It’s human nature to fill in the gaps in our knowledge with myth and superstition. We’ve been doing it since the dawn of recorded civilization, spreading and passing down stories to help us make sense of our bewildering reality. Of course, these stories often get things wrong. The Norse god Thor did turn out to be a real person, but most other myths, including those about “Korean beauty” and the AB life, are more wrong than right. Let go of them and you’ll become a smarter skincare shopper with a more effective routine of your own–K-beauty or not!
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K-beauty myth 1: “Korean beauty” is all about the 10-step (or 12- or 15-step) routine
The myth: “Korean beauty” is defined by extravagantly lengthy daily skincare routines featuring so many different steps and products that you’ll need to redo your bathroom with a bigger counter just to accommodate your new purchases. You’ll also need to start waking up an hour earlier in the morning and canceling all your evening plans forever.
Who benefits from this myth:
- Magazines, websites, and bloggers (come on, we’ve all done it at some point, to some degree) using clickbaity “35-Step Korean Skincare Routine!!!” headlines to lure readers and/or please advertisers
- Cosmetics brands and retailers eager to increase sales by creating a perceived need for MOAR STUFF NAOW.
The reality: This is arguably the mother of all K-beauty myths, and it developed, like a lumpy, defective pearl, around an actual grain of truth. A grain. There are definitely people out there with enough stuff on hand to assemble a 12-step everyday routine. I’m one of them, and I’ve written plenty about my extensive routine. My fellow Snailcaster Snow over at Snow White and the Asian Pear uses a spreadsheet to keep track of her product lineup and usage. Kerry at Skin and Tonics needed three separate blog posts to list and explain her morning and evening skincare routines and occasional treatments, like masks and sleeping packs. Confusion over the complexities of the many-step routine is so widespread that darling Tracy of Fanserviced-B and the Snailcast even created a (brilliant) step-by-step visual guide to the Korean skincare routine.
Thing is, we’re bloggers. We are among the most visible and vocal K-beauty consumers, but that doesn’t mean we’re really representative of the average K-beauty consumer. Maintaining a K-beauty blog means endlessly acquiring and testing new items. Our routines don’t stagnate, our quest never ends, and our stashes have a tendency to swell not shrink. The differences between the skincare and shopping practices of K-beauty bloggers and K-beauty consumers are what led me to create my routine building and Asian skincare shopping guides instead of offering my own routines as a template. Please don’t use my routines as a template. YMMV!
(To tell the truth, even beauty bloggers don’t always do every single possible step of their daily routine. Check out some of the routines under the #koreanskincare or #rasianbeauty tags on Instagram to get a feel for K-beauty in practice. Snow is particularly consistent about posting what she actually uses on a day-to-day basis. I post routines once in a while, but photography for me is a sweaty struggle, so I don’t do it every day.)
K-beauty is not about slapping a dozen products on your face every morning and a further 15 products every night, despite the impression given by magazine articlesoften hardly more than undisclosed advertorials anyway, blogger routines, and skincare sales pitches. K-beauty is about making your skin a priority and keeping it in top condition with a routine tailored to your own needs, budget, and lifestyle. Maybe that routine will only require a single cleanser, a toner, one serum, and a cream. (And sunscreen in the mornings!!!) Or maybe you’ll end up using cleanser, toner, essence, serum, ampoule, sheet mask, cream, and sleeping pack. (And sunscreen in the mornings!!!!) Either way is perfectly valid. The only thing that matters is giving your skin what your skin needs. Don’t feel pressured to buy products you don’t need just to have a “full” K-beauty routine, and don’t feel like you’re “doing it wrong” if you can’t.
K-beauty myth 2: Korean skincare is better than Western skincare
The myth: The South Korean cosmetics industry is so advanced, its technologies and research so cutting edge, that K-beauty products are inherently superior to their Western equivalents.
Who benefits from this myth:
- The South Korean cosmetics industry, encouraged by the government to export its wares to foreign consumers (article gets bonus myth points for including the obligatory line about the “between 10 and 18 products” that “Korean women” use in a day)
- Retailers, especially those with questionable curation abilities but a talent for driving the narrative and exploiting the innocence of consumers new to K-beauty
The reality: With the exception of sunscreens, prescription tretinoin, and (K-beauty-inspired) Holy Snails handmade products, everything in my sizable skincare stash is Korean. Even my current (and HG) body lotion is Korean. Obviously, I prefer Korean skincare products. But that’s not because Korean products are automatically “better.” There are great Korean products and okay Korean products and just plain terrible Korean products, and which products belong in each category varies wildly from person to person. I’m sure there are even people out there who love Missha sheet masks. I’ve never met one, but Missha keeps making those masks, so I assume someone is buying them and maybe enjoying them.
