Ulitmate Guide to Japanese Skincare

By  Ava McKee | November 29, 2022

A young black women is in her bathroom wearing a white tank top with her hair wrapped up in a white towel as she washes her face and is smiling at herself in the mirror

By now, everyone has heard of the Korean skincare craze, definitely one of the hottest skincare trends to take over the international market. But in more recent years, this trend has started to be rivaled by an alternative trend, a little more to the east, namely Japanese skincare.

Japanese people have traditionally been associated with a youthful appearance and are often said to look younger than their actual age. While some Westerners wistfully attribute this effect to “lucky genetics”, there is actually a more controllable answer: skincare.

While genetics does play an important role in your overall appearance, the way you take care of your skin, and the products you allow to soak in, also have a crucial role in your overall appearance.

More and more beauty bloggers and celebrities are talking about Japanese skincare routines, and how those have helped them get glowing skin. So we thought we’d delve a little deeper into what Japanese skincare entails, and how it’s different from other routines (e.g. Korean, but also the traditional Western beauty routine).

This article is part of our extensive series on Learning About Japan through Online Lessons at Japan Switch.

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    What is Japanese Skincare?

    First things first, it’s paramount to understand what defines this skincare practice. Does Japanese skincare just mean following the same old steps, but using Japanese products? Not really. As is the case with every beauty routine, what you put on your face matters, so clearly, the products themselves will make an important difference. But if you’re looking to try Japanese skincare for yourself, you will also want to follow along with the routine, which we’ll talk about below.

    But what defines Japanese skincare? Well, the Japanese refer to pretty skin as mochi-hada (もち肌), which literally translates to “rice cake skin”. The reference to the traditional Japanese treat is meant to emphasize the two key aspects, in Japanese society, of pretty skin: softness and plumpness.

    This could be said to be emblematic of the key concept in Japanese skincare: protecting and hydrating the skin. The idea here is that the key to nice, attractive skin is nourishing your skin, and taking steps to protect it from harsh external agents (excessive sunlight, but also harsh chemical ingredients).

    As such, the most important steps of a Japanese skincare routine will be focusing on sun protection and hydration. Cleansing is also an important part of the routine and is typically achieved with a special “lotion”, which we’ll talk more about in the beauty routine section below.

    Another important aspect of any Japanese skincare routine will be the use of bihaku (美白) products. An expression that literally translates as “beautifully white”, the term emerged in the 1900s, along with the appearance of the first skin-brightening products. In Japanese skincare, the purpose of these is to conceal and lighten existing dark spots, as well as future ones that, while not yet visible, already exist under the skin. In time, the use of bihaku products is aimed at conferring a brighter, more luminous, and less dull complexion.

    How does Japanese skincare differ from American skincare?

    Since a lot of Westerners are currently following an American (more or less) care routine, it’s interesting to note how that differs from the Japanese approach. While the traditional Japanese skincare routine will focus on hydrating and nourishing the skin, the Western-style beauty routine is more targeted at cleansing the skin.

    A quick look through the typically recommended Western routines (and their accompanying product list) will reveal a lot of aggressive cleansing agents. The idea here is not an entirely wrong one. Not at all. Basically, the aim is to combat the noxious effects of pollution, and sun exposure, and remove grime, make-up products, and so on, to leave behind clear skin.

    One notable downside of this practice, however, is the routine can become overly aggressive on the skin, and leave it stripped of natural, healthy oils. Lacking these essential oils, the skin becomes more vulnerable to infection and breakouts, because it’s essentially been stripped of a protective layer.

    So, since a Western-style beauty routine tends to overly cleanse, and then works double-time to rehydrate what it stripped away, the Japanese routine offers an alternative approach: cleansing more gently and leaving the skin’s natural protective layer.

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    Japanese Skincare vs. Korea Skincare – what are the differences?

    Fair enough, but how does Japanese skincare (known, more simply, as J-Beauty) differ from the famous Korean skincare routines that have been taking over the world?

    1.    J-Beauty involves fewer steps.

    One key difference that strikes you, at a first glance, is that J-Beauty seems oriented more towards simplicity. The 12-step K-beauty routine is by now famous, and for many, feels like a little too much work.

