6 K-Beauty Myths to Chuck Like a Moldy Cream, Part 2

Okay, where were we?

When we left off, we’d covered the first three of six K-beauty myths that I’d like to see put to bed…forever. We’ve established that K-beauty does not require a 23-step routine, that Korean skincare is not automatically superior to Western skincare, and that the K-beauty craze isn’t just skincare consumers collectively going through their freshman year “foreign = better” phase. Those aren’t the only K-beauty myths in circulation, though. The ones I’m going to talk about today are arguably more problematic. Let’s inhale some sheet mask fumes and get right into it.

The affiliate link in this post is marked with an asterisk(*) and doesn’t lead to a product that many of you are going to want to buy, anyway. I think.

K-beauty myth 4: K-beauty means putting weird shit on your face

The myth: Snail slime. Bird spit. Donkey milk. Sea cucumber. Starfish. Korean skincare products always have some weird-ass shit in them.

Who benefits from this myth:

  • Western beauty brands that want their hype and customers back
  • People hoping that the gross-out factor will discourage interest in K-beauty because it threatens their belief that West is Best

The reality: Yes, a lot of K-beauty products contain some shit you probably don’t see on the shelves of your neighborhood CVS. (Then again, plenty of CVS stuff contains lanolin, a.k.a. sheep sebum, which is also kind of gross if you think about it.) I’m not going to pretend I don’t love that weird shit. I do. I do love that weird shit.

Korean snail skincare products
really like snail products.

The problem lies in the perception that weird shit is in all K-beauty products. Because it isn’t. I’ve heard people say, far too many times, that they’re intrigued by K-beauty but squicked out by the idea of putting that weird shit on their faces. Those people are missing out on lots and lots of K-beauty options that don’t involve “gross weird shit” at all.

Korean skincare products without weird ingredients
From left to right: Honey, propolis, and other bee-based ingredients; honeysuckle and other floral extracts; rice, soybean, and other grain extracts; fermented honey, propolis, and royal jelly.

If you’re interested in K-beauty but afraid of snails, never fear. There’s a whole world out there of potentially amazing products for you, none of which contain snail goo.

K-beauty myth 5: Korean skincare = skin bleaching

The myth: If you’re not already pale as milk and have no desire to be, then run, run far away from K-beauty, because Korean products will bleach the everloving pigment right out of your skin, because that’s what Koreans want.

I’m going to switch things up a bit here. Instead of talking about who benefits from this myth, I’m going to talk about who gets screwed over.

Who gets screwed over by this myth:

  • People who could benefit from K-beauty but don’t want to lighten their natural skin tone
  • People wary of the potential health risks of strong skin bleaching ingredients

The reality: It’s true that colorism exists. South Korean beauty standards–and East Asian beauty standards in general–highly value fair skin. Paleness has been a marker of class (the “stay inside while plebs do the physical labor” class, to be exact) since ancient times. Consumers still aspire to it. It is also true that colorism is hurtful. As the recipient of way too many unsolicited criticisms and disapproving clucks over the freckles and tan I rocked through my twenties (I worked in a tanning salon and the only perk we got was free tanning–you bet your ass I tanned mine to a deep bronze), I felt ugly and inferior in a very special way every time I visited family or had to be around Asians-from-Asia. It feels bad, man.

It is not true, however, that Korean skincare products therefore will bleach your skin. Yes, lots of them claim “whitening” effects. No, none of them will lighten your skin past its natural base tone. And even fading a tan to your original skin color takes a lot of time, commitment, effort, sunscreen, and vampiric living habits. It’s more productive to think of K-beauty “whitening” as overall brightening. Over-the-counter Korean skincare products won’t take a naturally NC40 complexion to NC15, nor will they turn an NW05 face into Cling Wrap.

“Brightening” is less about dropping MAC shades like dress sizes, and more about reducing dullness and fading discoloration and hyperpigmentation caused by sun exposure. In other words, your natural melanin will remain, but the expression of melanin due to UV damage will be suppressed. The result isn’t a lighter skin color, but a clearer, more even, more glowy, brighter complexion.

