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An introduction to Taiwanese beauty

From gua sha stones to ginger root face oils, the small but growing T-beauty industry is gaining popularity. And it's a way to treat yourself at home.
Image: A Taiwanese woman touches her face; beauty products including moisturizer, sheet masks and gua sha stones.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

As the Korean cosmetics industry tops $10 billion in the U.S., a lesser-known Asian skin care practice is also gaining popularity: Taiwanese beauty, or T-beauty.

While Taiwan, long considered a manufacturing powerhouse across multiple industries, has been manufacturing Japanese beauty brands such as Shiseido and Kao for decades, it wasn’t until the 2000s that the island began exporting its own skin care brands and gaining international recognition for them, most notably My Beauty Diary. Even though it’s still a small segment of the $500 billion global beauty industry, Taiwanese cosmetic exports are growing each year, totaling $730 million in 2017, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Annie Wang, founder of Glowie Co, an Asian beauty e-commerce website in the U.S. with an extensive selection of Taiwanese beauty products, said the Taiwanese beauty movement is quickly making inroads in the U.S.

“Taiwanese beauty has been gaining traction in the U.S.,” Wang told NBC Asian America. “Taiwanese brands are definitely still harder to find in the U.S. compared to Japanese and Korean brands, but our sales for Taiwanese beauty have been growing month over month.”

Even throughout the coronavirus pandemic, she said sales remain strong.

“We’ve noticed our makeup sales fall but our skin care sales grow due to the fact that many people are spending more time at home and looking for activities or ways to treat themselves,” Wang said. “There are many skin care products you can use at home to pamper yourself, such as sheet masks or foot masks.”

From gua sha stones to ginger root face oils, here’s a look at the latest beauty trend.

What is Taiwanese beauty?

Unlike the time-consuming and complex rituals of its Korean counterpart, the Taiwanese beauty movement focuses on a simple, holistic approach to skin care by using high-quality, natural ingredients and techniques rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. Many consumers are drawn to this pared-down, more natural approach, which includes four steps: cleanse, tone, moisturize and sheet mask.

Many of the techniques and ingredients used in Taiwanese beauty products also benefit from Taiwan’s high manufacturing and regulatory standards, including becoming one of first countries in Asia to ban animal testing in cosmetics, in 2016.

“Taiwan only has a small handful of beauty manufacturing facilities,” said Jude Chao, a Taiwanese American beauty influencer. “There’s a baseline of quality and effectiveness that you don’t see in larger markets like Korea or Japan, where there’s much bigger variance between manufacturers.”

These high standards give Chao confidence in trying products from new or unfamiliar Taiwanese brands.

“If I see it’s made in Taiwan, I know it’s going to be good,” she said.

T-beauty steps

Cleanse and tone

The first step is to clean away the makeup, dirt, pollution and stress of the day.

For Taiwanese American actress-turned-beauty-entrepreneur Jennifer Yen, this is one of the most important parts of her skin care routine. She helped pioneer Taiwanese beauty in the U.S. when she founded Purlisse in 2008, which she was inspired to do after spending 15 hours a day on set under heavy makeup.

“It wrecked my skin. I tried everything and nothing worked until I rediscovered my grandmother’s rituals,” Yen said, recalling the way her grandmother washed her face with soy milk.

Now, Yen offers products such as Purlisse’s blue lotus cleansing milk with soy milk and white tea to rejuvenate and maintain skin elasticity.

Other popular cleansing and toning products include LOVEISDERMA's gentle foaming cleanser for sensitive skin and toner to balance the skin’s pH, and Naruko’s tea tree shine control and blemish clear toner to prevent breakouts.

Image: The beauty company Purlisse, created by Taiwanese American actress Jennifer Yen, offers products such as blue lotus cleansing milk that incorporate traditional ingredients like soy milk and white tea.
The beauty company Purlisse, created by Taiwanese American actress Jennifer Yen, offers products such as blue lotus cleansing milk that incorporate traditional ingredients like soy milk and white tea.Purlisse


Yen said she also uses her grandmother’s white tea in Purlisse’s blue lotus balancing moisturizer and matcha green tea antioxidant priming moisturizer. A light moisturizer preps the skin for the sheet mask to come.

