Why Are We So Obsessed With Korean Beauty?

Korean influences are everywhere now in Western beauty markets and the demand for products from Korea itself is high. Why are we so obsessed with Korean beauty? I spoke to two beauty retail experts with real Korean beauty expertise – Minnie Park from MiniB Beauty, a beauty marketing company specialising in bringing Korean beauty to the US; and Cara Jacques, Head of Buying at online retail group The Hut Group, whose beauty e-commerce sites such as Beauty Expert stock popular Korean beauty products – to find out more about the makeup and skincare influence of Korea.

Tell us about your experience with the Korean beauty market?

M: I am a founder of MiniB Beauty, a US beauty marketing & strategy firm specialising in working with unknown high quality products from Korean small and medium enterprises. Due to the limited resources from being a small operation, these brands cannot find an optimal way to market and sell in foreign countries like the US. That is where my company fits in and I have good experience in the Korean beauty world and I personally test every product before we work with any brand. It is not just me, we actually have a group of ‘MiniB Beauty Creators’, who give honest opinions on the products, so basically represent general consumers. We connect Korean firms who want to reach markets abroad with consumers who want high quality products.

I was also born and grew up in Korea. When I grew up, women were doing all kinds of DIY homemade face masks using ingredients such as cucumber, potato, honey, eggs, and yogurt. My mom once used the thinly sliced white part of a watermelon to calm down her skin after a summer day at the beach.

C: I’m Head of Buying at online beauty retailer Beauty Expert. We aim to bring customers an expertly curated selection of luxury products sourced from around the world.

With Korean women taking a lot of care and pride in their appearance, Korea is at the forefront of research into new skincare products, so it’s no surprise that Korean-influenced beauty products are so highly regarded and desired by Western women.

With Korean beauty products becoming such a big trend in the beauty world as a whole in the last few months, Beauty Expert has begun stocking these products to meet customer demand. Beauty Expert has recently added a couple of Korean influenced beauty brands to its portfolio, such as Vitamasques, and looks to expand this offering even further in 2017.

What makes Korean beauty unique? Why do you think we love it so much?

M: Korean beauty products offer a variety of choices in skincare and makeup. With facial cleanser, Korean cleansing involves two steps - using an oil-based cleanser then using a water-based cleanser to remove both oil and water-based impurities. Oil-based cleansers are offered in different textures in Korea, including creams, gels, waters, oils, lotions and wipes.

There are also so many different scents including unscented options for very sensitive skin. Every brand has a line of oil based cleansers, so each customer can find the texture and scent they want. This freedom to find your own perfect product is a lot more active and satisfying than just going to the cosmetics store and buying whatever is available. That is what makes Korean beauty special and what is spreading more into Western markets.

C: What makes Korean Beauty so unique isn’t just the fact that it has a more involved process, including around ten steps for a daily beauty regime, but also because of its use of unique ingredients.

Korean beauty products use a wide range of ingredients which are relatively unknown to the mass Western beauty markets, such as Snail Mucin. It’s these ingredients that are gathering a lot of attention from media and creating curiosity amongst women – they just can’t help but want to try it.

Korean beauty products also typically include highly concentrated natural ingredients, and this is a big appeal for beauty users looking for products that contain more natural contents. Fermentation is a hugely popular skin care formulation process in Korea. It involves fermenting food in salt water to encourage the growth of good bacteria. This then allows for a deeper and more efficient absorption into the skin - a process which is now being seen more and more within Western beauty.

Do you have some sales statistics you can share with us to show Korean beauty has become so popular?

M: Yes, there are many statistics that show Korean cosmetic market growth in the US in recent years. Associated Press (taken from Korean Customs Service data) reported that outbound shipments of makeup products reached $2.45 billion in 2015, surging 53.1 percent from $1.56 billion a year earlier. The 2015 figure soared more than threefold from $698 million in 2011, with an annual average growth of 36.9 percent over the 2011-2015 period. The total volume of cosmetics exports stood at 90,491 tons in 2015, compared to 31,606 tons in 2011.

