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The Global Rise Of South Korean Grooming

Zombie face masks, BB creams and glass skin – how K-beauty changed your daily regimen

The term ulzzang roughly translates as “best face”. It is a South Korean word for boys or girls who embody a rigidly prescriptive beauty standard born out of social media. Their slender, triangular faces bear no sign of sun exposure; their eyes artificially enlarged by circle lenses. The ethereal ulzzang are pore-less and porcelain skinned, like a Photoshop filter made real.

The phenomenon is eerie, politically incorrect and wildly discriminatory, at least to thin-skinned Westerners. But it is also one of the key drivers behind the K-beauty phenomenon. With such demanding criteria to fulfil, South Korea has created a beauty market that is worth US$13bn and that ranks among the top 10 in the world (Mintel). It is predicted that facial care alone will be worth $7.2bn by 2020, an entirely plausible figure given the 10-step grooming regimens for which the country is famous.

Quirkier innovations such as “zombie” face masks garner the most exposure in the UK, but ampoules, sheet masks, colour-correcting creams and sleep packs all originated in South Korea years before they were replicated – or, indeed, exported – by Western multinationals. Samsung and LG, better known for electronics, have beauty divisions in the country. The former recently launched a skin analysis device that keeps users up to date on hydration, redness and melanin levels.

The market is so fierce, fast and innovative that established Western brands are lucky to get a look-in, let alone a foothold. Unilever, the British-Dutch multinational, took the shortest route to success and purchased Carver Korea, one of the country’s fastest growing brands, for $2.27bn in 2017 after the company’s profits had leaped from $32m in 2015 to $117m.

And the big spenders are men. SoKo gentlemen spend more on products than their counterparts in any other nation. One could argue that this is because the Western stigma associated with grooming is entirely absent. Impeccable regimes are considered a sign of self-respect, not emasculation. Plastic surgery has become normalised, as has the practice of men wearing make-up.

IOPE, a high-end skincare line owned by Korean juggernaut AmorePacific, has sold hundreds of thousands of its Air Cushion compacts for men. The mirrored accessory contains a tinted moisturiser and sunscreen that is sponged onto the face like traditional foundation. Equally effective are the ubiquitous BB (beauty balm) creams, which combine colour correction, tint and hydration with an SPF. The overall look is not theatrical or gender-bending so much as meticulously polished.

The most extreme are the kkonminam, metrosexual “flower boys” who emulate the other key drivers in the South Korean cosmetic market: K-pop sensations SUJU, Shinee, Highlight and actors Messrs Hyun Bin and Kim Soo-hyun. Pretty-boy faces appear on sculpted bodies, the very antithesis of hyperbolic tree-felling masculinity that permeated Korean media until the 1990s.

It is unlikely that Western men – or, for that matter, many South Korean men – will ever go full “flower boy”. The appeal of K-beauty in the West is not linked to a cultural sense of aesthetics or the influence of K-pop sensations, it is down to the active and natural ingredients in the products and the fair price point.

Take OST Original Pure Vitamin C 20 Serum, which boasts 20 per cent ascorbic acid – well in excess of European or US regulations – and costs $10. Ingredients such as green tea, ginseng, avocado and aloe are far more appealing to wellness-obsessed millennials than a list of unpronounceable chemicals. It is highly likely that bestselling North American brands such as DECIEM’s The Ordinary or Drunk Elephant would have no appeal had it not been for the K-beauty boom.

And there is a certain playfulness to South Korean products that is absent in the austere, age-obsessed markets of Europe and the US. Banana-scented cream comes in banana-shaped packaging, sleep packs are disguised as bubble tea and, for reasons we can’t quite figure out, hand cream is dispensed by an oversized gummy bear. The packaging is kawaii (adorable), decidedly cartoonish and highly camp.

Alas, getting our hands on these products has been a little tricky. Until recently, access to South Korean skincare was limited to the grey market, Amazon and the gamble that is eBay. But with government support, a number of export and distribution platforms – such as Glow Recipe – have begun to supply Europe and the US. A report by the Korea International Trade Association found that South Korea has become the fifth-biggest exporter of cosmetics to Europe, shifting $159m worth of products.

But how long can our obsession with “glass skin”, kitschy packaging and foot masks last? The increasing availability of K-beauty could, paradoxically, be the first step in its downfall. Part of its allure lies in its otherness and, as we become more accustomed to South Korean exports, our interest will inevitably wane. It is also highly likely that K-beauty trends will be co-opted by Western brands, which can reproduce the format, dispenser or aesthetic with cheaper, less effective ingredients.

Many beauty analysts predict that the economic revival in neighbouring Japan could spell the end of K-beauty. Japan’s simple and understated luxury is the very antithesis of South Korea’s fast-food approach to grooming. But, until then, we can soak up the ulzzang.

Or try these

  • Sisley - Paris Buff and Wash Facial Gel, 100ml

  • Natura Bissé The Cure Hydro-Gel Toner, 200ml

  • Dr. Barbara Sturm Face Cream, 50ml

  • Erno Laszlo Lighten & Brighten Hydrogel Mask x 4

  • 111Skin Sub-Zero De-Puffing Eye Mask x 8

  • Natura Bissé Diamond Extreme Oil, 30ml