Regardless of how many steps your skin-care routine consists of or which products you use, for many Koreans, it's the way in which those products are applied that matters most. For instance, some slap on their toner, while others only use certain fingers to rub on their serums, but most of all, people can be incredibly particular about the cotton pads they use to wipe away their makeup with. (And if you're GOT7's Mark, you're specific about the number you use.)
Cotton pads are such a hot topic in South Korea because people take extra precaution to prevent skin irritation, according to Liah Yoo, a YouTube star and founder of popular Korean skin-care brand Krave Beauty. (A similar reasoning is behind the rise of the Skin-Care Diet trend.)
Plus, without the right cotton pad, micellar waters and toners, which are essential aspects of Korea's iconic 10-step routine, become basically useless. Keep scrolling to find out why cotton pads are more important to achieving clear, glowing skin than you ever knew — plus, which pads people in Korea swear by.
Why are cotton pads an essential part of a good skin-care routine?
Cotton pads are simply the most hygienic method for applying skin-care products. "They ensure a clean application and can wipe away residue," says Ellen Marmur, an associate clinical professor in both the department of dermatology and the department of genetics and genomic research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
Most of the time, your hands alone are fine for putting on products, but New York City-based dermatologist Neil Sadick points out that cotton pads allow toners and essences to be applied more efficiently. "Bare hands don't allow the product to be applied evenly or cover the whole face, so using cotton pads can help control product application," he explains. Cotton pads also useful for concentrating on specific areas of the face, such as the under eyes.
However, the wrong cotton pad can irritate sensitive skin and become a counterproductive part of your skin-care routine. Marmur and Sadick agree that pads with a rough texture or made from a material that has been bleached or treated with other chemicals can be too harsh on skin and trigger allergic reactions.
An easy way to prevent your skin from reacting negatively to a cotton pad is to make sure the pad is soaked with product, Marmur says. Sure, you could be wasting product this way, but "it ensures the cotton pad isn't dry, so it's less likely to cause irritation," she adds.
What is the difference between Korean cotton pads and American ones?
The rounds or squares you can find at drugstores in the U.S. are typically fluffy and absorbent. They do the job at soaking up product, but have a tendency to leave lint behind on skin. "Lint can soak up moisture and leave your skin dry and coarse," Sadick explains. "Moreover, it can clog the pores or attract debris and dirt, further irritating the skin surface." And in my experience, American cotton pads can feel scratchy and often fall apart easily.
Cotton pads that Korean beauty brands sell, on the other hand, feature a smoother, stronger texture that looks (and feels) more like a spongey face wipe than a cotton ball, making them gentler on the skin. Most of the time, they are made with unbleached and untreated cotton to help minimize irritation. "They don't pill, are extremely soft and do not soak up all of the product to leave your skin feeling hydrated when paired with toner," explains Charlotte Cho, an aesthetician and co-founder of K-beauty e-retailer Soko Glam.
Because they are thicker and more heavy duty than American cotton pads, Korean versions can play a more comprehensive role in your skin-care routine. You can use them to dry off your face, like Momoland's Hyebin, or create a custom sheet mask like BTS's V.
Which cotton-pads brands are most popular in Korea?
Without a doubt, the most-favored option is White Rabbit's Plain Cotton Pads. As Cho points out, they're made from 100 percent organic, unbleached, and untreated cotton. This helps give them their beloved softness, which is super gentle on skin. Plus, at approximately the size of a tissue, these are more versatile and cover a larger surface area.
The Klairs Toner Mate 2 in 1 Cotton Pad, seen above, is another top choice because it comes with two different textured pads in one box. The first is made up of compressed cotton, which helps remove any residue on your face before you move forward with your skin-care routine. The other has a spongy texture that "collects the toner and returns the product back to the face, as compared to the conventional cotton pad that simply absorbs most of the product," Cho explains.
Luckily, Korean cotton pads are easy to come by in America, so you can readily incorporate them into your skin-care routine. Even if you can't sing, dance, or rap, at least you'll have cotton pads in common with your favorite K-pop star. (If it happens to be EXO's Xiumin, you can check out his cotton pad usage below.)