Among online beauty communities, the international community of Asian cosmetics enthusiasts located in, or originally from, the Western hemisphere–commonly known as the Asian Beauty or AB community–is considered one of the friendliest and most drama-free. But there are dark currents of controversy hidden beneath the placid surface of the AB ocean.
Some of those controversies are practical. Are Asian (particularly Korean) skincare products inherently superior to Western ones, to the point where a “real” AB fan should chuck their non-Asian products altogether? And some of those controversies are political and philosophical. Where does appreciation end and appropriation begin? How much does AB owe its cult status in the West to hype that’s fueled by fetishization of “exotic” Asian people and practices?
These are serious topics that deserve serious examination. Today’s guest blogger is Elizabeth Tweed, who blogs thoughtfully about beauty topics (and tea, and more) at Tea Leaves and Tweed. Let’s see what Elizabeth has to say about Asian vs. Western skincare and the challenges of mindfully enjoying AB.
Beauty Globalization: Incorporating Non-Western Beauty Mindfully
Contributed by Elizabeth Tweed of Tea Leaves and Tweed
Those of you who read Fiddy’s blog regularly are no strangers to Asian beauty. Since beginning my own skin care journey years ago, I’ve found myself drawn to Asian products and beauty philosophies. The ritual of applying skin care and the minimalist approach to makeup appeals to my vintage side as well. But incorporating Asian skin care philosophies and products into a Western beauty routine comes with its own special set of pitfalls to navigate, particularly because I am not of Asian descent. I want to draw on these traditions, but not in a way that feels appropriating or exoticizing, which can be a fine line to walk.
Now, the last thing the world needs is to hear the thoughts of another white lady blogger, but I thought perhaps some of Fiddy’s readers would be interested in hearing about my experiences building a routine that includes Asian inspiration, without falling victim to common misconceptions about the Asian beauty world.
I can’t remember exactly how I found Korean (and later Asian) beauty, but I know it was from a Western-focused beauty website. I had recently discovered the joys of hydration and so I devoured these stories of many layers of hydration and plump, glowing skin. I fell hook, line, and sinker for that dewy skin glow. I had already discovered Sephora sheet masks and so my first “Asian Beauty” purchases were two sets of Korean sheet masks.
From there, hydrated and enabled, I fell down the rabbit hole of the Reddit Asian Beauty community. I bought snails. I bought ferments. I bought gel-creams and so many sunscreens. And so, so many sheet masks. I even came up with a great way to both store my sheet masks and enable myself to buy more.
At some point, I realized that I was becoming one of those people. You know, the ones who go looking for Asian replacements for their entire current routine. The ones who think that Asian is better. The ones who think that bee spit and snail slime are going to magically cure their acne.
The ones who buy Asian products for the sake of buying Asian products.
And that’s when I took a big step back to look at my big picture. You see, as a white lady, I’m immensely privileged to be able to dabble in all sorts of culture without ever having to suffer the negative consequences of actually being a member of that group. Which means that it can become really easy to fall into fetishization and exoticization without really realizing it (here is a really good discussion of what I mean). And I was tiptoeing ever closer to that line.
So I decided to take stock of my skin care routine and determine what I was using because it was really and truly a product and effect that I couldn’t find elsewhere, and what I was using because of hype or exoticization. And, yeah, it meant facing some things that didn’t really make me feel like a very good person. It’s important to sometimes feel like an asshole. It’s how we grow.
I’ve come out the other side with a globe-spanning routine of products that are chosen on their own merit.
Ironically enough, I got to this place using a variation of popular Japanese lifestyle guru Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering. Each product I had or wanted to try had to pass this test: Does the product thrill me or does the idea of the product thrill me?
For products I already owned, this meant being honest with myself about what it was really doing for me versus what I imagined while using it. For products I wanted to try, it was about what I expected of the ingredients versus climbing aboard the hype train.
An example of this would be my propolis serum. I was convinced that this was a gentle, hydrating way of helping with my occasional hormonal spots. In reality, I just liked the idea of using this pale golden liquid in a fancy apothecary bottle, chock full of ingredients that make me feel like Cleopatra or something. Azelaic acid has been ten times more effective at controlling my breakouts, even though it’s so not sexy. I still like propolis, but I save it for an occasional sheet mask for some immediate soothing.
This also made me think about what products Asian brands really do well.
