WTF is donkey milk? A primer on “weird” ingredients

There’s a breaking point in Korean beauty: The moment you find out that one of the magic ingredients is snail slime. At that point, you may yell “EW GROSS WHAT THE FUCK” and go running back to your precious Clinique counter. Byeeee.

Or, you may go “Fascinating, I’d like to give that a shot.”


So you’re brave about what you slap on your face. Good. That’s a good thing in the Asian beauty universe, because much like the food they eat in a variety of Asian countries, the skincare ingredients they use are a bit different. If you’re adventurous, you might find a newfound devotion for those slimy snails on your backyard plants.

So let’s look at the list of Asian skincare ingredients that are scary for newbies.

1. Snail slime


Okay. So Snail is probably the most common of the “weird” ingredients that are common to Asian beauty products. Korea specifically has been really into snail slime for a while now, mainly because it’s believed to alleviate inflammation, make skin super moist, and get your cells regenerating like crazy.

Although people interested in modern Korean beauty likely think Korea innovated the inclusion of snail products, they did not. Hippocrates actuallyprescribed crushed snails for his patients in Greece many moons ago to reduce redness. Lucky for us, we’ve found more thoughtful ways to use the resources our snail friends provide without squishing them to death to get to them.

In 2012, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Austria published the findings from a clinical trial that showed a strong link between using snail secretions on patients suffering from acute radiodermatitis due to radiotherapy for cancer. These findings also led researchers to something that HIppocrates knew centuries ago – that snail slime is miracle goo.

Now, here’s a wrench in the process: The quality of snail mucin varies from creature to creature. Russ Grandis, chemist and chief scientific officer of cosmetics consulting company Architectural Beauty, said in an interview withThe Cut that “the active components can differ according to the sources.” In simple-speak, this means that you can’t just grab a snail off the ground and rub it all over your face. Not only will you look completely bonkers, but you’ll miss out on the science of combining the secretions with other ingredients, which is a part of why many formulations work so well.

I can’t show you a study that confirms that snail goo and anti-aging are linked just yet, as the research hasn’t been conducted (just yet) with enough evidence to confirm. But people seem to be a lot happier with snail slime in their lives, so with all those centuries of people using them for good, why stop now?

2. Pig collagen


If you are worried about your beauty products being sourced from or hurting animals, pig collagen is not for you. The ingredient got popular in Korea in 2010, and you can still find it in certain shops (Tony Moly carries a Pure Farm Pig Collagen Jelly Cream), but it hasn’t taken off the way snail slime has.

Why not? Well, there’s something icky about the details – pig collagen is, of course, collected from the skin of the pig. As you may already know, our skin loses collagen as we age, so you are aiming to add it in here by borrowing some from our old friend Babe (or whatever’s left of him).

Before I point the finger of blame at companies who are putting these products out, I just want to say that many beauty companies use animal or sealife collagen in their products. They simply don’t highlight it the way these Korean ones do. I personally looked at it on my last trip to New York in the Tony Moly store and just had a sinking feeling in my tummy when I was reading the ingredients, so I just put it down and moved on.

On the other hand, beauty bloggers such as The Beauty Wolf tend to review these products positively, so if you’re feeling adventurous give it a go.

3. Horse Oil


Horse stuff is so hot right now in Korea, hence horse oil popping up in skincare as well. Like snail, this one has also been around for a while. However, the way the creams are made may make you cringe. From the official website for Son Bahyu Horse Oil, a highly-rated Japanese product:

“Horse oil is obtained from horses that are slaughtered for food. Traditionally Japanese people have a custom of eating horse meat. Fats from the horse meat are used to produce BAHYU. They DO NOT slaughter horses only to obtain the horse oil.”

So in short: If you’re cool with people killing horses to eat them, then you would probably have no issues with these products. If you hate the idea of horses being killed at all, it’s best to go seek out another moisturizer.

A Japanese study done on horse oil claims that it increased water and oil content in the skin when tested on a small focus group of seven females. So in short, it *technically* works (although I’d really prefer to see tests done on bigger focus groups), but whether or not you want to see how it is will be based on your stance on animal cruelty.

The Guerussion 9 complex cream is highly reviewed, so if you want to learn more about it Memebox has it (although sold out at the moment). Beware where you buy it as it’s trendy right now, so fakes are out there.

4.Starfish slime


I am COMPLETELY BIASED about this one for a single reason: The Mizon cream you see above was my holy grail product for well over a year. I adored it, until Mizon decided they weren’t going to make it anymore. But this is one of the ingredients on this list I can truly rave about, because I’m an IRL addict.

So starfish extract has a proven range of effects, including anti-inflammatory powers, the ability to heal wounds faster, and anti-microbial properties. Asian Beauty Redditor ecologista went hard on research on the topic, so rather than quote her excellent article I will simply link you here for deeper reading.

This cream was made by laying starfish out to dry and then blending them into a powder. I don’t know about you, but starfish have always given me the creeps a little bit (I’m scared of eyeless creatures, what can I say) so I don’t have any super sad feelings about how this cream was made or using it. Some of you may, but since it isn’t being made any longer you may not have to worry about that. Mizon was the only company making a cream using the starfish extract, so perhaps sourcing became more difficult and they pulled out. At any rate, I hope to see this ingredient return in some form because just writing about it makes my heart hurt a bit.

5. Donkey Milk


I saw lots of donkey milk products when I was in New York at Club Clio, and while I nearly caved and got the Freeset cream you see above, in the end I left it behind and just tried the hand creams instead. Investing in a new ingredient is a gamble when you have sensitive skin, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to buy into it just yet.

The Egyptians were first to use donkey milk (also known as “ass milk”, *snort*), with some legends claiming that Cleopatra bathed in it. Many skin care businesses use it in their soaps today. And Korea, of course, jumped on the bandwagon to see if it could resurrect it as the latest must-have beauty trend.

So what makes donkey milk so magical? It claims to moisturize, get rid of wrinkles, repair your skin. Now, I haven’t personally tried the face creams, as I said, but I did get the Freeset hand creams and was really, really not impressed with them. I have super dry hands to begin with, and they don’t do much to keep them moist. I checked out CosDNA and noticed that the whitening one has Triethanol amine, a pH adjuster, so that’s likely contributing to the issue, but that’s a completely different formulation then what you would use on your face.

So at least the donkey is simply milked and not, like, chopped up into little bits and left to dry in the wind to make this product. Blogger Fifty Shades of Snaillikes it a lot, which makes me want to give it a shot, and the Freeset product does get all green ratings on CosDNA. So I;d say if you want to try a nice rich cream and feel squeamish about the ways the others are made, this might be the best bet to try out.

Phew, that was a lot to digest. I’m out for now, y’all. Beautify fearlessly.

Product checklist:

Freeset Donkey MIlk 3D Moisture Cream/$45 @ Memebox
Mizon Returning Starfish Cream/$41.50 @ Amazon
Guerisson 9 Complex Cream/$25 @ Memebox
TONYMOLY Pure Farm Pig Collagen Sleeping Pack/$26 @ Urban Outfitters
Mizon All-in-One Snail Repair Cream/$38 @ Peach and Lily

[Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links]


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