Are Korean Beauty Products the Next Big Thing?

No matter the year, the headlines in fashion magazines are going to be about some country or some culture somewhere in the world having finally found the elusive secret to great skin. The key point in all of these articles and ad copy is that the solution is a secret; otherwise, why would you bother reading the story and looking at the ads in the magazine?

The country, culture, and continent may vary, but the story remains the same: The people in that far off region are said to have perfect skin—more so than anywhere else—and the thinking is that they must have access to products or techniques the rest of us don’t—at least that’s how the logic is spun when the country’s products hit the U.S. beauty scene.
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Is Having Perfect Skin a Regional Advantage?

We remember, with nostalgia, that at one time it was the French who were supposed to know the most about skin care (from Chanel to Lancome and Guerlain), then the Swiss (La Prairie), then the Hungarians (Ernest Laszlo), then the Moroccans (argan oil), and round and round it goes. In recent years, the Japanese (Shiseido and SK-II) were supposedly the great skin-care geniuses of the world; now the focus is on Korea.

More often than not, however, we’re surprised—and disappointed—at how many of these so-called miraculous products often contain irritants (sometimes several irritants), are packaged in jars (so they don’t protect the product’s beneficial ingredients), and have a very steep price (for what amounts to incredibly simple formulas).

In truth, there is no regional or national inside track to having great skin. Plus, how to have great skin  is not a secret, and lastly, there are good and bad products from brands in all corners of the world.

Korea: The New Beauty Hot Spot!

It started with the BB-Cream craze, moved on to snail secretions, and now it’s all about “sleeping masks”—which have given Korean skin-care lines the reputation of possessing the secret to having great skin. The questions  we get about these products are always the same: “Korean celebrities and models have great skin, and because they are Korean they must be using Korean skin-care products, so they must be great, right?”

This is an example of how easily marketing hype can fool even the smartest of women (and men).

Here’s what you may not know: First, people in Korea do not use only Korean products. Dozens of beauty brands—Estee Lauder, Kiehl’s, Origins, Dior, La Mer, Clinique, and many others—are just as popular at the cosmetics counters in Korea as they are in the United States. (We are proud to point out that Paula’s Choice is a popular product line in Korea as well, and Paula is a frequently quoted skin-care expert there.)

Second, the notion that women (or men) from any country or culture must all have beautiful skin because their celebrities and models do isn’t even remotely true. Models and celebrities are not regular people, in any country or culture.

More to the point, all the models and celebrities in fashion magazines and those who represent skin-care lines around the world are stunning—that’s the main reason they’re models and celebrities! The fact that they are considered beautiful is not a surprise, but it doesn’t indicate anything other than the standard of beauty in that culture or country. It’s not proof of what every woman in that part of the world looks like.

Beauty Concerns of the Korean Cosmetics Shopper

Just to let you know, women and men in Korea struggle with skin problems just like people everywhere else in the world, and they also struggle to find the best products to address their personal concerns. They have acne, wrinkles, skin discolorations, uneven skin tone, oily skin, blackheads, and every other skin-care woe you can think of.

Here’s a shocker: Paula has learned firsthand, during her numerous presentations and media speaking engagements in Korea, that Korean women (and men), like people in any country, do not feel that they have beautiful skin or that their own country’s (in this case, Korean) brands are the best products.

If there is any secret in Korea about skin care, it’s that most of the women think nothing of using upwards of two dozen skin-care products twice daily, and their skin-care routine at night can take up to 40 minutes, and we are not exaggerating (not even a little!).

Can you imagine telling the average U.S., Canadian, Mexican, European, or Australian to follow that type of routine? You’re likely to get a look that says, “You’ve got to be kidding—that’s not a secret, that’s a nightmare!” Fortunately, you don’t need to apply nearly that many products to get the benefits of a well-rounded skin-care routine.
 

If East Asian people have any edge over their counterparts in other parts of the world it’s that they rarely, if ever, get tan. They wear sunscreen every single day, rain or shine, and they avoid direct sun exposure as often as possible. BB creams became a must-have product in Korea because they combine high sun-protection with ingredients that lighten dark spots and improve uneven skin tone, all while providing fairly heavy coverage that differs quite a bit from Western BB creams.

Here’s another surprising fact: In Korean department stores, there is always a parasol section. Next to the handbags and jewelry are rows of umbrellas that are meant to be used only for sun protection—and they are! This practice isn’t about special products; great sunscreens are sold all over the world, you just have to remember to use them (and a parasol isn’t a bad idea, either)!

