korean beauty products

When community member Ann sent me an article from Slate on a 10-step Korean beauty routine, I felt very conflicted. Korean beauty is certainly trending right now, but does it really live up to all the hype? And while Slate’s columnist was eloquently feminist on how a skincare ritual can be “a radical act of self-care,” my own reaction was 10-steps! Really!?

So what is going on with this K-beauty trend and how can we tell the good from the bad? I found myself in the midst of a motley collection of oddly named bounce balms, the inevitable snail slime and thought I may as well start with Sabbatical Beauty, mentioned at length in Slate article and made in the US but proclaims to be “influenced from trends in Korean beauty.”  One of those trends seems be to eccentric product names. Cabin Fever turns out to be a body wash, which makes a nod to Korea with soy and has a hefty 25% dose of aloe water, but is marred by an irritating surfactant that even the CIR says should have only the briefest contact with the skin before being rinsed away. The Dorian Gray Anti-Aging Serum (I told you the names were eccentric) looks rather good with peptides, copper and yeast ferment. Still it all looks very western apart from orchid extract.

The next step was to find some more hardcore K-beauty products, so I went to check out the Korean deptartment at Sephora. The first to jump out was a brand that looks like a typo, Belif. Curiously, it has a product called Hungarian Water Essence. This is water and herbal extracts. Not exactly on trend. Belif does, however, have something that I was assured is a big Korean beauty trend, a bounce balm.

Bounce creams are all about hydration for creating dewy and taut skin. Some of  them have even been formulated to jiggle in their jars. The very notion was enough to put a spring in my step. Once such bouncing-textured beauty balm is made by Dr. Jart+. Not only does Dr. Jart+ BB Bounce Beauty Balm jiggle, it is made from Nordenau Water. This water comes from a disused slate mine on the property of a hotel in the cute German town of Nordenau and has been attributed with curing most diseases known to humankind. You’d better Belif it (sorry).

I associate K-beauty with those sheet masks that you leave on the face for 20 minutes. Checking out Peach & Lily, curators of Korean beauty, I saw that they had one for $6 from a company called Leaders. Unfortunately, the second ingredient is butylene glycol, but most of the rest of the list is pretty good, especially considering the price, with plenty of amino acids, a peptide and botanical extracts. Another mask was much less appealing and not because of the snail slime. Ethanol, parabens, PEGs, phenoxyethanol…..

The other abiding feature of K-beauty is a preoccupation with skin whitening and brightening. Skipping over the unfortunately named White Power Essence, I noted that the majority of Korean beauty products contain a skin lightener such as arbutin, AHAs or niacinamide. 

My prediction is that the Korean trend is going to try to insert “essences” into our regimens. And if you are prepared to go with the 10-step idea, then why not. An essence is a precursor to a serum and Korea is where they seem to have been invented. Peach & Lily have one called Raw Sauce and it does have some good antioxidant botanicals. But like the products mentioned above, Koreans seem incapable of formulating without butylene glycol, parabens and alcohol.