Stephen Alain Ko Talks K-Beauty Chemistry

If you’ve ever been overwhelmed by the mass of K-beauty products littering the cosmetic world, don’t worry. You’re not alone. There’s an abundance of skincare products out there promising you the perfect skin, and we know that it can be overwhelming. To dig a bit deeper and find out what will do the trick (or not), KultScene spoke to cosmetic chemist Stephen Alain Ko. After developing early acne, Ko began dabbling in cosmetic chemistry and by 16 was already creating skincare products for himself and his mom. After pursuing it as a career, Ko became a consultant to multiple companies and an expert in the field, and is developing his own line. We spoke over the phone and asked him some of our top questions about skincare and K-beauty chemistry.

How did you get more involved with K-beauty?
I went to Korea in 2006. That’s kind of when I first noticed the differences regarding how beauty is part of their lifestyle whereas it’s a sort of treatment in the US.

Is K-beauty chemically different than what we see from western beauty companies?
The distribution is usually global so it’s not so much that there’s any chemical difference in the products but there are textural differences. Generally, Korean and Asian products have to be a little thinner, either because the consumer base is used to thinner products or because of the humidity. What really sets it apart is the speed of the marketing. There’s more of an acceptance of a variety of products and people buy more products. In response companies come out with more products, which means you get more varied ingredients and that sort of thing. It’s not that we don’t get them in the west, it just may be that they’re not marketed that way or as frequently.

Speaking to some people that do manufacturing in the US and Korea, it seems like the machines in Korea can swap out products more easily to streamline the process. So I think the big thing about Korea is that they’re able to manufacture more products faster and in a shorter period of time. We’re seeing Korean skincare manufacturers move to the US. Kolmar is a big one. They purchased a big facility in Louisiana or somewhere. We’ll start seeing more products and a faster creation in the US.

K-beauty has risen in popularity. Is it not necessarily because of the products themselves but because of marketing?
The beauty industry itself is almost as close as you can get to an industry that’s based on marketing because it takes months for you to see results in terms of skin care. So getting you to buy products relies on how it’s advertised and promoted, and that’s switching to social media now. K-beauty combines the fun aspect of skincare whereas western beauty focuses on harsher procedures, laser treatments but K-beauty is a bit more fun and approachable. And cheaper, as well.

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When people talk about K-beauty, they throw around a lot of words. Is there actually a chemical difference between serums, ampoules, etc?

If you think about the way pharmaceuticals are designed, it’s a vehicle. A cream, a gel, or whatever and then the active ingredient. The vehicle is used to help the active penetrate and, in some cases, help slow it down to minimize irritation. You may want to get ascorbic acid, you know Vitamin C, so you’d look for something that will keep the ascorbic acid stable and help penetrate deeper. Whether it’s called a serum or ampoule doesn’t really matter. You can market it as a serum, an ampoule, a pressed serum, whatever. There’s no rules or regulations on that.

You mentioned acne and anti-aging medication. Are there any chemicals in particular that people should be looking for or avoiding?
There are ingredients with research behind them from over the decades, ones like ascorbic acid, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Vitamin A. Niacinamide is one of the newer ones that has some more research behind it. But just because it has a lot of research behind it doesn’t mean that it’s the best one in its category. It’s just that a lot of research is underfunded and a lot of ingredients aren’t probably going to do anything for your skin so there isn’t any incentive [for companies] to go out and spend money to prove that the active ingredient in their product doesn’t do anything. So there’s very little good research indicating what works. As it stands now, it’s kind of a crapshoot. I think in the future, once we develop technologies that are better able to model the effect that ingredients can have on the skin in a shorter, faster time period we’ll have more of an idea.

Where would the average K-beauty aficionado go if they want to do some research?
Most of these studies are posted in journals. Google Scholar is a great place to start. There are databases for Korean university research. A lot of these are paywalled but there is a push to get more access. There’s usually a short result of the research in the abstract, but I suggest people do not make decisions based on the abstract because they’re designed to market the paper and make it seem more enticing so it may leave out what people may want to know to use it on their skin.

So, because the journals aren’t the most accessible, it sounds like the best thing would really be trial and error for someone getting into K-beauty?
Trial and error is definitely the best way someone can figure it out for themselves because studies look at a trial population of people. Just because something’s effective for 70 out of 100 people doesn’t means that you’ll be in that group of people that it’ll be effective for. At the end of the day, there’s always trial and error. For someone looking for new products, it’s probably why bloggers, Youtubers, people on social media are so popular. People tend to find a guru who has similar skin to them and then use product based on recommendations. There’s no rigorous scientific way to discover if a product will work for you. At least not now.

