In the imagination of the American beauty hound, France has its effortless, tousled-hair It girls and Korea has its effortful, snail-powered, bazillion-step skincare routine. But Japan, for the most part, has been less of a cultural beauty brand. (Well, at least outside of the archaic and bizarro preoccupation with geishas, which makes about as much sense as taking beauty cues from Marie Antoinette.) It’s time to reassess the landscape, especially keeping in mind that Japan has the highest per capita spending on skincare and cosmetics.
Walk down the street of Tokyo or Kyoto, Osaka or Kumamoto, and the national obsession with beauty is nakedly apparent. Within two blocks there might be three drugstores, a claustrophobe’s nightmare with a dizzying number of beauty bottles, tubs, tonics, and packs, and just around the corner, a couple of department stores with entire floors of even more brands.
Start taking stock of all the products with cult status among beauty insiders — SK-II masks, Clé de Peau concealers, Shu Uemura eyelash curlers — and you might start to wonder if Japan is low-key the best beauty country in the world. This aesthetic dedication extends into other parts of life. Onsen, the hot spring bath, is still a common practice, and the Japanese diet is full of skin-supporting foods like oily fish, seaweed, green tea, and the newly trendy fermented rice beverage amazake. Wellness is practically the national religion.
I spent two and a half months traipsing around the country to find out more about the depths of the Japanese obsession with beauty. I dove deep into Cosme, the Japanese site for ranking beauty products; visited endless drugstore and beauty shops; chatted up locals and experts; and checked in with Yu Soga, contributing beauty editor at Vogue Japan. I expected to come back with a few good products, but I came away with a completely different way of thinking about skincare.
The Japanese refer to nice skin as mochi-hada, or rice-cake skin, a reference to the ultra soft and plump Japanese desserts. The concept of softness in general is a reoccurring theme in Japanese skincare. While the American approach is almost akin to attacking your own skin with aggressive exfoliation and harsh formulas, the Japanese have a nourishing philosophy, emphasizing sun protection, thorough but gentle cleansing, and multiple hydrating and moisturizing layers. The basic Japanese skincare routine boils down to removing makeup, cleansing, hydrating with a “lotion” (more on that soon), treating with a serum, and sealing everything in with a moisturizer, plus masking on the regular (that’s why you can buy bulk masks in packs of 42).
I’ve heard many estheticians say that American women, as a whole, do not properly cleanse their faces. Moving a blob of gel cleanser around on your mug for 15 seconds does not remove the caulked mixture of silicone-laced foundation, sweat, sebum, and whatever has been drifting down from the office vent. Japanese skincare guru Chizu Saeki, author of The Japanese Skincare Revolution, recommends spending as much time at night cleaning your face as you do applying makeup. At the very least, removing your makeup with an emulsifying oil or balm before cleansing is a good way to ensure you don’t leave old makeup hanging out in your pores all night.
Oil cleansing may be a relatively new concept in the US, but it’s been around in Japan since 1967, when Shu Uemera introduced it. That’s half a century of oil cleansing. The brand’s Ultime8 Sublime Beauty Cleanser ($45) is a gold standard, but today, almost every Japanese skincare brand offers its own. Popular drugstore versions include the richer, olive-oil based DHC Deep Cleansing Oil ($27) and the mid-range Fancl Mild Cleansing Oil ($26), a lighter, meadowfoam seed oil-based formula.
For the second cleanser, foaming formulations are extremely common because they are soft, and you don’t have to rub your skin too much to spread them around. Besides, who doesn’t want to bathe their face in a fluffy cloud? Hada Labo — a beloved low-budget line of simple, well-formulated products — offers the low-pH Hyaluronic Acid Cleansing Foam, $9, free of harsh sulfates to rival all other gentle cheapie drugstore cleansers.
One bonus of double cleansing at night: You can skip washing your face in the morning and just splash on some water.
Lotions (Skin Conditioners)
There’s no American equivalent to the Japanese “lotion” (kesho-sui). Like our toners, they are watery and applied after cleansing, but they’re neither astringent nor meant to wipe away a shoddy cleansing job (that’s what double cleansing is for). They are patted onto the skin and left there. A vital key to mochi-hada, lotions soften the skin, hydrate it, and sometimes perform a few extras. The Japanese are big into hydration — which is technically adding water to the skin and not to be confused with moisturizing or adding oils to the skin — and lotions are typically full of water-pushing humectants like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and aloe.
Hada Labo offers several popular lotions, including the beauty-vlogger favorite Gokujyn Hyaluronic Acid Lotion ($14). It’s jacked up with three types of hyaluronic acid, making it a hero product for plumping up dehydrated skin. The skin-soothing hatomugi, also known as Job’s tears, is the key ingredient in one of Japan’s more iconic lotions, Albion Skin Conditioner ($97), as well as the much cheaper dupe Naturie Hatomugi Skin Conditioner ($18).
