Say goodbye to acne with these top Korean skincare products.
|Wound Healing/ Pore Clearing
|Fragrance & Essential Oils/ Alcohol-free
|Iunik | Centella Calming Gel Cream
|Centella Aisatica; Tea Tree Leaf Water; Niacinamide; Licorice extract; Hyaluronic Acid
|Cosrx | AHA/ BHA clarifying treatment toner
|AHA; BHA; Willow Bark Water
|Some by Mi | Starter kit
|AHA; BHA; PHA; Tea Tree Oil; Centella Asiatica
|Rovectin| LHA blemish Ampoule
|LHA; Niacinamide; Hyaluronic Acid
|COSRX | Master Pimple Patch Intensive
Best for Pustules
|Hydrocolloid; Tea Tree Oil
|Klairs | Gentle black sugar charcoal soap
Best for Body Acne
|Black Sugar; Charcoal; Moroccan Clay; Jojoba oil
How to Pick the Best Korean Skincare Products to Treat Acne?
The Korean skincare market is rife with products that claim to treat acne. With so many ingredients and products in the market, knowing what’s best for your skin can get confusing.
Well, not to worry! There are actually some key features you can check to know if a product can help with acne. You should check out products that tackle the root causes of acne, and soothe the inflammation caused by acne breakouts. Hence, what you should look for are ingredients that help control sebum, clear the pores, and heal wounds.
Let’s talk about these considerations one by one.
Sebum controlling ingredients
To effectively treat acne, you must target its root cause to stop it from recurring.
Acne forms when the pores get clogged by a mixture of oil and dirt. Products that minimize oil production are therefore essential in preventing acne, as they ensure that excess oil won’t clog pores.
Here are some sebum-controlling ingredients to look for in your Korean skincare products.
Centella asiatica, better known as tiger grass or cica, is a wonder ingredient with a plethora of benefits for the skin. Cica is best known for its antioxidant, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties, which allow it to calm breakouts and keep acne at bay.
Additionally, it’s great at controlling sebum production. Thanks to its ability to rejuvenate the skin’s protective barrier, cica keeps the skin adequately moisturized and thus prevents skin dehydration. This, in turn, prevents sebum overproduction that happens when the skin is compensating for its lack of hydration.
Tea tree oil
Tea tree oil is an ingredient used in a variety of skincare products due to its acne-fighting properties. In fact, studies have proven that tea tree oil can reduce both the amount and severity of acne. In addition, it’s also effective in controlling sebum, and even reducing pore size after regular use.
Note that tea tree oil by itself can be incredibly irritating to the skin. Hence, it’s best to dilute it prior to use on the skin, or to simply look for products with tea tree oil as an active ingredient.
Clay / Charcoal
There are many Korean skincare cleansers and masks that contain either clay or charcoal as an active ingredient. That’s because these two are effective at controlling sebum and targeting acne.
Charcoal is a powdery substance that comes from burning carbon-based material like wood. In skincare, this is used because of its highly absorbent nature. Charcoal effectively removes oil, dirt, and other impurities from the skin. It also contains antibacterial properties, allowing it to treat acne through fighting acne-causing bacteria.
In the same vein, clay has also been traditionally used in medicine because it binds to different substances. As a result, it can easily draw out impurities from the skin, while also absorbing excess oil from the skin’s surface.
Pore clearing ingredients
Because acne occurs when the skin’s hair follicles get clogged, one of the best ways to prevent it from forming is through ensuring the pores remain clear. Using actives like BHA, PHA, and LHA can unclog the pores and prevent acne from occurring.
Let’s discuss these acids in more detail.
BHA / PHA / LHA
BHA, PHA, and LHA are different types of acids that chemically exfoliates the skin. However, they vary in terms of how gentle they are to the skin, and how deeply they penetrate into the pores.
Beta hydroxy acids, commonly known as BHAs, penetrate deep into the pores to dissolve dead skin cells that can potentially clog it and cause breakouts. The most commonly used BHA in skincare is salicylic acid, which can treat acne without irritating the skin. Specifically, salicylic acid can be used to treat pustules, papules, blackheads, and whiteheads.
LHAs or lipohydroxy acids are a gentler derivative of salicylic acid. LHAs penetrate the skin more slowly than salicylic acid. This exfoliates the skin cells one by one, making the process more tolerable for the skin. LHAs are also effective in reducing the size and number of acne after regular use.
Lastly, polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) constitute a gentler form of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). PHAs are much larger in size than BHAs and LHAs, so they cannot penetrate the skin as deeply. Instead, they exfoliate the skin’s surface, keeping it smooth and healthy. Through ridding the skin of dead skin cells, PHAs also help minimize the risk of clogging the pores.