    A typical morning, following the Korean skincare routine, involves cleansing, toning, and applying ampoules, serums, eye creams, moisturizers, and sunscreen. As for the nighttime routine, it’s even more laborious, with experts recommending the following routine:

    •     Oil-based cleansing;
    •     Double cleanser;
    •     Exfoliation;
    •     Toner;
    •     Essence;
    •     Ampoule;
    •     Serum;
    •     Sheet mask;
    •     Eye cream;
    •     Moisturizer.

    By contrast, a Japanese skincare routine appears easy-peasy, relying only on:

    •     Cleansers;
    •     Essences;
    •     Moisturizers.

    That being said, Japanese skincare routines can also run up an extensive number of steps, depending on how much time and commitment you’ve got.

    2.    The ingredients are very different.

    Immediately, Korean skincare products struck the Western world as curious and exotic, relying on ingredients like rice bran, sea kelp, sake, and snail mucin to yield their impressive results.

    J-Beauty, on the other hand, focuses on ingredients that promote hydration, and have an anti-inflammatory effect. A quick look at the ingredient list of most J-Beauty products will reveal agents like Chamomile tea, hyaluronic acid, green tea, Camellia oil, and Aloe Vera.

    3.    K-Beauty focuses on “Glass Skin”.

    While there are many similarities between the two routines, the end result does differ, slightly. Both approaches have a strong focus on hydrating the skin and maintaining that enviable plumpness. However, Korean beauty doesn’t aim for that “rice cake” look, meaning it doesn’t seek a soft, matte look.

    K-Beauty is more angled towards achieving a “glass skin” look, meaning the skin is transparent, luminous, and clear, much like glass.

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    Which is better, J-Beauty or K-Beauty?

    Many people who are new to these Eastern approaches to beauty will wonder which is better for them, Japanese skincare, or Korean beauty. The answer, as ever where the skin is concerned, will depend chiefly on your type of skin. For instance, if you’ve got a dry skin type, you’re bound to benefit from the heavy emphasis on hydration in Japanese beauty. On the other hand, an acne-prone type of skin might not benefit from the heavy focus on oils in these practices.

    Another point of consideration would be the level of commitment you’re prepared for. If following the 20-something daily beauty steps required by a Korean skincare routine sounds exhausting to you, then you might be better suited with a simpler, less-is-more Japanese skincare approach.

    However, if you’re aiming more for that “glass skin” appearance, and know yourself to have the necessary patience, K-Beauty might be a good idea.

    Lastly, you’ll need to consider your budget. Since K-Beauty typically involves more products, it could also mean a higher price point, at the end, than the simpler Japanese routine.

    So, to answer the question, it’s not a matter of which is “better”, but rather which best suits your lifestyle and budget.

    Ultimate Japanese Beauty Routine

    Now that we’ve seen some of the key differences between Japanese beauty and both Korean and Western skincare routines, it’s time to get to the “main event”. What exactly defines a Japanese care routine? And what steps do you need to follow, to see the perfect rice cake skin results?

    We’ll divide the routine section into morning and nighttime. Bear in mind that these are designed for the average person who typically has more spare time in the evening, and can invest in a more extensive routine then. But maybe that’s not you. If you’ve got more time for your skincare in the morning, feel free to switch these around as best suit your schedule. Alternatively, if you are an extremely busy person, and finding the time can be a challenge, feel free to adapt the routine to meet your needs, but try not to skip the essential cleansing, essences, and moisturizers steps, for best results.

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    J-Beauty Morning Routine

    Step 0 – Shower

    While you won’t find this step on all online routines, it’s definitely worthwhile, if time allows, to prepare your skin with a quick shower in the morning. Not only does this remove general grime from your body, but the steam from the hot water will actually serve you by opening up the pores, and allowing your skin to better soak in the rest of the ingredients.

    Alternatively, if you don’t have time for a hot shower, you can substitute it with a hot towel, instead, to get the same result.

    Step 1 – Cleansing

    Cleansing the face is actually not just about removing a layer of dirt, oils, and stuff from your skin. In Japanese skincare, the chief purpose of this step is to boost skin metabolism. This will result in a faster cell regeneration rate, and thus in healthier, more fresh-looking skin.

