Could fermentation be the new buzzing trend for Korean Beauty brands in 2023? With skincare benefits and innovation for all skin types and concerns, there's more than kimchi and wine when it comes to fermentation.
Of course, we have cruelty-free and vegan product recommendations for you!
But first, why is fermented skincare K-Beauty’s next big thing?
Fermented skin is popular in Korean beauty because of its efficacy, increased absorption and potency, low toxicity, and longer shelf life.
Studies have shown that some common skincare ingredients are up to 400% more effective after being fermented!
There’s also the cultural aspect of fermentation in Korea- in the pantry and the medicine cabinet.
What are Fermented Cosmetics?
Fermentation is a natural process where microorganisms and bacteria release enzymes that start to break down food. This has to happen in an environment with limited or no oxygen. When it does, fermentation creates amino acids, vitamins, and antioxidants.
If enzymes, vitamins, and antioxidants are familiar to you, it’s because the wellness industry loves them in supplements as much as the beauty industry loves putting them into products. Think yogurt, beer, wine, and another global favourite hailing from Korea, kimchi.
We wouldn’t recommend putting any of those on your face. Especially not when Korean Beauty brands have put some serious time into research and development on adding ferments skincare and cosmetics.
They created a whole new skincare category in doing so essences- one with many benefits for the skin!
The buzz around fermented skincare in K-Beauty started around 2021 and is not going anywhere.
Ferments are most common in essences because they are hydrating and nutrient-rich, but we see them in serums, sheet masks, toners, ampules, and eye creams.
History of Fermentation in Korea
Fermentation adds richness and depth of flavor to traditional Korean food. There's archeological evidence that fermentation for food dates all the back to 1500 BC.
But it's more difficult to trace beauty practices back. Women in Japan, China, and South Asia have used rice water for centuries to rinse their hair. It adds strength, shine, and softness that can only be gained through fermenting rice water for 24 hours.
During the Joseon Dynasty, it was uncommon it let eggs sit in a sealed jar of alcohol before they sat for a month. It was said to “relieve the skin and add a glow to the complexion.”
The Benefits of Fermentation
So how do ferments in all these products actually work on your skin?
One way is better absorption and higher potency. So if your usual favorites can be fermented, you’ll get more bang for your buck. Then there’s the neutralization of toxins and longer shelf life. Ferments have also been seen to have a brightening effect on the skin.
Increased Absorption and Higher Potency
A review of multiple studies showed that “fermentation does increase the biochemical and physiological of the substrate… making it more compatible than unfermented raw materials”.
This doesn’t necessarily translate to nutrients and vitamins being more bioavailable (or easily absorbed by skin) once fermented.
But looking into research on common cosmetology ingredients like soy, ginseng, berries, and aloe vera found the following;
To quote the review, “This is because the polysaccharide molecules in the extract are broken down during the fermentation process, improving penetration.”
In non-scientific terms, smaller molecules of ingredients mean better absorption in some cases.
The same Red Ginseng study that found fermentation improved anti-aging and brightening properties also found that fermentation did reduce inflammatory effects and toxicity.
Sometimes natural ingredients will have not-so-great stuff, like heavy metals, preservatives, and toxins, but fermentation can neutralize these.
This also means fermented ingredients cause less irritation and inflammation, so products using them and safer for sensitive skin.
There's also evidence that the fermentation of yeast creates an antimicrobial effect that helps acne-prone skin.
Longer Shelf Life
We’ll let a dermatologist handle this one. Dr. Melanie Palm, a board-certified Dermatologist, explained to The Klog, “Products of fermentation create a broth that tends to be lower in pH, [which] inhibits bacterial growth and increases shelf-life,”.
And that makes sense, given that traditionally fermentation was used to extend the length of time people could enjoy food that spoiled quickly, like preserved vegetables and yogurt.
It also makes it easier t use fewer preservatives and eliminates the need for dangerous preservatives like parabens.
Commonly Korean Fermented Ingredients
Here are some of the most popular fermented ingredients used in Korean skincare, like rice, soy, and ginseng- with the benefits you can expect from them.
Soy has been a favorite of K-Beauty brands for decades, and once it’s fermented, it has the added benefits of collagen-inducing agents. We all want more collagen production!
Fermented soy also has vitamins, peptides, and amino acids that are more easily absorbed and have been shown to help the skin barrier. There are anti-inflammatory, anti-aging, and moisturizing benefits as a bonus.
In South Asia, rice isn’t just used as an exfoliant or hair rinse.
The benefits of fermented rice include hydration, fading scars, and healing blemishes. It’s also been seen to increase collagen production and help even skin tone. A 2013 study showed that fermented rice could also help restore sun damage on the skin.
Fermented Black Tea
The organic acids and probiotics in fermented black tea or green tea (kombucha) can add hydration and improve the skin barrier. This maintains skin quality and may decrease break-outs.
The lactic acid in fermented teas also removes dead skin cells and can help with hyperpigmentation over time. Thanks to antioxidants, fermented teas also help repair free radical damage and slow signs of aging.
