Askanesthetician's Blog

An esthetician explores skincare issues and concerns

Beauty in South Korea October 1, 2012

Sometimes I think that this post should really be called “the post that keeps on giving”.  After having the initial idea to write this post I started researching the idea and found numerous references and blogs to help me with the post.  But then even when I wasn’t researching this post I would keep seeing information online that related to the post like Allure‘s blog post The Top Skin-Care Consumers Are … Korean Men? or New Beauty‘s Korean Exfoliation That Can Be Had At Home post.  Beauty is big business in Korea, and it is time that the rest of world really paid attention.

I became interested in the beauty industry in South Korea when I read the following in Marie Claire magazine:

“Ninety percent of the skincare products I use are imported from South Korea. They’re about 12 years ahead of the States in terms of technology,” says Mary Schook, the beauty guru and New York-based owner of M.S. Apothecary. In the skincare world, South Korea has become the new France. It’s outpacing other countries in beauty innovation faster than you can say “glycolic peel” (which in Asia is totally démodé, by the way).

“Koreans aren’t about stripping the skin until it looks like something you want to ice skate on. They’re into nurturing it,” says Schook, who also introduced eyelash extensions (yup, a South Korean invention) to New York almost a decade ago. She’s like our Christopher Columbus to Korea’s New World.

For the past decade, South Korea has been a buzzed-about secret among beauty diehards. “It’s so funny that Americans are only now getting wind of it,” says Sang A Im-Propp, a Seoul-born, Manhattan-based handbag designer who has modeled in ad campaigns for AmorePacific, a popular Korean cosmetics brand. (She swears by the Time Response Skin Renewal Crème.) But the secret’s out.

Korea’s skincare boom goes back to its famous beauty regimens, which, for the average Korean woman, includes roughly 18 products per day. Dr. Seung Yoon Celine Lee, a dermatologist based in Seoul, attributes the obsession with flawless skin to royal aspirations. “Bright skin meant that you came from a noble family. The concept carries on,” she explains.

“The demand for whitening helped create new technology treatments, such as lasers and photo facials,” adds Dr. Susanne Bennett, a Korean-American holistic doctor who lives in California and specializes in antiaging skincare. (Lee points out that laser treatments in Korea are so omnipresent, they now cost 80 percent less than they do in the U.S.)

(Read more: Korean Skincare and Beauty Products – South Korean Perfect Skin Beauty Secrets – Marie Claire)

This little article really got me interested in the beauty industry in South Korea so I kept searching for more information.  I learned the following from the website Cosmetic Business in the article South Korea – Riding the Korea Wave:

In common with other Asian nations, demand for perfumes and make-up is low. Skin care is the dominant category, particularly with regard to moisturising and whitening products. However, South Korea’s skin care market has its own idiosyncrasies. The current trends are for BB creams (sparked by the surgery creams pioneered in Germany, which are currently hugely popular amongst Koreans as foundation) and organic and/or herbal ingredients.

There is considerable brand variety in South Korea. For example, Amorepacific offers ten lines, while L’Oréal offers 14 of its 33 global brands. South Korea’s most popular brand is Amorepacific’s Sulhwasoo. Launched in 1997, it is a premium skin care brand whose ingredients include ginseng, a herb that Amorepacific pioneered as a cosmetics ingredient 35 years ago. Sulhwasoo includes skin care foundation but no other make-up.

“Asians believe that clean, clear skin reflects beauty, rather than colourful make-up. Maybe the high penetration rate of high definition TV helps,” says Lee [Seon-joo of Amorepacific’s investor relations department]. “We use natural, organic and herbal medical ingredients, such as ginseng, green tea and bamboo extract for our skin care products. We always try to find something that differentiates.”

Other sub-categories are catching on. “UV protection is very strong, anti-ageing is very strong,” says the foreign company executive. “In the past, Korean men did not have a skin care routine. They rarely even used aftershave. Now they use skin care – toners, lotions, essence and even eye cream. Men’s products are soaring.”

Amorepacific, which offers men’s lines for most of its brands, including Sulhwasoo, Hera and Laneige, launched a hair loss shampoo last year and is working on a range of specialised functions. “We are trying to upgrade our brand with more functional products,” Lee adds. “This trend is hot in the market right now and will get bigger in coming years. The functional shampoo category is growing strongly.”

Something else that fascinates me about the beauty industry in South Korea is how skincare has been embraced by men there.  According to a report by CBS NewsMakeup Grows In Popularity Among Men in South Korea –  South Korea has become the male make-up capital of the world.  (For some counter perspective on this fact check out this article in The New York Times about how American men are embracing the use of eye creams, yet hide their use of these creams.  It should also be noted that American men are starting to use cosmetics to enhance their appearance but the trend is nowhere near what is happening in South Korea)  According to the CBS report:

South Korean men spent $495.5 million on skincare last year, accounting for nearly 21 percent of global sales, according to global market research firm Euromonitor International. That makes it the largest market for men’s skincare in the world, even though there are only about 19 million men in South Korea. Amorepacific, South Korea’s biggest cosmetics company, estimates the total sales of men’s cosmetics in South Korea this year will be more than $885 million.