    In the morning, the purpose of cleansing is to remove any sweat or dirt accumulated overnight, and prep the skin, and make it more receptive to the rest of your skincare products.

    Japanese cleansers are generally oil-based, which sets them apart from Western cleansers, as they are more hydrating and less aggressive. Obviously, you will still need to take into consideration your particular type of skin, when selecting the right J-Beauty cleanser for you.

    A good oil-based cleanser, like the Camelia Cleansing Oil from Tatcha, will melt away the dirt, without stripping the skin of healthy oils.

    Step 2 –  Lotion

    Here’s where we begin to really see the difference between Western and Japanese skincare. There’s nothing quite like the Japanese kesho-sui (化粧水) in our own culture. Basically, this special Japanese face lotion most resembles a toner in consistency, though not in purpose. While a toner is typically an astringent that further cleanses (and dries) the skin, this lotion acts as a liquid hydrator.

    While some recommend using a lotion, like the Kiku Masamune Lotion, towards the end of your skincare routine, others say it’s best to apply it at the beginning. The idea is you’ll leave the lotion there, to soften the pores, and make them more receptive to the other products you’ll use in your J-beauty routine.

    Step 3 – Serum

    Next, we’ve got a facial serum, to really quench that thirst. Normally, a J-Beauty face serum should be loaded with antioxidants, but also have an airy texture that doesn’t weigh the skin down too much. A serum will be absorbed within moments, allowing you to move on to the next step of your routine.

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    Step 4 – Moisturizer

    The key to Japanese skincare is believed to be layering. So if you look at it, all of the steps we’ve been following so far have actually meant adding layer after layer of hydration, from the oil-based cleanser to the moisturizer. This is an important difference from other beauty routines, which typically just dump all the moisturizer in one step, and that impedes absorption.

    In J-beauty, because we’re layering moisture levels, the products themselves don’t need to be as heavy to achieve an enviable level of hydration. Scoop out a tiny droplet of your favorite J-Beauty moisturizer (try the Tatcha Water Cream, maybe), and carefully massage it into your skin.

    Step 5 – Eye Cream/Gel

    Last but not least, add some moisture to the eye-area specifically, to get that glowy, fresh-faced look. Ideally, while applying your eye gel or cream, take a moment to give yourself a light massage targeting lymphatic drainage. Alternatively, you could try a jade roller. But the idea is, by stimulating lymphatic drainage, you will get a depuffing effect that will make your face look overall less tired, and more youthful.

    Step 6 – SPF

    Of course, as you head out in the morning, don’t forget to layer on some sun lotion, like the Allie Extra UV Gel from Kanebo. This will form a protective barrier between your delicate skin and dangerous UV rays that harm the skin, lead to dark spots, and may even prove cancerous.

    As with any other product in your routine, choose a SPF that suits your skin type, and look for one with an adequate protection level (SPF 30 or higher).







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    J-Beauty Nighttime Routine

    Because some of the steps in the night routine will be the same as the ones we already covered in the morning, we won’t insist on those. Instead, here, we’ll talk about the extra steps you’ll be adding in your nighttime routine, alone. Pay attention to the step numbering, to tell you where in your routine each step goes.

    Step 0.5 – Double Cleanse

    You’re going to need to spend a little more effort cleansing at night because typically, there’ll be more dirt, sweat, and make-up to remove. According to Chizu Saeki, Japanese skincare guru, you should be spending as much time removing your make-up and cleansing as you do applying it.

    So before you begin your routine, reach for an oil-based cleanser like the Shu Uemura Ultim8 Sublime Beauty Cleansing Oil, and use that to remove make-up and dirt, and make your pores more receptive.

    After using an initial cleanser, you’ll want to use your regular cleanser (hence, double cleansing). This will remove any residual grime not covered in the first cleanse, and actually clean the skin under the layer of make-up.

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    Step 1.5 – Exfoliate

    How often you exfoliate should depend on your skin type, but generally, it’s not recommended to do it more than 1-2 a week. There are numerous tried-and-tested J-Beauty exfoliators, like The Cure Natural Aqua Gel. The purpose here is to massage the skin, and encourage skin cell regeneration, while also removing dead cells.

