The awesome power of Korean beauty products is well-documented on xoJane, and for good reason. Koreans take their beauty regimens seriously, and are seemingly willing to slather almost any substance on their faces if it will help increase firmness, reduce wrinkles, and improve upon any number of imperfections. And usually, the crazier the ingredient sounds, the better it works.
As a half-Korean woman, I am intimately familiar with this trend, most memorably when my Korean grandmother dumped mayonnaise in my hair to make it shiny and strong. (Spoiler: It worked.)
So on my most recent trip to Seoul, I trolled drugstores for the products with the most unorthodox ingredients I could find. The best bang for my buck came in the form of face masks, which cost less than $5 each and were full of “natural” ingredients like mushrooms and tea tree and hydrolyzed placenta.
I’ve spent the last week and a half recovering from jet lag and blowing through my stash of Korean drugstore face masks. After much experimentation, below are the four best and worst ingredients for a face mask.
Along the spectrum, tomato is a relatively pedestrian ingredient, although it’s not something you’d immediately think to put on your face. But I swear by Burt’s Bees Garden Tomato Toner, which is gentle and has definitely caused my pores to shrink and smells like you’re putting salsa on your face in the best way. Given my past success with this vegetable’s (or fruit’s?) powers, I figured this tomato face mask would be a good place to start.
It wasn’t. It didn’t smell like a tomato, or any other kind of garden vegetable, which was a huge disappointment. I had also poured myself a glass of wine before application, in order to really enjoy this whole thing, but quickly found out that the cotton mask, as applied, does not allow for much facial movement or any sipping of drinks.
The mask was poor quality. Within five minutes, certain parts were dry, especially in the area above my lip. After 10 minutes, any facial movement I had attempted earlier became nearly impossible. I initially thought I could chalk this up to the tomato’s firming power, but it was the mask drying out.
Afterward, my skin felt refreshed, but there was no noticeable improvement to firmness. Not the worst mask I’ve used, but far from the best. If you’re looking to smooth your skin with tomatoes, just go with Burt’s Bees.
To be honest, I misread this ingredient. I thought it was “shiitake,” like the mushroom. It’s actually “syn-ake,” and I had to do some Googling to figure out what I was going to be putting on my face. Answer? Synthetic viper venom. It’s supposed to smooth lines by relaxing your facial muscles, because of course.
When I pulled the mask out, my fingers were instantly covered in a clear viscous gel, and my thoughts turned to some "Raiders of the Lost Ark"-type scenario in which my boyfriend would come into the bathroom to pee, only to find me seizing on the floor after accidentally ingesting this venomous gel. But what’s beauty without a little bit of danger? I peeled apart the cotton mask, and slapped it on my face.
Within four minutes, I felt a tingling around my hairline and jaw, like when you’re drinking champagne and the bubbles graze your nose. By the 10-minute mark, the tingling was widespread, but not unpleasant, and that sensation lasted for the full 20 minutes. In fact, it lingered until the rest of the gel was fully absorbed. That evening, my skin was moisturized and looked dewy. I’m glad I mistook syn-ake for shiitake, because this synthetic viper venom was dope.
3. Mediheal Placenta Revital Essential Mask
When I saw this mask on the shelves, I knew it needed to be on my face. The imagery on the packaging is next level, with the IV drip that’s reminiscent of an umbilical cord leading into a blood-colored rectangular shape that could be a placenta.
Having never given birth, I don’t know what placenta smells like, but I sure hope it’s not like this face mask. The odor was cloyingly chemical, like a jar of Pond’s that had spoiled. That should have been the first warning sign, but I had to try it anyway in the name of beauty and science.
As I sat on my sofa with hydrolyzed placenta on my face, I took a moment to find out what exactly was meant by “hydrolyzed placenta.” I found a PowerPoint presentation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, assessing the risk of using animal placentas dissolved in water as in cosmetics, and put together that this ingredient has likely not been approved by the American regulatory agency, and by minute six, my face was tingling, but not in the pleasant bubbly way that the syn-ake made my face tingle, and I wasn’t sure if it was because of the power of the placenta or because I now knew I had cow (or pig) placenta on my face.
Learning from past mistakes, I had a straw through which I could drink my wine, and as I sipped and tried to forget about the placenta on my face, I became itchy. Soon, the itchiness was replaced by a stickiness. The gel felt like it was drying on my face rather than into it, which is not what you want from any face mask.
I stripped the mask off the second my alarm went off at 20 minutes, and the gel on my face was gummy. I tried to pat it into my skin, like the directions recommended, but it just sat there. The stickiness stayed with me hours after I took off the mask, and as I stood at the bar later that night, I could only think, “I wonder if anyone notices how shiny my face is. Do you think they can tell I have placenta on my face?” I eventually had to wash my face to get rid of this feeling, and I totally spotted a zit on my chin the next morning.
You can buy this placenta essential mask on Amazon if you’re interested, FDA regulations be damned. But I think this is a rare instance in which the shock value of the ingredient outweighs the actual benefits.
The last mask I used was from Dr.Jart+, because Dr. Jart is a skin magician responsible for the miracle of BB cream, and I figured whatever damage I may have done with the other face masks would be instantly repaired by the healing power of marine collagen and cactus flower and chamomile.
Dr. Jart didn’t disappoint. I was worried marine collagen would smell like sea urchin sushi, but no. The mask smelled amazing -- fresh and clean and like a soothing cup of tea, probably because of the chamomile extract. It was so thin and stayed in place so well that I almost forgot I had this weird piece of cotton on my face -- except for the fact my boyfriend couldn’t look in my direction without laughing.
Dr. Jart was also the only package that mentioned what the mask itself was made of: In this case, something involving eucalyptus extract. When I peeled the mask off after 20 minutes, the remaining gel was quickly absorbed by my clearly hydration-hungry skin. Hours later, my face still looked and felt great. I long for the day Dr. Jart face masks are available at Duane Read.
Would I put hydrolyzed placenta on my face again? Probably not. But the Koreans are definitely onto something with this whole face mask thing, proving once again that going out on a limb in the name of beauty can often have rewarding results.