The metamorphosis of South Korean men from macho to makeup over the last decade or so can be partly explained by fierce competition for jobs, advancement and romance in a society where, as a popular catchphrase puts it, “appearance is power.” Women also have a growing expectation that men will take the time and effort to pamper their skin.

Evidence of this new direction in South Korean masculinity is easy to find. In a crowded Seoul cafe, a young woman takes some lipstick out of her purse and casually applies it to her male companion’s lips as they talk. At an upscale apartment building, a male security guard watches the lobby from behind a layer of makeup. Korean Air holds once-a-year makeup classes for male flight attendants.

While U.S. cosmetics companies report growing sales in male cosmetics, American men are often wary of makeup. “Men Wearing Makeup a Disturbing Trend” was how American columnist Jim Shea titled a recent post.

In South Korea, however, effeminate male beauty is “a marker of social success,” according to Roald Maliangkay, head of Korean studies at Australian National University.

Amorepacific Corp. offers 17 men’s brands, with dozens of products to choose from, and operates two Manstudio stores in Seoul that are devoted to men’s skincare and makeup.

South Korean men are barraged daily with messages in popular media suggesting that flawless skin is a crucial part of any plan to get ahead at work and romance.

“In this society, people’s first impressions are very important. A man’s skin is a big part of that impression, so I take care of my skin,” said Kim Deuk-ryong, a 20-year-old student.

It wasn’t always this way. The ideal South Korean man used to be rough and tough.

Things began to change in the late 1990s, when the South Korean government relaxed a ban on Japanese cultural goods, exposing South Koreans to different ideas on male beauty, including popular comics featuring pretty, effeminate men.

James Turnbull, a writer and lecturer on Korean feminism, sexuality and popular culture, said the economic crisis that hit South Korea in 1997 and 1998 also played a role in shifting thinking. Struggling companies often fired their female employees first, angering women who had already seen their push for equal rights take a backseat to protest movements against Japanese colonizers and the autocratic governments that followed.

“The times were ripe for a sea-change in the popular images of men in the media,” Turnbull said. Women, as a result, began questioning the kinds of men society told them they should find attractive.

In 2002, large numbers were attracted to a hero of South Korea’s World Cup soccer team, Ahn Jung-hwan, who became a leading member of the so-called “flower men” – a group of exceptionally good-looking, smooth-skinned, fashionable sports stars and celebrities who found great success selling male cosmetics. Men everywhere began striving to look like them, with the encouragement of the women around them, and a trend was born.

A decade later, ads featuring handsome, heavily made-up male celebrities are an unavoidable part of the urban scenery.

Personally, as I already stated, I find the beauty industry in South Korea fascinating.  As a matter of fact I thought it would be great fun one day to take a “beauty vacation” to South Korea to explore products and procedures up close.  Anyone want to join me?

Further Reading:

As I explained at the beginning of this post I found lots of information about the beauty industry in South Korea while researching this post online.  Here are some of the more interesting things I found:

       Skincare Tips:

       Shopping for Beauty and Skincare Products in South Korea

        Korean Skincare and Beauty Brands to Check Out

        Learn about Korean Spa Culture

        Related Articles

Image from ourvanity.com

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9 Responses to “Beauty in South Korea”

  1. Rae Says:

    Korean Makeup and Cosmetic shops are all abound here in the Philippines. I’m logically inclined to think that it’s only a matter of time before Korea (and Japan) becomes way ahead in developing new products. Their laws aren’t as restrictive to encourage innovation.

  2. Jessamyn Says:

    I was just passing a Shiseido store and thinking about how differently marketed the East Asian products are from here in the West. Do you know what the benefit of ginseng is? I had no idea skincare in general is such big business in S Korea, though I would certainly join you for a kimchi-skincare tour! Marcus can go as our translator.

  3. takeshi2019 Says:

    I am interested in moving to south korea and I live in the states. Do you know what are the requirements to be an esthetician in south korea?

  4. Shin-Jjangu Says:

    Hi there, interesting essay you have above,
    I’m always like to enhance my skin out, it’s like having a privilege card of my own LoL.

    I want to ask is it okay to apply honey daily on my facial skin?
    because I don’t want to overexhaustive my facial skin with too many skincare products and I’m very aware of the products I’ve use, once it’s causing breakouts and redness I’ll stop immediatly and never use it again.

    I wash my face before I sleep, in the morning and when I’m from going outside the house, after that I will applying honey on my face so maybe you can suggest me how is the best way to treating our skin especially the facial skin without overexhaustive treatment?

    and what are the best treatment for skin in the tropical country such as Indonesia where the daily temp are around 32-34C and I ride motorcycle almost everyday so after I put off my helmet my face are sticky and sometimes itchy because of sweating.


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