All About Korean Beauty (K-Beauty)

6 minute read

By Kathleen Corrigan

If you’re at all into makeup or beauty regimes, you’ve probably already heard about the phenomenon known as K-beauty. Start a search to learn the facts about K-beauty, its history, and the ways in which it differs from the Western cosmetic industry.

Not only is Korean beauty advanced, but it also promotes a drastically different aesthetic. K-beauty takes on a highly unique philosophical approach than what we’re used to seeing in the rest of the world.

A History of K-Beauty

Korean beauty has been setting itself apart since ancient times when women used natural ingredients to cleanse and soften their skin, protect from the elements and look more appealing. Korea has long been an agricultural society so healing from the sun through the use of antioxidants and protecting from frostbite by using lard was a popular practice.

Pale, undamaged skin was a sign of privilege as it indicated that you didn’t have to toil outdoors; causing women to use concoctions made of mung beans to cleanse, gourd stems to heal, and ground up grains like mibun or baekbun to lighten their complexions. It was also popular for women to enhance their beauty with makeup by darkening and shaping their eyebrows with ash and coloring their lips and cheeks with safflower.

These practices continued right up until the 20th Century when Korea began to mass manufacture skin and beauty products along with the rest of the world, but by the 1920s, Japanese colonial rule in Korea meant that Japanese products dominated the market. Korea was liberated from Japan after World War II but its beauty industry was hindered once again by the 1950s due to the Korean War.

In 1961, things started looking up when a law was passed prohibiting the sale of foreign products in Korea, thus allowing Korean-made beauty products to finally take off.  Today, the Korean beauty product industry is valued at $13.1 billion dollars and is one of the top 10 beauty markets in the world.

Here’s what sets Korean’s beauty industry apart from its Western counterpart.

Skin Care is Number One

In the U.S. market products are designed and marketed to address particular skin problems like acne, dullness, dryness or aging, but in Korea, they have a more holistic approach in which healthy, hydrated skin is considered fundamental and worth working for. K-beauty is known for advocating a multi-step skin care routine, which can range anywhere from five to 15 steps, depending on your preference, and can involve oil cleansers, water cleansers, exfoliators, toners, face oils, serums, moisturizers, SPF protection and more. This might sound exhausting, but K-beauty fans say that all those steps are worth it and report having hydrated, glowing skin all thanks to their extensive regime.

Masks Are a Big Deal

You may have noticed that face masks are starting to become hugely popular and retailers like Nordstrom and Barneys are featuring Korean popups and displays offering a variety of sheet and wash off masks that are said to do everything from hydrate to exfoliate to nourish your skin. Unlike here, where we tend to save masks for special occasions or as a rare treat, K-beauty followers do masks weekly, or even daily and some even twice daily as a regular step in their skincare routine. Recent trends include “zombie masks” which pull and tighten your skin and “slice masks” which are spot treatments that look like adorable slices of fruit.

Plenty of Natural Ingredients

Just like in ancient times, plant-based ingredients are still very much emphasized in the Korean beauty world. Natural ingredients like green tea, mung beans, aloe, ginseng, and camellia flowers are commonly found in their skin and makeup products. Along with these more traditional ingredients, they are also known for using new natural ingredients like birch juice, royal honey, yuza, and even snail slime and bee venom. Be warned that if all-natural ingredients are important to you, you should read labels carefully and do your research because just like here at home, Korean beauty products that claim to be organic natural or even cruelty-free are only loosely regulated and do not have to be certified.

Cutting Edge Innovation

Marie Claire magazine declared Korea be at least seven-years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of skincare and beauty innovations and the consensus seems to be that it’s the world’s newest authority on cosmetics. Products like BB creams, CC creams, cushion compacts, sheet masks, sleeping masks, and essences all originated in Korea and have since become global beauty staples. New and improved products are coming out every day and some up-and-coming trends include bubbling oxygen masks, skincare based glow serums, and multi-step scalp care.

Plastic Surgery is Commonplace

In the United States, plastic surgery is often done but not often talked about and women tend to keep the work they’ve had done under wraps. But in Korea, cosmetic alterations are so commonplace that it wouldn’t be unusual to see women out and about with bandages on their faces instead of hiding and recovering at home as they would here.

One of the most popular surgeries in Korea is double eyelid surgery, which adds an eyelid crease to an Asian monolid in order to give it a deeper appearance. It’s common for young women to be gifted with plastic surgery from their parents for their 16th or 18th birthday because it’s viewed as an investment that will help them gain employment and find long-term success. It’s so popular in Korea in fact, that plastic surgery is exempt from tax for a five-year period.

Branding is Everything

As important as quality ingredients are in Korean beauty, just as much thought goes into the packaging of the products and brands are expected to “tell a story” in order to draw in customers. Common themes include princesses, castles, unicorns, adorable animals, cartoon foods and licensed characters that all so shareable that they can be found all over social media sites like Instagram and Pinterest. One of the biggest trends as of late are printed sheet masks that transform your face into a cat or a panda (making for a cute photo-op) all while transforming your skin underneath.

Porcelain Skin

Just like it was in ancient Korea, pale, porcelain skin is considered to be the ideal in K-beauty. Lightening and brightening products are hugely popular and can often be found as secondary ingredients in moisturizers and foundations. This combined with a lack of foundation shade ranges bothers some non-Korean beauty lovers who feel the emphasis on whiteness is hugely problematic and not inclusive of people with darker skin tones.

K-beauty’s spreading global popularity is forcing companies to reconsider their approach in the Western market where cultural differences on whitening create discomfort among U.S. customers. One Korean company took some flak for their “White Power” Essence but acted quickly by changing the name and responding to customers complaints individually.

A Very Different Aesthetic

One of the most drastic differences between Western and Eastern beauty standards is the approach to make up, which looks especially different when compared side by side with a more “American” look as beauty blogger Megan Bowen artfully demonstrated on her YouTube channel. While Western makeup leans towards heavy contouring, lined eyes, matte skin, overdrawn lips, and arched brows, Korean beauty tends to go for a more natural, illuminated look with dewy or glassy skin, rounded features, straight brows and berry kissed, two-toned lips with an emphasis on looking young, healthy, and glowing.

Not Just for Women

Skincare and beauty products are almost exclusively marketed towards women in the United States, but not so in Korea, where men’s skincare has taken off. Men in Korea aren’t intimidated by a multi-step routine and are oil cleansing, toning, exfoliating, moisturizing and sheet masking alongside their wives, girlfriends, and friends. Even makeup for men is a growing trend in Korea, and more and more guys are using BB creams and color correctors to achieve the same smooth, dewy complexions that Korean ladies are after.

A World Leader in Beauty

Once upon a time, the world looked to French women for their skincare and beauty secrets but in the last decade, the Korean market’s innovative approach has turned it into a global beauty industry frontrunner. Thanks to the Korean beauty customer base’s high standards, love of trends, and insatiable desire for cutting-edge products, Korean beauty will likely continue to evolve and lead the industry.

So, grab a sheet mask and an oil wash and get glowing! K-beauty is definitely here to stay.

Kathleen Corrigan