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Trending Now: Korean Beauty

Reviewed by Marta January 28, 2016 9 Comments

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.

  • February 2, 2016

    by Steffie

    I was just in Seoul. The number of stores on every block is dizzying ( and fun). They all give tons of samples.
    There are a lot fo parabens out there but Innisfree seems to be paraben free in at least some of their lines. The BG that is there for sure!

  • January 31, 2016

    by Erin

    Benton and su:m37 are other natural K-beauty brands that Glow Recipe doesn't carry.

    People rave about su:m37's Miracle Rose cleansing stick. I guess it's a balm stick that emulsifies with water. From the reviews I've read, it seems to have a devoted following among multiple types of skin. Benton's BHA Aloe Toner is super popular.

    Marta, you're so right about the butylene glycol! For some reason, most of the brands have it. As far as I've been able to tell, Whamisa and ISOI don't use any butylene glycol and seem to be the purest of the bunch, with genuinely clean/natural ingredients.

    I have yet to try any of these personally, but I love oggling the pretty packaging (esp. Whamisa!) and reading reviews. Maybe this will be the year I finally make the leap and try some.

  • January 29, 2016

    by Marta

    Thank you for the Glow Recipe tip. I'll check that out, as well as other recommendations in this thread. Keep them coming!

  • January 29, 2016

    by Stephanie

    I've become enamored with several Korean beauty products and brands. I stick to purchasing through glow recipe (http://www.glowrecipe.com), as they strive to offer products without the harsh/scary preservatives and other nasty chemicals described in the article.

    The 2 women behind glow recipe specifically discuss the need to avoid such chemicals as well as the type of face mask medium used in the sheet masks they offer, i.e. avoid sheet masks with bleached cotton, look for masks that are made of natural materials such as a kelp mask or hydrogel.

    Marta, their products are on the whole more gentle and "pure" than peach and lilly.

  • January 28, 2016

    by Erin

    I'm intrigued by some of the more natural lines like Whamisa and LJH that are sold over at Glow Recipe. They specialize in "natural'" K-beauty brands- not all of it is totally natural, but it's cleaner than most K-beauty brands.

    I'm especially wanting to try the LJH Vita Propolis Ampoule, which looks nice to mix with facial oil or moisturizer for extra glow (plus, my skin likes niacinamide).

  • January 28, 2016

    by Sandra JT

    One Korean brand I've come to love is COSRX. The products I've tried from them anyways. I started using some BHA products they make to get some hormonal acne under control which really worked for me with absolutely no dryness, peeling flaking etc. It's a combination of an emulsion & another product which is more watery, kinda like a toner in consistency, but not a toner. The two products used together at night left my skin completely clear, very quickly. Especially when I apply them immediately after using my TIA red LED & ultrasound. Much better than anything I've tried from any Western brand, regardless of the price range. The bonus was that both were very affordable. I'm not at home right now & can't remember the names of them unfortunately. I bought the products solely based on their ingredients, as I always shop for skin care products this way.

    Having lived in Asia & South East Asia for many years I realized that Asian people have just as many skin issues as Caucasian people do, but they vary in terms of what they are. There's no such thing as 'problem free skin', no matter what the race.

  • January 28, 2016

    by Tracy

    I have used many Korean skin products and while it's hard to find lines that are more natural, you can find them and overall the price point is much lower than Western brands. The # 1 difference, however, in reading up on K-Beauty enthusiasts for me has been using actives like bha and aha. This has helped clear up my skin and my clogged pores like no other product I've tried.

  • January 28, 2016

    by Bibi

    I've tried a lot of these Korean skin care lines from the high end like Amore Pacific to lower end brands like Innisfree & Laneige and I haven't been impressed at all (I have a friend who owns a duty free shop in the Bangkok airport).
    I really don't have sensitive skin but most of them had so much alcohol in them they would sting upon application & dry my already dry skin out further.
    As a pharmacist I can tell you the concentrations of the purported 'active ingredients' is too low in most of them to have any benefits.

  • January 28, 2016

    by Barbara

    Interesting article. From what I can tell, Asian skin doesn't seem to have as many of the problems that my skin has (Eastern European descent). So the skin plan should probably also be different. I'm sure different skin types will require different manners of treatment; and whether we are light skinned or dark skinned, the main thing is to have as fresh and beautiful skin as possible.

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