Is there a bare minimum people should be doing for their skin?
At a minimum, people should be cleaning their skin in a way that doesn’t irritate them so as to remove pollutants, oil, dirt, stuff that we pick up during the day. And during the day, we should be using a good sunscreen with good UVA protection. I think that’s the most important thing. Beyond that, it’s kind of dependent on who you are, so you can pick or choose. If you have acne, you might want to use a product that treats acne. If you’re older, you may want to look for anti-aging topicals like Vitamin C. There are many supplements and creams out there that can help with skin aging, so do your research and try to find one that suits you. If you have hyper pigmentation, you want products for that. Bare minimum is probably cleaning and sunscreen. Although, many people do use skin care from companies like beverly hills md that focus some of their products on anti aging and younger skin, so perhaps shop around and see what gives your skin the feel you are looking for.

Should people be looking for any specific ingredients when buying K-beauty products or beauty products in general?
For someone who has never used skin care, the biggest difference that they’ll probably see a change in their skin is to switch cleansers to something gentler. In a lot of cases, people are using actual soap, which is a fat treated with alkali and that can be really irritating to the skin. I think a lot of people can just notice a difference by switching to a synthetic cleanser that’s gentler on the skin. There are many anecdotal stories of people who have been treating their acne unsuccessfully with topicals and then they go on a camping trip and don’t bring their products with them and notice their skin improving. A lot of that reason is because they’re no longer additionally irritating their skin.

So are natural products not necessarily better than synthetic?
Whether a chemical comes for a plant or from the petrochemical industry doesn’t have any baring on how it’s going to affect your skin. My suggestion would be to stick to your skincare routine for a long period of time so as to actually understand if it’s working for you or not. I think that some people jump into K-beauty with 20, 30 products. That can be fun. But, you know, down the line, how do you know which product is working? It really depends on the person. If they can afford those 20 products and they enjoy doing it and it’s not a chore to them, then go for it. But if you’re a person on a budget and looking for the best bang for your buck, it’s better to start off slow.

What makes one cleanser better than another?
So, the easiest way to tell is how your skin feels a few hours after. If it feels really tight and there’s redness or irritation it’s usually a good indication that your cleanser is too harsh. There are gentle cleansing waters, usually called micellar water, that are a solution to use with a cotton pad that tend to be gentler than foaming cleansers. It is all down to the formulation. Like sodium laurel sulfate for example is a synthetic cleanser that tends to be very harsh but you can mix it with other surfactants or mixing ingredients to make it very, very gentle on the skin. So even if you see SLS on the ingredients list, it doesn’t mean necessarily that it’ll be irritating. But, on the other hand,if you start with sodium cocoyl isethionate, which is about a half as damaging as SLS, you’ll make a gentler product. The reason SLS is still around in cleansers is because it’s very effective at what it does and is cheaper to acquire. Generally, soaps under the FDA are fats treated with an alkali, so natural soaps, those tend to be very harsh on the skin because the molecular size of the soap molecules tend to be really small and they tend to have a high alkalinity and all that can lead to skin irritation. Some people use soap and SLS and don’t have any issues, but that’s probably down to their skin. I’m not going to argue with them for five hours to get them to switch because if their skin is fine, their skin is fine.

Is micellar water the same thing as a toner then?
It’s hard to say all micellar waters are this and all toners are that because brands can label them different things. In general, toners are water and alcohol or some other kind of solvent. They solute whatever you want to remove off of your skin. Micellar waters are, an easy way to think about it, a diluted gel cleanser that you wipe on the skin using a cotton pad. So they pretty much work the same way but with toners, you tend to encounter ones with alcohol so they can be a bit more drying to the skin. I think toners are designed to be left on the skin and micellar waters you should rinse off. [Micellar waters] are pretty good at removing makeup and sunscreen, plus you’re using a cotton pad to wipe the skin and the friction from that, and the absorbance from that, helps as well.

We see a lot of K-beauty aimed at the face, but what about the hands and the neck?
I think there are sheet masks for other body parts as well but I think we don’t see as many products for other parts because it’s harder for consumers to justify spending money on their hands and body. There, on a whole, isn’t much difference between the skin on your face and skin sun on your body. The main difference is the amount of amount or hair, pores, and sebum production. In term of ingredients, we’re not at the point where we can target things like that. If you can afford it and you want beautiful skin all over, use products everywhere. Also, another difference is that your face definitely gets closer to the UVA than your clothes. The main difference is the cost.

We’ve all heard of the X-step process. Is that part of marketing or is it something people should actually follow?
If you think of the 10-step routine, there’s like 3 million iterations of how you can organize it, so there’s very little research that compares a 10-step routine with a two step routine. Most scientific research is going to focus on one product just because if you do see results, it’s more likely that that product or a certain ingredient is the reason for that result. Whereas if you’re doing a study with like ten different products and your skin gets lighter, you’re not going to be able to say that one product did it; you’ll have to say the entire routine did it which may not be true. There may be products in there that are making things worse. So, in terms of research, there’s nothing that says a 10-step routine is better than a one step routine. For some people, the 10-step routine works for them so that’s what they stick to. It’s hard to give a recommendation for one routine to anyone.

