From time-honoured Geisha rituals to cutting-edge technology and science, Japan’s beauty culture pioneered the legacy of Asian cosmetics with a deep respect for tradition and an open mind towards adopting western techniques. Today, J-Beauty continues to flourish with the renown of historic cosmetic houses such as Shiseido, the industry-shaking innovation of SK-II, the cult artistry of Shu Uemura and Koh Gen Do, as well the luxury authority of Clé de Peau Beauté and Decorté. Ever looking forward, Japan’s new generation of beauty now harnesses the power of clean beauty (Three) and science innovation (ReFa). Ahead, we round up the best Japanese beauty brands and their must-try products.
From launching a cleansing oil (before cleansing oils were a thing) as his first product in 1960 to creating eyelash curlers so iconic they were mentioned in The Devil Wears Prada, legendary Japanese makeup artist Shu Uemura’s eponymous cosmetics line has become a cultural force in the international beauty world today, with its edgy modernity and brilliant craftsmanship. Shu Uemura’s trajectory began when he enrolled at the Tokyo Beauty Academy — the only male student in a class of 130 during the time — and flourished when he broke into the Hollywood make-up scene working with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and Marilyn Monroe. Uemura returned to Japan to open his own makeup school and cosmetics company, launching time-honoured signature products, such as the Hard Formula, which is Asia’s number one eyebrow product with over 9 million sold since its launch in 1984.
Shiseido is one of the oldest cosmetics companies in the world, founded in 1872 by Arinobu Fukuhara, a chief pharmacist in the naval hospital who opened the first Western-style pharmacy in Japan. The name “Shiseido” was inspired by the words in the I Ching — Do (堂) “house of”, Shi Sei (資生): “where everything is born” — and the brand’s logo was designed by the son of Arinobu, Shinzo Fukuhara, who studied art in Europe and designed an Art Nouveau-inspired camellia graphic that has remained the same for over 100 years. Today, the Japanese beauty powerhouse is renowned for its high-quality skincare, makeup, and suncare, and continues to push the boundaries of dermatology research and new technology since opening its first research centre in Japan in 1916. Shiseido’s must-try products include everything from its best-selling Facial Cotton and Ultimate Power Infusing Concentrate to its new Synchro Skin Self-Refreshing Foundation.
SK-II catapulted Asia’s “miracle ingredient” of fermented yeast extract onto the global beauty stage with its iconic Facial Treatment Essence — a pure, lightweight liquid made of 90% of the brand’s proprietary Pitera complex, which was discovered in the 1970s when scientists noticed the soft, youthful hands of elderly Japanese sake brewers. The magical bio-ingredient, since unchanged in formulation for 40 years, is rich in vitamins, organic acids, minerals and amino acids that boost skin cell renewal with hydration, firmness, and anti-aging capacities. Imitated but never duplicated, Pitera is at the heart of every SK-II product and continues to yield a cult following for its radiance-boosting effects.
While the new clean beauty movement has already taken over the Western market, it’s still only just taking shape in the Asian cosmetics industry. Amongst the first to catch the new green wave is THREE Cosmetics whose holistic approach to beauty harnesses the powers of nature with formulas free of parabens, artificial fragrances and colouring, animal testing and GMOs. Using raw and Japanese ingredients as much as possible, THREE Cosmetics’ skincare lines balance the skin’s natural balance while its makeup line enhances the complexion with advanced science and a heavy dose of skincare.
Clé de Peau Beauté
Shiseido’s prestige beauty brand Clé de Peau Beauté was founded in 1982 in Japan with a focus on advanced skin cell science. Its formulas combine decades of research, cutting-edge Japanese technology and rare ingredients to create some of the industry’s most luxurious top shelf products. The Crème and The Foundation are known across the industry not only for their extraordinary price tag, but also for their outstanding formulation and super rare ingredients, while Clé de Peau’s concealer and cream blush remain customer favourites for their unparalleled colour payoff, performance and silky texture.
Cosmetics giant Kosé’s prestige beauty brand Decorté was founded in 1970 as a cornerstone of premier skincare and makeup products that combine the finest ingredients with cutting edge research and technological innovation. The Japanese beauty brand made its way to the Western market when supermodel Kate Moss became the brand ambassador, alongside the relaunch of the brand’s new AQ Meliority line. Decorté Moisture Liposome Serum is the number one best-selling serum in Japan, whereas its Dip In Glow cream highlighter is packed with serum-like actives that achieve radiance from the inside-out.
Koh Gen Do
“Born in Tokyo and raised on movie sets around the world,” Koh Gen Do was founded in 1986 when Japanese actress Ai Satome sought to find a line of pure and healthy skincare to alleviate her complexion of the heavy makeup she wore on-set each day. The gentle formulations combine healing botanicals, nutrient-rich water, and calming extracts that nurture your skin for a fresh, dewy complexion. From the iconic red-tubed Moisture Foundation to the cult-favourite Spa Cleansing Water, Koh Gen Do’s products have been favourites among professional makeup artists for over thirty years and counting.
ReFa launched in 2009 with a single, perfected beauty roller combining microcurrent technology with the unrivalled precision of Japanese craftsmanship — each angle and positioning of the tool is refined down to the 1/100 mm in order to best replicate professional kneading lymphatic massage motions to lift, firm and tighten skin. The products’ microcurrent technology is charged by built-in solar panels and mimics the mild electrical current that naturally circulates within our skin, stimulating collagen and elasticity production while aiding skin’s natural repair system. These magical gadgets instantly lift and tone the contours of your face in a matter of minutes — try it on half of your face first to see the difference.