The American Beauty Products Korean Girls Go Crazy For

Korea’s reputation as a mecca for beauty innovation is driven in large part by its demanding — and, let's be real, obsessed — consumers. Though local giants like Amorepacific and LG (nope, they don’t just make TVs and phones) dominate the cosmetics market, foreign players comprise a quarter of the industry.

Unfortunately, Korea levies annoyingly unfriendly taxes on imported goods, immediately making almost any foreign product into a luxury. This means even a fast-fashion brand like Zara is kind of fancy over here. And, I have to be pretty desperate to shell out $7 for a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (which happens more often than it should). So, if you’ve ever witnessed Koreans going nuts at Duty Free, now you know why. We’re this close to recreating the Boston Tea Party over here.

Consequently, for Korean women to cave to a nearly 18% tax on cosmetics from abroad, that mascara (or whatever) better be pretty friggin’ amazing. These niches of cosmetics-craving are carved out through some combination of celebrity endorsements, unparalleled function, and brand power.

And, while American women are all about the Korean beauty brands right now, there are plenty of American goodies Korean ladies are just as passionate about. We’ve dug deep to bring you a roundup of which American products Korean girls love. Read on to learn why they're so huge — and see if your favorites are just as beloved overseas.
Advertisement
1 of 13
Makeup artists are the gatekeepers of Korea’s cosmetics-import industry. What they want, they get, and as a result, a ripple effect creates mass demand for a product. Before face oils were a trend, Bobbi Brown Extra Face Oil was the favorite among a scarce smattering of them available in Korea. Now, Korean brands have come out with their own versions, but we’ll never forget the original.
2 of 13
The current Korean trend in eyeliner is not-quite-black with specks of gold, as a softer alternative to dramatic black. What started it all is Clinique Cream Shaper for Eyes in Egyptian. The hue is a dark green with a hint of gold pearl. Makeup artists and beauty bloggers have popularized it as “that Egyptian eyeliner.” According to Clinique Korea, women were coming to counters demanding “Egyptian,” and it became the liner that launched a thousand imitators.

Korean girls love it because its olive-black pigment is dense, but ditches the harshness of a true black. The greenish hue and gold flecks have a subtly amplifying effect: Green eyes appear greener, and brown eyes appear dreamier. The texture is creamy and smooth, making it blendable for a natural look.
Advertisement
3 of 13
Physiogel is everywhere in Korea. The packaging and name scream science-in-a-bottle, and that’s pretty much what it is. The derma-membrane structure of the cream mimics the skin’s natural barrier to retain moisture, keeping it hydrated and supple. The texture is surprisingly silky. Applying it is like taking your fingers for a super-glide-y trip around your face. It’s also hypoallergenic, and doesn’t contain silicone, perfume, or preservatives, so it’s popular to use on babies and full-grown faces.
4 of 13
I had never heard of Thayers — a small, family brand founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, almost 170 years ago — until I saw it pop up in Korea. On the country's most popular beauty show, Get It Beauty, Thayers Rose Petal Witch Hazel Toner was pitted against other toners, including Aesop Parsley Seed Anti-Oxidant Facial Toner, Clarins Toning Lotion with Iris, Sulwhasoo Essential Balancing Water, and Clinique Clarifying Moisture Lotion 2. Thayers $10 version won, and all the ladies got their wallets out.

The product's charm is in its simplicity: The no-alcohol formula is straightforward, soothing, and cleansing. It does so well in Korea that it's even started launching products that don’t exist in the States — like toners available in convenient mist form. Be jealous, America.
5 of 13
In Korea, where the skin-care industry is more than three times the size of the makeup industry, the story of Kiehl’s is pretty remarkable — it baffled even Kiehl’s. The brand entered the Korean market in 2009 with two retail stores, one at The Shilla Hotel in Seoul and one at the airport. By 2010, its Ultra Facial Cream ranked third among moisturizers in Korea, and the brand had grown 183% purely through word of mouth. My guess is, it wasn’t just the snazzy white lab coats and skeletons.