In my experience, what is superior about Korean skincare is the sheer variety of targeted options it offers. A perfect storm of economic and cultural factors, such as the South Korean government’s encouragement of cosmetic exports, the popularity of Korean cultural exports like K-pop and K-dramas, and the insistence on flawless skin that characterizes East Asian beauty standards, drives an extremely competitive cosmetics sector. It takes real dedication just to keep track of all the new releases (I’m lazy and also Hangul-illiterate, so I rely on Joan at Kinseng for product release announcements). Options exist for nearly every budget, skin issue, and ingredient fetish. Let’s say I want to repair existing sun damage with the goo of gently treated snails while slowing down future aging with a serum made from flower juice, all to be sealed in using a moisturizer formulated with traditional medicinal herbs. K-beauty lets me do exactly that. That’s what’s so great.
Being Korean doesn’t automatically make a skincare product amazing, no more than being Asian automatically makes a person good at math. I should know. I, an Asian, am terrible at math. If you’re already perfectly happy with a Western product, don’t feel compelled to replace it with a Korean one–there’s no guarantee the K-option will be better. Trying to fix something that ain’t broke isn’t as effective a use of your skincare budget as seeking out the things you can’t get elsewhere.
K-beauty myth 3: K-beauty is just a passing fad
The myth: This whole “Korean beauty” thing is just a trend. The hype will die down, and by this time next year, no one will even remember why they wanted to put snail goo on their faces. Korean skincare is the equivalent of mini buns and skinny brows for your face.
Who stands to benefit from this myth:
- Non-Korean beauty brands pushed out of the spotlight and struggling to generate excitement despite being less than on-trend
- Mainstream beauty journalists and bloggers who don’t cover, or don’t often cover, K-beauty
The reality as far as I can tellthough I’m not psychic and these are just observations, predictions, and opinions: Yes, the media hype will die down. Magazines and mainstream fashion and beauty websites won’t always cover K-beauty as the current Hot Thing That Hot People Do To Stay Hot. But there’s a big difference between reaching the natural end of the hype cycle and going away altogether. K-beauty isn’t going to disappear. Too many people have experienced too drastic an improvement in their skin thanks to Korean products. I think instead that K-beauty will settle into a more or less permanent position on beauty shelves and behind the shiny glass of cosmetics counters in the U.S.
Actually, to me, it looks like it already has. Sephora carries a pretty impressive number of Korean brands, though I agree with Tracy that the curation is all over the place. I suggest checking out Dr. Jart+ skincare and Too Cool For School makeup. Avoid May Coop Raw Sauce unless smearing concentrated, thickened perfume on your face is a thing you like to do and pass right over Tony Moly and It’s Skin–there are far more affordable ways to get your hands on low-end cosmetics than Sephora.
Ulta also carries a number of Leaders masks. The varieties appear to be Ulta exclusives, but if they’re anything like Leaders masks overall, I bet they’ll have excellent ingredients and produce consistently impressive results. And Ulta sells Whamisa, a brand previously only found at Glow Recipe! I did not enjoy the sea kelp sheet mask at all, but I’ve heard great things about their essences and creams and had great experiences with their hydrogel masks.
And let’s not forget Target, which has been carrying K-beauty for about two years now in the form of major Amore Pacific brand Laneige. Personally, I don’t love Laneige, whose highly fragranced products never work that well for me, but plenty of people do love the brand, especially their famous Water Sleeping Mask and BB cushions. If you’re shopping Target online, you can even gawk at a selection of Mizon products (though the pricing is ridiculous compared to getting Mizon from RoseRoseShop and other Korean shops).
My point is, if shelf space at major retail chains means anything, K-beauty has already come a long way in its journey to the mainstream here in the U.S.. Things that reach the mainstream stand a good chance of sticking around if they’ve got the quality to retain the customers. Many of these brands do. And even if K-beauty brands lose some of their current retail store shelf space, the category still has its expanding and also increasingly mainstream online presence to keep it going. Amazon has an entire Korean Beauty section*. Which is where most of my personal K-beauty budget goes, because I have no patience and like to order things from whomever will get them to me the fastest.
So, no. K-beauty isn’t just a passing fad that’s bound to fade into obscurity in a year’s time. The collective savvy business decisions and PR moves that brought Korean cosmetics into the Western consciousness wedged the door open as securely as a cinderblock; the vast selection of products and growing numbers of impressed consumers is keeping it open. I think Korean skincare is here to stay. Which is awesome. If you’re curious about K-beauty but hesitant to try it out for fear that it’s just an empty fad, don’t be afraid! A product that’s intimidatingly unfamiliar now may turn out to be just what your skin needs, and unless it’s discontinued, you’ll probably be able to keep buying it for some time to come.
Continued in Part 2
What are some K-beauty myths or mysteries you want to discuss?