Is there any truth to popular ingredients like snail essence or ginseng being a magical cure all?
All the research I have seen hasn’t been super conclusive, but that may also be because some of those cure alls have not been studied enough. In terms of its efficacy, it’s hard to say because every company has a different snail cream products so they may be using different suppliers and the snail mucin may have a different concentration and density. People do report that their skin improves greatly from using the product, so it may be that they’re using a product that doesn’t irritate them, or they’re using a product where the glycerine is really working for them. It could be that the snail mucin itself is doing something for their skin. It’s hard to say for sure if it’s not in a clinical setting, and there haven’t been enough of those studies. It’s not that it’s useless and that it’s a waste of money, it’s just that we don’t know yet.

Are there any products, in particular, you think people should be looking into nowadays?
Not really. I tend not to focus on products on the market just because there are so many of them and I don’t have access to the concentration of ingredients, who their suppliers are, etc. You speak to some suppliers and there are some ingredients that do work really well, but as a consumer, I don’t if they’re at an effective concentration in a commercial product.

Is there any way to determine what’s a great product?

I do get a lot of questions about what’s best and “What should I do for this?” I think people expect that someone in my position would be able to provide really strong answers but, unfortunately, we can’t. [The market is] supersaturated and we just don’t know enough. Conducting human clinical trials is expensive, even if they’re skincare. There isn’t any punishment for putting a product on the market that isn’t super substantiated. In a way, us trying a product and reviewing them is one form of providing that feedback. Or you could make use of online reviews, such as bhmd reviews, to learn about products that have worked for people with different skin tones.

You said sunscreen is the number one thing you need during the day. In North America it’s common to see the SPF ranking, but Korean sunscreens also have the PA plus-sign ranking. What does that mean?

The PA system measures protection against UVA. Whereas SPF is a ranking of protection against UVB exposure, essentially protection against sunburns. While UVA doesn’t greatly cause sunburn, it does damage our DNA, which leads to tanning and hyperpigmentation. The PPD method is a test where they shine UVA light on the skin, and measures the tanning response. A PPD of 10 generally means that you can spend 10 times longer under UVA exposure without tanning – compared to if you protected. The PA system compresses the results of the PPD test into four categories. In Japan , PA+ is a PPD of 2-4, PA++ is 4-6, and so on. PA++++ means that the PPD value of that sunscreen is greater than 16. We’re not sure yet what amount of UVA protection we need, but a lot of researchers have suggested that the UVA protection and UVB protection should be about equal, since that mimics the protection offered by shade – and I tend to agree with that. If you’re a person that is prone to tanning or hyperpigmentation, then you should probably look for the highest UVA protection or PA ranking that you can find. In many cases, Korean sunscreens offer better UVA protection than Western sunscreen. They’re also cheaper and tend to apply much nicer to the skin, they also get to use modern sunscreens that provide UVA protection than what’s allowed to be used in the US.
Could you buy a Korean sunscreen at Sephora?

A company like Sephora wouldn’t be able to import it because they have to follow import laws, set up with suppliers, hire inspectors to look at the shipping containers and etc, before the product is sent off. It’s a fair amount of work that most businesses go through, but because Sephora already has a strong supply and demand for regular sunscreen I’m not sure if they will try to import some Korean brands anytime soon. However, you can buy Korean Sunscreen on Amazon and get them shipped to you. That’s sort of like a gray market. Technically, it’s not legal but I don’t think US customs is going through every package. I don’t think it’s high priority. If you walk into a Sephora or a larger K-beauty retailer in the US, the sunscreens you’re buying there isn’t the same one you’d get in Korea. They sometimes make US versions.

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Is there any benefit from using sunscreen separately from BB cream, foundation, tinted moisturizer?
Anything with the SPF/PA label will be tested in the exact same way. What makes one more effective is the way we use them. If you’re using a foundation or BB cream with UVA PF the main goal is to even out the skin and provide coverage, so you will reach a point where your face gets cakey and that point may come before you reach the protection listed on the label. So, unless you’re using quite a bit it’s still better to stick with a sunscreen first then apply the makeup.

It sounds like K-beauty is far ahead of America in Sunscreen.
K-beauty kind of merges the idea of sunscreen as skincare whereas in the US sunscreen and beauty are kind of separate categories. There are some American brands that have kind of merged the two but US companies are still limited and the technology is behind about 10-15 years.

Any final words?
Set realistic expectations. I get a lot of questions about how to fix something with a product. This isn’t an exact science where we can identify the symptoms and provide a quick fix. Some people won’t have the skin they dream of, unfortunately, it’s just reality. Like there isn’t a product that will turn your skin into a skin in a magazine or even your best friend. A lot of it is down to genetics. Skincare is meant to nudge our skin along. Our skin is great at taking care of itself, unless you have a condition or disease and even then the dermatological treatments aren’t always effective. There are amazing skincare products that can have amazing effects but I think it’s better to be surprised than disappointed. Because, you know, the way that we look is a huge part of our self-esteem and it’s hard to tell someone “I don’t know if your skin will improve,” but we need to be realistic.

Thank you so much, Stephen!

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Updated Oct 10 with corrections due to transcription errors.

Check out Stephen Alain Ko’s website and follow him on Instagram and Twitter for all of his great cosmetic chemistry insights.

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