Korean women know their skin care, and they love Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream (in the summer, they love the gel version). Its most recent accolade was awarded by Cosmopolitan Korea for being the best moisturizer in 2014.
6 of 13
In Korea, Benefit has a loyal following among beauty enthusiasts. When the brand first entered the Korean market, whatever it sold would do well (except the now-discontinued self-tanner Jiffy Tan — the execs probably didn’t think that one through). College students especially love the brand for its funky, cute packaging. Plus, in a country where the gradient-lip trend reigns, Benefit’s Cha Cha and Posie tints are no-brainers. Cha Cha stains to a peachy, sun-kissed glow, while Posie is a sheer, flirty pink. The two gel-like tints double as blush, helping justify the $40 price tag (only $30 in the U.S., so consider yourself lucky, America).
7 of 13
MAC eyeshadow is a one-sweep wonder. Satin Soba is a medium brown with the subtlest hint of glimmer, straddling the line between matte and shimmery. You can also use it to contour. (One makeup artist has even referred to it as a "nose job in a pot.") In Korea, it’s rumored to be the shading tool of choice when contouring post-plastic surgery, to help you gradually ease those around you to your new face.
Advertisement
8 of 13
In Seoul, a city of over 10 million people, there are only seven NARS counters. My favorite is in Gangnam, where I like to go ogle the rainbow of lipsticks. The NARS Audacious Lipstick Collection is pretty unstoppable. The shades are beautifully pigmented and hypnotically gorgeous. A single stroke glides on effortlessly and stays there, and the texture is super-creamy and hydrating. 



One of the favorites in the collection is Natalie (known in Korea as “Flamingo”), which, upon launching, sold out in a weekend. Korean girls love the bright, pink-coral shade because it’s approachable enough to wear during the day and just the right amount of flirty to carry through to night. Also, the magnetic closure kind of feels like you’re drawing a samurai sword every time — definitely a plus.
9 of 13
Maybelline New York Magnum Volum’ Express Mascara (known in the U.S. as Maybelline New York Volum’ Express The Colossal Mascara) has the baddest female in the land slingin’ it. CL of K-pop girl group 2NE1 is so cool, the only way I can really describe it is by saying: “CL wears Magnum Volum’ Express Mascara, and now I want to wear Magnum Volum’ Express Mascara.”

As a mascara, and not just as a vehicle to get more CL out there in the world, Magnum Volum’ Express harnesses the powers of collagen to plump up those lashes. One of its standout qualities is the brush, which does a great job of building up product without clumping. It also won Cosmopolitan Korea's 2014 Beauty Award for Best Mascara.
10 of 13
Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer is a worthy rival to Korea’s BBs and CCs. Korean women (myself included) love its sheer coverage for a no-makeup look. It veils the face, providing an even, healthy glow, and packs a respectable SPF 20. It remains one of Laura Mercier’s best-sellers, and it’s made InStyle Korea’s “Best Beauty Buys” every year between 2007 and 2012.
11 of 13
Korea’s beauty game would lose all credibility if it were solely judged by its shampoos. In Korean households, shampoo is whatever jug of latherable slop your mom bought on sale at the supermarket. It’s very much a "good 'nuff" mentality, but all that’s changing. For now, imported brands seem to be the only ones in on this whole “sulfate-free” concept.

The Invati line by Aveda is a best-seller because it contains ginseng — an ingredient as identifiable with Korean culture as kimchi — plus, who doesn't love thick hair?
12 of 13
Our sources tell us Urban Decay is gearing up to launch in Korea “very soon.” If Naked palettes’ success in the States is any indication of what’s to come, I don’t have to guess what will sell out the second UD lands here.
13 of 13
Like this post? There's more. Get tons of beauty tips, tutorials, and news on the Refinery29 Beauty Facebook page. Like us on Facebook — we'll see you there!
Advertisement

More from Makeup

Watch

R29 Original Series