Another drugstore standout is Kikusasamune High Moist Lotion ($13), which is made by a famed sake brewery and smells like one, too. Like the legendary SK-II Essence ($179), its star ingredient is a sake ferment, which is rich in dark spot-reducing kojic acid, but it also has moisture-boosting ceramides and the brightener arbutin.
On a normal day, you can pat on a lotion in mornings and evenings after cleansing, but it can also pull double-duty as a mask. Just soak cotton pads or dry paper masks with a lotion and then apply as you would any sheet mask.
Biyoueki, which roughly translates to "beauty liquid," targets specific conditions like dark spots, wrinkles, or dullness. Beauty liquids address some of the same things as lotions, but they’re typically a thicker consistency and little more concentrated — and in the Japanese mindset, more gentle layers are preferred over one bullish product.
For dehydrated skin, go for an extra layer of hydration with a gel like Naturie Hatomugi Skin Conditioner Gel ($23) or Rosette Ceramide Gel ($12), both of which are chock-full of skin-plumping ceramides as well as collagen and sodium hyaluronate. For dark spots and hyperpigmentation, vitamin C is the way to go. Beauty tourists often pick up Obagi Vitamin C Serum in Japan, but you can get gentle (and gently priced) Melano CC ($13) and the hilariously named Haba Special Care White Lady Serum ($35) online. For the elusive glow-y effect, the best-selling Albion Eclafutur ($119) boasts Okinawan wild grapes and grape seed oil on top of the more pedestrian ceramides.
According to Soga, the biggest beauty launch this year was POLA Wrinkle Shot ($147), an “unprecedented” product. It’s the first product in Japan authorized by the Ministry of Health and Welfare to label a product as “anti-wrinkle.” (Unlike the US, which barely monitors cosmetic ingredients, Japan has very strict regulations.) “Before this, all anti-wrinkle creams could only be officially categorized as a moisturizer,” says Soga.
Milks, oils, and creams seal in active ingredients and hydrating layers. Many, like Minon Amino Moist Charge Milk ($29) and Curel Intensive Moisture Cream ($24), are on the lighter side, perfect for Japan’s crazy hot and humid summers. While oils are more popular for the first cleansing step than the moisturizing one, two oils in particular are traditionally used in skincare. The ultra rich, fast-absorbing horse oil (sonbahyu), such as this one from Kodiake ($20), is higher in linoleic fatty acids than oleic fatty acids, making it ideal for oily, acne-prone skin and repairing a moisture barrier. Squalane, which is derived from either shark or olives, like this version from Haba ($24), is higher in oleic fatty acids than linoleic acids, making it better suited to dry, oil-depleted skin. Camelia flower (tsubaki) oil is more commonly used for hair; the most iconic brand is Oshima ($17).
Forget abrasive scrubs and brushes. In Japan, the move is gommages or gels, which are effective but won’t cause the micro-tears that sugar or apricot shells do. How they work: You apply the gel to dry skin and the polymer-based liquid binds to the oil on your face, forming teeny little balls. As you massage your face, those little balls ever so gently physically exfoliate your skin, revealing a lighter, brighter complexion. The No. 1 exfoliator in Japan is Cure Natural Aqua Peeling Gel ($38), which famously sells every 12 seconds.
Wander into this section of the Japanese cosme floor, and you might first wonder if you’ve happened upon the sex toy section. (You haven’t.) Facial-rolling gadgets are a common tool in the Japanese beauty kit. The Maserati of them all is the platinum-coated MTG ReFA Carat (shown above), constructed with two multifaceted balls attached to a curved handle that bears striking resemblance to the male anatomy. At $277, it’s at the pricier end of the face-rolling market. Of course, you could skip the tools altogether and just give yourself a regular lymphatic facial massage with your hands several times a week. That’s free.
Japan has many of the world’s best-formulated sunscreens, period. Japanese women wear sunscreen every single day, rain or shine, beach or office. Accordingly, the sunscreen market is super competitive, with both luxury and drugstore brands battling it out with advanced formulations that are both effective and cosmetically elegant (or, in laywoman’s terms, not sticky and gross). Since SPF only refers to UVB protection, the Japanese even developed their own rating system for UVA-blocking effectiveness: from the lowest PA+ to the highest PA++++.
The wearable consistency of Japanese sunscreens is the biggest shocker to those of us accustomed to Western versions. There are fast-absorbing gels, like the beloved Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence SPF 50 PA++++ ($8) and the Canmake Mermaid Skin UV Gel ($10). And there are runnier milks, such as the matte-finishing Biore Perfect Face Milk SPF 50 PA++++ ($6) and the waterproof Shiseido Anessa Perfect UV Sunscreen SPF 50 PA++++ ($27).
Outside of Harajuku or Tokyo’s more cutting-edge neighborhoods, Japanese makeup is minimalist, natural, and typically flawless. Japanese women mastered the no-makeup makeup look long before it became a thing in the US, which is easier to do if you’ve already spent years protecting and nourishing your skin into a soft, dewy state.
