When I visited Seoul, South Korea, I was shocked by how many cosmetic stores there were, particularly in the shopping district Myeong-dong. Dozens upon dozens of brightly lit and irresistible cosmetic stories lined the streets packed with young Korean teenagers and young adults.
The stores are like Sephora on steroids. The store clerks are extremely attentive (literally following you around but patiently rather than aggressively, holding your basket and waiting for questions). Best of all, the free samples and sales are out of this world! Store clerks handed out sheet masks to everyone like there was no tomorrow. You can easily find packs of high-quality sheet masks under $1 USD per unit, and freebies of all kinds flow plentifully.
Needless to say, I was hooked. The best thing about Korean cosmetics (aside from some truly lovely packaging) is that a lot of the products I encountered were high quality and very affordable. I found this to be opposite my experience in the U.S., where you usually have to spend quite a lot to get a decent product. In addition, Korean cosmetic companies are very willing to focus on unusual ingredients and have been leaders in this area--from snail slime to animal fat, you can find many interesting combinations of products you may not have ever thought to try on your skin.
Below is a breakdown of the most common affordable Korean cosmetic stores I ran into, many of which have their products available for shipping to the US or show up in places like Urban Outfitters, Sephora, Ulta, CVS, Target and even their own dedicated storefronts (hello L.A.!). The ones listed below are all fairly cheap, though it’s important to note that there are many, many more Korean brands than this, as well as a whole slew of more expensive lines aimed at adult women (these pricy brands, like many women's products, function as a status symbol). However it's my philosophy that skincare and cosmetics shouldn't break the bank.
All of these brands carry a wide variety of cosmetics and many are under the largest skincare and cosmetics company in South Korea, AmorePacific (including Etude House and Innisfree). Even better, many of these brands have begun to open U.S. locations, primarily in New York or Los Angeles, so keep your eyes peeled! Unfortunately the U.S. stores have a higher markup on products compared to Korean-based ones, but they still are well within the range of reasonable prices.
This is probably the most recognizable Korean brand, as they’ve made a lot of headway into American markets. You can easily spot TonyMoly products by their irresistibly fun packaging—everything from Pokemon to panda bears is on display here, which makes great gifts for others and leaves quite a few adult women (myself included) swooning.
Products are hit or miss. Some of the cuter packaged items are of average quality (for example, banana-shaped and banana-flavored lip balm), making them fun gifts but not necessarily items you’d want to incorporate into your daily skincare routine.
But TonyMoly gets an A+ for packaging and fun concepts, as well as having several outstandingly long-lasting lip products and sheet masks (including snail-based products) that are out of this world.
-Pureness 100 Snail Mask Sheet - Skin Damage Care (review)
-Liptone Get It Tint #5 All-Night (review)
-I'm Real Facemasks (you may have seen these in U.S. stores)
-Cucumber Water Gel (great for sunburns)
Best packaged products:
-Mango hand cream
-Banana lip balm
-Panda eye brightener (review)
Skinfood offers a high-quality lineup of products based on food: royal honey, lettuce, egg white, avocado, peach sake, tomatoes, apple, yuja, caviar and other greens. This store is on the higher end of what I consider the affordable range but ships to U.S. customers as well.
Favorite products so far:
-Rice Brightening Facial Cleansing Tissue (review)
-Tomato Cool Jelly Tint for lips (review)
-Real Tea Gel Mask (review)
-Any of their black sugar products
This brand is geared more toward natural products, such as volcanic rock, green tea and other plants. Of special interest are their items from the volcanic Jeju Island, an isle off the coast of South Korea. InnisFree offers a huge range of face masks with ingredients spanning from rice to blueberry to pretty much every fruit flavor you could think of.
I found a lot of really great products here, particularly non-greasy and effective sunscreens (which are incredibly important for skincare).
-Jeju volcanic melting clay mask
-Green tea seed cream and green tea seed eye cream
-Smoothie booties (for your feet!)
-Face masks in the It's Free and Skin Clinic series
Bonus: InnisFree has a product website that ships to the U.S.!
Missha features a good range of affordable as well as higher priced cosmetics. Their BB creams (cover up and healing face products) are of particular note, as well as their wide range of sheet masks, sunscreens and cushion foundations. You can find their products on a variety of websites.
-Mild Essence Sun Milk SPF 50
-Any of their BB creams (very affordable!)
5. Nature Republic
Similar in pricing to the Face Shop (see below), Nature Republic covers a wide range of needs. I have to give them call out here for having the single best snail mucus face mask I have tried. Part of what makes this product so notable is its high percentage of snail filtrate. They also have a particular focus on aloe vera as an ingredient in many of their products.
