Donkey milk, horse semen and placenta don’t sound like things you would happily smother your face with, right? Think again. Korean beauty products, known as ‘K-Beauty’ by fans, are taking over the Western beauty scene. K-Beauty products are known for their unique, sometimes bizarre ingredients and cute packaging.
By Ife Alayande
The Korean beauty standards seem to differ a lot from typical Western beauty ideals. Recovering from a history of poverty, Korea is now one of richest countries in the world. Because of this, interests in music, fashion and beauty have flourished.
Meiyi Zhang, owner of K-Beauty shop Haru Haru, explains the obsession with beauty starts at an early age in Korea. “Beauty is very important to Korean women. It might seem superficial, but a person’s face is what we will remember. A good first impression is important to achieve a certain social status. Korean women are taught to live by strict skincare routines from a young age, just like how we have learned to shower and brush our teeth.”
“A good first impression is important to achieve a certain social status”
The pressure of obeying to cultural beauty standards is the same for women around the world, but these specific beauty standards vary depending on the country. While European and American women are mainly focused on recreating Kylie Jenner’s signature look, beauty lovers in Korea tend to focus less on makeup and more on having naturally perfect skin.
Tracy E. Robey is a New York based journalist and author of the K-Beauty blog fanserviced-b. According to her, Western beauty is all about the glam and dramatic makeup; think heavy contour, visible eyeliner and matte foundation, while Korean beauty standards are focused on having pale, clear, moist, glowing skin.
Traditionally, the West has been about makeup while Korea has been about skin.
Looking as pale as possible, while creating the desired “Glass Skin” look (having bright, translucent skin, like a piece of glass) is a favourite of K-Beauty fans. ‘The whiter, the better’ has always been a trend in the Asian beauty scene. Women who were more tanned were thought to work on the land – thus being poorer than those who could stay inside and preserve their milky visage. Besides this, a big part of the K-Beauty clan is anti-sun exposure. Most beauty fanatics top their look off with sunscreen daily, ranging from SPF 50 and up. Staying out of the sun to prevent wrinkles and other early forms of ageing is something many Korean women are wary of.
K-Beauty products are to be applied via the “10-step routine”. This might seem excessive to Dutch women, who usually stick to a micellar water and a day/night cream but it’s something K-Beauty fans swear by. The routine incorporates 10 different products to clean your face, and is done both day and night.
According to Lee Ran, owner of Dutch K-Beauty webshop Korean Cosmetics, Korea is far ahead of the Western world. This can be seen in the ingredients they use. There are some ingredients used in K-Beauty, like horse semen and placenta, that are still seen as “taboo” or outrageous in Europe and America. However, this is slowly changing. One famous example is the ingredient snail slime, which originated from Korea but can now be found in almost every Western drugstore.
But K-Beauty isn’t just about using extravagant ingredients. Science plays a big part, and Korea has a lot of skincare labs and factories. “Some brands are experimenting with fresh ingredients, to the point that products are being sold in special branded fridges to be mixed together at home. Innisfree’s Jeju Lava Seawater Boosting Ampoule comes with several booster options so each customer can make their own mix tailored to their skin needs,” explains Tracy.
Another way in which Korea is foreshadowing the future is the way skincare impacts all sexes. A man who uses a lot of day cream may be seen as a “metrosexual” in Western eyes, however K-Beauty is equally popular for men and women. Lee Ran says, “There is not much difference between boys and girls in Korea. Men are as much interested in taking care of their skin as women. They spend an equal amount of money on beauty products, and their beauty cases look almost identical.”
“There is not much difference between boys and girls in Korea. Men are as interested in taking care of their skin as women.”
The men’s interest in skincare has partly come through K-Pop (a Korean music genre characterised by a wide variety of audiovisual elements). All K-Pop artists strive for one thing, and that is looking in sync.
According to Tracy, male spokespeople, like the men of boybands BTS and EXO have a big influence in Korean culture. “BTS are about to be announced as spokespeople for Mediheal, and have already done a campaign for VT Cosmetics. Their fan base will learn about K-Beauty from them and will want to buy the products they recommend.”
With Western brands now tailoring products specifically for Korean markets, it’s undeniable that Korea is the future. “Korea has the infrastructure to actually make products, and the competition seems to drive companies to do more. It is one of the countries with the best internet systems and trends seem to move very quickly. Products are designed with internet and influencer marketing in mind – they translate well for online audiences elsewhere,” says Tracy.
“K-Beauty is making big steps in America, with brands launching themselves on Amazon Prime to sell directly to consumers. By doing this you cut out the middle man and are able to reach big audiences in America. Without the popularity of Amazon Prime in Europe it will be harder to gain this effect, but this forces brands to be introduced via Sephora or smaller boutique shops.”