Korean vs. Western Beauty: Which One Reigns Supreme?

January 31, 2023

Korean Beauty has disrupted the global industry, but why is it so different from the Western Beauty ethos that used to dominate? 

Korean beauty differs from Western beauty by prioritizing preventative measures and holistic health, with an emphasis on hydration and natural ingredients.
The products and trends of K-Beauty are miles ahead! We explore the cultural reasons and the unique aspects of each, so you can figure out which is best for you.

As one of the most significant exports out of the country in 2020, Korean Beauty was responsible for 14,3% of Korea’s trade surplus that year! This surpassed home appliances and smartphones.

The numbers speak for themselves. Read on to find out if Korean Beauty has the edge over its Western counterparts.
Western vs Korean beauty

Korean Beauty Standards – A Focus on Skincare

Being half a world away, it’s natural that Korean beauty standards are very different from those in Europe and Northern America. But how are they different, and how does this affect K-Beauty products?

In Korea, pale skin is prized, especially naturally flawless, glowing, and bright skin. K-Beauty also invented the glass skin trend- dewy skin with almost no visible pores.

The Korean Beauty mindset encourages less makeup with a stronger emphasis on skincare.

K-Beauty products are all about getting skin to its healthiest state and then maintaining it while preventing damage that could cause aging in the future.

This means foundation coverage is lighter- think BB and CC-creams or concealer, only using fuller coverage for special events or occasions. 

Even when playing with K-Beauty makeup trends, like gems around the eyes, playful false lashes, ‘overly’ blushed cheeks or stained lips- that natural glass skin is always the base.

Facial features found beautiful in Korea are:

  • Small months with full lips
  • Oval faces with delicate jaws
  • Smooth cheekbones
  • Straight eyebrows
  • Large eyes
  • Narrow noses with a high bridge
  • Poreless, bright, pale skin

Western Beauty Standards – A Focus on Makeup

Western beauty standards prioritize natural, healthy looks, with makeup used to enhance features and create a polished look. The focus is on improving what is already there rather than completely transforming the face. 

Western culture values youth and seeks to delay the signs of aging through cosmetic procedures and anti-aging products. Tanning is often seen as desirable and a sign of good health. 

However, different places within the Western world can have varying beauty standards, with some embracing minimal makeup styles while others prefer bolder looks.

Until the recent K-Beauty shake-up in the Western beauty industry, skincare routines were simpler and layering makeup was normal. In many places, it still is. 

While beauty standards are ever-shifting and change per region, in the West, standards lean towards:

  • Arched eyebrows
  • Large Eyes
  • Slender noses
  • High, angular cheekbones
  • Defined jaws and fuller lips
  • Tanned skin with a healthy glow

The best way to see for yourself is through Korean vs. American videos from TikTok.

K-Beauty’s Multi-Step routines- A Daily Ritual for Selfcare

Korean beauty routines often involve up to 10 steps and multiple products, while Western routines are typically simpler.

Each step must be carefully followed and has a purpose- to cleanse thoroughly, prepare the skin for the next product, moisturize, treat a concern, seal in moisture, and prevent damage.

And if you’re thinking, “but I’m Western, and I use a serum,” we hear you. 

That's an example of how K-Beauty has influenced the global beauty scene. Got essences, sheet masks, or an LED light treatment? 

K-Beauty focuses on maintaining a healthy skin barrier to prevent skin issues, while Western skincare is about problem-solving. And even when Korean brands develop formulas to solve skin concerns, the approach is far more gentle. 

Korean skincare also focuses on hydration and nourishment, opting for more natural ingredients than many of their European and American counterparts.

Western Beauty’s Minimalism- Quick But is it Effective?

Western brands traditionally develop products as a silver bullet to save time, multitask, and be more convenient. Cleansing, toning, and moisturizing (sometimes with a built-in SPF) have been the go-to recommendations from beauty insiders.

As we said above, Western brands often rely on solving problems, harsher ingredients in high amounts, and quick routines.

To do this, brands often rely heavily on active ingredients- retinol and AHAs or BHAs. And will often use those actives at very high concentrations. 

For example, some formulations from Drunk Elephant and The Ordinary contain 15%- 20% glycolic acid or more! By comparison, K-Beauty beauty brands stick to just 3-4% in formulas. 

Each active ingredient has a threshold, and when formulas add more than that, it can irritate the skin, worsen issues, and in some cases, cause long-term damage.

K-Beauty tends only to put what is needed to have the right effect, and not a drop more. 

Korean Beauty has emphasized a healthy lifestyle as a part of beauty for decades.

This shift in thinking was only evident from about the mid-2010s in the West. And often because of more subtle influences from The East. Think about the popularisation of Green Tea in the 1960s, the slow momentum of meditation to calm the mind, and a resurgence in yoga. 

