Why Korean Beauty Isn't Going Anywhere Anytime Soon

Let's time-travel to eight years ago: What products made up the bulk of the U.S. beauty scene? A lot of American brands with some European ones sprinkled in, right? Fast-forward to today, and what do you see? All Korean everything. The country's beauty offerings have quickly risen to fame over the past few years. But how exactly did this happen? When did your toners and cream masks start getting replaced with essences and sheet masks? And why now, when so many Korean women have been hardcore beauty advocates for so long? Keep reading, and you'll find out.

The Why
While part of this answer has to do with all the innovation coming out of South Korea, that's only one side of the story, says Christine Chang, cofounder of Glow Recipe. The other side has to do with how women in the U.S. approach beauty now. "I think American women are reaching a place where they’re kind of embracing the holistic view of beauty — the ritual — and enjoying the sensoriality, and enjoying skin care in general," she says. "They're realizing that you can’t cover up things with makeup forever, that you have to work on your skin from the inside out for that glowing look that’s so desired... So, I think, because that's aligning with the Korean way of approaching beauty, that’s why there’s such a synergy between the two markets." This synergy has given birth to a whole new wave of products.

The When
It may seem like a flood of stories about Korean skin care started appearing in your newsfeed overnight. But in reality, it was a gradual process. It all started with the BB cream. Though beauty balms originated in Germany back in the 1950s, they started gaining popularity in Korea in 2006 before making their way to the West around 2011. "BBs first captured our skin-care merchant team's attention years ago, and took the beauty world by storm," says Cindy Deily, Sephora's senior director of merchandising and skin care. "That helped establish Korea’s reputation stateside as a country of skin-care innovation. Soon, everyone wanted to see more." CC cream quickly followed, with the cushion compact on its heels (BB cream in on-the-go packaging, essentially). These alphabet-soup creams were followed by brightening products, then sheet masks, essences, oil cleansers, and more. Four years later, Korean beauty is still holding strong.
The Korean beauty and personal-care retail market posted a 5.8% growth year-on-year to 2013, compared with just 2.1% for the U.K. and 3.9% for the U.S., Mintel reports. The market has grown 52% in the last five years, and overseas sales of K-beauty products increased by 73% in 2015. In fact, the country exported more beauty products than it imported this year. As Chang points out, this is a staggeringly high growth rate for a mature cosmetics market. And many retailers have taken note and responded by hopping on the wave.

Urban Outfitters and Sephora have stocked their shelves and websites with popular Korean brands like Too Cool for School, Skin Food, The Face Shop, and TonyMoly in response. Just two weeks ago, Sephora launched a feature on Korean beauty in its stores to introduce clients to some of its favorite products in a tightly edited, digestible manner.

"There are many Asian brands that Sephora has carried and our clients fell in love with long before K-beauty became a trend: Boscia, Dr. Jart, Shiseido, Amorepacific, to name a few," says Deily. "We've found that many Korean skin-care products are quite different than what our client is used to in the U.S. For products we are accustomed to — cleansers, moisturizers, masks — our Korean brands are amazing at creating a unique experience."

Which leads us to the how. How, exactly, are Korean products managing to upstage the stalwart competition and win hearts across the nation?

The How
All the sources we spoke with for this story attribute the success to a few key components: innovation, ingredients, unique textures, affordability, and packaging. "Korean beauty appeals to customers because it touts a focus on formulation and ingredients, while still being approachable, informative, and fun," says Rachel Albright, director of creative marketing and content for Urban Outfitters. "K-beauty piqued our interest early with its attention to ingredients and advanced formulations. The cute packaging was a serious bonus!" But even if you take away the fun (banana-shaped masks, anyone?), you're left with products that deliver results: creams, serums, and masks that work — and work well.

Korean beauty appeals to customers because it touts a focus on formulation and ingredients, while still being approachable, informative, and fun.

Rachel Albright, Urban Outfitters
Says Chang: "I used to work at L'Oréal, and when we tested products, if something was okay with the Korean consumer...it would be successful in the rest of Asia, because the Korean and Japanese consumers both have really high standards. [They're] extremely picky about textures, fragrance, what was in the product, positioning, so it was almost like this testing ground. Since [these products] are vetted through this extremely competitive environment, I think they do so well in other countries — because they’ve been through the hoops already. Vetted [in Korea] means it can work anywhere."

But with the sheer number of products popping up on the market — what seems like daily — is the U.S. consumer eventually going to get K-beauty fatigue? Says Karen Grant, global beauty analyst for NPD: "While there’s a whole lot of attention on Asian products and Korean skin-care products, I think right now there’s kind of a pause: 'Okay, which ones will really work or stick in the U.S.? And is it a market that people are still looking at, and wanting to explore for new ideas and new formats and new textures?'" It seems to us the answer is a resounding yes.

Just like French pharmacy finds and apothecary gems, K-beauty has earned its ranking as a cult beauty staple.

Rachel Albright
The Future
"I see Korean beauty becoming like French beauty," predicts Chang. "We don’t use Lancôme or Clarins thinking, Oh god, this is a French brand; it’s not ever segmented that way, it’s just a part of your daily skin-care routine — one of the many products you use. I think Korean beauty has the potential to be the same way, if it’s done right, with the right curation and the right education and translation."

Albright echoes Chang's sentiment — particularly the French-beauty bit. "As long as it continues to remain innovative and pushes the boundaries of what we have seen before, I don’t see this going anywhere," she says. "Just like French pharmacy finds and apothecary gems, K-beauty has certainly earned its ranking as a cult beauty staple in our book."

And with new, exciting products like splash masks, 3-in-1 treatment multitaskers, and egg-mousse soap cleansers making their way onto the scene, we're sure a lot of consumers will find a reason to add Korean beauty buys to their must-have lists. We know we have.

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