K-Beauty... Some thoughts

If you live in a Western country and have even a passing interest in beauty trends, you will have seen that Asian beauty has been rapidly increasing in popularity over the last five or so years. The hype is largely over South Korean products, commonly known as ‘K-Beauty’. According to Mintel research, the South Korean beauty industry serves one of the top 10 global beauty markets and is currently valued at US$13 billion, a figure that is expected to continue to grow exponentially over the next few years. The K-Beauty industry has a massive influence on other markets as well, and Western brands are constantly seeking inspiration from their Korean competitors.  



East Meets West

Beauty standards in South Korea reflect a hybrid of South Korea's own idealistic aesthetic standards & the influence of Western beauty ideals


South Korean Beauty Industry & Standards

Trawling the archives, I recently listened to an old episode of one of my favourite podcasts, This American Life (Ep. 483: Self-Improvement Kick). In this episode, our host Ira Glass interviews Julia Laurie, an American teaching English in an all-girls high school in Gwangju, a city in South Korea. Laurie describes her surprise when she realised that on every floor of the school there was a large full-length mirror and scales so the girls could weigh themselves, and they did so constantly. Laurie learnt quite quickly that the girls were quite openly preoccupied with their looks and their weight. South Korea has the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in the world, and some of Laurie’s teenage students had already had procedures, and more were planning to have them. While some polls report that one out of five South Korean women goes under the knife, others claim it’s one out of three. And for women below the age of 30, the statistics are staggeringly higher.

When you apply for a job in South Korea, you have to supply a photograph of yourself. Presumably so that if you are competing with another person who has comparative skills and experience, the better-looking applicant would advance. Laurie discusses her mixed feelings about the girls’ preoccupation with how they look, but reaches the conclusion that maybe in order to succeed in their looks-obsessed culture, focusing on their appearances and keeping track of their weights might give them a better chance at the future they want.

Image from a South Korean plastic surgeon's website

Image from a South Korean plastic surgeon's website

In South Korea, beauty standards are set by Korean pop idols who are responsible for promoting almost all of the trends, standards, and expectations for beauty. Of course, these trends are shaped in some part by South Korea’s own history of idealistic aesthetic standards, but the influence of Western beauty ideals cannot be ignored. The current ideal includes: huge eyes (with double lids!) and sometimes lightened with coloured lenses; a small V-shaped face; poreless and spotless ‘glass-like’ dewy white skin; and a petite nose with a slight point at the tip.



I believe we are living through quite an exciting moment for facial skincare. Consumers are becoming increasingly ingredient savvy and their demands for high-quality products are growing as well. Certainly, this doesn’t have everything to do with the growing popularity and influence of K-beauty, but I’m hesitant to say it’s all coincidence.  

In light of what we know about the strict beauty standards that exist in South Korea, it makes sense that skincare is a huge priority - and that is supported by profits that are coming out of  SKs booming skincare industry. These consumers are knowledgable and place greater importance on facts and ingredients rather than marketing hype, although, the industry is so competitive that brands have really had to step it up in both of these areas to stay afloat. Consumer behaviour reports show that SK consumers aren't restrained by feelings of brand loyalty - if a product doesn't work as it's expected to, they ditch it and move on to something that does. That puts pressure on companies to come through with the goods and produce things that actually work and that aren't make of fillers and fragrances.

The 10-step system is, in my personal opinion just a clever marketing ploy. I agree with a lot that there is to do with how the system works but I really don't think 10 is necessarily the *magic* number to see results. The double cleansing makes sense, particularly if you're wearing makeup (oil is needed to remove oil, but then you should probably remove said oil properly to avoid build up or congestion), and as for the toners, essences, ampoules, and serums and creams... basically, what's most important is that you're layering the hydration and moisture into your skin as apposed to just putting one thick moisturising cream on and calling it a day. The other steps that aren't about cleansing or hydration are actives which should be a crucial step in most people's routines, but aren't needed everyday or at all for that matter - especially if you're repairing your moisture barrier.


K- Beauty Influence on Western Brands

Let's talk about a relatively new brand that has capitalised on the whole pore-less and spotless ‘glass-like’ dewy skin thing very well – Glossier.
Looking at the brand’s marketing, I couldn’t help but see some of the ways this brand has been influenced by K-Beauty. The packaging, of course. But also, the formulations & ethos: jelly-textured elixirs, the strong focus on hydration, the word ‘pack’ (galaxy pack) being used instead of the western alternative, ‘mask’, the term 'milky jelly cleanser' being used at all. The makeup is all about SKIN – dewy, fresh, sheer, natural, with a focus on skin ‘tints’ instead of coverage. The lips are mostly shiny glossy if you will, and the eyes sparkle, which reminds me of the popular trend in Asia to use glittery eye shadows. 




A brand inspired by


The people behind Glossier are smart. I think they hit the market at just the right moment, and so far seem to be doing a lot of things right. Just imagine if this brand came out in the 2000s, or the 90s! No way would it be receiving so much hype, and I personally think it has a lot to do with our own changing conceptions of beauty. Healthy skin is currently at the forefront of our attention, and brands like Glossier are making the most of it through their branding and marketing campaigns.

I think that's great and I love that look, but it does concern me that with the shift towards flawless skin, and away from full coverage makeup that can potentially hide anything we want it to, the goal posts might have just moved further away from us. Achieving the aesthetic that we are moving towards is a hell of a lot more difficult than just makeup, skin doesn't always look perfect and it can take a long time to change. Hell, for some (probably myself included) maybe flawless skin is just not attainable... despite how many steps are in our regimen. What is flawless skin really? I never knew pores were such a big issue until I started getting into Asian beauty (which was about 5 years ago... but still!)

However, I am a massive hypocrite because while I say and think these things, if I'm honest, two of my biggest interests are skincare and makeup and I'm not someone who leaves the house without at least a lip product, concealer, mascara and blush. I admire my friends and family members who are so confident in their own skin that they pretty much never wear makeup or think much about their skin, the ones who ask me to help them do their makeup for a special occasion. I can't help but think that while we sit there facing one another as if taking part in some kind of ancient ritual (I doing her eyeliner while she flutters her lids at exactly all the wrong moments, and we giggle about it), how we both want what the other has. I wish I could bottle up the confidence adorned by the smart, independent, and ferociously self- assured people in my life who don't need 'that stuff' to make themselves feel better in the morning. I would sell my whole damn skincare and makeup collection if I could just get a little of THAT.