Earlier this month, Cosmoprof Asia—a business-to-business beauty convention that launched “to give international visibility to beauty companies,” according Enrico Zannini, director of Cosmoprof Worldwide—offered more than 60,000 buyers and visitors a glimpse at beauty products set to hit the Asian market.
Among them was Yvonne Kai, a beauty blogger and entrepreneur who made the trek to Hong Kong from Las Vegas. “[In Asia], there’s way more emphasis on skincare, more focus on beauty and wellness, and more purchase power and competition—all of which translates to more product effectiveness and innovation,” Kai said, regarding her main reason for attending.
Some of the big trends she noticed were “textures in makeup, solid essence in skincare, and new cool ingredients like jellyfish venom, Manuka honey, propolis, and horse oil.” Considering the rate at which K-beauty trends have been catching on, each is no doubt already on most U.S. beauty brands’ radars.
For American beauty fans, it’s never been easier to dabble in K-beauty. For starters, there are more local retail outlets specializing in K-beauty skincare and makeup. Just last week, Opening Ceremony joined other fashion retailers expanding their offerings beyond clothing and accessories by adding a curated selection of K-beauty products to each of its stores. Within the past year, Macy’s has launched multiple shop-in-shops featuring online K-beauty retailer Peach & Lily’s products. Popular Korean brand Laneige is now available at Target.
Most women are familiar with creams and masks that originated in Korea. In fact, there’s also a good chance they’re using a number of K-beauty-inspired products. On top of more U.S. retailers carrying South Korean imports, an increasing number of beauty brands are plucking ideas from the range. As a result, K-beauty’s U.S. reach extends far beyond the tutorials and shelfies of beauty junkies. In short, it’s gone mainstream.
The proof is in the U.S. beauty industry’s widespread shift from favoring a Kardashian-approved chiseled look to backing “no makeup” makeup—which takes obvious cues from Korea’s popular ulzzang (which means “best face” or “good looking”) look. An ulzzang face includes dewy skin, soft color–flushed lips and natural brows—and, no surprise, it’s believed that perfecting the look requires a flawless complexion.
The Korean beauty products most Americans are familiar with are either skincare by definition or cosmetics that include skin-benefitting ingredients: BB creams, foundation alternatives that Korean women have been using for upwards of 30 years, hit the U.S. market about five years ago—and since, brands from Maybelline to Dior have launched versions. In addition to providing coverage, they moisturize, protect, brighten, and treat the skin. More recently, sheet masks and cushion compacts have caught on, the latter of which are basically easier-to-apply BB creams with more SPF. These products don’t just feel fresh, they’re true innovations.
To say that Korean women take a skincare-first approach to beauty would be an understatement. It’s been widely reported that many adhere to strict morning and evening skincare rituals that involve upwards of ten steps—and their investment extends beyond time to money. According to BBC, Korean women spend twice as much of their income on skincare than their American counterparts. The South Korean beauty industry was valued at $11.6 billion last year.
“Asian consumers are some of the most discerning globally and tend to spend more on beauty products than those in the West, which tends to translate to Asian brands investing in higher quality ingredients within their products,” Daniela Rinaldi, group commercial director at Harvey Nichols, recently told Business of Fashion.
Due to the booming market, Korean brands can also fund extensive R&D—and because of their homogenous customer base, they can release new makeup products at a faster rate than U.S. brands. “They’ve never had to develop for diverse skin tones,” said Christine Chang, co-CEO and co-founder of Glow Recipe, an online retailer specializing in the latest Korean beauty products.
K-beauty’s next-level formulas and innovative products—and, let’s be real, fun packaging—are what fueled the interest of American beauty bloggers, who turned its products on to their followers, thus launching the trend in the States. As more U.S. consumers started taking interest, more brands started taking notice—and consequently making moves to take cues from South Korea’s rapidly growing beauty industry. According to Euromonitor, it’s expected to reach $13.1 billion by 2020.
K-beauty products’ playful packaging boosts their appeal. (Image via Birchbox)
Over the last three years, at least two beauty brands that identify as skincare-first launched in the States: Glossier and Milk Makeup. In 2014, Glossier launched with a motto of “skin first, makeup second”—it rolled out products accordingly: “Phase 1” included a moisturizer, a skin tint, and masks. “Phase 2” featured traditional makeup products including lipstick and concealer.
Similarly, Milk Makeup hit the market with a skincare-inclusive lineup—it offered Sunshine Oil and face mist, in addition to a selection of colored products. Since, it has expanded its offerings to include many multi-tasking products, seemingly taking another page out of K-beauty’s playbook. According to Chang, there’s a “huge trend of multi-taskers” in the Korean beauty market right now.
Established brands have also taken direct cues from K-beauty products, and they’ve made no effort to keep it a secret. Achelle Richards, the Chief Global Creative Director of e.l.f. Cosmetics, often posts Instagram snaps of beauty products she’s created following inspiration trips to Asia. Similarly, Lancôme has credited Korea for initiating the development of its Miracle Cushion compact, plus it has featured K-beauty trend tutorials on its Instagram page.
A selection of e.l.f. Cosmetics’ K-beauty–inspired products, captured by its Chief Global Creative Director
Lancôme’s Instagram-based tutorial on the K-beauty trend of gradient lipstick
Likewise, brands are borrowing ideas from fellow stateside companies that specialize in Korean products. Chang recalled a time when Glow Recipe products—specifically, splash masks and milk peels—were featured in the Hot Now area of every Sephora stores nationwide. “We came up with the terminology for the products—as an incubator, we help small Korean brands come up with marketing platforms that resonate in the U.S. Soon after, we started seeing other brands come out with splash masks, and Dr. Jart had a milk peel,” she said. “It’s not a bad thing—it’s creating this dialogue where other brands are reinterpreting and taking interest in these categories.”