Why K-Beauty Is the Holy Grail of Skincare


Korean beauty products and masks are taking over the industry. (Photo: Dr. Jart)

First came the BB creams (courtesy of Dr.Jart+ in 2011), then quickly the obsession with all things K-beauty. Korean skincare has infiltrated America for some time now, but it’s recently reached fever pitch. Yes, the rumors of crazy-sounding ingredients are true (donkey milk, snail mucus, horse oil, fermented soybean), but many prized native elements aren’t so wacky (ginseng, green tea, charcoal).

“The emergence of Korean brands stateside is strong and getting stronger,” says Jamie Ahn, the Korean founder and creative director of New York City’s Townhouse Spa. K-beauty subscription e-tailer Memebox is just one example. “What you get with Korean products are great quality and a high percentage of main ingredients at great prices—a win-win.” Some of her favorite brands include Tony Moly, O Hui and History of Whoo, and she recommends dipping a toe into K-beauty with sheet masks (currently gaining momentum thanks to models on Instagram), essence waters, and gel-based moisturizers.

“The use of innovative, high quality ingredients and creative delivery systems developed to satisfy sophisticated consumers makes the Korean beauty market so exciting to watch,” says Kate Somerville, who debuted her own line there in early 2013 because of significant demand. She launched her whitening LumiWhite range directly in response to Asian needs. Sulwhasoo, a Korean brand owned by AmorePacific (which claims the largest R&D facility in that country), has formulas that “utilize herbs grown in specific regions of Korea and are treated according to the ancient Poje method for optimal efficacy,” says marketing manager Hilary Burns-LaRiche. “While US-made products may claim to have similar herbs like ginseng, they are not the same in terms of purity, potency and preparation that result in superior effectiveness.”  

Products from the Asian country are unique out of necessity, to answer its aesthetic standards. There, “Porcelain, dewy skin is the measure of beauty,” says Burns-LaRiche. “An ancient measure of beauty is to have a glow visible from 10 steps away.” The ideal is a complexion that’s practically transparent, with zero pigmentation “Korean women focus on making skin healthier and hydrated—there’s even a word created to explain well-hydrated skin,” says Richard You, general manager of Dr.Jart+. “‘Choc-choc’ refers to the state of your face after washing, when it still has some water on it.”

You adds that while all Korean women strive for a flawless, white visage, “in the US, women with pale skin enjoy tanning and use bronzer to create the sun-kissed look.” So while makeup is de rigueur in America, Koreans focus on skin health, hydration, and whitening, only occasionally using products like highlighter.

Many products applied in a specific sequence are employed to obtain a pristine complexion. “[Koreans] have a more holistic approach, meaning products are meant to be used as one step among the many it takes to achieve ultimate skin balance, whereas Western products are often very multi-purpose and attempt to fulfill every skin need in one formula,” says Burns-LaRiche. Multiple highly concentrated serums are often layered, and there is a significant focus on the nighttime regimen.

“My mother was absolutely religious regarding her home skincare,” says Ahn. “She spent 20 minutes every night, no matter how tired she was, with a cleansing, mini massage and layers of products.” Masks are a K-beauty staple for their instant results. They range from cotton- or microfiber-soaked sheet masks to ginseng-fermented plant pulp like Sulwhasoo’s Snowise EX Brightening Mask ($130/10 sheets) to cream form masks like Kate Somerville Nourish HydraGel Mask ($70) to the “targeted, second generation of sheet masks” Dr.Jart+ is launching this summer. You says these ritualistic PM efforts, are because “Koreans are fully aware that the skin regenerates most rapidly between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.”

This all adds up to a culture where the “expenditure per capita in skincare products is higher than the rest of the world,” says Somerville. And it’s one with rapidly advancing technology. “Everyone has a smartphone and is concerned about their looks, and companies are working around the clock to provide new products with instant results,” says You. “Word gets around quickly about what’s working and what’s not, so the cycle pushes on and Korea has become this churning machine of skincare evolution.”


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