Wound healing ingredients
Acne causes inflammation and skin irritation, which can often lead to scarring. Picking these pimples usually aggravates inflammation, and makes the scarring worse. Some of these scars remain temporarily as dark spots and blemishes, while some stay permanently as boxcar or icepick scars. Thus, wound-healing ingredients are needed to soothe inflammation and minimize the risk of scarring.
Here are a few key ingredients to watch out for.
Niacinamide’s role in wound healing revolves around its ability to promote ceramide synthesis, and to reduce transepidermal water loss (TEWL). Niacinamide helps keep the skin adequately moisturized, which helps soothe irritation and calm breakouts. Through alleviating inflammation and skin irritation, niacinamide helps limit the risk of scarring.
Ceramides are lipid compounds found in the skin. They are essential in limiting moisture loss and upholding the integrity of the skin’s protective barrier.
In addition, niacinamide helps lighten dark spots and hyperpigmentation. This is because it helps limit melanin—the protein that gives the skin its color, which gets overproduced when acne scars are exposed to sunlight. This makes niacinamide great not only for preventing scarring, but also for fading existing scars.
Panthenol is an ingredient known for its anti-inflammatory and moisturizing benefits. This ingredient draws water into the skin, keeping it plump, healthy, and moisturized. Through keeping the skin adequately hydrated, panthenol also protects the skin and keeps the moisture barrier healthy.
Because of these benefits, panthenol helps with wound healing, as the skin heals better when it is soft, healthy, and hydrated. Coupled with its anti-inflammatory properties, panthenol can protect the skin when breakouts occur, ensuring acne will heal properly without damaging the skin.
Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring compound found in high levels in the skin’s surface. This ingredient draws water into the skin, thanks to its ability to hold water up to 1000 times its atomic weight. This allows it to heal the moisture barrier and hydrate the skin. Ultimately, this keeps the skin healthy, smooth, and more elastic—the perfect environment to foster healing acne lesions without irritating the skin.
In addition, hyaluronic acid is linked to wound healing by building more blood vessels at the site of injury. This allows the skin to heal from the inside, thus minimizing scarring and damage.
Licorice root extract
Licorice root extract is an ingredient that hydrates and brightens the skin. This ingredient contains dipotassium glycyrrhizate, a compound that soothes the skin and preserve hyaluronic acid content in the skin, thus keeping skin hydrated.
Studies have also found that licorice root extract has anti-inflammatory properties, which help with irritation, itching, and redness. This allows licorice root extract to heal acne wounds while reducing the risk of scarring.
Lastly, licorice root extract helps with skin brightening. Glabridin, another compound in licorice root extract, inhibits the production of tyrosinase, an enzyme responsible for skin darkening after sun exposure. Through this, licorice root extract improves the appearance of dark spots and blemishes left by acne breakouts.
Resist the hype
Korean skincare products normally use ingredients derived from herbal medicine, which aren’t usually used in the Western world. While some of these natural ingredients are indeed good for the skin, there are some which are yet to be backed by research and scientific testing.
If you already have sensitive skin, it’s best to stick with products that are proven effective against acne, rather than try out different ingredients. Here are a few skincare ingredients you may have heard of, but you may want to wait before jumping onto the hype.
Mugwort has long been used in traditional medicine and cosmetics due to its antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. Skincare brands have used these benefits to back their claims that it can also soothe and calm acne.
[note]However, it is important to note that no study has proven that mugwort’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits can be generalized to the human skin, especially in the treatment of acne. Most studies on the use of mugwort has only been carried out in animals or in the lab, so such claims remain unfounded.[/note]
Lotus is typically consumed as a vegetable in some parts of the world, but it’s also used in Asian traditional medicine. In skincare, it’s used as an antioxidant due to its high flavonoid content.
Flavonoids protect against damage from the sun and free radicals, which are primary causes of skin aging.
Lotus extract is also said to have skin soothing and anti-inflammatory properties. Aside from this, they are also said to brighten and moisturize the skin. However, studies are yet to prove any of these skin benefits. Lotus extract’s benefits for acne-prone skin have not been examined either, so it’s impossible to say for sure if it can actually help in acne treatment.
Best Korean Skincare Products for Oily Skin (2021)
iUNIK Centella Calming Gel Cream
- Contains cica and tea tree extract to fight acne
- Controls sebum with cica, tea tree, and niacinamide
- Soothes the skin and calms redness with cica
- Hydrates the skin with cica, niacinamide, sodium hyaluronate, and licorice
- Uses niacinamide and licorice root extract to brighten acne marks
- Alcohol- and fragrance-free
The product that tops this list and claims the title of Best Overall is none other than the iUNIK Centella Calming Gel Cream. This moisturizer features a gel-cream consistency, which easily sinks into the skin without feeling oily or greasy. It also contains a multitude of ingredients that fight acne, heal wounds, and control sebum. What’s more, it’s fungal acne safe and suitable for all skin types.
