The Rise of Korean Beauty: Skincare and More

When we talk about the Cosmetics market in the US, it’s no longer possible to have the conversation without speaking at length about the Korean beauty industry. While France and Japan were once the industry leaders, in the last five years, the Korean cosmetics industry has all but blasted itself into the American mainstream. How did Korean Skincare win our hearts so quickly? Why has it outpaced almost every other cosmetic industry? And is that 10-step routine genuinely worth your time? This month, we’re taking a hard look at the Korean beauty industry and bringing you some of our favorite Korean beauty products.


The Origins Of Beauty

Let’s start with some historical background. In general, the East has always had a more comprehensive approach to beauty. In Korea, cosmetics can be traced back to BC 37~668, although it likely existed even earlier. During this time, many women within the palace who served the king were taught to properly wear makeup and follow specific etiquette set aside for it.

In the Joseon period (1392-1910), we can begin to see the start of what we might now think of as the culture of Korean Beauty. While in this period, makeup itself was not the primary focus—women tended to like a more natural look and too much makeup was considered scandalous—we begin to see a higher concentration on skincare as a concept. In general, the east has always been ahead of the west regarding naturally derived, healthy products for skin and beauty. While in the west, women often used a face paint made from lead, women of the east preferred a homemade lotion whose main ingredient was honey. It’s possible that some of the differences in cosmetics stem from the accessibility and understanding of natural ingredients. Herbalism and technological interest were much more widespread in the east, while the west often saw these techniques as heretical witchcraft.

By the end of the 19th-century, Korean beauty began to commercialize with the influx of western, colonialism culture. Cosmetic companies started to form, and most women stopped making their products at home choosing to purchase them instead. While the introduction of more human-made products and chemicals began to be introduced to the Korean beauty industry, the basis of traditional, skincare oriented formulas remained. The beauty industry had several waves, but in the 1960’s, the pace began to pick up. With their ability to turn around new products faster than almost any other market in the Korean Beauty industry, they started to build a reputation for always being far ahead of the curve in beauty technology. Practically every “it” ingredient you can think of was picked up in Korea long before the western market even considered it. Today, the US is one of the largest buyers of Korean beauty, and it’s no wonder. With the longtime basis in a skincare forward approach, the ability to develop effective and impressive products comes naturally.


Modern Dominance

Today the Korean Beauty industry is one of the top ten in the world. Mintel expects that by the end of 2018, the industry will be worth more than $13.1 billion with facial care alone reaching $7.2 billion by 2020. Many believe that part of the global obsession with Korean beauty stems from “Hallyu,” or the Korean Wave. As K-Pop artists, dramas, and food began to emerge, the US consumers everywhere took note of the flawless, glowing skin they were seeing and the rage for beauty products started to take off. Not only did all of the artists have great skin, but the showmanship and edgy styles had viewers hooked from day one. Celebrities alone aren’t enough to hold a trend, but only to serve as the hook.

What has ultimately made Americans completely grab hold of Korean beauty is that the Korean industry is one of the few in the world to take a functional approach to cosmetics. Pigment fading, sunscreen added, anti-wrinkle, and elasticity boosters are just a few of the benefits you’ll find in even the most basic BB or CC creams. For reference, typically you’d need a separate product for each of these using traditional American or French cosmetics. Because the Korean Food and Drug Administration has labeling specifications for all of these topics, the potential for more research has been exponential. When you add this fact to the historical context, you’ll see why Korean beauty companies have such a jump ahead of other industries.

In an interview with CNN, a Seoul National University professor, Dr. Soyun Cho, explains further that even world famous cosmetic companies have begun to take note. Many now turn to Korean consumers as their primary test subjects, “Korean consumers are very knowledgeable about different cosmetic types and ingredients, and they are picky. They are early adopters of new products, and cosmetic trends come and go at a high rate in Korea, which is partly due to the ubiquitous high-speed internet and heavy use of social media.” For Korean women, the beauty FOMO is real, which means that companies have to be on the cutting edge to target them.


Creating An Experience

When it comes to the actual usage, one of the main advantages of Korean products is the way in which they create an experience, along with their improved functionality. Five years ago, most Americans would balk (and many still will) at the idea of a ten-step beauty routine. But the savvy began to understand much of the appeal. While there are combined products, much of the draw to Korean beauty products comes down to the experience they create. In the ever-busy lives of young people, taking time for a skincare routine might just be the only moment in the day for self-care. Following a slightly complicated skincare routine can force you to slow down for a moment, to follow simple steps without thinking, and to just have a moment of peace and quiet. In a way, it becomes an act of meditation at the beginning and end of each day. With many young people today holding multiple jobs, or jobs with long, grueling hours, finding peaceful moments can be few and far between and beauty then, takes an important role and it’s possible that many Korean beauty companies are seeing and understanding this trend. The addition of cute or calming packaging and ingredients, all of which are marketing trends, true, but we believe it might be more thoughtful. Because most Korean beauty companies are producing very effective products, consumers will purchase them regardless of the packaging. The addition of cute, goofy packaging adds a note of levity and joy that makes us wonder, do they know just how important their products might be to their consumers? We think so.

Most industries today are all about speed, faster service, faster production all with the same level of quality intended. The effects of this on all aspects of society are palpable. Suicide rates and levels of depression among every age group are higher than almost ever before (although this might have to do with more people being able to express their feelings without consequence). While we are glad to see mental illness and depression becoming more destigmatized, it’s clear that there is still much work to be done. But if by chance, a cat-shaped compact, or a mushroom shaped face cream can help bring a spark of joy to life, we say it’s more than worth the money spent on production. Korean beauty, unlike most, forces us to take a slower approach, with more intention, and focus. It’s taught us that patience and a focus on ingredients are worth the time and effort. These are things we want to see more of, in both beauty and the world at large.