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Move over American beauty brands—there’s a new guy in town.
It’s everywhere—in the aisles at the local drugstore, at Sephora and Ulta retailers. It’s spreading like a disease, claiming the shelves that once belonged to prestigious American beauty brands. Korean beauty, affectionately called K-beauty, is taking over the U.S. market.
The takeover has been relatively easy for Korean suppliers: consumers in the beauty market are begging for more innovative, healthy beauty products. They seek the new and sleek designs of the future. And the demand is especially high when it comes to skincare. According to an article published on birchbox.com, this is because Korean skincare is tied to technological advancement and Korean companies are consistently ahead of the curve.
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As a result, Korean beauty brands have introduced BB creams, facial cleansing waters, and revolutionary facemasks to the American marketplace, pushing all other contenders aside.
“The way we look at our makeup, especially skincare, is definitely changing,” said Shelby Rose, a long-standing Sephora employee. “People are more concerned with their skin and how they are going to look in the future, so we are seeing more and more people investing in higher quality products. We’ve also seen more customers asking for Asian skincare.”
Brands that have seen an extraordinary amount of success in America are Amorepacific and Dr.Jart. Other companies, such as Innisfree, are trying to build a following online. These K-beauty brands are some of the most competitive, offering low prices for large amounts of product. Surprisingly, the quality of the product has not suffered because of the low costs.
For Michelle Long, who has been buying K-beauty products for over a year, this is just one of the many reasons she is a loyal customer.
“The products I am getting shipped here have very similar and much higher concentrations of ingredients that I seek in my skincare. I have no problem paying for that shipping either, because it’s still cheaper than getting something similar here in America,” said Long.
However, increased demand and maintaining customer loyalty aren’t the only things aiding in K-beauty’s success. The support from Korean government officials and how people view beauty play major roles in its growth.
In what seems like an unlikely situation, the Korean government fully backs K-beauty. It is one of the few industries that aren’t taxed in Korea. This is because the government knows how lucrative the market is, and is willing to do anything to get shares in the American marketplace.
“I actually wish we had more K-beauty brands in the [Coral Ridge] mall,” said Hannah Lock, a senior at University of Iowa. She said that she does ample research online to see all of her options.
In her research, Lock has found success by reading K-beauty reviews. But her favorite way of getting information is through YouTube beauty gurus. At no charge, viewers can go online, click on a video, and research products they are interested in trying. What’s made this option so appealing is the fact that these gurus have the “real factor”—they aren’t forced to give products good reviews, they aren’t dedicated to one brand, and they try on the products that get camera time.
“We live in a time when we have more opportunities to learn about what is good and what is bad,” said Rose. “And learning about something new like K-beauty invites exploration. It’s completely different than what Americans are used to seeing.”
American skincare is a streamlined process, usually involving a face wash, treatment and moisturizer all from the same brand. Simple routines are often favored over complex, which may or may not involve serums, wrinkle treatments, or masks. The standardized way of caring for skin is reinforced by most dermatologists.
“We saw a lot of the same issues across clients,” said Marti Goldstern, a retired Dermatologist that practiced at ForeFront Dermatology in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Acne was one of the most common issues. Regardless of the skin ailment, most dermatologists recommend gentle, non-comodegenic products. “We really focus on simplicity and tailoring skincare to the type of skin we are dealing with,” said Goldstern. She added that simplicity is “king”.
So how come K-beauty is so popular when it is notably more complex and expensive?
It all comes back to innovation and ingredients. K-beauty boasts of healthy ingredients like natural oils, vitamins, and high amounts of sunscreen, which are easy to identify because Korean brands have much more transparent packaging.
This is where American brands fail. They don’t have informative packaging and their biggest mistake is using the wrong ingredients, or very little. U.S. brands also utilize ingredients that are banned in other countries. For instance, titanium dioxide, which is used in American products as a sunscreen, is banned in many European countries. The ingredient was deemed “unsafe” and “unfit” for use.
“Obviously there is more allure when we are exposed to things we have never tried,” said Lock. “But I think more people are willing to put time into the health of their skin, especially since sun damage and skin cancer are so prevalent.”
Korean skin regimens are known for being indulgent and drawn out. The average skincare routine consists of 10 to 17 products. Most routines are still what Goldstern would call “streamlined.” They begin by washing the face and then put on products based on their thickness and absorbability. Water based serums go on first, followed by thick creams. To finish, a thick moisturizer or night mask is applied to the skin.
Jin Pak, a freshman at the UI, said there are other parts of her routine that are just as important as the products themselves. “I try to drink a lot of water and eat foods that will make my skin plump,” she said. The habit was formed at an early age, mostly because of her mother’s guiding hand. Pak’s mother always spoke to the importance of taking care of her body and her face.
“In Korea, skin says a lot about who you are. Your social standing is revealed through your skin. Those who have clear, pale skin are considered high class,” Pak said. She added that it was a shock coming to America because people were “so dark” and seemed “burnt” all the time. She thought they looked unhealthy and sick.
America has heard the message loud and clear.
The rise of information about skin health has changed the way people look at skin. There is more effort to be health conscious, to protect the epidermis, and give skin what it needs.
“It’s evident—people are obsessed. And the answer is looking us straight in the face—it’s K-beauty,” said Rose.
Victoria Vaughn is the Editor-in-Chief of the UI Verge Campus Chapter. She is a senior at the University of Iowa, majoring in Journalism and Marketing. She has worked for the Daily Iowan, The University of Iowa's school of journalism and mass communication, Her Campus, and Fiterazzi Magazine. Her favorite subjects to write about are health, beauty, and local events. She is specializing in newsprint and investigative journalism.