My mother is the biggest tomboy I know. She disbelieves in razors, still owns the same Estée Lauder eyeshadow palette she had her wedding makeup done with and sends me chain-mail conspiracy reports of how hair dye will make my hair fall out. She has always shown blatant disinterest in my obsession with skin care; a visit home once led me to discover that she'd been using an SK-II cream I had given her as a paperweight for her tax forms. Things changed when I wasn't looking, though: the last time I went on a beauty trip to Asia, she e-mailed me a list of 20 products she wanted me to pick up. My mom had become a skin-care fanatic.
The fact that my mother is now as up to speed on skin-care regimens as any internet-savvy millennial says a lot about the state of the beauty industry. People have reported on the rise of South Korean skin-care products with some surprise, labeling it a fad, the latest trend, one more conversation starter in the line of ridiculous things: can you believe they bother with a 10-step routine? Ha, ha, ha, crazy right? Now look at this Instagram person using a hard-boiled egg to blend their foundation. As if these two things are equally as gimmicky and foreign and ill-researched. Hardly. What was once a tourist's curiosity has now become a legitimate and long-standing portion of the Western beauty market. Sign of the times: an AmorePacific Cushion Compact sells just as fast and for more money — as Maybelline Great Lash. Actually, Maybelline sells a tube of its most popular mascara every 1.6 seconds. AmorePacific's cushion? Sells every 1.2. Internationally.
This is all to say that I was asked to answer the question: "Is K-beauty a trend bubble that's ready to burst? Will we move on soon?" My answer is this: hardly. If my mother is taking the time to get educated in it — my mother, an ardent fan of Crocs, FarmVille, and "Shark Tank" — it's safe to say this so-called "trend" is here for awhile. It's settled down to roost.
So my more measured answer? Yeah, still no. Korean skin care isn't a fad so much as a newer, rapidly growing share of the skin-care market, and it is only going to get bigger — and more normalized. Higher end retailers like Barneys (with a new sheet mask bar) and Nordstrom (with a K-beauty pop-up) are turning to K-beauty to boost their flagging sales and get customers in the door during an era in which department stores are struggling. Mass retailers are investing in K-beauty in droves: Ulta is beginning to pick it up, Target and Walmart already do, and CVS will begin to do so, too. Hyper-vigilant skin-care lovers might be branching out to try Taiwanese and Thai beauty brands as well, but South Korean skin care is just starting to reach the promised land of Middle America: that sweet spot of brand near-immortality.
Forever 21, Opening Ceremony and even the more unlikely Mailchimp are also among the companies dipping their toes into the K-beauty pool. While the newsletter service's venture was just a well executed troll maneuver, Ulta and CVS aren't playing around. They're offering brand and store exclusives, some — like CosRx for Ulta — from brands that don't even yet have brick-and-mortar outposts in South Korea.
CosRx is also collaborating with the U.S.-based retailer that first introduced the brand to the American market: Charlotte Cho's Soko Glam. While their collaboration is skin-care-related (a vitamin C serum that sold out in a single day), Cho's company's focus for the future of Korean beauty in the U.S. is on color cosmetics. Her bets are placed on Korean cosmetics becoming the next wave of beauty products, though this by no means that skin care will die out. "While Korean beauty companies have long been recognized for their skin-care innovations, watch out for color brands making a huge impact in the space next," says Cho. "Korean color brands like Etude House revamp their packaging regularly, create limited edition colors in small quantities and have the agility and R&D to take new innovations to market within six months, while committing to affordable price points. If anyone can do fast, innovative makeup, it's going to be Korean beauty brands." In this Business of Fashion report, she noted: "I think they can rival the Elfs and NYXes of the world." Other retailers are placing their bets on South Korean cosmetics as the next stage, too: The e-tailer Violet Grey just teamed up with both Alicia Yoon and South Korean makeup artist Jung Saem Mool to launch JSM's namesake cosmetics brand into the US luxury market.
Staying keenly focused on how to continue building on K-beauty's current momentum in the Western world is no doubt a smart move for beauty retailers. The Korean International Trade Association has collected survey data that shows 8 out of 10 American cosmetics buyers want to import Korean products. Imports within the category have gone up tenfold in a decade in Europe alone, with general growth expanding as well. It is, actually, an integral part of trade among the U.S., China and South Korea. When Trump was elected, South Korea's Trade Association met to prepare plans for, and I quote, "a contingency plan for the worst case scenario." Exports to China and the U.S make up 40 percent of Korea's exports — 29% of those to the U.S. are beauty products.
Four months in, and the "worst case scenario" hasn't entirely come to pass (yet). In fact, exports are up 51.6 percent in the first quarter. If the U.S. issues a preemptive strike on North Korea, it's very likely our trade relations — including the not-insignificant market share of 29 percent that the U.S. market takes up in South Korean exports — could be hurt. You know, besides all the actual humans involved. Given Trump's recent statements on Korea (and his constant flip-flopping on everything he's ever said), we may have to update this by the time of publication. Still, Korean skin care has shown no signs of slowing down in the U.S. market right now, even as our government considers preemptively involving the country in escalating acts of war.
One reason that K-beauty brands have been able to continue their upward trend stateside — other than their constant innovation and speed — is that they're also receptive to consumers in a way rarely seen in their Western counterparts. When informed by customers that their "White Power" essence was, as Tumblr would say, "problematic" for U.S. customers, CosRx rebranded it pretty much immediately and emailed their consumers directly. "I think it's the first time I've seen consumers directly affect a brand. We've been consumers of American products for so long, and I've never seen things transpire the same as with Korean beauty," says Tiffany Marie, a K-beauty blogger and brand consultant. "The brands who come to U.S. and hire U.S. staff are more conscious about their context and race. They approach the genre of 'whitening' and 'brightening' products with an open-minded conversation. They've been really receptive to people who reach out."
That being said, all brands involved in Korean-inspired cosmetics have something significant to work on: color ranges, for lack of a better descriptor, suck. Shade selection in South Korea-based face lines is almost universally extremely limited, and only a of the few brands who've brought over cushion compacts and the like have bothered to expand the array of shade options much.
Lancôme, for example, didn't even make a shade dark enough for Lupita Nyong'o when they signed her as a spokesperson; L'Oréal chemist Balanda Atis had to do the research and initial production of darker shades on the side of her main job. Atis is an African American woman, by the way — which is to say, she had to formulate the shade ranges herself, in her down time, with the favors of colleagues also up for the job. Where there's been absence, Atis proves, there is also immense opportunity. It doesn't make sense for brands to neglect to approach a more diverse range of customers when they're one of the only markets still left so largely untouched. They're up for grabs, waiting for the science and the focus of the industry to catch up. After all, while South Korean consumers spend slightly more than U.S. consumers per capita ($171 as compared with $139), African American woman spend 80 percent more on cosmetics than the general market. Whoever caters to them the right way will likely be amply rewarded.
K-beauty isn't going away and retailers are doubling down, expanding locations, branching out with brand offerings, collaborating and offering exclusives across price points and platforms. A factor that could shift the major players continues to be who will serve the large group of people who are continuously underserved. In a moment where everyone wants something to escape into in a country that feels inhospitable, whoever understands people of color and the art of color cosmetics will win: despite a demagogue's rule.
Homepage photo: @sokoglam/Instagram
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