- Sunscreen. This is number one, because I really and truly believe that Asian sunscreens are superior in most ways to other sunscreens. They’re more effective because they use more advanced filters than American sunscreens, and they’re cheaper than French sunscreens. And because Asian people really do wear sunscreen every single day, there is a lot of market competition for cosmetically elegant formulations. So my go-to sunscreen is still a Shiseido SPF 50 PA++++ that gets shipped from Japan.
- Snails/ferments/propolis/ginseng. If you have a skin issue that is really and truly helped by one of these ingredients, it makes sense to get it from an Asian brand. Particularly ginseng. Korean ginseng was once a form of currency. It’s their thing. Koreans know their ginseng. Korean ginseng products actually smell like ginseng. I limit my ginseng to what’s in my toner and what’s in my sheet masks.
- Traditional herbal medicine-inspired products: I think this deserves a mention apart from the previous thing because I’ve found that Asian brands really do herbal products right. Examples of these would be Hanbang or Ayurvedic products. When an Asian brand does an herbal product, they aren’t stingy. Unlike American brands that are nominally “herbal” but still clear, many Asian herbal products are obviously the natural color of the herb, often brown. And because herbal treatments are considered less of a fringe, Asian herbal products often don’t avoid the chemicals that make mainstream products more effective, unlike American health food store brands.
- Light, hydrating layers. This isn’t your Clinique 3-Step system, guys. I have two or three cleansing steps (counting toning) and then many more steps of hydration. If you have oily skin, applying light layers of hydration beats out one rich cream. If you have dry skin, you’re going to absorb moisture so much more if you layer under that rich cream anyway. This includes mists, by the way. While a lot of Korean mists are just fragrance for your face, there are plenty of formulations that are just diluted serum in a spray bottle. I keep one at my desk to spritz when I’m feeling dry, whether it’s from winter air or air conditioning. And I have yet to find a real replacement for an Asian “essence” or “lotion” step that isn’t explicitly inspired by Asian products anyway. Might as well buy from the source, right?
- Oil Cleansers. While Americans were mucking about mixing castor oil and olive oil and steaming the concoction off their faces, DHC and Shu Uemura were making cult-favorite cleansing oils. Now everyone and their mother makes a cleansing oil, but I find that the utilitarian nature of Asian brands’ oils makes them superior. Asian brands tend not to shy away from mineral oil, and they don’t usually try to shove in lots of extras. I’m not using this oil to nourish my skin; I’m trying to dissolve my mascara into black puddles and rinse it off my face efficiently. While some Asian cleansing oils provide some sort of sensory experience, for the most part they focus more on attacking makeup and sunscreen and less on ingredients that are there for “label appeal.” The only reason I’m not still using my previous favorite from Kose is because they reformulated it to include an oil that is common to oil cleansers but happens to make me break out.
So there are plenty of things that Asian brands have to offer to the skin care world apart from just the whiz-bang factor of something new, different, and outlandish. But on the flip side of that is the list of things that I really think Western brands excel at. That’s not to say that no Asian brands offer them, just that it’s not necessary to import items from Asia unless you’ve tried the ones available domestically.
- Over-the-counter actives. I’m talking about chemical exfoliators and retinoids. Whether it’s because Asian women only treat their skin with the feather-lightest of touches or because dermatological treatment is more accessible and less expensive in some Asian countries, there aren’t a lot of truly effective active products from Asian brands. I’m not going to settle for something just because it’s from an Asian brand. If I want an acid, I’m going Western. I currently use azelaic as my regular acid treatment, with a biweekly 30% glycolic peel, both from Western brands.
- Low-pH water-based cleansers. The simple fact is that most of the beauty gurus and brands in Asia (particularly Korea, China, and Japan) just haven’t gotten on the low-pH bandwagon. I happen to know my skin reacts poorly to high-pH cleansers, so my second cleanser is Western and pH 4.5.
- Non-active, science-based ingredients. I’m mostly talking about ceramides here, but also hyaluronic acid. If you want multiple weights of hyaluronic acid, yes, the Hada Labo products are fantastic. But you don’t need to wait for shipping from Japan. It’s a bit more expensive, but Hylamide’s products are also chock full of multi-molecular weight hyaluronic acid ingredients. I also stick to Western brands for things like peptides simply because I don’t think there’s anything particularly ground-breaking coming out of Asia that I can’t get by using a product that comes from closer to home. It’s not that the Asian products are bad, and if I ever moved to Japan, that’s probably what I’d use. But for little old American me? I can get my science from Canada and the US. As far as ceramides are concerned, while most Asian moisturizers don’t tend to treat shea butter as a given in creams, the ceramide moisturizers are often formulated for very dry skin and come hand-in-hand with shea butter, which I can’t use. I’ll take my Liquid Gold and CeraVe, thanks.