Korean Beauty Innovation- Experimental Products for Your Needs

The K-beauty industry thrives on trends and comes up with the next big thing for shoppers. So Korean beauty products tend to be more innovative and experimental, while Western products are more tried-and-tested. 

But don’t let the term ‘experimental’ make you wary. These brands go to every length imaginable to ensure that their newly developed formulas, techniques, and products are equally safe and effective. 

What kind of cutting-edge products have we seen from K-Beauty? 

Think sheet masks, pimple patches, and microdart melt-tech. There are also full-face LED masks and infrared gadgets.

In South Korea, it’s not uncommon to on products from tech giants like Samsung or LG instead of a beauty house.  

Traditional Western Products: Same Formula, New Marketing?

Skincare follows a more traditional approach in The West, and this has come down to many skincare and cosmetics trends that are now commonplace in Europe, the UK, and the US were started in South Korea. 

For example, BanilaCo launched its first cleansing balm in 2008. Exactly ten years later, Pond’s launched their cleansing balm. 

So why did it take a decade for this huge personal care brand with a global presence to embrace this double cleansing essential? Versed and Pixi also have cleansing balms because Western consumers have shown that they aren’t as slow to try new things as brands have assumed. 

By tracking the spending habits of their target market (and what they share online), brands have seen that shoppers are far more open-minded to new products than they’d thought. 

While many Western brands typically invest in research for new ingredients or develop product improvement, K-Beauty is streaks ahead in this department.

There are also instances where customers suspect western cosmetics and skincare houses repack the same formulas in new packaging.  Few makeup mavens have proven this, but most notable was Kylie Jenner in 2017, with limited edition lip colors that looked nearly identical.

Cultural Influences on Beauty Standards in Korea and Western Countries

Why would something deemed normal in The West, like the double eyelid, be a highly sought-after feature in South Korea? 

Since Coco Chanel returned from a Côte d’Azure yachting trip in 1923 with an accidental tan, Westerners’ views on pale skin have changed.

Before this, lighter skin was seen as a status symbol.

If someone labored outdoors, their skin was typically darker, which was used as an indication of social standing. (Even though many Europeans naturally tan more than others) 

By spending her leisure time sunbathing, the most popular and influential fashion designer her age shifted that. 

Writer Yoon Min-sik chronicles Korea’s historical preference towards lighter skin in The Korean Herald

While more affluent families also avoided the sun by lack of outdoor activities, glossy white skin was seen as a sign of inherited health and cleanliness more than anything- even though it often required makeup.

This existed before Europeans reached Korea! When they met Westerners, they didn’t perceive Western skin as white. Records show that Westerns were called “myeon-cheol,” which translates to “iron-faced” because of their ruddy or red complexions. 

Hugely popular on the Korean beauty scene is double eyelid surgery to change monolids. A monolid is when a fold in an eyelid isn’t visible. And many Westerners have assumed it emulates their beauty standard.

But this is another example of features Koreans valued for thousands of years before Europeans made their way East.

Historians still debate the cause, but it’s most likely because it’s rare than monolids for this region. 

Korean Beauty Ingredients vs. Western Beauty Ingredients

If you have a shelf full of Western skincare brands, you might see active ingredients like: 

  • Hyaluronic acid,
  • Retinol or Vitamin A,
  • Glycolic acid
  • Salicyclic acid
  • AHA and BHA’s
  • Lactic Acid
  • Niacinimide 

Some of your products may also have more soothing ingredients like vegetable glycerin and panthenol. 

While there has been a boom in more natural skincare ingredients over the last few years, Western skincare typically relies on active ingredients to correct and repair.

For decades Korean Beauty has centered on natural extracts like: 

  • Green tea
  • Cica (also known as pennyworth)
  • Snail mucin
  • Rosehip Oil
  • Mugwort
  • Rice bran
  • Bakuchiol
  • Ginseng
  • Tiger Grass
  • Bamboo
  • Pearls

Many of these come from Traditional Korean Medicine; keep reading more about this. When Korean Beauty brands opt for actives, it’s at much lower dosages (usually hyaluronic acid).

We’re not saying one is better, but it would be on social media if the public had a vote.

Social Media Impact and Popularization of Korean Beauty Products in the West

It’s very easy to have your purchases influenced these days- and not just by certified influencers! TikTok became the ultimate spot to find reviews, tutorials, and opinions on almost everything- especially beauty and skincare. 

Because of its cost-conscious appeal, Korean Beauty has a massive impact on younger generations.

Younger generations with less expendable income love the efficacy of drugstore-priced K-Beauty brands. 

And seeing someone’s extreme results from switching to K-Beauty can leave people in awe- and drive sales from brands. 

