How K-Beauty Conquered the West

Fueled by support from the Korean government, sheet masks and glass skin have taken over the world

                                                                           Art: Mallory Heyer

Kimchi, K-pop, and K-dramas. Welcome to Hallyu 2.0, in which everyone in the West is losing their minds over all things Korean.

Playing a starring role is a glorious onslaught of Korean beauty products, with the K-Beauty market now valued at over $13 billion, and $7.2 billion of which is from facial skin care alone. Serums, acids, oils, cushion compacts, CC creams, BB creams, masks that bubble on your face, masks to sleep in, volcanic clay, and snail slime are seeing improbably explosive popularity, and they’ve done so with accessible pricing and cute packaging that has grown women reaching for panda face masks.

“What people don’t see is the amount of government support and PR that drives interest.”

Jude Chao, director of marketing for BeautyTap and somewhat of an oracle on K-Beauty (who also happens to have excellent skin) believes in empowering the masses with education on K-Beauty ingredients. (Her blog, Fifty Shades of Snail, is a solid starting point if you’re overwhelmed by the 12,000 active brands on the market, the proliferation of which Chao believes is no coincidence.)

“What people don’t see is the amount of government support and PR that drives interest around everything from Korean food to Hollywood buying the rights to Korean dramas,” she says. “Skin care is another form of popular culture that’s proved to be a powerful export. So, if you go to beauty trade shows, it’s not unusual to have a Korean government presence supporting at least some of the homegrown brands.”
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Commerce aside, the cultural impact of K-Beauty on Western ideals has also been compelling, at least because it has provided an antidote to the Instagram look of which Kylie Jenner is the undisputed queen. This August, Jenner graced the cover of Forbes with the somewhat erroneous title of “self-made billionaire: as her makeup line, Kylie Cosmetics, stood valued at $900 million, thanks to her trademark style of matte, full-face femme fatale makeup that is studiously copied by her fans.

In what is a polar opposite to Jenner’s everything-heavy aesthetic — a look that is terrifyingly aging on anyone over 25 — K-Beauty is all about maintaining a girlish glow. It started with chok-chok, meaning moist, skin and has evolved through varying degrees of gwang, a dewy radiance, into the latest obsession with glass skin, which is described by K-Beauty entrepreneur Christine Chang thusly: “When your skin is so healthy, even toned, and plumped with hydration that it’s almost translucent, like a shard of glass.” These are different terms for the same thing: fresh skin without the visible makeup.

While the Kylie look isn’t disappearing anytime soon, K-Beauty’s appeal hinges on the fact that no matter what trends in makeup come and go, having clear skin underneath will always be the holy grail. Perfecting your skin care routine may be as hard an art to master as contouring, but it’s arguably more rewarding in the long run.

And it’s not just Korean brands harnessing our desire for selfie-ready skin. The very mention of Glossier conjures up images of fresh-faced fashionistas wearing culottes, hair breezily thrown up into a perfect top knot. The epitome of no-makeup makeup, products like their Perfecting Skin Tint, which comes with the tagline “More skin, less makeup,” draws heavily from Korean products.

Similarly, there is the meteoric success of Deciem, “the abnormal beauty company” with 10 distinct brands, the most popular of which is The Ordinary, which bottles affordable, no-frills ingredients intended for use in step-by-step routines to address just about every skin ailment going. Since its launch, it has converted millions.

You find the first product or ingredient that does something for you, [and] you’re like, ‘Oh shit; skin care isn’t a scam!’

It’s not a stretch to say the likes of Glossier and The Ordinary have, knowingly or not, taken significant cues from K-Beauty, with both brands excelling on the assumption that their customer is one that’s serious about skin care and discerning about ingredients.

Chao notes: “The idea of the Korean 10-step routine is a bit of a PR myth, but there has been a definite shift toward having more choice. If you looked at Western brands 10 years ago, the options were limited. Now, people know they don’t have to get the same one size fits all moisturizer as everyone else. Once you start getting into it and you find the first product or ingredient that does something for you, you’re like, ‘Oh shit; skin care isn’t a scam!’ It transforms it from this boring chore, like brushing your teeth, into a hobby and a ritual.”
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So how is the Korean beauty industry seemingly light years ahead of us in the first place? One explanation is they’ve just been doing it longer. “The philosophical and cultural underpinnings have been in place for centuries, long before it was ever commercialized, and Koreans valuing their skin is not a new phenomenon” Chao explains.