Heavy makeup is rare and highly contoured makeup is non-existent in Japan — even in the most stuffed cosmetics shop, you won’t find a contouring kit. To help me navigate the depths of the Japanese cosmetics market, I talked to Buddhist monk and makeup artist Kodo Nishimura, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Tokyo, in addition to Vogue Japan’s Yu Soga.
Big eyes are one of the major beauty goals for Japanese women, which might just be why so many great lash curlers come out of Japan. There are three big-time brands: the rightfully classic Shu Uemura ($21) and Shiseido ($20) versions, both of which are better shaped for narrow eyes, and Shiseido’s higher-end brand Maquillage ($20), which fits slightly longer eyes.
By extension — that would be literally and figuratively — Japanese mascaras are also excellent. “The area of most concern for Japanese women is eye size and eyelash length,” says Nishimura. “Because we have less accentuated eyelids, we want longer lashes that don’t smudge easily.” He loves smudge-resistant, ultra-waterproof Dejavu Fiberwig Mascara ($17). Kiss Me Heroine Make Mascara Long and Curl ($10) is another best-selling brand and travel-haul favorite.
Similarly, smudge-proof, high-performance eyeliners are another non-negotiable. I didn’t see one coal miner ring at the end of the work day my entire time in Japan. The K-Palette 24-Hour Tattoo Eyeliner ($17) has been around longer than Kat von D. (It’s so good that you’ll find it in Korean cosmetic stores like Olive and Young in beauty-obsessed Seoul.) Nishimura also likes the Mote Flowfush Liquid Eyeliner ($19), which comes in a range of colors, including a “very, very black.”
As for eyeshadow, Nishimura vouches for Addiction ($27). “It’s by the Japanese celebrity makeup artist Ayako, and it is great,” says Nishimura. “Some eyeshadows are flaky or misty, but their eyeshadows are very rich in color.” Unlike certain makeup brands that churn out trendy colors each year, Addiction has consistent quality across its line. Nishimura likes the shimmery eyeshadows in particular because they’re very saturated. Soga recommends the eye dimensional quad palette ($87) from Three, a young organic brand that has become a fashion-magazine favorite. “Although they have a brush in it, it is very easy to use with fingers.”
While gradient lips were common in trendier neighborhoods, I didn’t see a bold red lip even once in Japan. Softer colors like translucent reds, rosy pinks, and taupe are the standard, and RMK ($24) makes creamy, non-drying lipsticks that fit the bill. “They are very subtle,” says Nishimura. “And that’s perfect for Japanese society where almost nobody wears red or burgundy.” He likes the Irresistible Bright Lips ($25.50) in light coral.
Like lips, cheeks are rarely, if ever, aggressively defined. More often than not, blush is applied in the area under the under-eye instead of swept over the cheekbones. The effect is sweet and innocent-flushing as opposed to vampy. For that look, Canmake Cream Cheek ($10), offered in cute prismatic cases, is a popular choice among younger women. The creamy colors are also great as lip colors. According to Soga, another favorite among makeup artists is the Three Shimmering Glow Duo ($67). “It makes the skin polished and adds a super natural highlight.”
Japanese foundations come in a range of formulas: liquid foundation, powder foundation, cream foundation, BB creams, and cushion foundation. A few years back, Sephora started carrying the cult favorite Koh Gen Do Aqua Foundation ($60), a long-wearing, dewy foundation created by Japanese actress Ai Satone. For lighter coverage, there’s Shiseido Maquillage Dramatic Powdery UV Foundation ($29), and oily skin types like the Kate Powderless Liquid Foundation ($22), which goes on liquid and dries matte.
Clé de Peau also launched two new foundations: a stick foundation, teint stick éclat ($95), and a cream foundation, le fond de teint ($250). “Unlike other stick foundations, teint stick éclat applies easily and feels light, is cool to the touch, and is easily smoothed over the skin, like ice cream,” says Soga. “Le fond de teint is a tinted foundation with more moisturizing features.”
The be-all and end-all of concealers is Clé de Peau Correcteur Visage ($70), a favorite of celebrities around the globe from the Shiseido luxury line with a French-sounding name that means “key of skin.” “It’s very creamy, yet it doesn’t smudge,” says Nishimura. “And for under-eye, it doesn’t crease or look cakey.” The product is so popular with US makeup artists, the brand had to expand its shades beyond the narrow three-color range typically available in Asia.
The hand-made Hakuhodo brushes are another — yes, another — favorite of makeup artists for their superior quality, soft texture, and vast range. “They use baby hair of squirrels or different animals,” says Nishimura. “So the tips are not cut and very fine.” That means they apply makeup extra smoothly. You can customize the type of hair, thickness, and shape of your brush, and you pick the stem’s length and material, such as black wood (a softer touch) or red lacquer (full-on luxury). In the tony Tokyo neighborhood of Aoyama, the brand has an entire store of brushes, but you can also order them online at Hakuhodousa.com.