A 2017 study suggests that the increase in oxygenation and circulation from fermented ginseng has an anti-wrinkle effect. That increase in circulation can also reduce puffiness.
In 2020 another study came out showing fermented red ginseng increases collagen synthesis, which improves elasticity in the skin.
Fermented ginseng has anti-inflammatory properties and inhibits the production of tyrosinase and melanin, which whitens the skin and can reduce hyperpigmentation.
Fermented sea kelp is calming because of its anti-inflammatory nature, so it soothes irritation and redness. This helps with eczema, rosacea, and acne flare-ups.
It’s great for combination or oily skin types because it balances oil production and moisturizes.
Its antibacterial properties are a double whammy for acne and blemishes.
How to use Fermented Skincare Products
Fermented products started with essences, but here’s the full range of products that it continues to expand into:
Start by introducing one or two products into your existing routine, and give it time to reap the rewards before switching or adding in more products.
Fermented Skincare Recommendations for your 10-Step Routine
Then I Met You - The Giving Essence
Galactomyces and Saccharomyces
COSRX - Galactomytes 95 Tone Balancing Essence
Dear, Klairs -Fundamental Watery Oil Drop
Rice and Bifida Ferment Extract
iUNIK - Rose Galactomyces Silky Tone Up Cream
Benton - Fermentation Eye Cream
Ingredients to Combine your Fermented Skincare With
When you’re picking skincare, it’s not just the source of the ferments (like rice or soy) to pay attention to but the ferment extract or ferment filtrate itself.
Top ferments in Cruelty-Free and Vegan Korean Skincare are
Dr. Madfes, a US board-certified dermatologist told The Klog, “It’s important to combine the lysates with other ingredients such as squalene, vitamins, emollients, and humectants for optimal benefits.”
This is like all the last two steps in the 10-Step Korean Skincare Routine that ‘seal in’ all the goodness from the steps and protect the skin. To learn more, read Korean Beauty’s 10-step Skincare Routine Explained: How To Build Yours!
Pairings to Avoid with Fermented Skincare
One of the byproducts of fermentation is the formation of acid.
If your preferred ferment product has lactic acid, make sure you don’t layer Vitamin C or (Vitamin A) Retinol with it. Rather use your Vitamin A and Vitamin A when you aren’t wearing your fermented skincare.
The same applies if you use any skincare you use has:
Who Shouldn’t Use Ferments?
While studies have shown most ferments reduce the irritability of ingredients, some side effects have been reported. These are very few, but knowing about potential risks and how to avoid them is important.
Polyglutamic acid is a fermentation byproduct with the following side effects:
To avoid this, do a patch test 48 hours before incorporating any product with polyglutamic acid into your skincare routine. If you find any of the above reactions, use calamine lotion or aloe vera to relieve the symptoms.
No other ferments have recorded side effects, but some acne sufferers have reported their blemishes and breakouts worsening.
This doesn’t happen with all acne types, but fungal acne can be exacerbated by galactomyces s as they cause the body to produce a protein that encourages existing fungal acne.
However, bifida lysates and saccharomyces have shown improvements in skin conditions like acne.
Common Misconceptions About Fermented Skincare
Address common misconceptions about fermented skincare, such as its effectiveness or safety
Provide evidence-based information to debunk these myths
Culturally, fermentation has a positive association in Korea, but the same can’t be said in other parts of the globe.
American markets were particularly resistant to fermented skincare when they first started popping up in K-Beauty brands back in 2015.
One reason might be the myth that fermentation is not safe or clean for the skin.
So the idea of applying something that might contaminate skin is offputting- even though the opposite has been proven by multiple studies.
There’s also the myth that fermented skincare isn’t effective and doesn’t live up to its claims.
This 2015 Rewired article basically stated that brands marketing fermented skincare weren’t exactly lying but were using clever wording to trick consumers into believing their products were miraculous. Saying that the effects weren’t there and that fermented skincare brands from Asia didn’t have evidence to back it up was misleading.
At the time, multiple studies were gaining momentum in proving the efficacy, safety, and increased benefits of fermentation in cosmetics.
Now those studies have been peer-reviewed and given the validation they deserved.
Environmental Impact of Fermented Skincare
There are many claims about the positive environmental impact of fermentation in skincare. These include reduced land and water usage, less greenhouse gas emission, and minimized waste.
Fermented ingredients are also generally less harsh, so when they are rinsed off and become part of wastewater, it’s better for the environment.
And by-products from other industries that rely on fermentation are an opportunity. Just look at Krave Beauty’s Makeup Re-Wined, which uses ethically sourced, upcycled grapeseed oil from the wine-making process.
On the other hand, a byproduct of fermentation is carbon. And depending on the process used, up to a third can be ‘lost’ CO2 or carbon dioxide. So this worsens greenhouse gas emissions.
There are developments underway to reduce this and use the gas created as a carbon-fuel alternative.
If you want to make sure you buy from brands that want to be part of the solution, here are questions to ask;
The answers will inform you about the brand's standards and the likelihood that their fermented skincare was developed with both your skin and sustainability in mind.