The only exceptions I can think of, the only mainstream, OTC K-beauty products that will actually lighten skin, are the ones laced with generous amounts of physical sunscreen ingredients like titanium dioxide. This class of products, easily recognized by the fact that they aren’t sunscreens yet list titanium dioxide high in their ingredients, leave an actual white cast on your skin. On purpose. These products are easily avoided.

Tony Moly Tomatox Magic Massage Pack
For example, I was sent this Tony Moly Tomatox Magic Massage Pack by the Memebox Ambassadors program. I let them know that it’s not something I’m interested in reviewing and have since then happily ignored its existence at the bottom of my “spares and empties” drawer for months. But I knew it would come in handy someday. See? HOARDING VINDICATED. Now back to the drawer you go, white cast cream.

Most people’s health concerns around skin whitening, meanwhile, focus (rightly) on hydroquinone, a powerful skin-lightening active that is banned in many countries due to its potential carcinogenicity. I’ve tried a lot of products and squinted to the point of migraine at a lot of ingredients lists and never once seen it listed. I also checked with the rest of the Snail Unit. None of them have encountered hydroquinone in a Korean skincare product, either. (Interestingly, hydroquinone is used in OTC products made by some Western beauty brands, among them Paula’s Choice.)

Instead of powerful whitening agents like hydroquinone, K-beauty products typically rely on niacinamide, which is also used by many mainstream Western beauty brands, including Olay. You’ll also find plenty of arbutin, a gentler and safer chemical cousin of hydroquinone. (Side note: arbutin products have never worked very well for me.) Again, these are ingredients that inhibit the expression of excess melanin, such as that produced in response to sun exposure. Not ingredients that lighten skin beyond its natural base shade.

If you need any more reassurance that K-beauty isn’t about skin bleaching, look no further than amazing WoC K-beauty bloggers like Dee of adoredee, home of resources like this post on cushion foundations for dark skin, and Sheryll of The Wanderlust Project. Sheryll directly addressed the “whitening”-vs-“brightening” confusion in her review of the OG Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence:

Now, before you ask, yes…this product is touted as a “whitening” product. Rest assured, I have not started, nor will I EVER lighten or bleach my skin. What I’ve actually experienced is that my skin has started to GLOW. Like, glow from within. My skin tone is even and my dark spots have faded. I’ve been using it every day and night for the past 2 months and I assure you I am the same exact color that I was before I started.

So if you’re intrigued by K-beauty but have no desire whatsoever to lighten or bleach your skin, don’t worry! It’s not going to happen, unless you count an unpleasant film of titanium dioxide as skin bleaching.

K-beauty myth 6: The “K-beauty routine” is how all Korean women do it

The myth: You know that mythical 75-step routine that we’ve already discussed and dismissed? According to some sources, that’s how pretty much all Korean women do their skincare, because all Korean women are guru-level skincare experts who are passionately dedicated to their perfect Korean skin.

Who benefits from this myth:

  • International K-beauty shops with a vested interest in pushing a narrative of the monolithic skincare-obsessed Korean Woman and her inherent authority in all things skincare

The reality: This one is pretty easy to put to bed. There is no such thing as the monolithic Korean Woman, diligently splashing on toner and patting on serum in clockwork lockstep every morning and evening, because there is no such thing as the monolithic Any Kind of Woman.

I know I’m not the only one who gets riled up about this myth. A reader named Jennifer left an epic comment on the first half of this post that said many of the things I feel about it. I have to give her credit for helping me crystallize my blind irritation into actual words that people can read. Hey Jennifer! You rock.

There are Korean women who are passionate about their skincare, who check Hwahae and the Naver beauty blogs like most people check Facebook, who research ingredients and carefully curate and adjust their sometimes lengthy personal skincare routines. There are also Korean women whose skincare purchases are driven by marketing claims and ad copy. (You may notice that the products Western K-beauty bloggers love don’t always align with the current bestsellers in Korea, and one major reason is that we’re exposed to a different set of influences and evaluate products in a different cultural and personal context than Korean consumers in Korea. We fall for different kinds of hype and are marketed to in different ways.) There are Korean women with two-step skincare routines (or no skincare routines at all to speak of) and Korean women with 12-step skincare routines. Also, let’s not forget that plenty of Korean men are into skincare as well. They have their own goals and hypes and marketing gimmicks. (Innisfree Extreme Power Military Mask*, anyone?) Korean women aren’t all the same, not when it comes to skincare or anything else, because no [insert nationality here] women, or people, are all the same about anything.

