The Asian wave

Thanks to high-tech products and a holistic approach, Asian beauty is miles ahead of the game.
Korean models JiHye Park and Sung Hee Kim at New York Fashion Week, Getty Images.

Korean models JiHye Park and Sung Hee Kim at New York Fashion Week, Getty Images.

The buzz around Asian beauty is near-deafening these days, with devoted beauty bloggers adopting the Korean ten-step skincare routine, and supermodels Instagramming their sheet mask selfies. But what exactly is Asian beauty, and why is it having such a moment? Trends aside, it may come down to the Asian philosophy on beauty. More than anything, the emphasis is on pampering and prevention, and an obsession with perfect, poreless skin. 

“In Asia, it’s not about covering up your skin with makeup to make it look flawless. It’s not about finding a miracle cream that magically reverses signs of ageing,” says Charlotte Cho, author of The Little Book of Skin Care: Beauty Secrets from Seoul, and founder of online Korean beauty store Soko Glam. “Instead, the Asian philosophy is about taking preventative measures to make sure you never get to that point.” Kathleen Hou, senior beauty editor at New York Magazine’s The Cut, says, “Tanned skin isn’t a beauty ideal in Asian culture, and that happens to correspond with dermatological beauty advice that tells us to avoid the sun. All makeup artists agree that you need beautiful skin to do beautiful makeup.”

Korean model Soo-Joo Park backstage in Cannes, France, Getty Images.

Korean model Soo-Joo Park backstage in Cannes, France, Getty Images.

If the quest for ageless beauty is a race – against time and the limits of technology – it appears that Asia is miles ahead of the competition. Centuries of tradition in Indonesia and Thailand dictate a holistic approach to beauty, using natural herbs and botanicals in combination with luxurious rituals like body scrubs, wraps, and milk baths that can last several hours. Japan has a more targeted sensibility, with multi-step skincare routines that mix high-tech products and old-school techniques such as facial massage. Before 2011, the rest of the world looked to Japan when it came to Asian beauty, with brands such as Shu Uemura and Shiseido gaining a massive international following. However, “Japanese brands are at a different stage,” says Nylon Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Michelle Lee. “They’re amazing but the sparkle of what’s new and cool is really focused on Korea right now.”

In music, food and fashion, K-pop culture has gone global, and the beauty industry is no exception. Thanks to the explosive US debut of BB cream in 2011, the spotlight has landed squarely on South Korea, and its people’s meticulous, innovative approach to beauty. “In the States, BB cream was the tipping point,” says Lee. “After it became popular here, people were hungry for the next hot product to come out of Asia.” Hou agrees. “Curiosity about BB creams and where they came from sparked interest in the Korean skincare routine,” she says. “Globalisation also means a huge interest in what people are doing around the world, whether it be the French or the Japanese.”

The sparkle of what’s new and cool is really focused on Korea right now.
Michelle Lee, Editor-in-chief at Nylon Magazine

Globalisation – via blogging, vlogging and, ultimately, online shopping – is the other contributing factor in Asia’s dominance of the beauty market. “If you wanted to get your hands on a Korean mascara 10 years ago, good luck!” remembers Lee. “You’d have to travel there or find a friend to get it for you. Now, with the ease of internet shopping, you can pretty much get your hands on whatever you want.”

From pig collagen creams to placenta masks, Korea is reinventing the way the world approaches skincare. Korean women reportedly spend seven times more money on beauty products than Americans. “That demand has incentivised Korean beauty companies to invest in research and development to create new, unique products that satisfy beauty-savvy Korean customers,” explains Hou.

“Manufacturers tend to be really responsive to consumer demands in Korea – and, boy, are consumers demanding,” says Cho. “Korean consumers have come to expect safe, affordable and effective products – fast – and Korean cosmetic companies are equipped to move quickly because if they don’t deliver they can’t stay competitive and survive.”

JiHye Park backstage at Suno AW 2015, Getty Images.

JiHye Park backstage at Suno AW 2015, Getty Images.

