Dozens of articles in the Western press claim that Korean beauty innovation is 10 years ahead of the rest of the world.
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 to 700BC. If Koreans had a 12-step skin-care programme for 2700 years, I’m not sure why they decided to sit on it until the 1990s.
In the past six years, Korean cosmetics in the US have gone from non-existent to almost mainstream. According to data from Kotra, Korea’s trade promotion agency, K-beauty exports to the US more than doubled from 2014 to last year. The global cosmetics chain Sephora started carrying K-beauty products in 2011.
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?
These days, K-beauty products come in sculptured packaging and smell like an upmarket spa. But when I was growing up, Korean skin creams were all the same shade of toilet-paper pink, and they smelt like Glade PlugIns. Any Korean with the means used French an US cosmetics (and the Japanese brand Shiseido).
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. All Korean industries benefited. The popular Korean beauty chains Innisfree and the Face Shop opened in the early 2000s.
Until recently, K-beauty’s presence in the West was a matter of prestige, not money. It was the Asian market that mattered, especially China. It still does: Last year, China bought about 38% of K-beauty exports and Hong Kong 30%, according to Kotra. But geopolitics might be forcing the K-beauty industry to pivot westward.
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 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, with their glowing complexions, are serving as walking adverts 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.
About 20% of Korean women have had some form of work done.
Then, there’s Botox.
Several Korean news outlets this year reported a study finding that 42% of Korean women between the ages of 21 and 55 have had either Botox or filler injections.
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.