skin deep

The Secret Anti-Aging Cream Women Use in Asia

These soft pink and gold products would look right at home sitting on a mirrored tray in Alexis Carrington’s boudoir on Dynasty, or in the cosmetics department of Neiman Marcus circa 1989. But don’t let the slightly cheesy, old-lady-like image of the Amarté skin care line fool you, as their sophisticated ingredients are no joke. They’re developed and produced in South Korea, the hotbed of high-tech skin care breakthroughs (where would America be without BB creams?). In particular, Amarté Wonder Cream has 1.0 percent stable, nano-encapsulated retinol (the same strength found in SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0), and their EyeConic Eye Cream contains 3.8 percent — almost double the concentration of Dr. Brandt Resurfacing Serum, which has been the max available on the U.S. market.  

Amarté Co. manufactures high-end skin care products (sold under a different brand name in Asia) that are well known to legions of wealthy, skin-care-obsessed women in department stores from Seoul to Hong Kong to Tokyo. There, women buy the high-powered retinol eye cream in bulk and slather it all over their faces. American dermatologist Craig Kraffert discovered the brand through his Korean wife, then consulted on the development of its formulations, and has now brought them to the States (it’s currently available online at with the same high percentage of retinol intact.  

Tretinoin (active retinoic acid) has been categorized as a drug since it was approved for use in acne patients in 1971, which is why you can only get it by prescription. Retinol — a milder form of vitamin A that’s available over-the-counter — is considered an inactive compound (it’s inert until it converts into active retinoic acid by a chemical reaction inside the skin) and therefore not regulated by the FDA. This is why cosmetic companies don’t always disclose the percentage of retinol in their products — unless they have a whopping amount to boast about, and thereby charge extra for. 

“Retinol is unquestionably the most important over-the-counter antiaging ingredient today,” says Kraffert, noting the large body of scientific evidence documenting the benefits: It stimulates collagen production, increases skin cell turnover, reduces wrinkles, and evens skin tone. Concentrations of retinol have slowly been trending up in OTC products as researchers figure out how to make it stable, potent, and less irritating in stronger doses.  

“There’s no legal limit on the amount of retinol that can be used in topical products,” says cosmetic chemist Jim Hammer, “however, high levels of retinol can produce dryness, peeling, and irritation.” If you’re new to using retinoids, even OTC ones, start slow to be on the safe side. Apply it a couple times a week, then work up to every other night, and eventually nightly. Amarté adds anti-inflammatories — including allantoin and (an odor-free) sulfur — as well as moisturizing glycerin and argan oil to offset potential irritation and peeling from the high doses of retinol. And I can vouch for it. When the price of my prescription Retin-A Micro became prohibitively expensive (over 300 bucks for a toothpaste-size tube!), I went online to save my skin care regimen. After two weeks, I’ve had no irritation at all, and my face is definitely looking radiant and even seems firmer. So what if the container gives my bathroom a grandma vibe?