With products variously boasting snail slime, starfish extract, donkey milk and fermentation, it’s hard to know what’s hype and what actually works. Hou and Cho both agree that snail mucin is worth a go. “Supposedly, the slime secreted by snails protects them from cuts, bacteria and UV rays, and contains beneficial beauty ingredients such as elastin, proteins, hyaluronic and glycolic acids,” says Hou. “I’ve tried snail cream before, and found it to be very moisturising and great at calming down redness and sealing in moisture.”

Hou’s prediction for the next big thing is cushion compacts. “They’re the next-gen BB cream, and give you the pores of an eternally baby-faced K-pop starlet. The finish is totally natural, dewy, translucent, hydrating, and contains SPF50. They’re so popular that Lancôme has launched its own Stateside version.” Cho backs fermentation. “Fermented ingredients haven’t been synthetically produced in the lab; fermentation is a traditional Korean practice used for preserving and curing, usually food, and now it’s being used for cosmetic ingredients, as demand for organics is on the rise.”

They’re the next-gen BB cream, and give you the pores of an eternally baby-faced K-pop starlet.
Kathleen Hou, senior beauty editor at The Cut

Fads aside, it appears American women are starting to embrace the Asian ideology of skincare. Cho says, “I think we’re hitting this point where people are getting more health-conscious in the US. We’re increasingly aware about what we’re putting into our bodies, in terms of food, as well as fitness. It would also make sense to be more critical about what we’re putting on them, makeup and skincare products included.” Hou adds, “I don’t think all American woman will adopt a ten-step skincare routine. But they can adopt the mentality of putting extra care and consistency into their skincare routine.”

Lee gets lyrical. “Don’t expect beautiful flowers if you don’t water them. You have to put a little work into getting a beautiful result.” That said, her best beauty advice echoes that of dermatologists everywhere. “The biggest thing you can do for your skin as you age, really, is sunscreen.” Not a trail of slime anywhere. 

The H&M beauty products you need for a glowing makeup.

The H&M beauty products you need for a glowing makeup.

Charlotte Cho’s
ten-step Korean
skincare routine

  1. Oil cleanse. The first step in the famous “double cleanse” method. This step works for all skin types, including those that are acne-prone or oily. An oil-based product breaks down oil-based impurities such as makeup and SPF. 
  2. Water cleanse. The second step in the double cleanse method. Water-based cleansers break down water-based debris such as dirt and sweat. They typically come in cream or foam formulas. 
  3. Exfoliate. This is a step you can do weekly. Use a chemical-based exfoliator that uses an ingredient such as alpha hydroxy acid to penetrate skin and deep clean pores. Use a mechanical exfoliant such as a sugar scrub to slough off dead cells from the surface of your skin.
  4. Tone. Do this after you cleanse (or exfoliate, if you’ve chosen to do that step). Korean toners focus on hydrating the skin, and prepping it to better absorb the other products in your skincare routine.
  5. Essence. Typically a liquid formula that’s made with ingredients that help make your skin look less dull and brighten your complexion by encouraging skin cells to regenerate.
  6. Ampoule. A denser, slicker version of essence that’s supercharged with ingredients that help address signs of skin damage.
  7. Sheet masks. Perhaps the most iconic step in Asian skin regimens. You can use one once or twice a week. Typically they’re made from cotton or gel sheets that have been soaked in serums and essences, and you wear them for about 15 minutes. Many are specially formulated to treat particular skin concerns, like acne or dryness.
  8. Eye cream. Use something richer here than you would the rest of your face. Use a tapping motion as opposed to a rubbing motion to avoid stretching the skin, which could lead to wrinkles.
  9. Emulsion. A lighterweight moisturiser that penetrates the skin and hydrates at a deeper level. 
  10. Sleeping pack or night cream. The most emollient or creamiest product in your routine. Slather this on last, because it’s so thick it could prevent other products from being absorbed into the skin. While it moisturises on the spot, it also keeps you hydrated as you sleep.
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