Favorite product (and hands down my favorite snail-based sheet mask):
-Snail Solution Mask Sheet (review)
6. IT'S SKIN (잇츠스킨)
In a nutshell: It's Skin has amazing sheet masks, including a very respectable snail moisture mask. I've found their products to be consistently high quality with a good price. And yes, they ship to U.S. customers!
-Snail Moisture Mask Sheet (review)
-Nutrition Daily Sheet Mask (review)
Best packaged product:
-Macaron Lip Balms
7. Too Cool for School
This fun and trendy brand is well known for their egg white line of products. They have some amazing face masks and under eye serums as well. They are also known for their dinosaur theme and other innovative packaging, which is a step up in both price and sophistication from Tony Moly.
-Any of the egg white masks
Bonus: Too Cool for School recently opened up an online store for U.S. customers and is carried in stores like Sephora, Ulta and Nordstrom.
8. Etude House
This store, with its distinct pink-and-white decor, is a fun environment and probably the cheapest of the bunch. It caters more to make-up than skincare, but I would be remiss not to mention it on this list. In particular, it has a wide range of lip tints, stains and eye products that are worth perusing.
-Dear Darling Water Gel Tint
-Water Tint Ice Cream
9. The Face Shop
The Face Shop has a lot of offerings in both skincare and cosmetics. Aside from an extremely diverse range of face masks, they also have foot and hand masks (which are essentially bags of moisturizing ingredients you wrap around your appendages for absorption). They also excel in BB cushions, a popular product for cover up and facial healing.
-Mascream Face Sheets
10. Banila Co
This brand is noted for its products that help both prep the skin for make-up and remove make-up. Its make-up primers and very effective oil-based cleansers are now available through Amazon. If you haven't explored oil-based cleansers, the Banila Co line is the one to start with--it gently and effective cleans skin without drying out.
-Clean It Zero sherbet (review)
Other Korean cosmetic brands to check out
By no means an exhaustive list, but here are a few additional brands (both cheap and expensive) worth noting:
Any favorite Korean brands that I missed? Let me know in the comments!
You probably never look at a trail of glittery snail slime on a sidewalk and have the urge to rub it on your skin. That may soon change however, when you learn a little more about this fascinating substance.
Snail oil or snail slime--or more technically known as snail mucin, snail serum or snail filtrate--is one of my favorite ingredients in skincare products. It may sound icky but hold that thought until you learn more.
After a trip to Seoul, South Korea where I was able to try oodles and oodles of snail filtrate products, I was hooked. Coming back to the States, I got strange looks from friends and colleagues when I urged them to try "snail slime" on their face, even though the trend has been in the U.S. for a few years already.
Worldwide, snail secretion has been touted as an anti-aging holy grail, helping everything from younger, firmer skin to acne, so I took a deeper dive into the literature to see exactly where the science stands on snail slime and face care.
A short history lesson
Reportedly, snail slime has been used as far back as Ancient Greece times, for helping ailments inside the body, like indigestion or cough, as well as outside the body for skin inflammation. (Note--I could not find a reliable source documenting the historic use of medicinal and cosmetic snail slime, though it is referenced quite frequently in other articles).
New York Magazine says that "snails were first prescribed in ancient Greece as a topical treatment to reduce inflammation, and they began to crawl their way into creams and elixirs in South America when farmers handling escargot en route to France noticed their hands looked younger and smoother."
Today, South Korea has paved the way for snail products, which have since taken hold in the US and Europe. These include snail serums, lotions, creams and more. Some places in Thailand, Asia and Europe even offer live snail facials where critters make their way across customers’ faces--one step I don't think I could take!
What's the science of snail slime?
What exactly is the function of snail slime? Technically this slime is mucus, produced by the snail as it crawls along to coat their bodies and prevent the drying out of their tissue. Snails' mucus is both sticky--to help them adhere to surfaces--and lubricating--to help the little guys protect against abrasions, bacteria and other infections as they make their way across different environments.
Snails typically have two main types of mucus: one that covers the surface that they move along (leaving behind that glittery silver trail on concrete and sidewalks) and one that coats their bodies for protection.
The slimy gel-like trail mucus is incredibly multi-functional, helping a snail to have a smooth scootch along a rough surface, distract predators, recognize other snails for reproduction and find its way home. A thicker more elastic version of this slime helps them adhere to surfaces--and thus crawl up walls or your favorite potted plant, for example. Finally, another version of snail slime exudes from the body of the snail itself as a type of protectant and increases when the snail is under distress. It is this last version that is most typically used in cosmetics.
Cosmetic benefits of snail slime: a list
The claimed benefits of snail extract range from fixing sunspots to smoothing out creases and wrinkles and even halting acne, supposedly due to the mucus’ ability in promoting the production of elastin and collagen in users' skin. And some folks are shelling out hundreds of dollars for novel snail-based cosmetics.
