Why Hasn't The “Fenty Effect” Hit K-Beauty?
Following the launch of Fenty Beauty, brands are scrambling to release new and inclusive shade ranges. But K-Beauty, a market known for innovation, is the last to jump on board.
You don’t need to be a VIB Rouge member to know that K-beauty has exploded in the United States over the past decade. Skin care and makeup products imported from South Korea receive prime retail space at Amazon, Target, CVS, and Sephora. And what’s not to love? K-beauty combines hard-core science with quality ingredients, and wraps them up into some of the cutest packaging we’ve ever seen. (Hello, stamp blushes and panda eye creams.)
"In Korea, they're skin-obsessed. They apply products on their skin that will help multiple concerns," says Charlotte Cho, co-founder of Soko Glam, an e-commerce site that has been labeled the "Sephora of K-beauty products." That's no small feat, considering the overwhelming amount of product innovation in a culture that places a very high value on appearance (South Korea has the highest per capita rate of cosmetic procedures in the world).
But for women of color with medium to deep skin tones looking to jump on the K-beauty bandwagon, there have been distinct limitations when it comes to complexion options. Beauty vlogger Jackie Aina took to her YouTube channel last month to share her complaints. “It’s not very often that you come across a tinted moisturizer, CC Cream, or BB Cream that comes in my complexion,” she says. “Most of them just don’t run dark enough... It’s just a standard that needs to stop now.”
And she’s right. BB (beauty balms) and CC (color correcting) creams typically come in two or three shades of ivory and beige. Erborian CC Crème, which has garnered over 20,000 likes on Sephora's website, only offers two colors — Clair (a fair shade) and Regular (a medium to tan shade). In Fall 2018, the brand is launching a third shade called Caramel (“for dark or very tanned skin”). At a time when inclusivity is a buzzing topic of conversation in the beauty industry, and brands are feeling the pressure of the 40-shade phenomenon started by Fenty Beauty last year, why do South Korean products only offer coverage in the lightest shades?
"When you're creating a product, it's important to think about all the people that are going to be using the product."
Karissa Bodnar, founder and CEO of Thrive Causemetics
Part of it has to do with the formula. Just like tinted moisturizer, BB and CC creams have sheer coverage and added skin-care ingredients that focus on brightening, evening skin tone, reducing lines, and sun protection. But the same actives that give BB and CC creams their sun-protective qualities are at the root of their shade shortcomings. “The reason that BB and CC creams have not been available in deeper shades is because they have higher levels of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to make up the SPF,” says Karissa Bodnar, founder and CEO of beauty brand Thrive Causemetics. “In their raw state, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are pure white and that really adds difficulty in achieving darker shades.”
Because foundation is less about skin-care benefits and rarely includes a high SPF, it’s easier to increase the amount of coverage and develop a wider shade range in those formulas. But cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski says it’s possible to have both SPF and a diverse color range in a BB or CC cream — it’s just not always easy, or cheap. “Other ingredients can be used to get the SPF value," he says. “Iron oxides can give brown, yellow, or red pigments, and using a mixture of iron oxides and titanium dioxide, you can blend any shade of human skin.”
Cho suggests that the lack of shade diversity has more to do with the fact that Korean brands were created to service the Korean market, where the demographic is primarily of the same ethnic group. “I wouldn't blame these companies for not having a lot of shade ranges. Korea is a homogenous country, where skin tones range from fair to beige,” she says. “Thus, most Koreans are able to fit within the available makeup shade ranges because that is the demographic that these brands are targeting.”
It’s also important to note that fair skin is considered more favorable in South Korea, where longstanding issues of classism led to associating darker skin with working in the sun, or “peasantry” — contributing to colorism that persists today. Korea accounts for 18% of global sales of skin whiteners.
When K-Beauty brands come to the U.S., the products aren’t reformulated to fit the new population at first. But if the products pick up in popularity, there is potential for a revise. Cho says she's already seeing a difference, "I've seen brands who have expanded their shade range slowly as they've gotten more of an American market share. It's all about if it makes sense for them.”
But there are also American companies who are capitalizing on the K-beauty wave, without necessarily revising the colors for its U.S. market. Clinique only offers three shades in their CC cream: Light, Light Medium, and Medium. L’Oréal Paris also has a BB cream that comes in just three shades. It wasn’t until recently that the “Fenty Effect” hit the K-beauty market in a meaningful way.
This past August, Bodnar’s Thrive Causemetics launched a CC Cream in 18 shades with different color and undertone options. And although it was achievable, Bodnar says it took years of dedication. "I worked with dermatologists, chemists, and ophthalmologists, because there are so many different factors that go into creating a CC cream that is not just inclusive, but one that has benefits like SPF in it," says the former makeup artist, who asked Bozoma Saint John, Chief Marketing Officer at Endeavor, and actress Priyanka Chopra to consult on shade tones. "We worked for three years to create this inclusive shade range, and we actually had to invent our own proprietary process. If you're willing to spend more on your formula, take longer to create it, and be thoughtful in your product creation process, it's possible."
It was stories like Aina's that inspired Bodnar to work on a formula that would make the market offering more inclusive, and she's seen incredibly positive responses as a result. "It was amazing to hear women, especially women of color, say, 'I never thought that I would have a CC cream that would work for me,'" she says. There was also a big financial pay-off. Bodnar says some of the darker shades sold out in less than 48 hours after releasing them. "We're about to sell out again,” she says.
And Thrive Causemetics isn't the only brand trying to make a change in the K-beauty market. Kaja, a brand-new K-beauty brand in Sephora, has also made it a point to launch products inclusive of all skin tones, like its concealer that comes in 12 different shades from Sweet Rice (a fair with neutral to pink undertones) to Coffee Bean (a rich dark with red undertones). "We really thought carefully about aiming to capture our global consumer,” says Jaimee Holmes, VP of Sales at Memebox (the e-commerce company behind Kaja). “We tested across multiple skin tones here in North America, as well as in Korea, to make sure that we were able to really cover the fairest light to the richest deep skin tone."
At the end of the day, Bodnar wants other companies to see that being attentive to all consumers goes beyond business: "When you're creating a product, it's important to think about all the people that are going to be using the product,” Bodnar says.“This isn't a sales or marketing trend, this is a human thing."