Here at Fashionista, we've spent a lot of time delving into the world of Korean beauty products, from the insanity of the multi-step regimen to trying to figure out how all the products differ. But there's a bit of a dark underbelly to the whole beauty culture in South Korea that's worth talking about. Julep founder Jane Park, who is Korean and a beauty entrepreneur herself, is in a unique position to opine on the subject. Here, her thoughts about what to adopt and what to skip in the Korean beauty routine, as told to me on a lively phone call.
It’s funny, I’ve been Korean all my life and it’s never been cool to be Korean! But now it finally is. I was born in Korea and we moved to Toronto when I was four. I lived in Korea for a year when I was turning 30; I was a young working professional there. That was a really fun experience for me because I got to see, for the first time, a lot of women who looked like me being featured in beauty.
To me, the most important thing about the Korean beauty routine overall is exfoliation. I think two of the things that people were scared of in the U.S. (or were doing differently) are exfoliation and being too afraid of oils. Those are two things I have grown up with my whole life. I didn’t put it in the context of, Oh this is Korean, because most of the time, nobody knew what that was. I was just trying to get people to use the best ingredients and achieve the best results. When I offered the konjac sponge and cleansing oil, I didn’t even wrap it up in the fact that this is from my Korean heritage. We just did it because I knew this was the best way with great results and it wasn’t part of any big overall story.
Korean women are super into beauty, and I think there are pros and cons to that. The plus side is that it's a fun ritual. It’s not a prison, because people like experimenting. That said, 15 steps is a lot. Koreans are into trying new things and being innovative. When I was there in 2001, everybody was wearing tiny little phones around their necks. Trends take off like crazy there, because everyone is interested in trying something new. I think that’s rooted in the fact that the culture has changed so quickly. If you take a culture that didn’t have electricity [a few decades ago], that country has seen a crazy amount of change in a very small amount of time. To go from so agrarian and then leapfrogging ahead to being the forefront of technology and now of beauty, it’s very dizzying.
One of the things that is really different and defining about Korean personal care is the bathing experience. First, there's the experience of having an older Korean woman scrub you down. You have to be totally naked. You have to go into a steam room and that softens up your skin and then they use these mitts and basically you see the skin falling off — you watch it flying off the table. That’s the visual that I have in my head. That’s what my mom did for me when I was little. She saw me giving my kids a bath at some point when they were little and she was like, "What are you doing?" And I said, "I’m giving them a bath!" She said, "That’s not a bath, that’s just rubbing a little water on them. Why aren’t you exfoliating them?"
Americans walk around and put lotion on top of dead skin and wonder why it’s uncomfortable. That concept is something I think about, not just for body, but for face as well. A lot of American exfoliating products are overly harsh. You do an overly harsh job one day, and then you’re not doing enough the other six days. In terms of Korean beauty, I’ve borrowed the tenets that I think are important, and that oil is your friend.
I was last in Korea two years ago. Korean culture is a lot more direct. There’s a lot of things that women in the U.S. wouldn’t say to each other that are just totally okay to say there. I get off the plane and everybody’s like, "Oh my god, what happened to you, why are you so dark?” I have darker skin than the average Korean woman. And I don’t have eye folds, I have a monolid. Everybody gets surgery for that. People tell me, "Oh while you’re here you should get eyelid surgery." This is in the first hour. "Oh, and you’ve gained some weight!"
They all have their own plastic surgeons. Everybody looks perfect. It’s more affordable because [sometimes] they’re not real doctors — it’s just people with equipment. You can go anywhere in the neighborhood. Americans, especially Korean Americans, are going over to Korea on these surgical vacations. You can go and get all of this stuff done which, in the U.S., would be tens of thousands of dollars, but you could be putting your health at risk.
There is such a drive. It is very restricting. There is one idea of what beauty should be. I think it’s partly because Korea is a very racially homogenous culture. You don’t have people from India and Africa and Sweden there. You don’t have blondes and darker skin tones. Then take the homogenous biology of the pool with the acceptance of trends and everybody wanting to try new things, and that's all combined with gender discrimination and an objectification of women. That was really hard for me when I worked there. It was like the U.S. 50 years ago. Every room I walked into, it was assumed I was the secretary. At the offices I worked in, I would ask what people’s backgrounds were, and there would be a man and a woman who had gone to the same business school, so they would have university degrees and MBAs, but she was a secretary and he was a professional. So you add those things together and it can be pretty troubling to be a young woman in Korea. I wish I could tell them that beauty should be fun and play time. A lot of the way that the conversation about beauty unfolds in Korea is that it’s not about self-expression. It feels more about fitting into a very narrow ideal.
[Ed. note: I asked Park if Korean women are more into Western brands or if they're embracing all the homegrown Korean beauty brands now.] I think there is a huge embracing of their own brands. AmorePacific is a brand that my mom loved growing up, but now there are so many others. I think there is much more acceptance of, "Hey we make good quality stuff." That happened in tech, too. There are advances in technology and beauty beyond what is happening elsewhere in the world. There’s always been a pride in Korean-made. It’s a very nationalistic culture as well. Korea has always been invaded either by China or Japan during its whole history. There’s a nationalistic pride that comes from that history.
[As far as products], I think all the cushion cosmetics are fun. I love those because it makes it easier to apply. There are a lot of patents on those now. Another huge trend is things that are "good for you." The number of times people tell me things you have to do because it’s good for your health, it’s crazy. But we [at Julep] are looking at different ingredients and being open to different fruits and vegetables that are more prevalent in Asia that might have different beneficial properties than the ones than we’re used to thinking about here. An example is ginseng, an older generational product. It’s something that my dad drank everyday for his health. Now in American culture people know what it is, and it’s been used in cosmetics in Korea.
One of the biggest beauty things I’ve learned from my Korean heritage is probiotics. I’m a huge believer that our American diet — especially our addiction to antibiotics — has really been a part of the generational weight increase issues. So kimchi is a great beauty secret! Making sure that you have a balanced gut is really important for your health and it translates to the radiance of the skin and one of the best anti-aging secrets.