This review contains PR samples° and affiliate links* Welcome 2021 – so far, so…um, not fantastic, but let’s see what the rest of the year will bring for us in terms of beauty trends: today I am making my annual K-beauty trends prediction, focusing on 5 skincare trends that I believe will be particularly influential in 2021!
Being a person that isn’t a fan of New Year’s in general, I, thankfully, didn’t really have any specific expectations regarding 2021 when I dragged my depressed ass through December 2020. Thus, I personally wasn’t too surprised when it turned out that with the beginning 2021 the global pandemic and political upheavals would not, in fact, magically dissolve in a “poof” of sparkly fairy dust. Now, this depressive realism probably came from the fact that I celebrated New Year’s on my own due to the hard lockdown Germany has been stuck in since mid-December, which will probably last all the way through February… So…yeah, my excitement and optimism regarding 2021 has already been somewhat dampened.
Hey, but you know what I am always cheerfully happy to discuss and be excited about? That’s right, K-beauty trends for the new year! I actually forgot to do a big prediction article (or podcast – guys, I promise I haven’t forgotten about the podcast) around mid-2020, so a lot of trends that I really want to discuss have been piling up on my “trend watch” list. Today, I will focus on 5 skincare trends in particular that have been emerging in Korean beauty, and which I believe will keep making a big impact in 2021. As you may be able to guess, many of them are connected to the pandemic and what it does to our skin in particular – because, again – you didn’t really think that would all just magically go away, now did you?
1. K-Beauty Trends for 2021: Buzzword “Maskne”
Even though we, thankfully, now have a few vaccine options to hopefully end the pandemic, for now we are still stuck in this mess and will be for many more months to come. Masking in public spaces has become mandatory in many countries, and for many of us, it is the first time wearing masks for a prolonged time. “Maskne” – acne cause by mask-wearing – has become the skincare buzzword of the pandemic, and I predict it will remain a big concern for many of us throughout 2021. Given that timelines for achieving herd immunity through vaccination within a country are looking at potentially summer, maybe even autumn of 2021 at the earliest, I’d say we will very much have to keep our masks on for most of the year!
Even though Koreans are very much used to wearing masks, both when sick as well as during times of yellow dust exposure, there has been a definite upsurge in interest towards products catering to sensitised skin prone to breakouts. Odile Monod has a great video out on this topic, and it is a worthwhile watch with some interesting product recommendations! Soothing and gently restoring products with light textures and anti-inflammatory properties seem to be particularly popular in Korea right now, and classic, almost old-school skin-calming ingredients such as panthenol, propolis or good old centella asiatica are booming, with new sensitive skincare lines launching what seems to be every week!
Olive Young’s in-house brand Botanic Heal has seen massive success with their Derma Intensive Cica Panthenol range, which features the perfect maskne targeting ingredient duo of panthenol and centella asiatica. I myself have been a big fan of their Derma Intensive Cica Panthenol Ampoule,* which has a lovely soothing effect on my redness-prone skin. It also has a great creamy, lotion-like texture, with an almost oil-like finish that leaves a bit of a glow on the skin.
Round Lab’s Dokdo Toner,* which I reviewed a while ago on the blog, has always been a bestseller, but I feel has become even more hyped now than in previous years. The brand also had massive success with their birch juice line (see my trend prediction no. 4!): their hyper gentle, skin barrier respecting Birch Juice Moisturizing Cream* dominated bestseller lists at Olive Young for most of 2020. In general, there is a definite tendency to choose lighter, lotion-like creams vs. heavier balms, again pointing towards a need for easy, gentle hydration that doesn’t cause further breakouts.
Skin barrier protecting, gentle cleansers are also becoming a bigger and bigger thing in Korea, also in great parts spurred on by maskne problems, though I believe the popularity of skincare apps such as Hwahae also play a role here. Be Plain’s Greenful pH Balanced Cleansing Foam* is one of the top choices for many Koreans these days, and after really enjoying their Cicaful Ampoule I am quite keen to try that particular cleanser!
