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March 6, 2019

Ferment Sensitivity or Fungal Acne? You Can Still Get That Glo-Up — Here’s How

In K-beauty, we love fermented ingredients for all their skin-loving benefits. But what if you’re sensitive to ferments or suffer from fungal acne? (Fungal what??? Yup, it’s a thing.) Here, how to tell if you are and how you can still get that glo-up regardless. (Because nothing should stop us from pursuing that glow.)


If your skin is anything like mine, you’ve come upon a new skincare product on the Instagram story of one of your favorite skincare bloggers only to look up the ingredient list and exclaim something along the lines of, “Oh no! It’s got galactomyces in it.” You sigh defeatedly and feel a little jealous of the lucky folks who can use said product without consequences and wonder if your skincare routine is missing something important because of your sensitivity.


Well, I’ve got news for you. You too can experience the same glo-up as your Missha FTE-slathering counterparts without your skin activating a self-destruct sequence. But before we discuss product alternatives, let’s talk a bit about ferments in skincare and some of the adverse reactions (hello fungal acne!) some people have to them.


ferment sensitivity


What are ferments?


For a few years now, ferments have been a very prominent part of the Korean skincare scene. Pretty much every brand has a “first essence” or serum chock-full of this hydrating and firming class of ingredients.


What exactly is fermentation in skincare? Essentially, it’s the process of adding microorganisms like bacteria to natural ingredients. These microorganisms break down the enzymes in said ingredients to make them easier for skin to absorb, leading to benefits like increased hydration, skin plumping, and so on. Unfortunately, a lot of the ingredients found in the resulting ferment-heavy skincare products can trigger a whole host of other problems, which I’ll outline below.


Ferment sensitivity


If you’ve completed Skincare 101, you know the basics — stuff like skin types, active ingredients, and the different types of acne you could be troubled with. Usually absent in the rundown of usual acne suspects is fungal acne. Pityrosporum folliculitis technically isn’t acne; it’s a skin condition that presents in a manner similar to acne and is caused by an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the skin. More specifically, the proliferation of the fungus malassezia, helped along by the skin’s natural sebum and certain components of popular skincare.


ferment sensitivity


So how can you tell if you suffer from ferment sensitivity or fungal acne? Symptoms on the face usually manifest as blemishes that present as small comedones, commonly around the T-zone, but sometimes around the U-zone. These bumps from hell are often painful and itchy, and resist traditional acne treatments. You could slather snail mucin on these suckers from now till kingdom come and they still wouldn’t budge. Fungi such as galactomyces tigger an increased activity of a protein in humans linked to certain skin diseases, therefore making fungal acne worse. Although research on the possibility of experiencing the same phenomenon with saccharomyces is scant, it’s wise to avoid products that include it as well. On the other hand lactic acid bacteria like lactobacillus seem OK to use.


Yup, I’ve got ferment sensitivity. So what do I do?


As with any serious skin condition, the first thing to do is to reassess and simplify your routines. You’ve gotta figure out what could be triggering the breakouts, stop using them, and introduce products that are beneficial to your skin’s recovery process. In the case of fungal acne, the following things should be avoided in addition to yeast ferments as they will only make things worse.


  • Most fatty acids and oils

It’s like you were taught in nutrition class — fatty acids are a great source of nutritional benefits for the body and an essential part of a healthy diet. They also work wonders for skin. But if you suffer from fungal acne, they function as a lipid source that yeast thrives on by absorbing nutrients that aid in its asexual reproduction. Some of the more common iterations in skincare are lauric, myristic, palmitic, stearic, oleic, and linoleic acids.


  • Esters

These are a combination of alcohol and fatty acids. Common examples are isopropyl palmitate and glyceryl stearate.


  • Coconut oil

Contrary to the popular line about its anti-fungal properties that’s constantly bandied about, coconut oil is comprised of 47% lauric acid, which is a real good friend to malassezia and will aggravate fungal acne. The same thing applies to neem oil.


dry skin ferment sensitivity


Ferment alternatives


Skincare FOMO can be the pits, but there are a ton of great products that you could look to for the same benefits professed by the makers of fermented skincare. And the great thing is, by swapping out the causative products in your routine for non-problematic ones, you’ll be killing two birds with one stone. In addition to banishing your fungal acne woes, you’ll also be providing your skin with some much-needed benefits.