    Tip: Since this isn’t a must, we’re not including it as a “step”. However, at night, you can either use the same lotion, moisturizer and serum as you did in the morning, if you feel that works for you, or switch things up. Since you’re not going anywhere, you could opt for a heavier facial hydrating oil, like the Virgin Olive Oil Moisturizer from DHC.

    Step 5.5 – Spot Treatment (Optional)

    After applying your eye gel, now’s the time to switch things up a little. If you suffer from typically acne-prone skin, now’s the time to add in a spot treatment that works for you. As the name suggests though, make sure you only apply it on the blemishes, and not across the entire face, as that will dry out the skin, countering the hydrating effects of the rest of the routine.

    Step 6 (alternative) – Mask

    Like the exfoliator, applying a mask every single night would be overkill, as it would wear out the skin. In Japanese tradition, masks are generally recommended only once or twice a week and are used to target a specific problem.

    You can usually choose between sheet masks or cream masks that you may even leave on overnight. Sheet masks are typically brimming with active ingredients designed to combat the skin concern that’s giving you the most trouble (e.g. acne, excessively dry skin, oiliness, etc.).

    As mentioned, if you lack the time, resources, or just the patience to follow this exact routine every day, don’t worry. Feel free to skip steps, though bear in mind each has its own purpose, so skipping won’t have as impressive an effect. However, some steps not to skip from a Japanese beauty routine are the double cleanse (by properly cleaning your skin, you’re avoiding breakouts, and helping the skin absorb nourishing products), and the lotion/moisturizer combo.

    An asian man applying the top half of a 2 part face mask as an alternative step in the japanese skincare process

    3 Japanese Beauty Tips

    As with every beauty routine, there are some tips and tricks that will make the experience that much better. Try to keep the below Japanese beauty tricks in mind, as you go through your skincare routine.

    1.    Pay attention to how your skin reacts.

    A lot of the time, we’ll just pick a skincare routine, and stick with it come rain or shine. Except that could actually cause us skin trouble. A big principle of Japanese beauty is paying attention to how your skin reacts to each product and acting accordingly.

    For example, many women who switched to the J-Beauty routine noted that on some mornings, their skin did not feel grimy or weighed-down, so they didn’t really feel the need to cleanse. And they didn’t.

    Sometimes, your skin may feel overly dry, in which case it’s smart to compensate by adding an extra layer of moisture. On other occasions, your skin will feel very hydrated, in which case you might want to tone down.

    Paying attention to the signals your skin is giving you is super important in discovering the right skincare routine for you.

    2.    Don’t overlook diet.

    While skincare is super important, it only goes so far. To get that glowing, ultra-hydrated skin, you want to tackle it from the inside, and that means diet. The Japanese skincare diet generally has a heavy focus on probiotics, recognizing them for their impressive strength. Since probiotics can genuinely replenish, and remodel both your gut health, and your skin health, it might be a good idea to start incorporating them in your diet.

    3.    Drink green tea.

    You’ve noticed that green tea is a key ingredient in many J-Beauty products. And while it’s great to apply it on the skin, it’s even better to have it inside you. Green tea is an antioxidant powerhouse, as is matcha tea, and they both also boast anti-inflammatory properties (which can help tame acne breakouts).

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    Bonus Tip: Use make-up correctly.

    For too long, women have been using make-up to hide their skin, rather than compliment it. The “Japanese way” to do it is to use less make-up for a more natural, and understated look, as that’s where the Japanese perceive true beauty.

    The idea here is, that once you start looking after your internal health and your skin properly, your complexion will improve, which will mean you have fewer reasons to want to hide it!

    Final Thoughts

    So, are you ready to jump on the J-Beauty bandwagon? The lower maintenance and moisturizing heavy aspects of the Japanese skincare routine are what make it distinctive and suitable for many people. Japanese skincare is different from Western skincare and even the ever so popular Korean skincare, but its unique approach is the key to the “rice cake’ skin that gives Japanese people that youthful glow. We hope that this guide has given you the knowledge and confidence to try out this routine and start caring for your skin the way Japanese people care for theirs!


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