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Over the past few years, Korean beauty (or K-beauty) has exploded in popularity. Known for its gentle but highly effective ingredients and innovative formulas, the Korean beauty industry is currently among the top 10 global beauty markets — in 2017, it was worth over $13 billion, according to market research firm Mintel. And that interest only seems to be growing — another trend forecasting company, Prophecy Market Insights, projects the Korean beauty industry will be worth $31.6 billion by 2029.
While K-beauty products have always existed in Korea, they hit the U.S. in 2011. Licensed estheticians Charlotte Cho and Alicia Yoon, founders of Soko Glam and Peach & Lily, respectively, have both contributed greatly to the growth and visibility of Korean beauty in the United States. Cho helped popularize the now-notorious “10-step routine” that has become synonymous with K-beauty, while Yoon brought her Peach & Lily K-beauty products to more than 2,100 CVS stores across the country. And the experts we consulted believe that as this facet of the skincare industry has grown, so has the understanding of Korean culture in the U.S. “I think it's great that the K-beauty is here because it's another avenue by which to share cultural knowledge, tolerance and understanding between people,” said Christina Lee Chung, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group.
To help you navigate the expansive world that is K-beauty, we consulted board-certified dermatologists and the founders of leading K-beauty brands for some advice on getting started. We also got some specific product recommendations from those experts and compiled a few of our own highly rated options that are in line with their guidance.
SKIP AHEAD Best K-beauty products
The 10-step K-beauty routine: A beginner's guide
The 10-step K-beauty routine is a multi-step skincare routine that Cho played a large part in introducing to the United States. And though the name suggests otherwise, you don’t have to do all 10 steps to achieve results. “Think of the 10-step as more of a guideline, and not a hard rule to follow,” Cho said. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to K-beauty, and depending on your skin type, there are various products you can combine to achieve the results you want.
If you’re unsure where to start or are looking for a specific type of product, consider these recommendations from Chung and Jane Yoo, two board-certified Korean dermatologists — we compiled additional and highly-rated options based on their guidance, too. In addition to sharing their favorite products, they also laid out the proper techniques to apply the products correctly.
The first step in the 10-step routine is “double cleansing,” which involves wiping your face with an oil-based cleanser and following up with a water-based cleanser.
1. Makeup Remover
For a gentle makeup remover, consider this one by The Face Shop, which has a 4.4-star average rating from almost 6,000 Amazon shoppers. Because the product is enriched with vitamin B and minerals, it not only gently removes impurities, but also helps calm irritated skin, according to the brand.
For best results, the dermatologists we spoke to advised applying the product to dry skin in a circular motion to dissolve makeup and then rinsing with water.
2. Water-based cleanser
This product is formulated with 85 percent active hydrogen mineral water, which is mineral water infused with hydrogen gas. Hydrogen water is known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, according to the experts we spoke to. Dr. Jart+’s water gently removes dirt and other impurities. Additionally, this product helps tone and brighten, according to the brand.
“Koreans want to make sure that you're lifting up and around,” advised Chung. “We have a tradition about how you start down like at the bottom next to your chin and then you move your way up over your cheekbones. It’s a gentle, circular motion.”
NEOGEN’s formula is made with green tea extract, a natural antioxidant that helps tighten the skin’s elasticity, according to the brand. In addition, the 100 percent cotton pads gently slough off the dead, dull top layer of the skin. While the Wine version has a 4.6-star average rating from over 2,000 Amazon shoppers, NEOGEN also offers a Lemon formula that touts brightening qualities, according to the brand.
However, it is worth mentioning that exfoliators aren’t a necessary step in everyone’s skin care routine as they can irritate the skin and cause breakouts for some, Chung explained. “If you have acne-prone skin, it's a step you may want to skip,” she explained. “And if you don't have acne-prone skin, I wouldn't do it more than once or twice a week.”
The next step uses a toner to remove the last traces of dirt and impurities. Additionally, toners help prep your skin by allowing the skin’s barrier to retain more of your moisture from creams and serums.
While some skincare waters can leave a sticky residue, this one by HERA does not, Chung shared. She recommends this product because “it has great absorption, leaves no residue and leaves skin looking even and bright.” Made with extracts of narcissus flower, leaf and root, the product provides deep hydration for glowy skin, according to the brand. To apply, start with a clean face, and then Chung advised to “put a few drops on your face and pat it [in].”
After you finish toning, move to essence. For those who are unfamiliar with essences, they are “products that are packed with fermented ingredients and mostly serve to nourish and hydrate the skin,” according to Cho.
5. Essence (Skin care)
This essence is made with sodium hyaluronate, which helps the skin retain up to 1,000 times its weight in water, according to the brand. The formula also has hydrolyzed collagen, which is meant to stimulate supple and plump skin.
Treatments can be anything from serums and ampoules to boosters and they can treat anything from pigmentation and fine lines to dullness. Packed with niacinamide, hyaluronic acid and yam extract, this one by Peach & Lily treats dullness by hydrating the skin, according to the brand. The product is the first of its kind as the brand is known for popularizing the “glass skin” look. Glass skin describes a skin texture that is “poreless and luminous,” according to Yoon.
To apply a serum, “pump it out into your fingertips to pad it in that way,” said Chung. “I like to use the three pads of my fingers. I've always been taught not to smear it around your under eyes and around, but take a little bit and make sure you're padding around.”
Yoo recommends Tiger Grass to her patients with rosacea. “It can cover up the redness and you don't need a lot of it,” said Yoo. Not only does the product correct skin redness, but it also protects skin from UV damage with SPF 30. The product, which has a 4.1-star average rating from over 4,000 Sephora shoppers, is suitable for normal, dry, oil and combination skin, according to the brand.
