Korean beauty has been the talk of beauty circles for years, and it’s hit the mainstream in a big way. But why has K-beauty become so popular?
Korean beauty's popularity is due to its effectiveness, variety, innovation, and affordability. The popularity of South Korean culture through K-pop and K-dramas has also influenced global beauty standards.
Maybe it is because:
Sun protection has become essential,
Pimple patches are hailed as life-saving, and
Weekly face masks are the norm for the Tik Tok generation.
Or maybe It’s because K-beauty is more than just a fad- it's revolutionizing the beauty industry as we know it. We cover all this and more in the 17 reasons why below.
What is Korean Beauty?
Korean beauty can refer to any skincare brand or beauty product from South Korea, but it also includes treatments and techniques.
K-beauty advocates lifestyle choices that promote healthy skin and hair too.
It is a holistic approach that emphasizes preventative measures and consistency for aging gracefully.
And it’s not just for women!
Ever wondered how your favorite-pop men look so good (we’re eyeing the men from BTS)?
Spoiler alert: It's K-beauty.
The Focus on Prevention and Maintenance
Prevention is better than cure! Korean women have known this for generations; good skincare when you’re young is the best form of anti-aging that’ll pay off later in life.
And for many Koreans, this starts with their parents not only leading by example but keeping their kids protected from sun damage at a young age.
As little as six months old!
Photoaging is the damage (or visible changes) of the skin we get throughout our lives.
Up to 90% of this is caused by sun damage. This is why sunscreen is a part of Korean beauty routines – even on days when people aren’t going to be in the sun.
Take a cue from Korean mothers – always wear your SPF, even if you’re not leaving the house.
And those beauty routines are a daily ritual in Korean culture. More than just a quick wash of the face and slapping on some moisturizer in a rush, it’s an opportunity for everyday self-care.
It’s also an opportunity to bring mindfulness and calm into that part of your day. This continuous maintenance means K-beauty followers notice skin texture and quality changes so they can adapt their skincare.
All in all, K-beauty seeks out healthy and radiant skin. This lets the inner beauty shine through rather than covering up complexions and concealing imperfections.
The Use of Innovative Ingredients and Techniques
Brands invest millions of South Korean Wan into pioneering new extraction methods, finding unknown ingredients, creating new products, and pioneering techniques.
The type of ingredients used is often native to Korea and used for centuries in traditional medicine or herbal remedies.
If you’re not of Korean heritage, reading about the benefits and uses of these can be fascinating, but the flipside to tradition is technological advances.
In many ways, K-beauty has transformed the beauty industry, whether it’s with product development, the use of AI to help customers find color matches when shopping online, or tech wearable like LED light masks.
The Emphasis on Natural and Organic Ingredients
There may be some active ingredients in Korean beauty, but for the most part, the emphasis is on gentler skin care with natural ingredients.
Some of these may feel odd for non-Korean consumers, like snail mucin, but others are more familiar, like matcha, green tea extract, rice bran, mung beans, and even the humble potato.
On the more glamorous side, there are orchid-infused product lines.
Koreans generally value a holistic approach to health and well-being. Honoring the historical knowledge of these natural extracts and oils is intrinsic to their view of beauty.
Korean beauty also values organic ingredients and clean beauty, recognizing that organic is often of higher quality and efficacy.
Clean beauty standards eliminate harsh chemicals that give short-term results and long-term costs, keeping with the K-beauty philosophy.
The Wide Range of Products Available for Different Skin Types & Concerns
Traditional beauty houses tend to give out rules and prescribe products for customers, but Korean beauty is about personalization.
Nowhere is this clearer than with the vast range of products most K-beauty brands boast.
Problem skin can mean so many things to each of us. Whether it’s acne, discoloration, sensitivity, dryness, or aging, K-beauty offers multiple solutions.
The mass of products is one way that Korean beauty is a step ahead of the industry, with over 10 000 beauty houses focussing on each consumer's needs.