What’s unique about this moisturizer is that it’s made from 72% Centella asiatica leaf water. This ensures you get the best benefits of cica: calming breakouts, soothing irritation, controlling sebum, and moisturizing the skin.
The presence of 10% tea tree leaf water also equips this moisturizing with acne-fighting properties. Studies have demonstrated tea tree’s ability to fight acne and reduce its severity. It’s also effective in limiting sebum production to prevent potential breakouts.
This product also features niacinamide, which further helps with sebum control. In addition, niacinamide works well with cica in hydrating the skin and keeping the skin barrier intact. It can also help minimize the appearance of dark spots and acne marks, together with licorice root extract.
Lastly, this product also contains hyaluronic acid. This provides the skin wound-healing properties that help ensure that pimples recover without causing damage to the skin. It also keeps the skin healthy and free from irritation and dryness.
This moisturizer contains bergamot fruit oil. Those with allergies or sensitivity to essential oils may want to patch test prior to using this product.
COSRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner
- Effectively clears pores with Betaine Salicylate (BHA)
- Removes dead skin cells with Glycolic Acid (AHA)
- Refines pores and controls sebum production with willow bark water
- Contains panthenol and allantoin for added hydration
- Heals wounds and alleviates inflammation with panthenol
- Mild and gentle; suitable even for sensitive skin
This list’s “Strong Runner-up” belongs to none other than the COSRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner. Formulated with a combination of AHA and BHA, this toner fights acne while gently clearing up the pores and removing dead skin. It also contains willow bark for controlling sebum production, and panthenol for reducing inflammation and promoting healing.
What’s great about this toner is that it effectively fights the root cause of acne by clearing clogged pores. It contains 0.1% glycolic acid, an AHA which dissolves the bonds between dead skin cells on the skin’s surface. This low concentration also ensures it won’t irritate the skin, making it safe for daily use.
Betaine Salicylate, a gentler but equally effective BHA, also penetrates deep into the pores to clear it of excess sebum and dead skin cells. It doesn’t only help fight acne; it also reduces its severity.
Apart from these acne-fighting ingredients, this toner also contains wound-healing components like allantoin and panthenol. Panthenol, in particular, contains anti-inflammatory properties that help minimize acne. Both ingredients also hydrate the skin and keep its moisture barrier intact, minimizing irritation and dehydration. Together, they provide an environment that facilitates the healing of acne to prevent potential scarring.
This product is cruelty-free and vegan-friendly. With minimal ingredients, no alcohol and sulfates, it is suitable for sensitive skin and even for those with fungal acne.
SOME BY MI AHA/BHA/PHA 30 Days Miracle Starter Kit
- Utilizes different exfoliating acids to remove dead skin cells and keep pores clear
- Fights acne with AHA, BHA, PHA, and tea tree oil
- Contains tea tree leaf water and Centella asiatica for sebum control
- Heals wounds and hydrates the skin with cica
- Comes with four essential products in a skincare routine
Looking to create a budget-friendly Korean skincare routine to fight acne? Well, look no further than the SOME BY MI AHA/BHA/PHA 30 Days Miracle Starter Kit. This set contains a cleanser, toner, serum, and moisturizer, making it the perfect companion for skincare beginners. This easy-to-use four-step routine allows users to try actives without paying the full price. Hence, it’s no surprise it bags the title of Best Budget in this list.
The products in this starter set all feature AHA, BHA, PHA, cica, and tea tree oil as their key ingredients. Both cica and tea tree oil help fight acne while minimizing oil production. By reducing oiliness, these ingredients prevent excess sebum from clogging the pores and inducing acne breakouts.
The actives in these products also target the root cause of acne, while treating existing pimples on the skin. AHA and PHA work together to exfoliate the skin’s surface, thus getting rid of dead skin cells that may clog the pores. BHA, meanwhile, goes deep into the pores to remove excess sebum and dead skin cells. It also actively treats acne.
To get the most of this starter kit, it’s best to follow the correct order when using them. Start with using the cleansing bar. Then, after patting your face dry, apply the toner. Follow this up with the miracle serum, and finally, seal everything off with the moisturizing cream.