- Thayer’s toner. I thought I’d make a special mention of this product because it’s an interesting special case. Thayer’s toner is like a beauty diplomat. Despite the fact that I generally prefer hydrating toners and essences from Asian brands, Thayer’s toner is actually a favorite in Korea. They even make a mist product that is only sold in Asia because there’s such a culture of mist hydrating that doesn’t happen in the US. So if you’re in the health food store in the US, you can buy yourself an honest-to-goodness, popular-in-Korea product without worrying about shipping times or websites. It’s right there on the shelf.
- Small start-up beauty brands: This includes brands like Glossier, Stratia, or Holy Snails. These are brands who are started by women who are active in the online skin care community, and even the Asian beauty community in particular, but they are not actually from Asia. But they make wonderful products, coming from a place where the consumer can feel closer to the product’s conception than when buying a product from a major brand. I think it’s important to remember the little guy when choosing skin care.
Okay, so now I had a framework of what I actually liked from Asian brands and where I could stick with my Western brands, in general. But I didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s true that, from the time I was a spotty teenager, I’ve been told that minimalist skin care is queen. The myth goes that French women achieve glowing skin with nothing but a splash of water and some Embryolisse. Clinique claims you can have perfect skin in three easy steps. My aunt’s friend’s cousin has the best skin you’ve ever seen and she does the Caveman method. And of course, women use 463 products every day and are absorbing all sorts of “toxic chemicals” from them. Minimalist is better. Simple is better. “Chemical-free” is better.
No. I say no to that.
Give me ten layers of watery hydration and a bit of emulsion to seal it in before I put on my (chemical) sunscreen over any 3-step system. Water is the essence of skin, or something.
So I’m going to stick with my multi-step, layered skin care routine; I’m just going to use a mix of products from around the world to do it. So I might use my American cleanser, French clay mask, British toner, Korean essence, Canadian serum, and Japanese sunscreen all in the same routine. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’re not less “AB” because you don’t use all Asian products. The bottom line is to figure out what your skin wants, what your skin needs, and what you’re just using because it seems cool, whether that’s a mix-it-yourself copper peptide serum that’s a neat shade of blue or a gel made from 96% mucin from very coddled and not-at-all-abused snails.
NB: All products I mention in this article are either purchased by me or not purchased at all. I haven’t received any of these products in exchange for a mention or review, and I, Elizabeth, am not sponsored by any of the Fifty Shades of Snail sponsors. In addition to Fiddy, I would also like to thank Tracy at Fanserviced-B, Cat at Snow White and the Asian Pear, Stephen of Kind of Stephen, and the Redditors of r/AsianBeauty for being my guides and companions on my beauty journey.
Elizabeth Tweed blogs about beauty, tea, and whatnot at her blog Tea Leaves and Tweed. She lives in the US with her fiancé , who barely moisturizes, and their very talkative cat.
19 thoughts on “Guest Post: On Asian Beauty Hype, Appropriation, and a Global Skincare Routine”
Such a wonderful read…
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This post was extremely thoughtful and informativ, so thank you for sharing. I’m happy to have a new blogger to follow! 🙂
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I feel this is wrongly titled. I don’t exactly thing it’s appropriate for a white person to decide what appropriation is for Asian people. And it doesn’t even touch on the fetishisation or exoticism it can troublingly lead into.
This feels more like a general post around how skincare is skincare regardless of where the product originates from.
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I actually agree with you. I want to point out that the header title with “appropriation” and the intro paragraphs were actually written by Jude, not me, so no white-lady appropriation preaching from me. And I only barely touched on fetishization by linking to a reddit post by an actual non-white person because I felt like her words carry more weight than mine. I hope you’ll take a look at it if you’re interested specifically in those issues. You’re right; my post is more about how skincare is skincare, but that seems to be a message that sometimes gets lost in the Western version of Asian-inspired beauty.
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This is such a wonderful and mindful post!