Here’s a table that shows how much the Korean Beauty market is growing within the USA. It is the July American cosmetics import data from July 2016. It is not hard to see how much growth is happening. It makes me excited.

C: Sales for BB Cream, which originally became popular in Korea, have increased by 55% YOY, emphasising just how much Korea is affecting the trends within the beauty market.

How do you think Korean beauty has influenced Western brands & their products? Can you give me some examples?

M: Korean Beauty has changed the skincare and makeup world by pushing the industry to develop new products. Let's talk about cushion foundations – the first cushion foundation was introduced in Korea in 2011. Soon many Korean brands came out with their own version. Compared to the traditional foundation, a cushion foundation is easy to apply, has SPF and is handy for touch-ups. Naturally, the product became popular both inside and outside of Korea. I am sure Western cosmetic companies were watching the market movement and they had to produce what consumers wanted. Finally, in 2016, several high-end and drugstore Western brands came out with their own cushion foundations.

Another example is sheet masks. Sheet masks are a perfect modern beauty invention - you wash your face and then put the mask on for 20-30 minutes, then just pat the excess serum in. You can multi-task during this time too. Now Western brands are making their own sheet masks and they are everywhere.

C: BB Cream became popular in Korea in the 1980’s; hailed as the Korean’s beauty secret to flawless skin, and catered as an all-in-one, multi-tasking skin cream. In a country where women were used to applying up to ten products to their face every day, the concept of an all-in-one was a popular one and led to the huge success of the product in Korea. News soon travelled shortly after to the Western world, and the wonder cream was made popular amongst Western women as a blemish fighting primer, with SPF and tinted coverage to even out and lighten skin tone.

What are your favourite Korean skincare products?

M: The weather is getting colder and so my dry skin is becoming drier. I like carrying around a mist for when I feel that my skin needs an extra boost. I love Sshabav's Soy Bio+ fermented mist. The firm developed an ingredient called Soy Bio+. It’s from organic fermented black bean and it helps to brighten the skin and even the skin tone without any harsh chemicals. Korean beauty can sometimes get criticised for animal-based ingredients, but Sshabav is cruelty-free, organic and environmentally friendly. The website shows pictures of their organic farm that doesn’t use any fertilizer or pesticides. When I spray the mist, my skin instantly feels hydrated.

How is a Korean skincare regime different from a Western one?

M: Western skincare sometimes sounds like it is a chore for some people, just like taking vitamins. I believe that Korean women have a different attitude towards skincare and have more of a commitment to a beauty regime. In Korea, we follow our skincare steps quietly, while we calm down and unwind from, or prepare for, the day. It is a time to love ourselves. I love how my skin feels after my skincare regime and it boosts my confidence levels too.

The Korean skincare regime is lengthy. Carefully selecting products for a 10-step regiment, and putting those steps together, is not easy. The whole Korean regime makes you an active participant in your skincare, and it can be something you look forward to doing after work.

C: Typically, Western women follow a three-step facial regime; cleanse, tone and moisturise. However, in Korea they can have up to ten different steps to their regime. This dedication to their skin and interest in skin products is the exact reason why South Korea is at the forefront of skincare innovation.

What is the latest beauty innovation coming out of Korea that we all need to look out for?

M: Traditional Korean medicine always relates skin conditions and diseases with the health of your internal organs. We understand that our organs and body in general have to be healthy to make our skin naturally glow. For this reason, Korean people take beauty supplements for their skin. Some traditional cosmetic manufacturing firms in Korea are already in the beauty supplement market and contain ingredients such as collagen and Biotin to maintain skin collagen structure, increase blood circulation and improve skin’s general condition. I am expecting to more supplements on the Western market and them becoming more of a part of daily beauty routines.

From talking with Minnie and Cara, I think if we continue to take anything from Korea, it’s to invest more time in our skincare regimes and make them an important part of our day.

Main Image - Kou Art via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 License