So, Which Country’s People DO Have the Best Products?

To set the record straight, it’s not the French, not the Swiss, the Hungarians, the Japanese, or anyone else for that matter, who have had “the secret” to great skin or the best products. French skin-care lines, for example, are notorious for containing more perfume than beneficial ingredients, they more often than not come packaged in jars, and it seems as if they wouldn’t know an antioxidant if it hit them in the face (although their wines are indeed a source of antioxidants). OK … Wait! Before you start writing angry emails—we admit that this is a huge generalization, as there are hundreds of lines to consider, and there are French lines that offer good-for-your-skin-care products.

Paula has traveled the globe, meeting and speaking to people in more countries than a passport book can hold (she’s had extra pages stitched in at least twice). No matter where she goes, people ask her the same beauty questions and have the same concerns—wrinkles, brown spots, sagging, breakouts, dry skin, sensitive skin, and on and on. They all want to know what works and what doesn’t. They all want to know the truth about what skin-care products can and cannot do—and they’re just as tempted by the latest claims as you are.

Whether in Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Beijing, Paris, Bangkok, Mumbai, London, Toronto, New York City, or Seoul, Paula’s never met a group of women or men in any country, as a whole, who have remarkably better-looking skin than people from other countries, anywhere else in the world. Let go of this myth; it’s wasting your time and your money!

So, What Is the Secret to Having Great Skin?

Hopefully, you’ve by now realized that neither Korea nor any other country has the secret to great skin care. As stated at the start of this article, great skin care is not a secret; rather, it is universally known. Unfortunately, most brands choose to ignore the facts established by research.

In the real world of research, science, dermatology, and physiology (as opposed to the world of Disney fairy tales, Star Wars, or fashion magazine and infomercial stories), great skin care is readily available to everyone. Endless science-based published studies have pointed the way to achieving this goal, and it knows no geographic boundaries. For all of us, wherever we live, we need to do the following:

  • Use sun protection every day, all year long.
  • Avoid direct sun exposure as much as possible every day, all year long.
  • Never get a tan or a sunburn.
  • Do not smoke (a perennial sticking point for many women).
  • Avoid overconsumption of alcohol—when we say “cocktail of antioxidants,” we don’t mean “drink more wine!”
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Do not use products that cause irritation.
  • Use products loaded with antioxidants, skin-repairing ingredients, and cell-communicating ingredients.
  • Use products appropriate for your skin type; for example, creams for dry skin, lotions for normal skin, and gels or liquids for oily skin.
  • Use a well-formulated exfoliant—AHA (glycolic or lactic acid) or BHA (salicylic acid)—to reduce wrinkles, blackheads, and breakouts (not a scrub or cleansing grains).

Perhaps the most critical thing to understand is that even great skin care has limitations. It can never replace what plastic surgeons or cosmetic dermatologists can do with the various procedures they offer, from fillers to lasers and Botox. This is definitely something that Koreans understand, as there are more plastic surgeons and cosmetic dermatologists per capita in Korea than in almost any other country in the world!

The Hype of Korean Beauty Products

We are routinely asked about the various Korean beauty brands that are making a splash in beauty blogs, shops like Sephora, and YouTube videos. From BB and CC Creams to snail creams and serums, sleeping masks, and numerous brands like Etude House, Laneige, Amore Pacific, Missha, Senite, The Face Shop, Hera, The Skin Food, or Sulwhasoo (among many, many more); the buzz is that Korean products aren’t just different, but better.

Not to burst anyone’s beauty bubble or tarnish the (highly airbrushed) images of Korean women advertising all of the brands listed above, but Korean beauty products can be just as underwhelming and downright disappointing as beauty products from any other country. Korean brands do not have access to special ingredients that other brands in other countries cannot also obtain, nor are Korean beauty brands ahead of the formulary curve or research  (cutting-edge skin care research is happening all over the world). All of the hype is just that: Hype!

This is truly a case of the grass being greener on the other side of the world. As we mentioned above, people in Korea are not walking around with gorgeous, flawless skin because they use only Korean brands. In an ironic twist, the clamor for Western (specifically, American) brands in Korea is actually quite a thing to behold! You have to wonder—if Korean beauty products are so miraculous, why are so many Western brands selling like hotcakes in Korea?

The answer is simple: Regardless of where the products are sold or made, there are good and bad products all over the world. In summary, shopping Korean brands exclusively is no more a guarantee of better skin or more attractive makeup than shopping at a Korean grocery store is a guarantee of healthier food.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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