The first time I heard of pioneering skin care brand SK-II was at Changi Airport in Singapore in 2006, while browsing the duty free aisles waiting for my connecting flight to Europe. I was magically drawn to a brand display with a row of frosted, silver-capped glass bottle—they looked elegantly minimalist at a time when flashy, golden packaging was still the be-all and end-all for high-end beauty brands.
A lovely shop assistant explained to me that this was their current skin care bestseller, the SK-II Facial Treatment Essence. I distinctly remember being so confused about the texture of this supposed anti-aging miracle when trying it out on the back of my hand: It basically felt like water, though with a slight viscous “slip” to it as it trickled down my wrist. The shop assistant instructed me to pat the mystery water into my skin and … I swear, only seconds later my hand looked noticeably brighter and felt velvety soft, the difference in brightness levels between both hands striking!
This was 14 years ago, but since it was probably the decisive moment when my long-lasting, career-defining enthusiasm for Asian beauty products started, I still remember vividly how amazed I was at this transformation, comparing the differences in my skin on both of my hands repeatedly while walking over to my flight gate. Sadly, because I was a very broke student, the hard-working shop assistant could not coax a sale out of me, despite very probably changing my life forever. I had just experienced the remarkable powers of fermented essences.
Only seconds later my hand looked noticeably brighter and felt velvety soft. I had just experienced the remarkable powers of fermented essences.
Given that SK-II was pretty much my entryway into Asian skin care, it is no wonder that I always remained fond of the brand. Launched in 1980 after years of research into the benefits of fermented skin care, SK-II (pronounced “SK two”) is a true Asian skin care pioneer. The Japanese brand shot to international prominence after making a smart decision to work with celebrity ambassadors known specifically for their enviously flawless complexions, among them the luminously beautiful and seemingly ageless Cate Blanchett.
It actually took a few years until the concept of a watery essence rich in fermented ingredients became a global phenomenon, and the SK-II Facial Treatment Essence, in its frosted glass bottle with the characteristically clean, straightforward brand logo, was indeed the first of its kind to make it big worldwide. The origin story of Pitera, the star ingredient of all SK-II products, has by now become almost mythical: At a Japanese sake brewery, scientists noticed that the hands of even older workers remained free from age spots or other signs of skin aging.
Given that their hands were in regular contact with the yeast extracts used to ferment rice to produce the sake, the scientists quickly realized that it must be something in the fermentation mix that causes skin to stay youthful, soft, and bright. An extract of this mysterious fermented yeast brew became the patented ingredient Pitera™, though lovers of other Asian treatment essences may know it better under its ingredient name “galactomyces.”
What started with the famous SK-II Facial Treatment Essence has blossomed into a whole range of luxury skin care and makeup products for a variety of skin problems and the promise of more radiant skin. If you are wondering where to start when it comes to this high-end treasure of a brand, here are my top five recommendations.
1. SK-II Facial Treatment Essence
The best-selling product from the brand, with a bottle sold every two seconds around the globe. With 90% Pitera, this beauty water has been imitated by many brands over the last decades, but still remains unchallenged as the first popular fermented treatment essence.
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Used right after cleansing (including any actives such as acid peels) and right before your hydrating products such as thicker toners and/or serums, the SK-II Facial Treatment Essence has a number of benefits for your skin and can be used pretty much at any age from your early 20s onwards. Thanks to its high galactomyces content, the essence can help balance sebum regulation, even out irregular skin tones, brighten the complexion, and fade hyperpigmentation. For me, the glow-giving qualities are what truly convinced me of the power of Pitera—I always notice the difference when I use my essence daily, morning and evening.
2. SK-II Facial Treatment Mask
I’ve read claims that SK-II was the first major brand to manufacture sheet masks, though I cannot say for sure if this is true, since the history of sheet masks is a bit muddy (both Japanese and Korean brands like to claim they originated the trend). But there is no doubt that the SK-II Facial Treatment Mask preceded and in many ways propelled the sheet mask craze forward.
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The sheet of this mask is on the thicker side and works especially great for dry and mature skin, or anyone who suffers with discoloration issues. The sturdy material holds the essence especially well and does not dry out as fast as cheaper masks often do. It contains the same high Pitera content as the Facial Treatment Essence, so it basically gives your skin a glow-enhancing boost and is thus a great pre-event treat when you know your skin needs to look extra bright and healthy.
3. SK-II Facial Treatment Cleansing Gel
I love a good oil cleanse, but sometimes I need a break from the greasier textures of most first step cleansers. Cleansing creams, lotions, or gels are something I am familiar with from my years of relying mostly on French pharmacy skin care, and I love to use them on days where I go makeup-free or wear only minimal makeup. They pair well with micellar waters for a quick and fresh-feeling summer cleanse.
The SK-II Facial Treatment Cleansing Gel is basically a luxury version of the often tad inelegant French pharmacy cleansing creams. The non-greasy texture is especially suited for combination skin and can be used with or without water, so it’s great to take with you when traveling. It takes off sunscreen and lighter makeup, and will leave your skin feeling purified without a tight or stripped feeling.
4. SK-II GenOptics Aura Essence
A nighttime essence-serum hybrid, this newer but already super popular treatment is all about that glow. With its ingredient combo of Pitera and De-melano P3C, said to have five times more brightening power than kojic acid, the SK-II GenOptics Aura Essence is great for anyone struggling with premature aging caused by harmful UV rays. Listen, I know we are all supposed to rigorously apply and reapply our sunscreens day in, day out. But as a child of the ’80s, I most definitely need a bit of a fix for what my younger self carelessly caused in trying to make my naturally pale skin go from pink to deep brown, resulting in an angry red instead during more summers than I care to admit.
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This serum is a luxury treat, no doubt, but the deliciously light and silky texture is worth a bit of a splurge, and luckily a little goes a long way. The watery serum is great for anyone with combo or oily-prone skin in combating hyperpigmentation issues or a dull complexion. It works wonderfully well under makeup, especially when used in combination with the SK-II Facial Treatment Essence, helping foundation glide on more smoothly. Combine it with the SK-II GenOptics Spot Essence in the morning for optimal results.
5. SK-II R.N.A. Power Essence Serum
Another great anti-aging serum to add to your routine, the SK-II R.N.A. Power Essence Serum is particularly great for mature skin that needs something a bit more substantial, with a richer texture still elegant enough to not feel uncomfortably heavy. This is what SK-II does so exceptionally well: create textures packed with deeply moisturizing ingredients that never overpower your skin.
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As we age, our pores can become larger due to loss of firmness, a problem I have been dealing with since my mid-30s. Even though you cannot “shrink” or “tighten” pores, certain ingredients can help minimize the larger appearance and help to increase the overall firmness of the skin. The R.N.A. Power Essence Serum has been formulated specifically to help with firmness and diminish the appearance of enlarged pores. Apart from Pitera, the essence serum contains niacinamide, one of the best ingredients to use when battling pore-related issues. Siberian ginseng extract helps firm and invigorate skin, while carob fruit extract is said to assist skin in repairing cell damage caused by UV rays and air pollution.