But let's break this down and see what's what.
In terms of cosmetic interests, their secretion is made up of a conglomeration of ingredients, many of which are suggested to aid skin health, including:
Many claim the snails' secretions on a skin stimulate the skin to produce collagen, elastin and other components thought to result in clearer skin while fighting signs of aging and sun damage. One peer-reviewed study by a San Diego dermatology lab showed that snail mucin did indeed counter minor effects of sun damage after 12 weeks, particularly reducing fine wrinkles caused by UV damage (reference), though it did not study which of the particular ingredients in snail slime prompted this result.
Snail filtrate also contains a chemical called allantoin, which has been shown by some peer-reviewed studies to assist in the wound-healing process and stimulate cell growth, both of which are helpful to fight skin damage. (Allantoin is present in lots of cosmetics, including anti-acne medicine.)
One cosmetic scientist surmises that snail slime's trick is its high concentration of proteins and other water-soluble polymers, which are molecules that shrink when they dry, pulling the skin back. Aside from snail white, egg whites also have this effect, which is one reason they have been used for ages as an anti-wrinkle cream, even as far back as Roman times.
So these proteins presumably can improve skin smoothness and health, but it's important to keep in mind that active components can differ depending upon the source. Ultimately, no one knows which of the active ingredients in snail slime contribute to the beneficial effect on human skin. It could be a “total is greater than the sum of its parts” effect – where, much like chicken soup for a cold, the mixture of beneficial ingredients in snail slime results in its soothing effect.
How do you get the snail slime?
For commercial use, snail slime is usually obtained from the common garden snail species Helix aspersa. Most of snail filtrate comes from Italy, where snail farmers are actually seeing a 400 percent increase in demand over the last two decades. There are over 4,000 producers in Italy raising this common European snail to-date.
Traditionally, snails were dunked in salt or vinegar water to extract the valuable secretion, but you'll be relieved to hear that several Italian breeders today use "cruelty-free" techniques to prompt the snails to release filtrate. According to The Telegraph, Italy's International Heliciculture Association recently patented a machine called the Muller One, which prompts snail slime extract via a "snail spa," where the critters are immersed in a gentle steam bath to kill bacteria.
So, are snail masks, creams, lotions, serums and scrubs good for your skin?
Like so much in the cosmetics world, there's not a huge body of extensive or rigorous objective scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals that one can point to to prove that a product or ingredient conclusively works. When it comes to snail extract, there is no be-all, end-all study showing positive effects, though the studies referenced above are promising.
Nevertheless, snail extract is hugely popular and we can take a cue from our skin-obsessed neighbors in South Korea, where snail slime has been trending for years. Anecdotally, I personally found that products with high levels of snail filtrate absolutely left my skin feeling pleasantly and noticeably softer the day after.
Words of caution
The active compounds in any snail mucus can differ depending on the snails and the mucus, so there is not a whole lot of consistency. Environmental conditions will affect snail slime quality, as well as what the snails eat and the extraction methods, so potency levels are unclear.
Furthermore, many products will advertise themselves as snail-based but always take a look at the ingredients in the back! Ideally the packaging will list what percentage or PPM (part per million) snail filtrate is in the product. As far as I've found, at least 2,000 PPM seems to be a good amount to aim for, with some products offering as high as 10,000 PPM. If the product doesn't list PPM, and if snail filtrate is not listed as one of the first few ingredients, the concentration of actual mucus is likely quite low and you may not see an effect.
While there are no clearly documented risks of using snail slime, I would caution do not try a "do-it-yourself" version of snail moisturizing! Without proper control and sanitary conditions, you may get more than you bargain for (e.g., bacterial infection). So don't go grabbing critters from you garden and let them slide their way around your face. And of course, with any new cosmetic product, test a small amount of the product first to see how your skin reacts.
Conclusion: Is snail-based cosmetics worth all the hype?
As with many products in cosmetics, there are no strong scientific, peer-reviewed findings showing a miracle ingredient or holy grail of skincare that can reverse signs of aging. However, snail slime seems worth a try as much as any other high protein-based moisturizers (e.g., eggs), just make sure you get a high-quality product and aren't shelling out too much money just for the hype.
See below for some of my tried and tested (and affordable) favorite snail products. Please note these are just based on my own experience, and your skin might find a different snail product to be more beneficial.
My absolute favorite snail sheet mask so far is by the Korean company Nature Republic - check it out here. You can also read a quick infographic on snail slime I put together at this link and tips on how to use face masks if you have not encountered them before.
Finally, I've also put together a quick comparison guide of the most popular (and affordable) snail filtrate products for the face, including sheet masks and night creams. Check it out here!
I use my background in molecular biology and science journalism to dive into what makes certain Korean skincare and cosmetic products so effective. Then, I share my findings with you all!