What I Learned About the State of K-Beauty in 2019 by Going Straight to the Source

You have heard the lore, the hype, the 10-step routines. But the truth about K-beauty might be even more intriguing. Allure executive beauty director, Jenny Bailly, travels to South Korea to learn an entirely new language in skin care.


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Seoul is a beauty lover’s Shangri-La­ — a paradise where cutting-edge skin care and cosmetic kitsch live in harmony. A place where foundation is served up in “cushions” and cleansers morph from mud to oil to foam. A place where you can achieve glass skin, baby feet, and “eye smiles.” A place that will surely never live up to the hype.

And yet up it lives. I land in Seoul, for the first time, early in the day — very early. Before the clock strikes 7 a.m., I am at a jjimilbang — one of the city’s many sprawling 24-hour bathhouses. There is no better way to shake off a 14-hour time difference than to lie nude on a vinyl-covered table while a woman in a bra and underwear scrubs every square inch of your body with exfoliating mitts before dousing you with buckets of water. I (and my ridiculously silky skin) spend much of the next two days on the streets of the Seoul shopping district Myeongdong.

Jjimil Bang 찜질방

The neighborhood is Time Squarian in its constant illumination, but the streets are smaller, more winding, and, in very large part, lined with stores carrying every beauty product imaginable. Some are filled with sheet masks (and only sheet masks), others with colored contact lenses (and nothing else). And you won’t get far without hitting the threshold of one of the multifloor beauty emporiums: Innisfree, Etude House, the Stylenanda Pink Hotel (which is not a hotel but does have a petal­-filled bathtub for you to pose in).
Stylenanda Pink Hotel

Stylenanda Pink Hotel Shop

The sheer volume of innovation on these streets is staggering. K-beauty is a $13 billion business — and growing, says market-research firm Mintel. But when I speak to the locals, I learn that they don’t feel pressure to keep pace. K-beauty is often credited with gifting/cursing us with skin-care routines that include more steps than an aortic valve replacement: double-cleansing, toners, essences, serums, activators, creams, masks.

                                                                                                Stylenanda Became a Fashion

Yet your average Korean woman, particularly of the millennial generation, prefers simplicity. Her MO: a “skip-care” routine. I am introduced to the term on a visit to the Seoul headquarters of AmorePacific, the company that owns over two dozen of the beauty brands I encounter in Myeondong (like Innisfree, Laneige, and Primera). Hohyun Song, an AmorePacific researcher, encourages me to streamline my skin-care routine. It’s an unexpected pitch from someone who makes skin-care products. But this company’s HQ has a free day-care center for children of employees (a truly beautiful thing), so they are clearly operating on a higher moral plane than I am accustomed to.

Anyway, Song doesn’t suggest skipping treatment ingredients — let’s not get crazy — but does recommend combining hydrating steps to increase efficiency. Take Cream Skin, a new toner-moisturizer hybrid that Laneige introduced (only in Korea for now). It has a skim-milk-y consistency but also contains oils to provide the hydration you’d get from a cream.

Just as I didn’t expect to consider simplifying my beauty routine during a trip to Korea, I wasn’t prepared to discover a source of authentic natural ingredients. Korea is known as a hotbed of beauty disruption — not a leader in “naturals.” Now, though, local ingredients that have long been part of Korean beauty culture are edging their way into the spotlight.

Just a one-hour flight from Seoul lies Jeju Island, where residents of a 300-year-old village have spent generations harvesting camellias for their antioxidant-rich seeds. I detour there and discover that camellia oil is the secret behind my favorite skin-softening Mamonde sheet mask and Sulwhasoo face oil. Green tea also thrives in the volcanic soil of Jeju; for 40 years, AmorePacific has cultivated green tea gardens on the island, engineering varieties to maximize their skin-protective properties. Walking through these fields, running my fingers over the leaves that have been proven to moisturize, soothe, and fight free radicals — now that truly feels like Shangri-La.