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This $12 Japanese Drugstore Lotion Transformed My Face

And it’s very different from the American lotion you’re used to.

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A bottle of Hada Labo Gokujyun Lotion
Hada Labo Gokujyun Lotion, $12.54

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If there is a single glaring omission in America’s cleanse-exfoliate-moisturize routine, it’s the hydrating toner. In Korea, it’s the crucial essence step. In Japan, it’s called a “lotion,” and it’s a cornerstone of the Japanese beauty regimen. But in America, it’s non-essential.

Here in the States, we tend to confuse moisturizing (adding oil) with hydrating (adding water), and toners are a baffling jumble of exfoliators, pH balancers, and do-nothing fragranced misters. Hydrating always loses out.

Last summer, I encountered a Japanese lotion for the first time in a department store in the city of Kagoshima. When I poured some from a tester into my hand, I was shocked when a watery substance, instead of something creamy like all of the lotions back in the States, dribbled out. But soon after, these lotions became a familiar part of my beauty routine. (I also added a vitamin C serum and a magically light Japanese sunscreen to my arsenal, but it was the lotion that really made the difference; my once sad, dull, hydration-ignorant skin is now plump and has a dewy glow).

While many products pack in an assortment of goodies like brighteners, botanicals, and extracts, I found that the no-frills Hada Labo Gokujyun Lotion delivered the best results. Hada Labo is a beloved drugstore brand whose name translates to “skin lab,” and it excels in affordable, well-formulated products. The lotion’s unglamorous packaging doesn’t make any outlandish marketing claims, and its simple, fragrance-free formula targets just one thing: seriously intensive hydration.

Of all hydrating ingredients, the queen is hyaluronic acid, which famously holds up to 1,000 times its weight in water; preliminary research indicates that it might also be “cell communicating,” meaning it may improve skin tautness. The Gokujyun Lotion cranks up the volume with three forms: the OG hydrolyzed hyaluronic acid, the molecularly smaller (and therefore more easily absorbed) sodium hyaluronate, and sodium acetylated hyaluronate, a “super hyaluronic acid” developed by Japanese beauty giant Shiseido. Other hyaluronic acid products just don’t hold a candle. And its cheap price means I don’t hesitate to pat on as many layers as I want before locking them all in with an oil.

When I returned to the US after months of trekking around for hours in the blazing summer sun, my mother grabbed my face and said, “Your skin looks so good!” — words I’ve never heard her utter before. Surprise, surprise: She’s now using a cheap Japanese lotion, too.

Racked occasionally accepts products for research and reviewing purposes. For more information, see our ethics policy here.