This turned into a rant, and I’m sorry about that, but the Orientalizing vibe of this myth–and the people who push it–really bugs me. It reeks of Ancient Asian Beauty Secrets, it reeks of fetishization, and it reeks even worse because it is sometimes perpetuated by Asian women who should really know better, but are exploiting the myth, and those who believe in it, to sell product.

Don’t fall for a product just because It’s What’s Hot In Korea right now, and don’t fall for the pressure to do things a certain way because That’s How Korean Women Do It. There is no right or wrong way to do K-beauty, except the right way and wrong way determined by your skin, your budget, and your lifestyle.

At the end of the day, the biggest myth of all may be that there’s some “right” path to K-beauty and skincare heaven at all. The right way is the way that works for your skin. Luckily for your skin, the great thing about K-beauty is that your chances of finding the right way are high. All it takes is a little patience and a little understanding. Not of Hangul, but of your skin.

Are there any K-beauty myths I’ve missed? I’d love to talk about them in the comments!


19 thoughts on “6 K-Beauty Myths to Chuck Like a Moldy Cream, Part 2

  1. I once got very worked up on a forum thread about K-Beauty. It started harmlessly enough, where people listed their routines. And then one member commented that there are simply too many steps/products, all that most people need are a cleanser, face cream, and sunscreen. She goes on to say that there could be some skin types that might benefit from a complex routine but the rest “are simply buying into a fantasy dream.” I was so incensed by that sweeping generalization! Not only did her statements ignore the YMMV aspect of skincare in general and the customizability of K-beauty, the implication that K-beauty fans are all mindless buying ineffective products that are actually harming our skin more was infuriating. While there are people who of course buy into hype and marketing, most K-beauty fans I know research ingredients, read through credible and thorough reviews, and objectively assess if the product is working for them before adding it into their routine or chucking it out. And to make the generalization that we are all silly girls wasting out money on a “fantasy”… I. UGGGH. Obviously I am working myself up again.

    So yeah, that’s the K-beauty myth/misconception that I want to debunk and know isn’t true. That we’re all silly girls chasing a unattainable skincare dream and that the multi-step routine is counterproductive (of course, it could be, if you’re not paying attention to how your skin is reacting, but… well, you know what I mean).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Golly, that’s pretty offensive! It reminds me of the original (since revised and softened) Paula’s Choice stance on Kbeauty, that it’s just a fad blah blah blah. And it’s not like Western beauty brands don’t sell plenty of expensive fantasies too!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I don’t know if this is a myth necessarily, but it’s an issue I’ve come upon when trying to beckon friends and family to the dark side. Probably a better way of saying this but:

    “You have to be a scientist and/or STUDY to K Beauty.”

    While I absolutely love nerding out about ingredients, actives and pH levels, I find many eyes glazing over when I start talking about these things in ernest. And forget when I mention my ordering products directly from Korea.

    My passion can make it all seem overwhelming, but the truth is it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s something that might be unintentionally perpetuated by those of us who are deep into the rabbit hole and have that type of drive. There are people out there that just want to buy a product and not put much thought into it. And that’s okay…I guess…hehe. That’s why having some products readily available in places like Sephora is a good thing. One could simply buy a product, try it, and decide whether they like it or not by trial and error without the “insanity” that many of us apply.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a really good point! It can seem to us that being an ingredients freak and very engaged consumer is the norm because of the AB community, but it’s definitely important to remember that it doesn’t have to be that way and Kbeauty can be consumed casually as well. Thanks for bringing that up!

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  3. I love this series. While I have purchased a snail-containing cream (the CosRx), most of my Asian products contain “perfectly normal” ingredients like peptides and acid. I think anyone who tries to use the “Asians have weird beauty practices” argument should be strongly encouraged to read about the beauty habits of some of the Western world’s great beauties, like Empress Sisi of Austria.

