I’ve been meaning to write more articles on Japanese beauty, but there has been so many products I’ve wanted to review I easily forget to get back to basics. Today I’m doing an (updated) introduction post to Japanese beauty, makeup and skincare. Please notice that this is not from a viewpoint of a Japanese woman, but observations of a Finnish girl who used to live in Japan and travel there every ~2 years. I regularly get my updates from Japanese YouTube channels, ranking sites and magazines when I can get my hands on them. Anything you want to share, please leave them in comments!! x
Origin of cuteness, or kawaii
Everyone and their Great Aunt knows about K-beauty, especially through quirky, even oddly packaged brands. But the “kawaii” (可愛い cute, loveable, adorable) trend originates from Japan. Kawaii could be a blog topic on its own, as it’s a big part of the Japanese DNA and aesthetic from popular culture to entertainment, clothing, mannerism etc. Today I’m talking about kawaii only briefly, from the viewpoint of beauty aesthetic.
When it comes to Japanese beauty ideals, the most popular is fresh, cute, youthful and conservative: big eyes, silky skin and flushed cheeks for example. Some may describe this as childlike, I’d say youthful or perhaps ageless trend. Where as Korean glass skin has trended recently, “mochi” (soft and silky sticky rice cake) skin has been popular in Japan for ages.
The cuteness trend is very prevalent in the packaging: the drugstore brands may feature anime characters, but even high end cosmetics like to make their appearance feminine, glowing and soft. This may be the use of custom decorative packaging (Paul&Joe, Anna Sui) or perhaps floral imprints in the pan. But don’t overlook the cute, cartoon items as a lot of drug store makeup is very nice quality and owned by bigger brands such as Shiseido or Kanebo.
What is “whitening” in Japanese Skincare?
Bihaku (美白) or “beautifully white” is very prevalent in Japanese skincare. Where as in the history white skin free of blemishes was to display someone’s status, today I find this is mainly a word for evening out the skin tone. Obviously this depends on the person, but many Japanese tan or get sun spots very easily thanks to the hot sunshine. Clean pores, evening out age spots, melasma, acne marks etc. is very prominent in order to achieve the ideal, even complexion. Where as Europeans are very considered about wrinkles, I think in Japan “clear” skin is even more important.
The popular use of bihaku in skincare is to inhibit the production of melanin with ingredients like arbutin or kojic acid. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare may label functional skincare as ‘quasi drug’ (医薬部外品) if they use safe and effective ingredients for preventing or improving hyperpigmentation. When using “lightening” or “whitening” skincare, you don’t need to worry about using dangerous substances (bleach, lead, mercury etc) on your face. They do not whiten your skins appearance or turn you lighter than your natural skin tone.
Bathing and Massage
If kawaii and bihaku are Japanese beauty ideals, then bathing and facial massage are essence when it comes to daily routines. Of course a busy Japanese woman (or man) doesn’t have the time for daily facial massages, but majority of Japanese people bathe every single day. In Japan there’s rarely a greater bliss than soaking in hot water after a long day at work or doing house chores.
If you don’t have a nice bath at home, you can visit public bath houses (銭湯, sentou) or even onsen (温泉, hot spring spa). Bathing is deeply rooted into Japanese culture. While Westerns like their bath bombs and bubbles, the Japanese most often enjoy plain very hot water. In sentou or a public bath house, and women have separate sides and you wash yourself before taking a dip into the hot water. You can bring a small towel to the bath to wipe off sweat from your forehead - as long as you don’t dip it into the water. There is no jumping, splashing or swimming in bath houses, only relaxation.
Facial massages are sometimes performed with massage tools such as face rollers, but usually just with your hands. During the massage session, pressure is applied with your fingers or your knuckles, usually starting from the centre of your face and finish draining your lymph nodes on your neck. When I’ve had a facial massage done in Japan they used quite a lot of pressure, which had some discomfort yet the final result was relaxing. This massage routine feels advanced to me, so I often perform the parts of it when my eyes or cheeks feel puffy or drooping.
Important Japanese Skincare Steps
In Japanese skincare routine, there are two very important steps in my opinion: double cleansing and applying a toner. The double cleansing is usually performed first with a cleansing oil (such as Shu Uemura, DHC, THREE, Hadalabo being popular brands for example), followed by a cleansing milk or a foam depending on your skin type. The Japanese are very particular about having their pores clean, so after removing makeup it’s essential to clean the skin.
Toner may also be called a lotion or an essence or some sort of combination. The word lotion/treatment lotion/first treatment essence is very often used instead of toner, but this is what you put on your skin first after cleansing: to soften the skin and prepare it for other products. Essences, milks, creams etc. are followed after. You start from the lightest in texture and move to heavier. Layering is key when it comes to skincare!
Here are two example routines. Skincare enthusiasts may also apply an essence while some might skip the milk or cream depending on the skin type.
Japanese PM Skincare Routine
Gel or foam cleanser
Lotion (aka toner)
Japanese AM Skincare Routine
Cleanse (milk, gel)
Lotion (aka toner)
Sunscreen or makeup base with SPF
Key Points in Makeup
Japanese women tend to put a lot of effort in their makeup, but the end result should be like you’re not wearing anything. Conservative, natural, fresh. Base products are very popular in Japan because of the high humidity, also they often have added SPF protection. After a makeup base comes foundation and I think that powder foundations are pretty common while I rarely see them in Europe (except mineral eco foundations). Blush is applied sheer, eyeshadow often a gradient with glitter. Eyeliner is popular, but very natural and slim line along the lash line. Japanese lashes are often short and straight, so most mascaras add just length, definition and above all last long. Japanese waterproof mascaras are honestly waterproof!
I find that Japanese brands don’t advertise their products with “exotic Asian traditions” (such as Tatcha) as widely, but there are some that honor the traditions (say, Kyoto brand Yojiya). Brands that have Japanese ingredients (SK-II’s famous Pitera was found from sake making) often base their claims on science.
Japanese Brands To Check Out
There is a vast amount of Japanese beauty brands, many owned by same parent companies. Drug stores are filled with smaller brands that might be devoted to just mascaras or eye products. I’m listing here some brands to check out, perhaps in the future I’ll do another introduction post.
If you like kawaii brands you should check out Anna Sui, Paul and Joe, Les Merveilleuses LADURÉE as they’re very famous and distinguishable with their over the top cute packaging. If you’re into more simplistic sleek look, check out SUQQU, ADDICTION and THREE for example. These high end brands have been featured on my blog several times. Their style and philosophy are different, but quality overall excellent.
For luxury lover there is brands like Cle de Peau, Cosme Decorte and Lunasol that offer excellent quality makeup. If skincare is your main focus, perhaps check out the legendary SK-II. Yojiya follows the trend of Kyoto geishas and maikos, their products are very simplistic, but make a great souvenir from Japan. Their aburatorigami (あぶらとり紙) aka blotting papers, hand creams, lip balms and paper soaps are very popular.
From the drug store I try any liners and mascaras with anime characters (Sailor Moon, Rose of Versailles) – so far everything has performed so well! I also like Visée’s shadows and a variety of products from KATE. If you struggle to choose from drug store products, check out the “Top1” or similar stickers by magazines (iVoce, MAQUIA) or online rating sites (Cosme). Often the popular items are worth the hype.
Thank you for reading, I have soo much to talk about when it comes to Japanese beauty! I didn’t even touch hair trends or go deep into traditions or routines. What would you like to read more about? Do you like J-beauty? Also, a huge thanks to my friend Iida from Iida in Translation blog for the beautiful pictures!! If you can read Finnish or simply love beautiful Japan travel photography, check her out!