By Euny Hong
I admit it: I use Korean snail slime face serum. It’s purported to contain anti-aging properties. I have no opinion as to whether snails are particularly young-looking, but my experience is that their excretions do work on humans. That aside, as someone who grew up among Korean beauty products, I find the world’s sudden fascination with Korean skin care, and its now-famous 12-step regimen, to be comical.
Dozens of articles in the Western press claim that Korean beauty innovation is 10 years ahead of the rest of the world. So … in beauty terms, South Korea is in the year 2027?
It gets better: “K-beauty,” as it is often called, is not just futuristic; it’s ancient as well. According to at least three English-language beauty websites, Korean skin care rituals date back to some purported document from 700 B.C. If Koreans have had a 12-step skin care program for 2,700 years, I’m not sure why they decided to sit on it until the 1990s. But no matter.
In the last six years, Korean cosmetics in the United States have gone from nonexistent to almost mainstream. According to data from Kotra, Korea’s trade promotion agency, K-beauty exports to the United States more than doubled from 2014 to 2016. The global cosmetics chain Sephora started carrying K-beauty products in 2011. Other retail chains followed suit, including Urban Outfitters, Ulta and the drugstore chain CVS, all of them touting products with ingredients like chrysanthemum and ginseng. How did Americans come to view South Korea as this beautiful-skinned Eden, when, until a few decades ago, it was impoverished and chokingly polluted.
I lived in Seoul from ages 12 to 18. South Korea was still a developing country when I arrived in 1985, when its inflation-adjusted per capita G.D.P. was about one-fourth of what it is today. Its growing pains showed in the country’s dodgy goods.
These days, K-beauty products come in sculptured packaging and smell like an upscale spa. But when I was growing up, Korean skin creams were all the same shade of toilet-paper pink, and they smelled like Glade PlugIns. Any Korean with means used French and American cosmetics (and the Japanese brand Shiseido). No one had ever heard of such a thing as a 12-step regime.
That all changed in the early 1990s. South Korea became wealthy; the quality of everything from cars to CD players improved. Then, in 1998, spurred by the Asian financial crisis, the Korean government altered its economic strategy, branching out from heavy industry and electronics-focused conglomerates into pop culture businesses. Korea was rebranded a “cool” country.
Most of this new “coolness” took the form of mass-produced and exported cinema, television and pop music. But all Korean industries benefited. The popular Korean beauty chains Innisfree and the Face Shop both opened in the early 2000s — around the same time that we first started hearing about the Korean triple cleanse.
Until very recently, K-beauty’s presence in the West was largely a matter of prestige, not money. It was the Asian market that really mattered, especially China. It still does: In 2016, China bought about 38 percent of K-beauty exports and Hong Kong 30 percent, according to Kotra.
But geopolitics may be forcing the K-beauty industry to pivot westward. South Korea has been rethinking the precariousness of an export strategy that is too dependent on China, a country that is not only allied with North Korea, but is also becoming a direct competitor in manufacturing and of late, pop culture and television dramas.
Korean industry got a glimpse of the perils of mixing politics and trade in July 2016, when South Korea announced that it would deploy the American-made Thaad missile defense system. China perceived the move as hostileand threatened sanctions; in March, Chinese tourism in South Korea was down 40 percent from the same month in 2016, resulting in an estimated loss of $6.5 billion in revenue.
South Korea put the Thaad project on hold this June, and the two nations appear to be on better terms now. Still, the backlash gave Korean business a fright and an impetus to seek out new markets. It’s no coincidence that South Korea’s top boy band, BTS, chose this year to make a splashy American debut, while the Korean bakery chain Paris Baguette announced recently that it was planning to open at least 300 more stores in the United States by 2020.
And K-beauty, too, has moved aggressively. Innisfree, which offers products from the volcanic Korean island of Jeju, opened a Manhattan branch in September. AmorePacific, one of South Korea’s oldest beauty companies, plans to open 100 American branches of its retail chain Aritaum, a sort of Korean Sephora, within the next three years.
It’s clear what the K-beauty industry wants from the West: a market that isn’t fraught with messy geopolitics. But what explains why K-beauty has been embraced in the West with such gusto? Has the old Orientalist belief in ancient Asian beauty secrets struck again? There are certainly echoes of this in the marketing. Sulwhasoo, part of the AmorePacific family, advertises its products as containing “Korean herbal medicine drawn from Asian wisdom.”
Or is it because Korean women themselves, with their glowing complexions, are serving as walking advertisements for the power of K-beauty? If so, America, you’ve been had: ginseng and Jeju volcano water are not the whole story behind that flawless skin.
For the past several years, beauty-obsessed South Korea has been among the world’s capitals of cosmetic surgery. Some 20 percent of Korean women have had some form of work done.
Then, there’s Botox. Several Korean news outlets this year reported a studyfinding that 42 percent of Korean women ages 21 to 55 have had either Botox or filler injections.
Many wrinkle creams worldwide contain retinol, a vitamin A derivative that is harmless in small doses but not large ones. Some Korean cosmetics contain concentrations of retinol as high as 3.8 percent — about twice that of their highest-concentrated American counterparts.
Ancient beauty secrets, or Accutane? Korean doctors prescribe isotretinoin-based acne medicine “indiscriminately,” to quote the Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo, despite the risk of serious side effects.
If there are such things as “Korean beauty secrets” they seem to amount to this: Put a lot of time, money and energy into your skin, and you’ll probably see results (just don’t export too much to China).
But what do I know? I’m the one putting snail slime on my face.
Euny Hong is the author of “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture.”