Cute & Fun Packaging to Enhance the Experience
At first glance, K-beauty’s packaging may seem playful and girlie, but there’s a level of innovation to it that many countries just don’t have yet.
The aesthetic appeal is another way that skincare transcends a mundane daily task and becomes a ritual.
Packaging, application techniques, product scent, and texture are part of the experience.
Bright colors and cartoon characters can bring joy and merriment to skincare, but there are also sophisticated options.
So whether it’s escapism and vibrancy, or relief and respite, you’re lean towards, Korean beauty, which has options to fill your bathroom cabinet with gorgeous lotions and potions.
The Affordability of Korean Beauty Products
K-beauty has competitive pricing compared to other brands.
Even some prestige and mid-level brands cost less than something you could find at an American drugstore or European pharmacy.
Why is this?
Manufacturing costs are lower in Korea, and brands have tough competition to pass on lower prices to consumers to stay relevant and popular.
For years more affordable brands have been easy to buy at Korean mom-and-pop stores in the US. In 2014, K-beauty was introduced to Macy’s, Target, Urban Outfitters, and even QVC.
Korean beauty is also highly accessible in Canada and Australia for a similar reason- the large Asia-Pacific population in those counties.
But for other regions with fewer ex-pats from Korea, we have one thing to thank for the Korean culture- and beauty standards- being widely available.
That is the entertainment industry.
The Adoption of Celebrity Endorsements (K-Pop & K-dramas)
Even if you don’t watch K-dramas, you’ve probably heard K-Pop bop or seen the influx of memes while the internet obsessed over Squid Games.
Korean pop culture and beauty standards have influenced global beauty trends- from BB cream, lip masks, and near-invisible pimple patches to glass skin and straight-styled eyebrows.
And product plugs in K-dramas are not subtle. You can see the cellphones used, convenience food ordered, and accessories worn very quickly.
It’s an opportunity that K-beauty brands grasped.
In The King: Eternal Monarch, male and female leads were seen with LED masks as part of their intricate skincare routine. This is something that’s not uncommon, with many scenes showing characters going about their everyday skincare ritual.
There are also campaigns, ambassadorships, and endorsements by much-loved South Korean celebrities. It can make millions for the celebs (and their PR teams), but the brands get trust- and sales- in return.
The Global Expansion of Korean Beauty Brands
After gaining popularity in South East Asia, East Asia, and South Asia, K-beauty has a stronghold in the West- largely thanks to the influence of the Asian diaspora in Europe, the UK, and Nothern America.
This is more than a passing phase, and K-beauty’s lasting appeal is global. This is because it’s effective, affordable, advanced, and has the charm of pampering while looking better.
Where is K-beauty the most popular outside of South Korea?
According to a 2021 survey, K-beauty is hugely influenced in India, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Australia, and Thailand.
The popularity of K-beauty in India has seen the Korean cosmetics industry quadruple its exports to India between 2014 to 2018. What do those numbers look like? A casual $1.3 billion to $6.3 million.
The reasons for this are India’s shared love of natural ingredients, quirky packaging, and increased steps to skin care. Generally, Indian skincare brands refer to CTM cleanse, tone moisturize) regime.
According to Korean trade authorities, Korean cosmetics exports to the UAE hit $7.8 million in June 2022. Numbers for the US aren’t as recent, but way back in 2016, K-beauty exports were at $124 million.
The Popularity of the 10-Step Skincare Routine
Korean beauty is known for its multi-step skincare routines, with the 10-step routine being trendy.
What is that routine? In the following order
- 1Oil or balm cleanser
- 2Water or gel cleanser
- 6Serums or ampoules
- 7Sheet mask
- 8Eye creams
- 10Sun protection.
Why so many steps?
Thoroughly clean skin, attention to each step, and routine consistency are key factors in achieving healthy, radiant skin.
Double cleansing ensures that natural oils, daily dirt, makeup, and sunscreen are removed. Exfoliators polish and smooth the surface; these two steps also unclog the pores to prevent blemishes or pimples.
