How To: China’s Skincare Industry

"In the middle of what looked like a complex web of indescribable Chinese was a single English word: whitening."

“This is some straight up Fair and Lovely shit.”

That was my first thought as I stared down at a bottle of face wash three years ago when I  moved to Shanghai. In the middle of what looked like a complex web of indescribable Chinese was a single English word: whitening. And as I would come to discover, with some dismay, most cleansers, exfoliators, toners and even some moisturizers had this word emblazoned across the packaging. Which then led to a few months of extreme discomfort on my part. I refused to use any of it, and looked at it in disgust. And now? Well…things have changed.

The thing most people realize when they come to China, perhaps with some surprise if they like me were completely ignorant about Chinese popular culture before coming here, is that China is obsessed with Korea. All the most popular skincare brands and makeup brands that you will encounter here will be from Korea. Innisfree, Etude House, Atrium, Mamonde, Nature Republic…you name it, it’s here. And this presents several problems. One is that this stuff is freakin’ cute. Like disgustingly cute. I never knew that I needed my hand cream to be in packaging shaped like a panda or my eyeliner to look like an evil bunny, but now that’s all I want. The other problem, is that this stuff is CHEAP. Which means over the years I’ve become a huge “goo hoarder.” Goo hoarding is the technical term for someone who has over ten different kinds and brands of lotions or creams or other such things that they bought because of stupid justifications like:  “oh my gosh it was on sale” or “omg look at how cute the packaging is, I NEED ITTTT!” Most of these bottles aren’t even half empty and the hoarder will probably never finish any of them because the hoarder is already contemplating her next trip to Innisfree. It doesn’t help that most of these places give away a lot of free samples with purchases.

But that brings me to the much more serious problems. I don’t want to sound preachy or judgey or whatever, but let’s face it, Asia–and especially Korea–loves being pale. It’s why old Asian women wear those weird head visors, use umbrellas on sunny days and cover themselves head to toe when going to the beach. In Asia people recognize that the sun is a giant ball of death, and that we really should keep protected from harmful UV rays but also that, ew, why would you want to get tanner? And obviously there’s the history of discrimination against darker skinned Asians. So I hope it’s understandable that I was more than a little panicked and disgusted when I kept encountering the word whitening on every skin product I found in China. But eventually when I couldn’t bring my own face wash from home any more and I was forced to use some of these products, I discovered that the world didn’t end, my skin didn’t melt off and I’m still my usual melain-y self. People have told me that these “whitening” products should actually read “brightening” which is meant to make your skin glow. But whatever the translation, or whatever the purpose, skin whiteners ultimately don’t  work so if you’re like me, are grossed out by the usage of the word “whitening”, if you can stomach your disgust long enough, you’ll encounter some of the BEST, cheapest and cutest skincare products that you’ve ever used. And they’ll make your skin softer, healthier, free of blemishes and just GLOW. One of the first things I learned after I first discovered the world of Korean/Chinese skincare, was the 10 step routine. I know, it seems excessive. But it works. So here’s my explanation of how to do it and my recommendations of best skin care products you can pick up here in China.


10 Step Skin Care

Step One: Oil Cleanser

Purpose: Oil cleansers are applied to dry skin and are really effective at removing makeup, sunscreen, moisturizers or just anything that you might’ve applied to your face and forgotten to remove the night before.

My Recommendation: InnisFree’s Green tea moisture cleansing oil.

I’m a lazy shit. I sleep in my eyeliner all the time. But this stuff makes it just melt right off my skin like the tears of Jesus. And it’s a gentle formula so it’s perfect for all skin types.

Step Two: Foam Cleanser

Purpose: A foam cleanser is water based, and it removes any leftover dirt or sweat from your face that the oil cleanser didn’t get.

My Recommendation: InnisFree’s Jeju volcanic pore cleansing foam

This stuff smells really good, and it’s one of the most popular products at InnisFree. But it’ll set you back at least 60 RMB or more depending on if you can get it when it’s on sale.

Step Three: Exfoliate

Purpose: Get rid of dull, dry skin and brighten your skin. This step should be done once a week or less if your skin is particularly sensitive.

My Recommendation: Soko Glam’s Neogen Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Wine

My skin has never felt softer than it did after I started using these. They’re magic.

Step Four: Toner

Purpose: Toner is supposed to help hydrate your skin, and prep it for following treatments so they’ll get absorbed better.

My Recommendation: Nature Republic’s Shea Butter Toner

Step Five: Essence

Purpose: For whatever reason, this is the heart of Chinese and Korean skincare. Or so people claim. I’m going to be honest, I’ve never seen the point of this step. It feels just like a toner. I don’t know, maybe I’m just super uncultured or something. Essences are supposed to help skin repair and are meant to be patted into the skin, not rubbed.

My Recommendation: Etude House’s Moistfull Collagen Essence

Step Six: Serums, Booster and Ampoules

Purpose: This step is all the stuff that takes care of wrinkles, acne or hyperpigmentation. And I’ve never used any of it, so this is the one step, where I won’t make any recommendations.

Step Seven: Masks

Purpose: This is my favorite part. The mask you choose will depend on what your skin needs. If you need something more moisturizing because your skin is dry, try something with snail serum in it, or something with aloe vera. If you want your skin to be brighter, whatever that means, try something with vitamin C in it.

My Recommendation: GO TO ETUDE HOUSE. They have those adorable animal masks, and they’re usually only about 6-7 RMB each. Also, this is the step when you can basically scare your roommates by re-enacting Silence of the Lambs.

Step Eight: Eye Cream

Purpose: If you can’t get more sleep, you can at least pretend that you are. Using eye creams helps get rid of or lessen the appearance of dark circles.

My Recommendation: Skin Food’s Royal Honey Eye Cream

Step Nine: Face Cream

Purpose: Even if your skincare routine is really basic, it should always have two steps, cleansing and moisturizing.

My Recommendation: TonyMoly’s Magic Food Banana Hand Milk

I don’t know what to tell you. It’s shaped like a banana. It has a weird name. Based on that alone, it’s worth buying.

Step Ten: SPF

Purpose: This is self explanatory. It’s something your mother probably told you again and again growing up.

My recommendation: Literally anything.

This article was written by Rae Dehal. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Pinterest

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