When beauty blogger Coco Park was dating her now-husband, who is Korean-American, she became fascinated by the gorgeously packaged products in his parents’ bathroom. Finally, one day, she stopped in a Korean beauty store in New Jersey. "Just sampling the products, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a whole new world,’" she says. "The formulations were so different, so nice." She switched to a Korean skincare routine, which focuses on prevention and perfecting the skin—not just doing spot treatments to hide flaws, but on treating skin as a treasured possession to be nurtured with the best ingredients. Now, she uses 17 skincare products a day.
Her skin went from dry, sensitive, and prone to breakouts to glowing—even without her previous staple, foundation. "Within two to three weeks, my red marks were fading, my skin was more hydrated. It wasn’t cracking or flaking. Within six months, my skin was totally different," she says.
Of course, Park shared these findings with The Beauty Wolf's 15,000 fans a month, many of who are based in areas not known for having substantial Asian populations.
Park isn’t the first non-Asian to appreciate the wonders of Korean skincare. When Korean BB cream, a hydrating, anti-aging foundation with SPF, entered the United States in 2011, it created an entirely new product category—out of something that had been popular in Korea for five years—and spurred interest in what else Korea had to offer. Since 2011, startups such as Momomango, Soko Glam, and Peach and Lily have launched to offer American consumers Asian beauty products from brands like Amorepacific, Aromatica, Be the Skin, Cremorlab, Dr. Jart, The Face Shop, Mizon, Nature Republic, Skin Food, TonyMoly, and more. They have also been introducing new product categories like BB and CC creams, cushion compacts, sheet face masks, overnight sleeping masks, finishers, and pre-serums or booster essences.
This year, Korean beauty products reached another level of market saturation, with Target and Urban Outfitters introducing them. And the trend isn’t slowing down. Next year, Sephora will debut even more Korean brands, and Peach and Lily is in talks to supply Korean products to a few other major national retailers as well.
The success of Korean beauty here is not intuitive. It’s far from easy to make the switch to the skincare regimen. Those who do use an oil-based cleanser, a water-based cleanser, a toner, and then, depending on the individual’s skin, two to five steps among the following: a serum, a face oil, essences and/or ampules. Rounding out the routine are a moisturizer, finisher, which seals in all your skincare products before putting on makeup, and SPF either through sunblock or a BB cream or a cushion compact.
But interest in Korean skincare isn’t so much an American trend as the far-reaching ripples of a massive Korean beauty craze fed by competitive suppliers, a supportive government and, most of all, incredibly demanding consumers.
Mass retailers say Korean beauty products were the next step in their quest to bring their customers the highest-quality products. "What's so intriguing about the Korean approach to beauty is just how different it is than what we are used to seeing," says Urban Outfitters senior beauty buyer Laura Zaccaria. "Their skincare regimen in particular is over 12 steps and includes ingredients like chia seeds, snails, wine, starfish … the list goes on and on." Target, through a spokesperson, said it chose to exclusively sell 22 products from skincare brand Laneige after "comprehensive guest research" showed that "Korean skincare products are among the best in the world."
In addition to its preventative approach, the Korean beauty philosophy is to use natural ingredients that align with "hanbang," Korean medicinal theories using herbal ingredients such as ginseng, bamboo, green tea, and traditional processes like fermentation, a new trend in processing ingredients to allow for better absorption, says Diane Park, beauty analyst at global market research firm Mintel.
Korean beauty products are also known for offering what Park calls "prestige-quality" at a mass-market price point. For instance, high-quality moisturizers that would normally go for $50-$200 in the U.S. are sold for $10 to $20 there. (They are slightly higher in the U.S. due to import taxes but still tend to offer more bang for your buck.)
Despite these lower prices, the Korean infatuation with beauty leads Korean women to spend more than twice as much on skincare as American women per capita, according to Euromonitor, a global market research firm. In Korea, message boards are filled with comments like, "The active ingredient is 62% concentrated at this price point, but this one is 70% concentrated at this price point, and it’s got more natural preservatives. And the delivery mechanism is better and it absorbs into my skin better," says Peach and Lily cofounder and CEO Alicia Yoon.
This consumer demand fuels fast-paced R&D. Korean single-ingredient labs are some of the world’s most cutting-edge, testing innovative elements like placenta, snail filtrate, potato, and gold. The R&D labs turning those ingredients into stable formulations that effectively deliver active ingredients are also often tapped by Western brands.
Mary Schook, licensed aesthetician and owner of MS Apothecary, estimates this competitive atmosphere puts Korean beauty products 12 to 14 years ahead of the U.S. At a 2008 trade show, when the natural market started to take off here, she pointed out some parabens—a compound that helps prevent bacteria growth—in the Korean products. "They’d say, ‘Oh, no, we’ve already been there. We took all the parabens out and we found out we couldn’t sell skincare because everyone was [having allergic reactions] to [the products], so we had to put those parabens and so on back in.’" She says that American companies are only now starting to return to parabens. (Korean brands still avoid them when possible.)
Korean skincare also has a benefactor not found in many other markets: the government. It has offered to fly Schook to Korea to become more knowledgeable and help with the trade, and she has seen how much deference her Korean business partners give the KFDA because of the role it plays in their exports. "Our FDA would never think of funding a company for cosmetics," she says.
But industry insiders point to the most traditional source of success, word of mouth, as the real engine behind Korean skincare’s growth abroad. Peach and Lily has 25% repeat purchase rates within 90 days—an industry high—and, even though it does no marketing, sometimes sees 500% month-to-month growth. New customers write, "Oh my gosh, my friend looks amazing, I want the same products." That, Yoon says, is evidence of the products’ effectiveness: "In beauty, it only goes viral organically if the products work really, really well."