From the Sempai: how to find skincare products in Japan

With all the good stuff to read in this post, I just want to briefly introduce sempai and fellow expat Yu Ming. She writes about expat life at Lioness in Japan, a blog I personally enjoy reading, and also shares some great ideas and information on her other two blogs: Beauty Box and Raw Bento (both of these also worth checking out for those into beauty and/or food!).

With her experience in Japan and knowledge of beauty products, I asked if she would be willing to share some tips with all of you. Of course she obliged, and generously provided a lot of helpful information for those of us searching out skincare. I learned a few things from this post, and hope it may be useful to you as well. And now, Yu Ming's tips on:

How to find skincare products in Japan

One of the things that concerned me about moving to Japan was, “Would I be able to continue using my favorite beauty products?” Shallow, I know - but like many women, I stick with what works for me for eternity so the thought of parting with my trusty beauty products made me cringe.

In preparation for the move, I stocked up on my can’t-live-without essentials and loaded my suitcase, and subsequently would beg visiting friends from Singapore to bring them over or overstuff my bags on my twice-a-year pilgrimage home. But these were just not feasible solutions and frankly, occupied more time (and concern) than I would care to admit.

So I dove into the colourful world of Japanese beauty products. If they are good enough for the millions of women here, they should be good enough for me, too. I mean, Japanese women look fabulous so there must be some merit in their beauty products, right?

Here are some tips for those confused by the multitude of offerings at cosmetic counters and in kusuriyas (pharmacies/daily goods stores).

Learn to read labels

For basic skincare, there are two basic categories: しっとり(shittori - means moist; for dry skin) and さっぱり(sappari - means fresh; for normal skin). Though some other types exist, e.g., combination skin, they can be more difficult to locate.

Furthermore, if you are used to a particular kind of regimen that includes serums and toners, Japan could be quite confusing or disappointing in the sense that these same products are used differently or have alternate names.

For one, the Japanese don’t really use toners (i.e. astringent residue removers after using a facial wash) and typically prefer “lotions” (ローション). To me, a lotion is just a light-weight moisturizer, but here, it has the consistency of a toner.

The other thing that bewildered me was trying to find serums and realizing they are actually called “essence” (エセンス). And by the way, ミルク, (milk), is a lighter lotion-type moisturizer and クリーム, or “cream”, refers to heavier moisturizers.

Now you may even find stuff that are completely foreign like, 乳液 (にゅうえき; nyuu-eki) which is actually another kind of serum that has an oil or lanolin base and is meant to be applied after your moisturizer as it seals the moisture so it won’t evaporate from your skin. Strange, but kind of cool if you think about it.

Try new products

I know, you feel stuck. The brands you know and trust available in Japan may not be the same as in your home country (I found that to be true of Dove) or the type of products that you are used to somehow don’t translate well in Japanese brands. So, it’s time to find something different!

For example, I couldn’t find the equivalent of a gentle facial wash so switched to Fancl’s Washing Powder. Fancl is a preservative and chemical free brand and is fairly reliable and affordable. It felt weird to use powder but it soaped up like a regular liquid cleanser and works well.

Yet another wonderful discovery I made: cleansing oils. Outside Japan and most Asian countries, the concept of cleansing oil may not sound very appealing because you are basically using oil to clean off your makeup. But trust me, this is a fantastic alternative and with the right brand, you can avoid breakouts. One advantage is that you don’t need to swipe your face with cotton pads - less friction on your skin means less stress; and with the dry winters in Japan, your skin is not stripped of its natural oils.

Find the right brands

The universal rule of beauty products - more expensive = better quality - does apply more or less in Japan. But I’m not saying there aren’t good, affordable brands - many hidden gems can be unearthed by trial and error like anywhere else in the world.

I find that cheaper products here tend to have alcohol and mineral oil in them so I avoid these, except Fancl and DHC, which have reliable products that are gentle on the skin mainly because of their no-preservative, no-chemical ethos.

Also, while Western pharmacies usually only stock cheap drugstore brands, pharmacies in Japan often sell expensive labels like SKII and Sekkisei. You may notice two main cosmetic brands in the pharmacies, Kose and Shiseido, which have a multitude of lines - note that not all are made equal. For example, I like Shisedo’s Elixir but am wary of their cheaper Aqualabel products. Similarly, Kose’s Sekkisei brand is stellar but I wouldn’t go near their cheaper Sekkisui line.

If familiar brands like Clinique and Chanel don’t do it for you, there are places to search for lesser-known foreign products by Korres, Burt’s Bees, and Trilogy. Look out for standalone stores that specialize in stocking skincare as they are likely to carry natural or organic products, such as Cosme Kitchen. Some department stores, like Seibu and OIOI, may also stock a mix of local and foreign brands.

Get online

If in doubt, there are websites that rank and reflect a product’s true popularity — Cosme (based on voting and reviews) and Ranking Ranqueen (based on sales). Although these sites are only in Japanese, there are loads of pictures to help you, and lists and categories are fairly easy to figure out as most are typically in katakana or hiragana (you can also use your mouse to hover over the links and the URLs will appear in English).

By the way, there are Ranking Ranqueen stores in Tokyo (one in Shibuya station) where you can browse the most popular products in Japan. Also look out for Cosme ranking labels on products that indicate they won rave reviews.

Makeup Alley, an English, review-driven site, also has a number of Japanese products listed.

Thank you very much, Yu Ming! 

Readers, don't forget to check out her blogs!

Tokyo expat Yu Ming has lived in Japan for four years and runs an online beauty business at Beauty Box. She also pens her expat musings at Lioness in Japan that tracks her life in Tokyo as a trailing partner and incurable foodie.

*Also, for anyone looking for organic or natural skincare products, check out this post.

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