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
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.
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.
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.
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!