Rovectin Clean LHA Blemish Ampoule
- Uses LHA to gently clear the pores of dead skin cells
- Fights acne and controls sebum with niacinamide
- Soothes inflammation and prevents scarring with hyaluronic acid, panthenol, and niacinamide
- Hydrates and moisturizes skin with panthenol and hyaluronic acid
Our pick for “Best Premium” is the Rovectin Clean LHA Blemish Ampoule. Though this ampoule is pricey relative to the amount of product you get, it’s still worth every penny. Each drop of this amazing ampoule contains wound healing, brightening, and acne-fighting ingredients. It also features LHA, a gentle chemical exfoliator that’s safe to use for sensitive skin. Last, but not the least, this product is fungal-acne safe!
This product utilizes LHA to get rid of dead cells on the skin’s surface. This prevents the formation of acne through directly addressing its cause: dead skin cells clogging the pores. LHA also helps with reducing the severity of acne breakouts.
In addition, this ampoule also contains panthenol and five different types of hyaluronic acid, which pull moisture into the skin to keep it adequately hydrated. This moist environment allows acne and other wounds to heal more easily.
Moreover, this ampoule contains niacinamide—a key ingredient in fighting acne and controlling sebum. This further prevents breakouts by ridding the skin of excess sebum that may clog the pores. Niacinamide also works with hyaluronic acid to keep the skin hydrated, and the moisture barrier healthy.
Use this ampoule after cleansing and toning, and before applying your moisturizer. This product can be used daily, either as a spot treatment for problem areas, or all over the face. Simply dispense a few drops and pat gently on the face. However, note that this product contains ethanol, a potential irritant, so patch testing is a must before using this ampoule all over the face.
COSRX Master Patch Intensive
Best for Pustules
- Draws out pus to quickly dry and heal acne
- Protects skin from abrasion and bacteria spreading
- Fights acne with tea tree oil
- Waterproof and easily adheres to the skin
- Hypoallergenic and suitable to use even for sensitive skin
If you’re looking for the best way to get rid of those pesky pustules, check out the COSRX Master Patch Intensive. This plaster uses hydrocolloid to draw out pus, while protecting inflamed skin from abrasion. It also contains tea tree oil to further fight and prevent acne. For these reasons, this product bags “Best for Pustules” in our list.
These pimple patches dry out acne, thanks to hydrocolloid—an ingredient which draws out pus. Consequently, this provides a moist, healthy environment to help the skin recover from inflammation without damage.
[note]Note that this product works best on pustules. Because its key mechanism relies on drawing out pus to dry out acne, this patch won’t work as well on papules, which don’t contain pus. It’s best to wait for papules to mature into pustules before using this product.[/note]
These patches also contain tea tree oil, which fights acne and reduces its severity. The product’s design also prevents popping pimples accidentally, thus preventing further irritation. Together, these factors accelerate acne healing and prevent acne scarring.
What’s more, you can use these patches any time of the day. You simply need to apply a patch to the target area after cleansing the skin of excess oil, dirt, and other impurities. You may leave the patch overnight, or use it in the morning prior to applying makeup and other skin products.
Although this product is great for healing pustules, it doesn’t prevent acne from forming. It’s best to use this in conjunction with other products in this list to fully heal and prevent acne breakouts.
Dear, Klairs Gentle Black Sugar Charcoal Soap
Best for Body Acne
- Sloughs off dead skin cells with black sugar and charcoal
- Controls sebum and clears pores with charcoal and Moroccan clay
- Soothes and hydrates inflamed skin with sunflower and jojoba oil
- Prevents aging skin with grapeseed and sunflower oil
Our pick for “Best for Body Acne” is none other than the Dear, Klairs Gentle Black Sugar Charcoal Soap. This cleansing bar contains black sugar, charcoal, and Moroccan clay, which exfoliate the skin and reduce oiliness. However, because of its strong physical exfoliation properties, we recommend using this soap only on the body, where the skin is not as sensitive.
This product features charcoal and Moroccan clay, which are both known for their sebum-controlling properties. This effectively clears the pores and lifts away dirt, sebum, and other impurities. Charcoal and Moroccan clay, along with black sugar, also slough away dead skin cells to prevent acne from forming.
This soap also contains nourishing oils such as jojoba, sunflower, and grapeseed oil. Jojoba oil regulates sebum production, and has the potential to fight acne due to its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. In addition, jojoba oil helps seal in moisture and hydrate the skin.
Likewise, sunflower seed oil also hydrates the skin through maintaining the skin’s natural protective barrier. It also contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Grapeseed oil is another potent antioxidant, which also protects the skin from sun damage.
Together, these properties allow this soap to prevent body acne, while still hydrating the skin. Unlike traditional body soaps, this product is less stripping, too, since it does not contain sulfates and surfactants. It’s also gentle enough to be used in lieu of regular body soap.
Although this soap provides the skin with adequate hydration, we still recommend the use of a lotion or moisturizer after using this product. This helps soothe the skin post-exfoliation, while boosting and sealing in moisture from the soap’s key ingredients.