If what you’re after is a brighter complexion, consider products with star ingredients such as vitamin C, which helps with hyperpigmentation and improving skin texture. The Tiam My Signature C Source  serum has remained a favorite for many in the beauty community through many rebranding cycles.


ferment sensitivity


If you’d rather stay away from chemical exfoliation, try this moisturizer from popular newcomer Purito. It’s rich in vitamin C as well thanks to a 70% concentration of sea buckthorn extract and will have you well on your way to glowing skin.


ferment sensitivity


For thirsty skin in need of hydration, stock up on products rich in hyaluronic acid like the Klairs Supple Preparation Toner. It’s a personal favorite of mine and leaves my skin with a feeling akin to drinking a tall, cool glass of water. The ingredient list also features betaine, licorice extract, and Centella asiatica extract, which possesses skin-soothing, moisture-balancing properties.


ferment sensitivity


Trying to get ahead of the aging process? Vitamin C and hyaluronic acid are great for fighting lines and wrinkles in addition to all of their other benefits, but it’s also important to combat the number one cause of aging skin — UV rays. Sunscreen is your first defense against premature aging, worsening hyperpigmentation, and even skin cancer and is arguably the most important product in your skincare wardrobe. It is vital that you use a product with at least SPF 30 daily and in the recommended amounts. Try the Earth’s Recipe Waterful Sun Gel or Missha’s All Around Safe Block Aqua Sun Gel for a non-sticky, white cast-free finish.


Skincare is a journey, and we’re constantly in the process of figuring out what works for us. It’s like many in the Asian Beauty community say — “Your mileage may vary.” Just because a certain ingredient is popular doesn’t mean it’s suited to your skin type or that you’re necessarily missing out on something important. It’s also important to remember not to put pressure on ourselves to attain mythical, 100% blemish-free skin that reflects sunlight like the shiniest glass. Skincare should be fun and should be about self-care. So this year, make a note to focus on the aspects that make you feel good.


Do you suspect you have a ferment sensitivity or fungal acne? Share your experience below!



Karachi discovered K-beauty in 2015 and fell wallet-first into the fray. When she’s not binge-watching a TV series or losing herself in a book, she’s creating wish lists of new stuff to try and reading posts by her favorite bloggers. Learning has been a lifelong hobby for her and she truly enjoys geeking out about the amazing things different ingredients can do for skin.




Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

Absolutely LOVED this article! So educational, one of my clients suffers from severe redness, inflammation, bumps, and dry skin. We have been trying goat kefir due to its many benefits as well as frankincense which has helped clear up his skin somewhat but I am looking forward to adding a few of these alternatives into the mix.


The Klairs Supple Preparation Toner, both scented and unscented, contains beta glucan. I've emailed them to ask where they derive their beta glucan from, but if it's from yeast (most beta glucans are, especially in Korean products) then wouldn't it fall under saccharomyces? I ask because I have fungal acne and had a horrible reaction to Iunik's mushroom yeast derived Beta Glucan Power Moisture Serum, which was a shame as it was a really lovely product that made my skin super hydrated and dewy. I'll be gutted if Klairs use yeast derived beta glucans too, because the Supple Preparation toner... Read more


Hello! I just recently realised I have fungal acne and not whiteheads, and have been trying to see what active ingredients I would be able to use in my skincare without making it worse! I'm planning to make Cica/Centella my main ingredient in my products because of my sensitive and very irritated skin, and saw that in this article it mentions Centella. Can this in any way make fungal acne worse, or is it save because it's soothing? The only article I've found mentioning Cica/Centella and fungal acne at the same time is yours, so I'm sorry if this sounds... Read more


I think centella is a safe bet because of its soothing properties. But if you're worried and want to be doubly sure, you can go for products with minimal ingredients, or just forgo targeted actives and focus solely on hydration for now. Maybe you could make one product in your routine cica-based for now.
Also, the fewer steps, the better. By that I mean using one serum instead of two not that you should get rid of any major steps if you feel like you need them. I hope you figure it out. Fungal acne can be frustrating.


hi! i’ve been suffering for fungal acne for like 1 yr already... and i used cosrx snail mucin power essence, benton aloe soothing gel but nothing is happening. do you think its ferment sensitivity? i also tried cosrx galactomyces essence and that gave me rashes all over my face so i stopped and switched to fa safe products but nothing happens even though i put nizoral on it. is it fungal acne or ferment sensitivity?


Fungal acne can occur as a result of ferment sensitivity, so essentially, it's the same root cause no matter the severity of your symptoms. Have you looked through the ingredients of every product in your routine? There might be something other than the obvious lactobacillus/galactomyces in there that might be a trigger.

There is also the possibility that your skin is reacting to something completely different. Some people are sensitive to witch hazel, niacinamide, glycerin etc. Over-exfoliation might be another reason. Reintroducing products one by one might help identify the problem.

I hope you figure it out! Skin woes can be... Read more


Wait! You are telling me that ferment sensitivity is a real thing?!!! So I am not loosing my mind. I was wondering why I have been having issues with some of my products. I either get red raw spots or big painful lumps that act like zits but never develop. Those nasty lumps take forever to go away. After reading this i gave all my ferment stuff to my daughter. I don't have problems with oils (sandawha camillia oil - love sigh) but then I use that over a few other layers.

BTW - Klairs toner how I... Read more


Welcome to the ferment sensitivity club!
It's definitely a good idea to take a closer look at your skincare products and maybe reintroduce them one at a time in order to figure out which one is causing the issues. COSDNA and Hwahae are my first port of call when I find a new product. It's so easy to get caught up in the excitement of a new find and totally gloss over the ingredient list.