7. Sheet Masks
Chung likes to use this mask from NatureRepublic, made with olive extract. “Olive oil is a known antioxidant and this sheet is great for people who are looking to calm and moisturize their skin, especially after a day out in the sun,” she elaborated.
If you’re looking for a product that will keep your lips hydrated, consider this lip mask by Laneige — it has a 4.4-star average from over 13,000 Sephora shoppers. Made with vitamin C and antioxidants, the leave-on lip mask locks in moisture. Yoo also recommends it to her patients on acne medication. “I have a lot of patients on Accutane,” she said. “And I often recommend using that because when people are on Accutane for the acne, they have very dried out lips.”
8. Eye Cream
“Eye skin is very, very sensitive and the thinnest skin on your body,” said Chung. Because of its sensitivity, she noted it's important to pay attention to what type of products you put on it. Packed with red ginseng, the cream is good for this delicate area — it works to strengthen and firm the skin around the eyes while reducing puffiness.
This section of the K-beauty routine includes repairing and protecting the skin’s barrier with moisturizer and sunscreen. Whether it’s lotions, gels or creams, moisturizers work to add and seal in the moisture in the skin. Sunscreen, meanwhile, protects the skin from the damaging UV rays that can cause premature aging and sometimes skin cancer, according to Yoon.
For those with dry and sensitive skin, this cream works to soothe redness and irritation while offering rich hydration. Formulated with shea butter and ceramides, the cream forms a protective layer to help prevent moisture loss. Garnering a 4.6-star average rating from over 1,200 shoppers, the product is free from dyes, fragrances and animal-based ingredients, according to the brand.
“Sunscreen is by far the most important part of your skincare routine,” Chung emphasized. For a product that will block UVA and UVB rays and prevent premature aging, Cho recommends Day-Light Protection Airy Sunscreen for its lightweight texture that won’t leave skin greasy. Made from 20 kinds of plant extracts, including aloe, avocado, acai and more, the formula works to moisturize skin without clogging pores by controlling sebum production. Chung advises reapplying your sunscreen every two hours.
Another good sunscreen is this version from Innisfree, which Cho recommends to her patients. Free of parabens, sulfates and silicones, this water-based sunscreen delivers protection without the white cast. “I always tell people you want to find a company that has a lot of research and development, [and] a good example is Innisfree,” Cho said. “Innisfree is owned by Amore Pacific, a huge company in Korea, so you can be sure that the products are going to be tested and there's going to be reliable data.” The sunscreen has a 4.5-star average from almost 700 Sephora shoppers.
What is K-beauty?
Emphasizing natural ingredients, Korean beauty focuses on improving the skin from the inside out. In Korean, the philosophy is called pibu akkyeo (피부 아껴), which translates roughly to “saving your skin.” “It’s all about preserving it and making sure that you're presenting it in the best condition you can,” Chung noted. Brands boast that their formulas are based on recipes passed down through generations, experts told us.
According to Cho, K-beauty is “a lifestyle that centers on a ‘skin-first’ philosophy, which prioritizes addressing skin concerns and skin conditions at their root rather than covering them up with makeup.” Koreans believe good skin is a sign of overall health, and K-beauty products are used to maintain this health. Korean beauty is less about following viral product trends and more about identifying ingredients and products that work on your skin to create a natural, dewy skin texture, Cho elaborated.
This emphasis on skin health is driven by the industry’s data-based innovation, according to Yoon. She explained what defines K-beauty — and what differentiates it from other beauty industries — is this emphasis on research and testing. For example, there are certain government-regulated measures — like these best practices — that are mandatory for Korean companies but voluntary in the U.S., explained Environmental Working Group analyst Melanie Benesh. “The law governing how cosmetics are regulated hasn't been updated since Congress wrote [it] in 1938,” said Benesh. “It's been more than 80 years since our regulatory system has been modernized and the industry has changed tremendously over the course of that timeframe.”
Not only does the Korean beauty industry have a higher standard of safety measures in place, but the Korean government also filters more toxic chemicals out from their products. As of January 2019, the Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety has banned 1,030 ingredients in cosmetics, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only banned nine, Benesh said. While ingredients like formaldehyde — a known carcinogen — are banned in Korea, you can readily find them in American hair treatments, according to the EWG.
Why has K-beauty gotten so popular?
One of the reasons K-beauty has gotten so popular over the years is the industry’s regulation, Cho believes. Korean beauty conglomerates like Amore Pacific, the company that owns brands like Laneige and Sulwasoo, has its own set of requirements for product on top of those mandated by the government. As a result, Korean beauty brands put extreme effort and care into creating highly effective products. With increased scrutiny, there's also heightened competition, driving innovation: Recent examples include BB creams, sheet masks and cushion compacts.
Popularity aside, dermatologists recommend looking into the science before investing in Korean-owned brands.
“It's really science at the end of the day,” Yoon elaborated.
How Covid impacted K-beauty
Being a business owner in any field can be challenging but the pandemic and a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes has been particularly hard, Yoon said.
“I really do believe it's imperative for the beauty industry to speak up about that — not just Asian-owned beauty brands but the beauty industry [as a whole] — because a lot of beauty brands are using innovations from Asia and have Asian American consumers,” she said. “When your demographic is in a moment of crisis, it is important to speak up about it and find ways to help.”
As a woman who was “once underestimated by many of the major beauty conglomerates,” it’s a sentiment that Cho can agree with. And that’s why Cho is doing what she can to uplift her community. Last year, her company donated $15,000 to Stop AAPI Hate and Hate Is A Virus, two organizations working to dismantle racism and hate resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite these challenges, Yoo and Cho are hopeful as the K-beauty community remains resilient and leading brands continue to innovate in the space.