K-Beauty boom: Why cosmetics from South Korea are so popular

Pearl powder, snail secretions and starfish extract may turn your stomach, but they’ll make your skin glow.
These natural ingredients — along with bee venom, ground bamboo, seaweed and Tremella mushrooms, among others — are fueling a surge in interest and sales of skincare products and cosmetics imported from South Korea. Collectively called K-Beauty, it’s seen rapid growth in recent years and is out performing many of the country’s other key goods such as cars and steel.
In the United States, K-Beauty items racked up $225 million in sales last year — that’s up 30 percent from 2015 — according to the market research group Kline. The country is the world’s fourth largest cosmetics exporter, behind France, the U.S. and Germany. By 2020, the industry in South Korea is expected to exceed $13 billion (up from $11.6 billion in 2015), predicts Euromonitor International.
So, why are these products so popular? For starters, their ingredients have long been used in Asian cultures but were relatively unheard of by the masses in the U.S. until recent years. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that many envy Asian women’s porcelain, seemingly age-defying complexions, and these products have garnered rave reviews on beauty blogs and in magazines.) Social media has helped to blast the K-Beauty boom overseas, while back home the Korean government continues to invest money in the development of the latest beauty technologies.
 
The storefront 11 Village Factory is a colorful K-Beauty retailer in Seoul, South Korea
Throughout South Korea’s capital city Seoul, storefronts for these egg cream masks and truffle serums are as unique as their products. 11 Village Factory in the Gangnam District is a bubblegum pink playground that’s been likened to a Dylan’s Candy Bar for cosmetics. Nearby Filter Space — the latest store by the homegrown Dr. Jart+ brand — looks like a sleek, sterile laboratory. Colorful, whimsical packaging is another part of K-Beauty’s appeal. 
But there’s no need to jet set across the globe to shop for these products in stores. More and more Western retailers are joining the K-Beauty bandwagon and have started stocking them. In April, CVS Pharmacy began rolling out a “K-Beauty HQ” section in 2,100 stores nationwide. (In Pittsburgh, there’s one at the CVS Pharmacy on William Flynn Highway in Allison Park.) It teamed with Alicia Yoon, founder of the popular K-Beauty curation site Peach & Lily and its sister micro-site Peach Slices, to pick things that are eye catching, affordable and easy to use.
“K-Beauty, which places a huge emphasis on skincare and effective natural ingredients, merges healthy and beauty, which is at the core of our mission at CVS Pharmacy. It was then a natural extension for us to develop a significant K-Beauty program,” says Maly Bernstein, CVS Pharmacy’s senior director for divisional merchandising/beauty care. “So far, customers have been providing great feedback and the program has exceeded our initial expectations.”
Thank You Farmer products are part of the new K-Beauty section at select ULTA Beauty stores. Locally, K-Beauty products are carried at ULTA locations in Monroeville Mall and at The Waterfront in Homestead.
Last month, ULTA Beauty also introduced a K-Beauty section to ulta.com and more than 300 stores, including ones at Monroeville Mall and at The Waterfront in Homestead. It consulted Los Angeles-based Landing International to pull together selections by Thank You Farmer, CLE, O.R.G., SKINRX and COSRX brands. Sephora, Target, Nordstrom and Walmart are some others that have been growing their own K-Beauty inventories.
“I get people coming in and asking if we have any K-Beauty products in stock and people generally inquiring, ‘What’s the deal with K-Beauty?’” says Elizabeth Quesnelle, a licensed esthetician who owns the Gilded Girl Beauty Emporium in Lawrenceville.
Carrying them can be tricky for small independent boutiques because of exclusivity deals between in-demand brands and major retailers, she says. Language barriers and time zone differences add to the challenge. In July, she’ll attend Cosmoprof North America, one of the world’s largest beauty trade shows in Las Vegas, to meet with K-Beauty brand representatives in person and scout out additions for her store.
The Creme Shop’s cleansing towelettes ($5) and charcoal sheet masks ($23.50 for a set of five) and Patchology’s FlashPatch eye and lip gels ($50 each) and exploration set ($40 for activating gel, eye treatments and refreshing wipes) are sold at Schiller’s Pharmacy in Shadyside.
As with most trends, though, come concerns.
“One thing I am often conflicted about with the K-Beauty trend is the cultural appropriation question here. Is it OK to appropriate an entire culture’s beauty traditions as a global trend?” says RadRitual owner Chloe Nordlander. Her shop in Bloomfield specializes in holistic wellness and beauty products. “From my understanding, an authentic Korean beauty regimen is about the process of really pampering and taking care of your skin, and that’s a beautiful thing. I hate to see that stripped away to the bare bones of just buying something and joining the trend club.”
Political tensions between South Korea and neighboring countries is another concern, which has further energized South Korea’s emphasis on increasing exports and sales in other nations, including the U.S. 
Meanwhile, American companies now want a piece of the K-Beauty profits. Powerhouse cosmetic conglomerates like Estee Lauder are investing in K-Beauty brands, which continue to come up with fresh approaches to their products.
“Watch out for color brands making a huge impact in the space next,” Soko Glam (an online K-Beauty marketplace) founder Charlotte Cho told Fashionista.com. “Korean color brands like Etude House revamp their packaging regularly, create limited edition colors in small quantities and have the agility and [research and development] to take new innovations to market within six months, while committing to affordable price points.
“If anyone can do fast, innovative makeup, it's going to be Korean beauty brands.”
By: Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com or on Twitter and Instagram @SaraB_PG.
 
 

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