K-Beauty is also great with innovative ingredients that don’t irritate or damage the skin but add to its health and longevity. There are also so many fragrance-free and hypoallergenic options. Spreading the word online helps people facing similar skin issues. 

Watching people’s skincare routines can also be both educational and soothing. 

TikTokers also noticed that K-Beauty sunscreens are not heavy or sticky AND leave no white cast. A must-try for people of color who want a light-textured daily SPF that no one can tell you applied. 

The Different Anti-Aging Approaches in Korean and Western Beauty

Korean babies as young as six months regularly have sunscreen applied! The thought and care that goes into their skincare carry throughout their lives. Skincare is not seen as a luxury or a ‘treat,’ which shows later in life. 

This idea of prevention is later paired with maintenance and doesn’t stop with topical creams and gels. Korean Beauty also views a healthy lifestyle as pivotal to healthy skin. 

The West has only recently started researching to find links between what we eat and our skin, while Koreans have long advised it. 

Western skincare tends towards an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it mentality.” Only looking to stop issues as they arise. If you’re  American, your first brush with skincare may have been in your teens. Remember trying to pick out a face wash after that first pimple and your mom telling you to go with something less harsh?

This works for acne, but when it comes to signs of aging, trying to reverse it is nearly impossible.

The Impact of the Korean Beauty trends on the Global Beauty Industry

K-Beauty is prominent in The West- even in regions with importing issues and long delivery times.

Some products from North American, British, or European brands are top-sellers in Korea- or at duty-free stores? 

  • Bobby Brown Extra Face Oil
  • Benefit Cha Cha Tint
  • NARS Audacious Lipstick In Natalie
  • Aveda Invati System
  • Bio-Oil Multiuse Skincare Oil
  • Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse

But what about getting the best of both worlds?

It’s happening right before your very eyes. Milk Makeup announced a partnership with AmorePacfic, the owners of Innisfree, Laneige, and Etude House. Later, AmorePacific bought a minority stake in Milk Makeup. 

Estee Lauder bought Dr. Jart, L’Oreal acquired Stylenanda, and LVHM has a stake or Seoul based CLIO. 

This business trend follows the spending habits of US beauty fans who could get their K-Beauty fix from CVS, Target, and Sephora. These deals allow Western Houses to catch up on the estimated 5-10 years of innovation that K-Beauty brands have on them. 

Does this mean you’ll start seeing more K-beauty-inspired ingredients and products from familiar brands?

It’s already begun trickling through! 

Think of how popular ginseng is worldwide or the cushion BB cream Fenty Beauty has in over 60 shades. 

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. 

The Influence of Traditional Korean Medicine on Skincare Routines

Hanbang, or Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM), is integral to Korean culture and the Korean diaspora globally. 

The holistic, personal nature of Hanbang addresses the entire body and someone's lifestyle – not merely symptoms. Hanbang ingredients, like ginseng, are incorporated into many K-beauty favorites. But it goes deeper. 

The belief that skin is affected by what’s happening inside makes Traditional Korean Medicine a massive influence on how and why Korean Beauty exists as it does.

Treating rosacea or acne can’t be done by surgeries, treatments, diet, or skincare regimes alone- Hanbang believes everything is integrated. 

If you want to add some Traditional Korean Medicine, look out for products with fermented ingredients, sacred lotus, ginseng root, and Rehmannia.

Personal Care and Grooming Habits in Korea and Western Countries

Skincare is considered basic hygiene in Korea- like brushing your teeth in the rest of the world. 

Boys and girls learn that personal care includes cleanliness of the body, hair, teeth, and face from a very young age. Putting your best face forward in South Korea is a cultural norm, especially with rigid beauty stands. 

Korean men also take care and pride in appearance through carefully maintained skin and hair. Their K-beauty makeup brands for men and plastic surgery are average- although both are meant to look barely there. 

Other hygiene norms in Korea include washing hair daily to clean off dirt and environmental pollution in the atmosphere. This process starts with the usual wash and condition, but many South Koreans are meticulous about adding an essence, oil, or serum to their hair to add shine. 

Final Thoughts

Korean beauty standards strongly emphasize having clear, smooth, and bright skin, while Westerners tend to contour and highlight features. This drives the products and rituals involved in skincare and beauty for each region- like the West’s minimal routines and focuses on makeup. 

Achieving the perfect skin is a higher priority in Korean beauty standards, as is a youthful appearance. Holistic health and hydration is key there!

For many reasons, appearance is essential in Korean culture and has a colossal impact on Western beauty markets. Clean ingredients, gentler formulas, and more natural extracts are rising. 

We can’t tell you which is better, but now that you have the facts, you can see which products and routines work for you and forget about the rest!

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