There is also an inadvertent appeal to a Western audience that is becoming more interested in natural ingredients. Most recently, K-Beauty has had snail mucin fever, using slime collected from garden snails crawling around on a mesh net in a dark, humid room. Once beautifully packaged in a glossy jar, it’s easier to overlook the ick factor and aspire to dermatologists’ claims that it encourages effervescent, aging-resistant skin. One cosmetic surgeon, Matthew Schulman, offers an “Escarglow” facial for a cool $375.

Over the course of several hundred years, Korean skin care innovation has had no shortage of unusual ingredients, including everything from ground mung beans to silkworm cocoons and camellia oil. “By virtue of them coming from very traditional or ancient formulas, there are a lot of natural ingredients because that was what was readily available, on top of hundreds of years of figuring out what ingredients actually work,” Chao adds.

One cosmetic surgeon, Matthew Schulman, offers an “Escarglow” facial for a cool $375.

Another explanation is the East Asian beauty standard is extremely focused on skin’s mortal enemy: the sun. Comparatively, we are only just getting to grips with the long-term damage sun exposure does and the concept of religiously using SPF in our daily skin care routines, as opposed to only slathering it on during vacations. But in Korea especially, sun protection is a serious business. In addition to some of the most cutting-edge sun protective skin care in the world, it’s not unusual for Korean women to use UV masks to shield the face, as well as visors, parasols, and even gloves.

There is, clearly, more at play than a national fear of the health risks of ultraviolet rays, with the pursuit of lighter skin something that seems to plague just about every ethnic-minority diaspora, and is certainly not confined to Korea. East Asia’s love affair with porcelain skin is well-documented. There is an implicit belief that fair skin confers nobility, as opposed to a life lived laboring outside in the sun, and that has proven hard to shake.

In neighboring Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, over-the-counter topical treatments contain powerful retinoids and potentially dangerous chemicals, such as hydroquinone, to blast skin pigment. There are also pills, nasal sprays, and injections containing mega-doses of glutathione, an antioxidant meant to inhibit melanin, available with minimum fuss and lax regulations.

“There is a sense that K-Beauty is being cannibalized.”

Alicia Yoon, the aesthetician behind Korean brand Peach & Lily, cites the influence of the Chosŏn dynasty and Korean Confucianism that endures today: “Confucian values shaped Korean beauty ideals, and inner beauty and modesty became a virtue in comparison to showier makeup. To achieve the most beautiful, unadorned look, healthy skin became a priority.”

As Chao points out, the Korean standard is particularly strict: “In the West, the goal is pretty simple: no deep lines and no obvious breakouts. But in Korea there is a very specific range of skin tones and textures; so you have to be super fair with no spots, not even freckles, the texture is firm and hydrated with a specific glow.”

Chao explains that “Culturally, the pressure to fit into that standard is a lot higher than what you experience in the States. Your family is not going to be shy about pointing out all the ways you don’t fit in. I wouldn’t want to live in that environment full time, but we’re fortunate in the West that we can enjoy the products without the pressure.”
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That said, K-Beauty’s transitional success in the West may become its undoing. A problem best illustrated by Western brand’s co-opting the beloved sheet mask, which went from Hannibal Lecter gimmick to self-care essential. Sephora rolled out its own line of Korean-inspired sheet masks and has a section of its retail site devoted to K-Beauty.

So it begs a final question of, what’s next for authentic K-Beauty in a culture where brand loyalty is king?

“There is a sense that K-Beauty is being cannibalized,” says Chao. “I know from working in the industry that Korean cosmetic regulations are strict, but the average Western consumer can’t be expected to know that, so people who are wary will stick to brands they recognize. What bugs me is brands taking concepts from K-beauty and using basic ingredients, so you’re paying more for a cheap formula with a nice label, which isn’t fair on the consumer.”

Chao says she wants people to know and understand more about the ingredients of the products they are buying, which can enable them to find gems for under $20 and avoid spending out on pointless products that can be upwards of $100.

“Western beauty has, for a long time, trained us to believe that expensive or celebrity-endorsed products equal a great product, which just isn’t true. But I think that the innovation of K-beauty and a focus on healthy skin is what will keep it moving forward.”

By: Joanna Fuertes