Probiotic skincare is, in my eyes, still a bit of a K-beauty trend that just won’t fully land no matter how hard the marketing gods are trying, but Korean brands are definitely using the probiotic label in many skincare products specifically targeting maskne woes. Illiyoon’s Probiotic Skin Barrier Cica Balm* is one of those S.O.S skincare products great for a damaged skin barrier, especially as an overnight treatment. I still don’t know how to feel about Neogen’s probiotic skincare line, since so few influencers seem to ever mention it again after that one initial introductory video. Their Probiotics Double Action Serum*, however, looks very interesting indeed!
2. K-Beauty Trends for 2021: Skincare Catered to Your Microbiome
I have Odile Monod to mostly thank for realising this was, in fact, not just a niche trend but a big trending mainstream beauty topic! During my visit to the Vivaness 2020 back in early February, when going to events and trade fairs was still a thing, I had already noticed many natural and organic brands showing their “microbiome-friendly” skincare. Taiwanese organic brand NAVEEN had two serums on offer specifically developed to support the skin’s microbiome, though weirdly enough I now cannot find any trace of them on the net – maybe it was a private label type product?
Not being a scientist myself, I have to rely on other people’s definitions of what a microbiome is. The Microbiology Society defines a microbiome as “the community of micro-organisms living together in a particular habitat.” You may remember hearing about that slightly yucky microbiology study which asked people to take swab samples of their belly buttons’ microbiome – apparently, every human being has a different combo of organisms hanging out in there. Shudder.
Beauty brands are of course focused on our skin’s microbiome, trying to figure out the best ingredient combos to keep the “friendly” or “healthy” bacteria intact, while being able to combat bacterial overgrowth and problem-causing bacteria such as good old P. acnes, which causes acne. Our skin microbiome is a delicate thing, which can easily be thrown out of balance if we use harsh ingredients or overdo it with our actives (which I am guilty of, yikes).
Here is where probiotics in skincare can really become stars, though again I kind of feel like consumers are somewhat sceptical about their effectiveness. Nevertheless, the Manyo Clinic Bifida Biome Complex Ampoule* with bifida bacteria is a longtime steadyseller, with sales probably going up in 2020 thanks to the brand’s celebrity ambassador, Crash Landing On You’s Son Ye-jin, and the fact that the ampoule was prominently featured in the smash hit drama (apparently, North Korean women just looooove Manyo Factory…). Dr. Jart+ has had increasing success with their Vital Hydra Solution Biome Essence* and Biome Water Cream*, both apparently great choices for a compromised skin barrier, if you can tolerate the odd cheese smell, that is.
A very bizarre trend in Korean beauty right now is the use of human microbiome skin cell cultures in skincare. Yep, you heard that right – human microbiome cell cultures. The idea behind this oddest of skincare ingredients is the somewhat strange assumption that putting microbiome cells of healthy and young humans on your skin will magically also make your own skin healthy and young. I am not too sure if the science here holds up, but given that the trend is still brand new I assume we may have to wait for the science bloggers to pick up on it! Again, Odile Monod was the one mentioning this first in English, with Centellian 24 being the main brand to kickstart the trend. Their Tension Up Microbiome Elastic Ampoule contains “microbiome cultures” taken from the skin of 20-something youngsters who, I assume, all have magically perfect skin. I…have doubts about this, but we shall see!
3. K-Beauty Trends for 20201: Kombucha
This is probably one of the newest K-beauty trends in this list, since I really only noticed it emerging in the latter quarter of 2020. Kombucha is of course a very popular health drink in Korea and now also globally, with (white) wellness influencers touting it as the healthiest drink out there. Kombucha certainly isn’t new, and I can understand Chinese and Korean immigrants’ exasperation at something suddenly being a trendy drink sold by white hipsters and bikini-clad yoga instructors that they used to be laughed at for drinking as children and young adults.
Kombucha is a fermented tea drink that is said to have originated in ancient China and apparently made its way to us here in Europe via Russia. I myself remember kombucha drinks being popular as far back as the 90s here in Germany, though it was usually only something you could find in health food stores. Due to the fermentation process, kombucha supposedly has a number of health benefits and is promoted as a gut-friendly drink.