It’s important to note that K-beauty exfoliators are typically very gentle. Some people’s skin reacts well to this daily but if you find that's not the case for you, stick with exfoliation 2-3 times a week.
Toners prep the skin's surface for essences, a watery texture that delivers hydration and nutrients to the skin.
Serums or ampoules have a slightly thicker texture than the two steps before, allowing hydration to reach a deeper level. Serums are more targeted treatments for skincare concerns like fine lines, discoloration or boosting radiance.
Sheet masks daily might not be for everyone, but many K-beauty fans swear by the benefits. More on this step is below.
After applying an eye cream to give the correct particle size to the eye's delicate skin, moisturizer is applied to lock everything in and followed with SPF protection for the day.
If you want to discover why SPF is imperative to K-beauty, click here.
The Use of Sheet Masks & Peel-Off Masks
You’ve seen them on your favorite influencers' social media feeds. Celebrities swear by using them on plane flights. You may have seen them on your local supermarket shelves.
What’s the buzz around sheet masks?
Sheet masks are a convenient and effective way to provide a burst of hydration and nutrients to the skin.
They are easy to apply and a great way to incorporate active ingredients into your skincare. Especially the actives you don’t want to use daily because they could sensitize or dehydrate the skin if applied too often.
How do sheet masks work?
They can be paper of thin cloth with holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth (we have to see and breathe while our skin is getting treated), and sometimes, cut-away darts are soaked in a serum-like solution.
You pick the one that suits your needs, and when ready to pamper yourself, apply it to a freshly cleansed face.
And peeling them off is also highly satisfying!
The Focus on Hydration
Hydration is imperative in Korean skincare. K-beauty has disproved many myths about hydration for all skin types, replacing the notion that acne-prone or naturally oiler skin doesn’t benefit from hydrating ingredients.
These hydrating ingredients are found in essences, serums, and creams. But even K-beauty cleansers ensure that the delicate balance of skin’s moisture and hydration is not disrupted.
Cream cleansers, oils, cleansing balms, micellar water, and other pioneering textures keep the cleaning gentle rather than strip away the skin's natural oils. That ‘squeaky clean’ feeling is not something K-beauty encourages – even with double or triple cleansing.
And the hydration focus doesn’t stop there – it’s also about your environment.
Have you seen humidifiers in K-dramas or advertised online? This is another K-beauty hack that has nothing to do with product application.
Drier climates create drier skin. More moisture in the air lets your skin work less hard. Some ingredients even pull moisture out of the air and your environment and into the skin to increase hydration.
So using this simple gadget can help you get the most out of your skincare routine while you go about your daily life.
The Use of Natural Oils and Extracts in Skincare
Skincare and beauty of the ’90s and early 2000s made oils seem like a scary no-go area.
Thanks to the natural beauty movement and K-beauty, we know oil has so many benefits for the skin. Oil cleansers bind to dirt and makeup but need a second cleansing step with a water-based cleanser.
Oils are also used for facial massages and as the base for serums. The carrier oil for these serums is high quality and helps deliver vitamins, nutrients, and active ingredients to the skin- a little goes a long way.
Top Oils Used in Korean Skincare:
Camellia Seed/ Tea Seed Oil
All skin types
All skin types
Reducing & reversing sun damage
Sensitive & acne-prone
Prickly Pear Seed Oil
All skin types
All skin types
All skin types
Promotes collagen production
Some of those vitamins and nutrients may come from natural extracts, believed to have nourishing and healing properties.
The most popular extracts in K-Beauty are:
The Concept of Glass Skin
“Glass skin” is the almost translucent, poreless, and radiant look that Korean actors and K-pop stars are famed for.
It shows that someone's skin is at its healthiest. It also has a bouncy, almost baby-like feel to the touch because of this.
YouTube is full of tutorials on getting glass skin, all of which start with moisture and hydration. Exfoliants, essences, and serums are recommended, but a healthy lifestyle and long-term skincare are prerequisites for this swoon-worthy look.
Many influencers recommend hydrating extracts and products with small doses of hyaluronic acid as a base for the makeup that results in a glass skin.