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With humour, I was expecting a far more salacious read, replete with sinister exposés of the Asian beauty scene. The article is a very well-written viewpoint; yes, it makes sense to find what works for you and not limit yourself to one approach/skincare brand/product source. I would kindly remind readers that similar fetishization (sp?) of beauty care has happened in earlier eras, it’s just the age of Asia right now, so to speak. I vividly remember in my youth that skin cream from France was spoken of in the same eager, awed tones I hear today when Korean skincare is discussed…and I still see evidence of that same mindset: in 2006 The French beauty industry reported 6.5 billion Euros per FIPAR (Fédération des Industries de la Parfumerie – source Wikipedia); the industry has sustained about 40 years of continuous growth.
We all love that moment of discovery, when something we find actually works, removes our pimples, softens our wrinkles, or gives us the dewy glow we had when our bodies were in an optimum growth phase.
I’m all for treating the biggest organ of our body with the care it deserves. it’s not only a barrier to keep us from harm, it’s the physical expression of who we are inside. I’d love it if I didn’t have to wear BB cream and color my brows; but until I can master magic, or science finds a marketable way to stop aging, I am going to search and find skincare that works…for me.
Ms. Tweed put a lot of thought into her skincare; she was very introspective in asking herself to be truthful about using what works vs. using something for the psychological benefit. Her choices are a beautiful mix of what fits her skin care needs at this point in her life.
I empathize and agree wholeheartedly with her. I didn’t jump on using Hanyang skincare just because it was Korean and an esthetician in Seoul hoped I’d give her sister some sales, it was because I thought it had a good chance of working for me. I’d seen an acupuncturist back home, and had taken Chinese Traditional Medicine herbs on prescription( a minor illness). They worked. If these herbs healed on the inside, why not try on the outside?
All in all, I enjoyed this article immensely. Hope to hear more later.
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I really stick to what I can find that’s Western and what I can find easier in Eastern beauty products, but from a practical standpoint? I don’t want to have to ship my entire routine every time I run out. If I can find it affordably in a local store I think it’s fine. My first cleanser is Eastern but there’s a Western product I want to try, my second cleanser is Western because all it’s doing is getting dirt off my face, my toner is Eastern, my serums are actually all Western but there are many Eastern brands I’m dying to try, I splurged on an Eastern lotion because it smelled nice and it was my birthday but I will likely switch to Western, and my sunscreen is Eastern because I live in the desert. I am so conflicted on the appropriation portion of the post. I was raised in a mixed household where two cultures blended. It’s actually painful for me in a world where everything is US versus THEM because I am us but I’m also them, and someone always wants me to hate half of who I am for one reason or another. I even get hate in two languages from both sides of my culture for not quite fitting in! I literally cannot win. As a result I think the whole institution of calling out appropriation and trying to police cultures is kind of dumb. Cultures are going to mix whether you want them to or not and I say bring it on. Maybe if we all had more in common there’d be less for us to fight about.
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Growing up in a very diverse community, the only way that I have seen to reduce racism is to embrace other cultures, learn everything you can, and be as respectful of others as you can. As soon as you make divisions, that is when you see strife and conflict. With this in mind, simply purchasing a product from another country is not cultural appropriation. It’s called importing something. I don’t believe most American women are “fetishizing” Asians when they purchase something internationally. If the product works, it works. If not, toss it. However, when American cosmetics make their versions of innovations from other nations and do not give them credit, I tend to trust them even less than I do already. I’m sorry, but Maybelline is NOT going to replace my Hera cushion! Also, I’ve suffered from acne and dermatitis since my teens until I began using skincare products from Taiwan, Japan, and Korea. Western skincare always worsened the problem. In many arenas, large American companies just can’t compete! Anyway, shout out to Holy Snails Shop for creating quality formulas right here at home!
I think Asian skincare focus more on moisture even for acne, while other part of world propose a lot of drying stuff, not gentle at all. I have acne-prone skin and tried different stuff also:) btw, what Hera cushio do you use? just uv mist or longstay matt?
That’s a fantastic post. I totally agree. I should say I was also very excited about asian beauty products and wanted to try more and more but didn’t have much opportunity. But actually my first asian products were from Japan, because we had them sold locally in one store. My mom started to buy Japanese stuff and later Korean creams, hair care and body care. She loves creams, sleeping masks and patches. She sees great results. I tried haircare from my mom and I should say what I tried was very good. My hair is fine but everything suited me very good, my hair was smooth and soft but not heavy. My experience with llots of european shampoos filled with oils that they weigh my hair down. Now myself I use mix of french pharmacy brands and korean skincare. I love love oil cleanser, patches, sheet masks, aloe gels(which are cheaper than european ones) and snail cream (my oily skin likes it). I also found out there are a lot of products with niacinamide in asian skincare and I like that ingredients. Of course, you can find it in products of other countries, but they tend to be more expensive, at least in comparison, where I live. 🙂
I respect the quality of the actual filters in Korean and Japanese sunscreens, and so many of the face formulas really are a joy to use. But I just have such a hard time finding one that’s free of my no-no ingredients, will work under makeup, and will not dry out my skin more. Unfortunately, I found way too many Asian sunscreens loaded with drying alcohol or fragrance, so I had to make my way back to the altar of La Roche Posay.