In the beauty industry, kombucha somewhat overlaps with fermented skincare, and I feel this new trend is a bit of a re-brand and recycle of fermented tea skincare. The main product that caught my eye, and indeed the eyes of many skincare lovers, is the Dr. Ceuracle Vegan Kombucha Tea Essence,* with its delectable 2-phase milk-and-tea texture. This toner/essence hybrid contains kombucha extract, green tea water and schisandra chinensis extract, a berry native to Asia that contains a high amount of antioxidants such as flavonoids.
The first brand that used kombucha as a prominent skincare ingredient in one of their products, however, was (to my knowledge) the Aqulabo Kombucha First Breath-Like Toner, a thicker hydrating toner with fermented green tea water, oolong tea extract and galactomyces, great for brightening. I’ve also been eyeing up the T’else Kombucha Teatox Essence,* which looks like it could be a lovely lightweight fermented essence for the summer month. Technically, the By Wishtrend Quad Active Boosting Essence*, which I reviewed a few months ago also counts as a “kombucha” product, since it contains fermented black tea essence!
4. K-Beauty Trends 2021: Birch Juice/Sap
I feel birch juice, sap or water – depending on the brand’s ad copy – has been around for many years now, but never quite made it to “protagonist” status in K-beauty. My beloved Cosrx Oil-Free Moisturizing Lotion* of course uses it as a main hydrator, and luxury brand May Coop based their entire skincare range on birch juice – their Raw Sauce* toner used to be popular in the K-beauty community, but I think its popularity has waned somewhat due to other favourites overtaking this cult classic.
In 2018, organic food brands here in Germany also tried to make birch juice drinks happen, but after tasting it once I am convinced they were just trolling us – it tastes absolutely awful, and I am usually down for odd drinks and new taste experiences! Similar to coconut water, birch juice supposedly contains natural electrolytes and thus is said to clench our thirst more thoroughly than regular old water. From how I understand it, the (science-backed) jury is still out on that, however.
What is true though is that birch juice/sap/water/name it what you like is a fantastic skincare ingredient that is mainly used in hydrating, anti-inflammatory products. I already mentioned the Round Lab Birch Juice Moisturizing Cream*, which was one of the bestselling Korean drugstore moisturisers in 2020. The Round Lab Birch Juice Moisturizing Serum* sounds similarly lovely, with a mix of soothing and hydrating ingredients, though I feel its rival, the Suiskin Birch Drop Vegan Ampoule* may be even gentler for dehydrated, sensitive skin!
5. K-Beauty Trends 2021: Houttuynia Cordata/Heartleaf
You might have already spotted this K-beauty ingredient trend yourself, given that lately it’s just been exploding all over Instagram. Again, I feel this is probably connected to a need for maskne-combatting skincare products, since houttuynia cordata or “heartleaf” is a perfect ingredient for overly sensitised, reddened and inflamed skin prone to breakouts.
This ancient healing herb and Asian cooking ingredient is actually a weed, similar to another sensitive, breakout-prone skin darling – mugwort/artemisia. And just like mugwort, houttuynia cordata is mainly used as a skin-soother, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial ingredient. It is rich in antioxidants and supposedly also boosts collagen production, though I couldn’t find any scientific sources for that.
The first product containing heartleaf extract that achieved pretty much instant fame in Korea was the Goodal Houttuynia Cordata Calming Essence,* which does contain a number of essential oils, however – I know this is a no-go for many of you. Natural brand ANUA landed a hit with their Heartleaf 77% Soothing Toner*, a skinfluencer favourite, while ABIB recently launched the Heartleaf Spot Pad* to add to their already successful Heartleaf Gummy Sheet Mask* and my personal favourite, the Mild Acidic pH Sheet Mask Heartleaf.* And an even more popular heartleaf-centric sheet mask in Korea is the All Natural Mask Sheet Houttuynia Cordata*, which apparently was rated highly on a number of skincare apps and subsequently became a bestseller.
Let me know in the comments: What K-beauty trends do you see emerging for 2021?
Take care guys, and stay safe!
°PR Sample, kindly provided by a brand or shop – I am not obligated to write this blog article, was not paid for the article, and my opinions are entirely my own.
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