Here's How To Find 'Safe' and 'Natural' Korean Beauty Products

Thanks to a new e-commerce site.
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Thanks to a new e-commerce site.
Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen/Fashionista

Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen/Fashionista

A few months ago at Marie Claire’s very informative Global Beauty Forum, the beauty director for the magazine’s Korean edition answered a question about whether women in her country were interested in natural products. The answer? "Not really." Perceived efficacy outweighed perceived safety. However, thanks to the vast amount of development and innovation happening in the country, more Korean brands are exploring the category.

Now imagine a Venn diagram with Korean beauty in one circle, and “safe, natural” products in the other. Glow Recipe, a newly launched K-beauty e-commerce site, sits squarely in the intersection of these two concepts. Co-founders Christine Chang and Sarah Lee, both in their early thirties, met at L’Oreal Paris, where they worked for over nine years in marketing and product development. They covered both the U.S. and Korean markets, so in the still-small world of Korean beauty retailers here, their knowledge is unique.

Chang and Lee saw firsthand how western companies started looking to Korea for beauty innovation, so they knew it was time to throw their hat into the ring. They chose the tricky category of natural and safe cosmetics because they saw a demand here in the U.S. and they also felt they had the expertise to ask the right questions and curate these types of products. (Remember, the word “natural” isn’t regulated, and there are differing opinions on which ingredients are safe and which aren’t.)

Goodies from Glow Recipe. Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen/Fashionista

Goodies from Glow Recipe. Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen/Fashionista

Right now Glow Recipe sells seven different Korean beauty brands. Some are purely natural (and I’m defining this as containing all plant-derived ingredients) like Goodal, and others, like the dermatologist brand Dr. Oracle, aren’t necessarily. But this is by design. “The last thing we want to be doing is green-washing and substituting the word 'natural' as a blanket reassurance that our products are gentle without doing our due diligence,” Chang told me. “Our goal is to be a worry-free site where customers know they are shopping vetted products, brands and companies. While we want to prioritize natural formulations that are efficacious, we're also wary of fear-mongering, which unfortunately often happens to ingredients that have been extensively tested for safety. We rely heavily on peer-reviewed research to help make ingredient decisions for our curations.”

If you’re concerned about certain ingredients, the founders strive for transparency and list all of the ingredients for every product they sell. The products won’t contain parabens, triclosan, hydroquinone, benzophenones, BPAs, tar, talc, sodium lauryl/ laureth sulfates, aluminum, DEET, formaldehyde, PABA, toluene, camphor, PVC, phthalates or synthetic dyes. For products that contain added fragrance, Chang and Lee say they worked extensively with brands to vet that there was nothing irritating in the fragrance formula.

Now let’s get to the goods, because they’re, well, good. Whamisa’s Organic Sea Kelp Mask was a first for me — rather than paper or hydrogel, it’s an actual piece of sea kelp infused with all sorts of oils and extracts that you slap on as a sheet mask. It was a lovely experience, with a bit of salty ocean tang. Shara Shara’s Honey Bomb Ampoule, which contains three different types of honey, comes in the largest jar (for a serum anyway) that I’ve ever seen. Lee said this product, like a lot sold on Glow Recipe, is a multi-tasker, functioning as a toner, moisturizer, and serum all in one. It’s so generously sized that I’ve been smearing it all over my neck and hands, too. Whamisa’s mists, which contain actual chunks of rose petals or olive leaves, are standouts. For acne, you can find tea tree oil-based products in the Lee Ji Ham range. I also highly recommend the Caolion Blackhead Steam Pore Pack, which I’ve tried in the past and sells out quickly on other sites.

A sea kelp mask. Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen/Fashionista 

A sea kelp mask. Photo: Nina Frazier Hansen/Fashionista 

In addition to its core brands, Glow Recipe features a weekly e-pop-up shop where it will offer limited edition products. (A previous offering was a "bounce cheese cream.") You can also request custom sample boxes, or try an “editor’s pick” sample box. Prices for products on the site range from $9 for an organic hydrogel mask to $64 for a Bulgarian rose serum.

Chang and Lee ultimately hope to increase awareness of Korean beauty products here in the U.S. and help more brands crack the market. “There’s still a lot of the market where there’s a lack of understanding,” Lee told me. “People think that it’s not relevant because Asian skin is ‘different.’ We wanted to break that barrier and really make people feel comfortable.”