I so very much hate the word “appropriation”. Why can’t we use the word “appreciation” instead? I first was interested in finding a routine & products that didn’t dry my skin, and to see if I could find good products for my 17 YO’s skin, which is acting up. And finding that some products works for both of us? She likes the Neutrogena facial oil, I am trying Trader Joe’s version. We use Tony Moly for cleansing, rosewater for toner & she uses tea tree for spots. I use argan & coconut oils for moisturizer right now, but am excited to try others when I can. I have seen improvement in her skin & she is thrilled. I still need to get an Eastern sunblock & convince her to use one also. But Eastern & Western skincare is something I am having fun with. Yes, skin care is important, but as in cooking, use items from different cultures to try something new, then incorporate it. As wonderful as many of the Eastern products are, what has fascinated me is the routine. And I love the masks..too fun. But isn’t America supposed to be the big melting pot where we can try out different things and incorporate it?
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There is world peace on my face. Asian and Western brands happily co-existing and giving me the best skin that I can have. Let’s view skin care products as just that. Let the ingredients and the effect of it on you stand on it’s own merit and not whether it came from the West or from Asia. It doesn’t really matter which country made it as long as it works. Cheers to a beautiful us.
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East Asians have exported unique goods for hundreds of years and exude enormous soft power. I find it laughable (no, cringeworthy) to claim that they are hurt by Western consumerism, especially because Asians are notoriously thick-skinned compared to other POC and whites are excessively guilt-ridden (case in point: Karlie Kloss’ geisha outfit that outraged white people but elicited mostly calm indifference from Japan). The AB community has always been in pursuit of materialistic gratification over (the very misleading term) “skin health.” If you want to stop superficiality from influencing people’s purchasing decisions, then don’t even call yourself an AB fanatic, or muse about pretty packaging. Let’s not forget that preventing wrinkles is an inherently narcissistic concept, and that most of us are not just trying to maintain hygiene, but beauty. Sure, you can argue that indulging in skincare has psychological benefits, but you’re merely excusing a form of escapism. Overall, I do find this article informative, especially for newbies, but it lacks the sociopolitical perspective to just briefly mention a loaded concept like “appropriation” multiple times. Fiddy has promised in the past to keep such contentious topics out of her website, so I’m gravely disappointed to find such terms here. I’m not interested in advancing my own ideas here either, and I’m extremely sorry if I’m making anyone uncomfortable. I’m just trying to make a point that this is not the place to talk about such things!
Beautifully said!!! I love AB comunity on IG (so many wonderfull ladies from all over the world-they are funny,compasionate & want to help ….I personaly love western & asian products equaliy (if it works I’m keeping it….pretty bottles are nice but I’m not sentimental).
Fiddy, I have been pouring over your blog like a crazy person, and I have loved and appreciated every post, except this one. This one a totally makes me want to vomit. I find it highly offensive. I’m so sick of self deprecating white people apologizing for being white while enjoying the beauties of other cultures. The guest author wrote, “Now, the last thing the world needs is to hear the thoughts of another white lady blogger. . . .” Really?! That is a pretty racist statement. As a white woman with a black family, I’ve had it with the highly dramatized race “issues” that aren’t even issues. It’s not a big deal for white people to like, use, and talk about the products of other cultures. My son, who’s a black American, loves all things Japanese, because he grew up watching anime. So I bought him a Japanese tea set. Is that cultural appropriation? No, because who cares. Personally, I wish we would all stop seeing each other in distinct groups that are inherently different (that’s othering) and just see each other as humans with lots of unique gifts to share equally with the world, and even with white people. The more we see each other as different races, the more prevalent racism will be.
I have read over my comment and I find it a bit more harsh than I intended. For that I am sorry. Let’s officially strike from the record the line about wanting to vomit and replace the words “I’m so sick of” with “I’m annoyed with” in a following line. The meat of my message still stands, though and I hope you’ll consider it.
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