Happenstance is the best way to describe the formation of SK-II. According to corporate myth, in the 1970s, after a scientist noticed that older workers at a Japanese saké brewery had soft youthful hands, he and a team of colleagues decided to conduct research on the yeast used to make the drink. Five years later, having screened over 300 types of yeast and refined their process of fermentation, they were able to identify what would be their signature ingredient: Pitera.

Pitera is derived from this yeast’s fermentation and SK-II says it contains a blend of vitamins, amino acids, minerals, and organic acids that are supposed to optimize the skin’s rejuvenation process. Pitera remains the line’s signature ingredient, although they do combine it with other ingredients such as wild rose extract and sea fennel.

In 1980, Max Factor acquired rights to the ingredient, but it was largely ignored until 1995, when A.G. Lafley was sent to Japan to overhaul Procter and Gamble’s business in Asia. It then became Japan’s top cosmetics brand.

SK stands for secret key, of which SK-II is the second generation.

In September 2006, the People’s Republic of China halted imports of SK-II after a consumer found traces of neodymium and chromium, both of which are banned in cosmetics, and can cause allergic dermatitis and eczema. By December of that year, the brand was back in stores, with a statement from the Ministry of Health saying it no longer posed any danger. The brand maintains that they do not use either in their production process. Further scandal ensued when Hong Kong actress Carina Lau was accused of false advertising for overstating the product’s benefits.

Cate Blanchett is said to have “discovered SK-II upon recommendation from a friend” seven years ago, and tried the Facial Treatment Essence, which consists of 90% Pitera. She has served as the brand’s global ambassador since 2007.

Company News/Recent Launches:

SK-II celebrated it’s 30th anniversary this year; they have sold over 20 million bottles of Facial Treatment Essence to date.

Key Ingredients:

Pitera, a yeast that the brand says contains vitamins, amino acids, minerals, and organic acids, is the signature ingredient. SK-II’s Repair C treatment has hyaluronic acid, the Facial Treatment Cleanser has wild rose extract, and the anti-aging line has peptides.

TIA’s Take:

Marta dissected the ingredients in SK-II’s Facial Treatment Essence, boiling it down to simply 90% Pitera (a yeast by the name of saccharomycopsis ferment), two moisturizers common to all creams, butylene glycol, pentylene glycol, water and three preservatives. Copley dug deeper into the brand’s latest science behind the skin’s tipping point, but decided that though the concept was intriguing, essentially everyone’s skin is different. Although there are some good ingredients, in the form of peptides, hyaluronic acid and the antioxidant sea fennel, we are skeptical of the huge reliance on the magical Pitera. Most importantly, with the SK-II controversy of 2006, we’d say the brand is questionable, unless you’re in the market for yeast.