“Americans are embracing the rituals and superfoods that have been used by generations of women from Taiwan,” she said.

Naruko’s Taiwan magnolia brightening and firming serum with vitamin C is another moisturizer with natural ingredients.

Sheet mask

Arguably the most important step in the Taiwanese beauty regimen is the sheet mask. Often made of gentle, plant-based materials like cotton, tencel and cellulose soaked in nutrient-packed serums, sheet masks are placed on the face for 15 to 30 minutes, so the serum can penetrate more deeply into the skin.

The craze in Taiwan can be traced back to the brand My Beauty Diary, created in 2004 and still the most prolific producer of sheet masks in Taiwan. While Taiwanese beauty brands still aren’t common in the U.S., websites such as YesStyle offer many, including Annie’s Way silk and jelly masks and SOFNON organic sunscreen.

Kate Kimmerle helped bring the sheet mask trend from Asia to U.S. retailers in 2014 with her line of Miss Spa sheet masks, which offers more than two dozen sheet masks. All of her products are manufactured in Taiwan and were developed alongside medical doctors.

“The Taiwanese are so meticulous and really understood and cared about the integrity of our custom formulations,” she said.

Image: Arguably the most important step in the Taiwanese beauty regimen is the sheet mask, which are sold by companies such as Purlisse, created by Taiwanese American actress Jennifer Yen.
Arguably the most important step in the Taiwanese beauty regimen is the sheet mask, which are sold by companies such as Purlisse, created by Taiwanese American actress Jennifer Yen.Purlisse

T-beauty products and practices

Gua sha

Thousands of years old, gua sha is a practice inspired by traditional Chinese medicine that’s recently become trendy in the U.S. It involves scraping a flat surface with rounded edges — traditionally jade or rose quartz, but even a soup spoon can work — across the face to relax muscles and promote lymphatic drainage.

Leah Kirpalani, founder of the San Diego clean beauty emporium Shop Good, said jade and rose quartz gua sha stones are her best-selling skin tools.

“Our clients will see increased blood circulation and suppleness while decreasing fine lines and evening skin tone, all the while moving out any stagnation in the skin,” she said.

Asian botanical superfoods

After giving birth to her daughter, Yen of Purlisse began the Chinese postpartum practice of confinement. Her mother cooked her chicken soup with black chicken, shiitake mushrooms, black rice and black seaweed and incorporated black sesame in smoothies and other dishes. She credits this diet for clearing up her troubled skin.

“These ingredients brought vitality and radiance back into my skin,” she said.

In 2018, Yen created the beauty line YENSA, which combines these same superfoods with complexion cosmetics. She sources her black sesame oil from Taiwan and notes that all of these superfood ingredients can be found at Asian supermarkets.

Even those with no connection to Taiwan are using similar techniques.

Medical esthetician Holly Cutler, who owns a medical spa in Michigan, has never been to Taiwan, but several of her products and treatments draw upon traditional Chinese medicine ingredients, including burdock root to fight acne, mulberry to lighten the skin and rare snow mushroom extract for moisture.

The verdict

Taiwanese beauty and its ethos of a streamlined skin care regimen drawing on pure botanical ingredients could be the next big beauty trend as people look for simple, effective routines that celebrate natural beauty. The ancient wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine-inspired practices dovetails with the current move away from high-tech lasers, science-fiction facials and strong chemicals toward natural beauty products.

Many Taiwanese beauty ingredients and traditions are even starting to move into the mainstream. Ginger root is now found in Kiehl’s daily reviving concentrate and Naturopathica’s ginger clarifying concentrate, while rice is a popular ingredient in Western brands such as Chantecaille’s rice and geranium foaming cleanser and Dermalogica’s daily microfoliant.