So how is the Korean beauty industry seemingly light years ahead of us in the first place? One explanation is they’ve just been doing it longer. “The philosophical and cultural underpinnings have been in place for centuries, long before it was ever commercialized, and Koreans valuing their skin is not a new phenomenon” Chao explains.
There is also an inadvertent appeal to a Western audience that is becoming more interested in natural ingredients. Most recently, K-Beauty has had snail mucin fever, using slime collected from garden snails crawling around on a mesh net in a dark, humid room. Once beautifully packaged in a glossy jar, it’s easier to overlook the ick factor and aspire to dermatologists’ claims that it encourages effervescent, aging-resistant skin. One cosmetic surgeon, Matthew Schulman, offers an “Escarglow” facial for a cool $375.
Over the course of several hundred years, Korean skin care innovation has had no shortage of unusual ingredients, including everything from ground mung beans to silkworm cocoons and camellia oil. “By virtue of them coming from very traditional or ancient formulas, there are a lot of natural ingredients because that was what was readily available, on top of hundreds of years of figuring out what ingredients actually work,” Chao adds.
One cosmetic surgeon, Matthew Schulman, offers an “Escarglow” facial for a cool $375.
Another explanation is the East Asian beauty standard is extremely focused on skin’s mortal enemy: the sun. Comparatively, we are only just getting to grips with the long-term damage sun exposure does and the concept of religiously using SPF in our daily skin care routines, as opposed to only slathering it on during vacations. But in Korea especially, sun protection is a serious business. In addition to some of the most cutting-edge sun protective skin care in the world, it’s not unusual for Korean women to use UV masks to shield the face, as well as visors, parasols, and even gloves.
There is, clearly, more at play than a national fear of the health risks of ultraviolet rays, with the pursuit of lighter skin something that seems to plague just about every ethnic-minority diaspora, and is certainly not confined to Korea. East Asia’s love affair with porcelain skin is well-documented. There is an implicit belief that fair skin confers nobility, as opposed to a life lived laboring outside in the sun, and that has proven hard to shake.
In neighboring Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, over-the-counter topical treatments contain powerful retinoids and potentially dangerous chemicals, such as hydroquinone, to blast skin pigment. There are also pills, nasal sprays, and injections containing mega-doses of glutathione, an antioxidant meant to inhibit melanin, available with minimum fuss and lax regulations.
“There is a sense that K-Beauty is being cannibalized.”
Alicia Yoon, the aesthetician behind Korean brand Peach & Lily, cites the influence of the Chosŏn dynasty and Korean Confucianism that endures today: “Confucian values shaped Korean beauty ideals, and inner beauty and modesty became a virtue in comparison to showier makeup. To achieve the most beautiful, unadorned look, healthy skin became a priority.”
As Chao points out, the Korean standard is particularly strict: “In the West, the goal is pretty simple: no deep lines and no obvious breakouts. But in Korea there is a very specific range of skin tones and textures; so you have to be super fair with no spots, not even freckles, the texture is firm and hydrated with a specific glow.”
Chao explains that “Culturally, the pressure to fit into that standard is a lot higher than what you experience in the States. Your family is not going to be shy about pointing out all the ways you don’t fit in. I wouldn’t want to live in that environment full time, but we’re fortunate in the West that we can enjoy the products without the pressure.”