Lightweight BB or CC-creams are applied with a sponge, and a tiny amount of concealer is used. All done with the lightest hand possible.
Glass skin ditches setting powders, as that would take away from the skin’s dewiness. Setting sprays are used instead to keep a natural glow.
The Importance of Sun Protection
We’ve already highlighted how prevention is the best anti-aging tip we can take from K-beauty. But that’s not the only reason the industry loves SPF.
Skin cancer is a significant concern in Korea - as it should be!
With over 150 000 cases of melanoma reported worldwide in 2020, it's a severe issue. And these statics don’t include non-melanoma skin cancer so the numbers could be higher.
Most Korean beauty products include high-SPF sunscreens, including skincare and cosmetics. Other sun protection products are famous in K-beauty. Dermatologists advise that SPF in cosmetics or skincare can help, but you should not use it alone.
Medical professionals say the protection offered in skincare and cosmetics is simply not high enough. And it could result in patchy coverage, so only some areas are protected.
It makes sense. If you only apply concealer where you need it, places that don’t get the product won’t be covered. This is why the last step of a daytime routine in South Korea is always sun protection.
The Focus on Sustainability in Beauty
Korean beauty brands increasingly focus on sustainability and eco-friendliness- which we love seeing.
These beauty houses have stiff competition from the wave of US-based, K-beauty-inspired brands. These brands, like Glow Recipe, Tower-28, Hero Cosmetics, and Sweet Chef exceed American shoppers' expectations regarding ethics and sustainability.
Between this shift in the US market and the environmental awareness of global consumers, K-beauty needs to make a change.
Eco-friendly marketing is something K-beauty is doing well, but do their practices align with what they’re telling us?
Cruelty-Free Soul has been researching more and more Korean beauty brands and found that very few are currently rating above minimal or moderate when it comes to sustainability.
This is one area where Korean skincare and cosmetics must catch up to their European and North American counterparts. We think the more we ask K-beauty brands about their environmental and ethical work, the better things will get.
Keep this in mind while you’re figuring out who to support.
The Emphasis on Personalized Skincare Routines
While an intricate skincare ritual may seem like a hassle to some, having multiple products that work on different concerns can be valuable to many.
Korean beauty emphasizes the importance of finding the right products and routines for an individual's skin type and concerns.
Someone may have acne in some areas, discoloration from healed acne, and dryness in other areas. That's a lot to consider at once.
Brands often offer customized skincare routines and product recommendations based on a customer's skin profile.
Think of it as having a wardrobe that compliments multiple seasons and moods but for your skin. A handful of clothes wouldn’t cut it, and neither would 3-4 products. Click here to find out how to build a multiple-step Korean Skincare Routine.
Whether it's done in-person or online, it's vital to cross-check ingredient lists so that products aren’t counter-acting each other. This kind of service is where K-beauty brands excel.
The Availability of Subscription Services for Korean Beauty Products
Korean beauty brands were some of the first to offer subscription services, giving you a selection of products to try out on a regular basis.
Filled with travel sizes or samples of products, it allows you to see what works for you and which products you wouldn’t buy again. It’s a convenient way for K-beauty houses to help customers build their personalized skincare routines.
Subscription services can also provide an easy and cost-effective way to restock favorite products without customers' planning. With these ordering services, your replacement products arrive at your delivery address without you having to remember a thing.
Or going out to a department store or mall! We love hassle-free beauty!
Now that we’ve counted the ways we love Korean Beauty, here's a quick recap:
K-beauty starts from the inside out, encouraging a holistic approach and early prevention to get great skin.
Sun protection is vital to this!
Drenching yourself with moisture and hydration is a huge part of every skincare product.
Whether it’s tradition or tech you prefer, your K-beauty selection is entirely personal and often filled with gentle, natural ingredients.
We think K-beauty has a way to go on sustainability, but brands are working on it. The influence of Korean culture on the rest of the world is undeniable, and we understand why people are obsessed with K-beauty!