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  4. Thanks for the shout-out! Loved Part II of your myths and was nodding my head in agreement. I do love me some ass milk and bee spit though. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I just got into k-beauty about a year ago due to changes in skin during my 40’s. But now, I’m hooked. Reading and listening to the snail cast, you have turned me into a k-beaty junkie (happy junkie) with happy skin!!! Say what they will about the korean skincare routine, the fact is that it works and I have converted many friends to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Loved these posts Fiddy! ↖(^▽^)↗ I see #2 all the time and it drives me nuts – yes, Korean skincare is subject to similar marketing BS and Korean consumers suffer from biases too!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That second reason is the one I despise the most! As a Latin woman who uses Korean skin care I don’t know how many times people have told me this. I always have to explain that it’s just the term they use, doesn’t mean your skin will fall off and immediately turn a different color -.-
    Thanks for part 2! I’m loving this myth buster series 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Just a thought- hydroquinone is only carcinogenic in large doses, the 4% limit (or is it 2%…?) in Western skincare is definitely fine. (There are a couple of scholarly articles on this, and my dad is a doctor and he said it’s fine for the skin.) I don’t know why there’s such a negative stigma around hydroquinone, it’s the gold standard for hyperpigmentation. Some people recommend you take breaks while on it though, and personally it sometimes gives me headaches so I’m a bigger fan of arbutin and niacinimide.


    Liked by 1 person

  9. I have only recently gotten into K Beauty or Asian Beauty, depending on how you want to define it. Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time in /r/skincareaddiction, but I didn’t care if an ingredient was unconventional by what I am used to – I cared if it worked! I think people ignore the YMMV rule so much when they cluck at skincare routines, which is a shame. Constantly refining my routine and carefully trying out products with ingredient lists that look like they will benefit my skin without irritation have been the real cornerstones in making my skin look better. It’s a continuous process and I think a lot of critics forget that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very true and you are totally right about people ignoring YMMV. I still see it a lot on SCA unfortunately, usually in the context of someone dictating to another person that they “don’t need all those products” and just need to use coconut oil and Vaseline. Sigh.


  10. I wish I had pictures of a few of my old coworkers in Seoul (was an English teacher in an elementary school, everybody else on staff was Korean.) For the most part the middle-aged women looked like… middle-aged women. A few liked to put on really cakey foundation in colors that didn’t match the skin on any other part of their bodies. A few others did have really nice skin and did talk about using BB creams and serums and things… but for the most part, the average Korean woman has skin about as nice as the average woman in the US or Canada.

    I did once spend most of a subway ride watching two girls in their late teens do a full 10-step skincare and makeup routine, which was rather impressive. There are definitely women who spend a lot of time on skincare, and it is definitely VERY easy to find skincare shops everywhere (there was a Face Shop in my subway station), but the “kpop idol” look was the exception, not the rule.

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  11. I’m Asian, in my late 20s and discovered Korean skincare just last year (2015). I was once an average girl who does the bland cleanse-tone (the kind of which ‘if it stings then it’s working’ kind of toner, bless me)-moisturize routine (and I didn’t even wear sunscreen then).I must say that Korean skincare products saved my oily/trouble-prone & dehydrated skin. I’ve been into my ever changing routine (depending on the condition of my skin) for almost 7 months now and my skin has never looked and felt this healthier and brighter. My officemates commented that my skin was very nice and glowing, one even asked if I’m doing sessions on diamond peeling (LOL, I don’t even know what that is, I had to google it)! The funny thing was I had a little pimple on the side of my face that one day so I was so happy when they said that. Ever since I invested on Korean skincare, I’ve noticed I used less makeup, occasionally none at all. So if slathering your face with snail goo or fermented ingredients, slipping ginseng root extract what-not serum or bathing your face with some honey or sugar wash off mask are going to earn me impressions or compliments as such, then YES. I’d happily brush off offensive remarks from snobbish ‘beauty experts’ with superior tastes.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I have always wondered and was never able to get an answer….I would like to use a “brightening” product to reduce acne scars, but I am afraid they will also lighten my natural freckles that I have grown to love. Does anyone have any info on this? Thanks!


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