K-Beauty: The Skincare Regimen We'll All Be Into This Year

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K-Beauty | Elsewhere Magazine If you’re anything like me, you love discovering new beauty brands and products you’ve never heard of before. Beauty stores are to me what candy stores are to 5-year-olds, and that means I could spend hours on end scouring the shelves for the newest innovations in skincare, haircare and makeup. So, imagine the moment I discovered Korean Beauty (or K-Beauty). It was a magical moment. I became fascinated by the cute packaging, the interesting (and sometimes very odd) ingredients and the new products that seemed to pop up out of nowhere.

I personally think the K-Beauty industry is the most interesting beauty industry in the world. Products coming out of South Korea are some of the most innovative products I know, and my interest in K-Beauty brands far surpasses my interest in American, Japanese and, dare I say it, French beauty industry brands.

Korean Beauty popped up in the United States rather quickly over the past few years, and it seems like everywhere you turn nowadays there’s a sheet mask or food shaped hand lotion (thank you Tony Moly for that). In order to fully understand what you’re buying, using and supporting, I think it’s important to trace the industry back to its roots.

What’s The History of K-Beauty?

Korea (we’re talking about South, not North) has a long history of valuing beauty. Just like American culture, Koreans have intense beauty standards, and it’s always been that way. In Charlotte Cho’s book The Little Book of Skincare she discusses Korean spas, of jimjilbang, as an integral part of Korean beauty and skincare. Jimjilbangs are open 24 hours a day and are, “often multigenerational gathering spots … Instead of booking a treatment and then leaving as soon as it’s over, you can eat, read, and snooze” (The Little Book of Skincare, Charlotte Cho, pg 49).  You can trace this style of a communal Korean bathhouse thousands of years in the past, due to the use of natural hot springs. Overtime, these spas have become an important part of Korean culture, and they are an important resource for skincare practices.  

The K-Beauty industry really came to prominence after the Korean War. During that time, plastic surgery was used for facial reconstruction on soldiers. “Soon enough, prostitutes became clients of plastic surgery, in order to appeal to western soldiers, altering their faces into more westernized features” (“Korean Beauty Standards” Wikipedia). In present time, around 1 in 5 Korean women have plastic surgery at least once, and South Korea is now the country with the “highest plastic surgeries per capita in the world” ("Why South Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world" Business Insider). Pretty insane, right?

Even though the K-Beauty industry really took off in order to replicate Western beauty, South Korean beauty standards have changed overtime. Unlike American beauty standards which now value bronzed skin, heavy makeup and hyper-sexualization (thanks a lot, Tomb Raider), Korean beauty standards value skincare in order to achieve perfection. As Sophie Beresiner wrote in an Elle Magazine feature, “Pristine, perfected and pale skin is a measure of beauty so the products that come out of Asia have high specific standards to enable those things, and our skin can only benefit.” So in other words, you have the K-Beauty industry to thank for the rise of so many skincare products in recent years. The focus is now on healthy skin that looks supple, plump and blemish-free rather than made-up skin with caked on foundation covering up what’s underneath.

Where Does That Leave Us Now?

Korean Beauty products are more popular than ever. In fact, according to an article by New York Mag, “Last year, for the first time, Korea exported more beauty products ($1.067 billion, according to the Korean Pharmaceutical Traders Association) than it imported ($978 million).” That’s pretty insane for a beauty industry that’s risen to popularity so quickly. But how, and why could this be happening so quickly? Well, I’d like to think that the switch to caring about skincare has made people do their research on products and ingredients before they buy. But, there’s also more. In an interview with The Evening Standard last August, Co-Founder of Cult Beauty Alexia Inge said, “Korean innovation has brought the concept of skin-tertainment back to the serious world of skincare. The K-Beauty regimes are not only super-effective but have also brought some novelty and fun back to our bathroom routines (and Instagram feeds).” In other words, one of the prime reasons Americans have taken so quickly to the K-Beauty industry is because of how freaking adorable the products are.

Along with this new-found popularity, prominence and expansion, there’s a lot of responsibility. All leaders have followers. Even more, unfortunately, all leaders also have copiers. So now, when you go to beauty stores, you don’t just see Korean sheet masks and cute Tony Moly food shaped products. You also see American sheet masks and American brands with cute packaging. In ways, it’s flattering because the prominence of the K-Beauty industry has given way to a new appreciation for different beauty standards. However, it could also be dangerous.

What’s Going to Happen?

Although I would love to believe that the Korean Beauty industry could take over the world, I think it could face adversity. For now, they’re the leader in innovation, and after seeing all of the cool (but slightly crazy) products that have been trending in recent months, it’s hard to believe that there’s an end. But, the United States and other countries around the world are importing Korean Beauty products just as quickly as they’re stealing Korean Beauty ideas, copying successful products and tweaking them to make them more appealing to the mass market. This could be a threat to the Korean Beauty industry. In the end, the big fish often times eats the little fish, and just looking at the numbers, companies like L’Oreal and Estee Lauder could eat (or even inherit) the smaller Korean companies we all love. It’s impossible to tell the future, so who knows, maybe K-Beauty will become huge and take over the world. Want more Jen? Find her online at speckled.blog, and follow her on Instagram at @speckledblog.