch Intensive, which I use as a part of my skin-care routine is essential, covers the zits with a tea-tree oil-infused blanket. The Acrosspass Trouble Cure contains painless, dissolvable darts containing hyaluronic, niacinamide and peptides.
As patients, we are accustomed to quick fixes for medical problems. Dr. Chang says that both doctors and patients in America value evidence-based medicine. When recommending acne products, they often rely heavily on large clinical trials. She says that retinoids and salicylic acid are the most common ingredients in these clinical studies. They can be irritating and drying, but they are effective.
This trio is the king of American acne conversation. This trio is a reminder that spot treatments like drying lotions have been a prized product for many decades. For dry, mature skin, hydrating ingredients like niacinamide or hyaluronic acids are more important.
Dr. Chang can also attest to American’s inability to maintain a consistent skin-care regimen. She adds that “they often treat [breakouts] just as they come.” Dr. Chang notes that many of her patients are becoming more interested in preventative medicine.
The K-Beauty Acne Routine
Dr. Chang states that consistency is key to the best K-beauty skin-care regimen. Stick with the products you love once they work for you. I asked dermatologists their top picks, just in case they have any suggestions.
Dr. Chang recommends the Neogen Real Cica Micellar Cleansing Foam. The gentle face wash, which contains skin-loving ingredients such as hyaluronic and cica, helps to remove impurities and leaves it clean and soft with the aid of ceramides.
Dr. Ko Lamm recommends the Medicube Zero foam cleanser. This frothy formula is a favorite among Allure Korea editors. It combines emollient rich fatty acids with soothing plant extracts to remove dirt and bacteria from skin and pores.
Make sure you only wash your face once or twice a day. Dr. Lee recommends that you only wash your face twice a day, once in the morning and one at night. I see people who cleanse too much when their skin is breaking out. K-pop stars like Jamie and TWICE’s Jihyo have said to me that they only use 10 ounces of water each morning to wash their skin. These sentiments were echoed by Dr. Ranella Hirsch in an Allure interview. “There is no reason to wash your skin in the morning, if you have thoroughly cleaned it the night before.”
You may also want to include a toner in your skin-care regimen. Dr. Chang explains that the Cosrx AHA/BHA Clearing Treatment Toner can be used daily to remove skin cells and unclog pores. The combination of an anti-inflammatory ingredients, including allantoin and gentle acids like apple fruit water (a form malic acid) and betaine salicylate (both derivatives of salicylic Acid), are also included.
Alternately you can try the popular Some by Mi AHA/BHA/PHA 30 Day Miracle Toner. This acts as a secondary cleanse to remove nastiness from your skin and leaves it feeling soothed and renewed. Krave Beauty’s Kale -Lalu -yAHA is a gentle exfoliator that contains glycolic acids and leafy-green extracts to help lift away pore-clogging dead cells and grime. A trick I learned from Kpop stars is to soak cotton pads in any of the listed toners and then place them on your skin.
The Goodal Green Tangerine Vita C Deep Spot Serum, suggested by Dr. Ko Lam, is a great option for daytime to even out your skin’s texture and tone with vitamin C derivatives.
Let me tell you about a local tea: My Korean friends are obsessed with the Olive Young isoi Bulgarian Rose Blemish Care serum. It is Korea’s beauty superstore/my first stop when I visit Seoul. The variety of botanical ingredients in this product includes allantoin and willow bark extract. It also contains several extracts from different parts of roses to make your skin glow.
Dr. Chang recommends Dr. G Red Blemish Clear Moisturizer as a go-to moisturizer. The lightweight gel formula soothes inflammation and contains panthenol, niacinamide and cica. Another weightless option is the Dr. Jart+ Teatreement Moisturzer. Dr. Chang says the green gel contains green tea extract and tea tree oil. Ceramides and salicylic acid are also included to help combat acne and nourish skin. According to Ava Shamban (a Beverly Hills dermatologist), rose is an excellent skin-care ingredient because it has “anti-inflammatory, antiseptic healing properties.”
The Mediheal Tea Tree Essential Blemish Control Mask, a popular Korean product and favorite among Korean dermatologists, is the best choice for those days when you just want to pamper yourself with a face mask. This mask removes the effects of willow bark and tea tree leaf extract, while soothing skin with chamomile, allantoin and cica. This can be used in place of the serum step and followed up with moisturizer.