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In 2015, Korean imports to the American beauty market are ubiquitous. At Sephora and other mass-beauty retailers, Korean-inspired BB creams and sheet masks line store shelves, and go on to clutter medicine cabinets. The latest Korean beauty fad to hit America is a little more extreme than complexion-smoothing ointments and moisturizing serums: products that claim to reduce signs of aging by using fermented ingredient on your skin. It’s exciting to hold all the promise of a New You in a high-tech bottle of moisturizer, but like all the other gimmicks we’ve fallen for, it probably doesn’t work.
It’s exciting to hold all the promise of a New You in a high-tech bottle of moisturizer, but it probably doesn’t work.
In the creation of foods like kimchi, yogurt, or pickles, fermentation is a process that breaks down complex compounds into simpler compounds using the chemical reaction of enzymes. Korean brands like Amore Pacific claimed to have adapted the fermentation process to make it suitable for skin rather than for the stomach. An Amore Pacific rep alleges that for their "Green Tea Fermentation Technology" the company invented a process that stabilized ingredients for the epidermis "since the skin does not have the same micro-organisms as the internal body to transform the bioactive agents in green tea."
Fermentation devotees claim that serums and masks with fermented ingredients do indeed exfoliate and hydrate gently, leaving skin with a younger-looking, brighter complexion. Kerry Thompson, the founder and editor of Skin and Tonics and co-author of forthcoming book Korean Beauty Secrets: A Practical Guide to Cutting-Edge Skincare & Makeup, is one of them. After her first foray into fermented products, Thompson found her skin’s redness, sensitivity, and acne breakouts reduced.
That reduction in redness, brands claim, is because fermented products contain milder, broken down ingredients. According to Janice Kang, Director of Marketing at Club Clio, a Korean beauty outlet that sells products in Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, "Since fermentation breaks down particles, products are able to retain their effectiveness but also become more mild and are able to penetrate better."
Cosmetic chemists deny that fermentation can work on the outer layers skin of the way it would in our stomach.
But cosmetic chemists deny that fermentation can work on the outer layers skin of the way it would in our stomach, killing bad bacteria with probiotics and moving along the digestive process. According to Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and the person behind The Beauty Brains, a blog that provides scientific answers to cosmetic questions, fermented products don’t do anything for the skin when topically applied. When ingested, the human body has biochemical processes that utilize fermented materials; the outer layers of the skin absolutely do not.
The Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration regulate illegal false advertising and, accordingly, product descriptions that are a bit dense. For example, the beloved, $99 SK-II Facial Treatment Essence makes bold, possibly life-changing claims, cloaked in vague, empowering rhetoric. The product description on sephora.com states, "Pitera, the main ingredient in the SK-II line, is known as ‘Miracle Water’ or ‘Holy Water’ in the East for its skin-renewing properties." The product, according to the site, also includes "nourishing vitamins, amino acids, minerals, and organic acids to promote a healthy skin cell renewal cycle."
Look closer, heeds Romanowski: companies like SK-II that tout the benefits of fermented products are not strictly lying. "The term ‘miracle ingredient’ is puffery and doesn't have any real meaning. The product could very well be packed with ‘vitamins, amino acids, minerals, and organic acids.’ So what?" said Romanowski over email.
"The product could very well be packed with ‘vitamins, amino acids, minerals, and organic acids.’ So what?"
The epidermis is made of dead cells which form a layer to protect the rest of the body. Most chemicals cannot penetrate this layer of dead skin. "They are no more effective than those same products without the fermented ingredients," said Romanowski. "There will be no noticeable difference over time. This is strictly a marketing gimmick."
A gimmick it may be, but mainstream American and European cosmetics brands, rather than ignoring the unassailable cultural presence of hallyu, or Korean wave culture, are bowing to Korean innovation. Estée Lauder’s new $95 Micro Essence contains an ingredient called "Micro-Nutrient Bio-Ferment." Origins’ $43 A Perfect World antioxidant moisturizer uses a sugarcane ferment. La Prairie’s crazy-expensive Advanced Marine Biology line makes use of a "unique and proprietary aquaculture." Perhaps the most notorious fermented American cosmetic is Créme De La Mer moisturizer, owned by Estée Lauder, made of fermented kelp (retailing at $310.00 for two ounces, their marketing department calls the kelp ferment The Miracle Broth™).
Coco Park, Thompson’s co-author of Korean Beauty Secrets and the writer behind the Korean skincare blog The Beauty Wolf, said in an email, "I never found ferments gimmicky at all, but then again you’re talking to someone who once put a bird poop mask on [her] face so ferments seemed downright tame to me." If you’re interested in riding that trend wave like Park did, pick up the Japanese Uguisu Poo No Fun Illuminating mask. A gimmick-free experience is not guaranteed.