Seoul matters: cult Korean beauty products

Cloe Gomez   //   Mar, 27   //   No Comments

The South Korean cosmetics market is booming, both at home and in the West — which is why the big brands are all getting in on the action

A wave of nervous giggles ripples around the room before a respectful silence falls. Jung Saem Mool, 46, the leading South Korean make-up artist-turned-beauty celebrity, has stepped out in front of an audience of beauty editors in Seoul.

In South Korea, women spend twice as much of their income on beauty products as their American counterparts, and men spend more on skincare than anywhere else in the world. So not only is this country leading the field in innovative beauty products — such as cushion foundation — but western brands such as Clinique, which hosted the Seoul event, are entering the arena and tailoring their products to the local market, as well as borrowing ideas and using them for their home markets. “At Clinique, we are always tapping into trends from around the world, especially those from an advanced market such as South Korea,” says Janet Pardo, senior vice-president of product development worldwide at the brand. “We learnt women used an average of seven to eight products daily, and a watery lotion and treatment oil were part of this ritual. So we adapted the concept and created products that could easily be customised into any skincare regime.”

Of course, if you are up on your make-up chat, you know that K-beauty, as it’s known, exported £2bn worth of cosmetics products last year. In the UK, you can find them on websites such as Cult Beauty, while in America, Sephora has long been stocking the big brands such as Tony Moly, famous for its fun packaging (tomato-extract masks in pots that look like ripe tomatoes, for example). K-beauty’s strength lies in being technologically advanced. “Korean research is pioneering,” says Edwin Tseng, CEO of the Canadian-Korean skincare brand Racinne.

AmorePacific beauty store

“With studies often backed by the government and universities, many Korean laboratories have more than 10 years of data about functional peptides, plant callus culture extracts, recombinant proteins and novel nano biomaterials. This gives their products great efficacy on issues such as anti-ageing, melanin control, skin hydration and other problematic skin concerns.”

The leading make-up artist and beauty historian Lisa Eldridge says: “Asia has been leading the way with cosmetic science since the 1990s, mostly from Japan. But about six or seven years ago, there was a shift to South Korea for products that felt new and innovative. Korea has invested so much in beauty, and to me it feels like the most exciting place now.”

It was in South Korea that BB creams first gained popularity (the product was, says Eldridge, originally created in Germany, but a K-drama actress took some home with her from a trip there and the rest is history). The current trend for lip oils and cushion foundations and blushers also started life there.

Myeongdong shopping area in Seoul

These days, South Korean-inspired western brands are springing up to meet demand. Erborian was launched in 2007 by the former L’Oréal executive Katalin Berneyi, who teamed up with the South Korean scientist Hojung Lee, because she felt so inspired by the focus on herbs and natural ingredients in K-beauty products. It sells its products mainly in the West, but also has two standalone stores in South Korea. “When we first launched, I would have to explain in presentations that Korea is between China and Japan,” Berneyi says.

Alexia Inge, the founder of, says that whenever the site features a Korean brand in the headline of the newsletter “the click-through rate is huge, as people are really interested, but the buying rate isn’t as high yet”. She thinks people need to build up their courage, as the products are unfamiliar. “But it’s also interesting how western brands are jumping on what has been big in South Korea.”

And so the K-beauty cycle continues — and we all get to benefit from the innovative products that are a success with our Seoul sisters.

The cult Korean products

Erborian 0.09 Touch au Ginseng Creamy Powder Compact, £27, launches first week of May
This is a hybrid powder and BB cream that blends into skin to give enough coverage to even out skin tone and leave it glowing.

Blithe Pressed Serum Velvet Yam, £44;
A multitasking skincare product that’s a fusion of a serum and a moisturiser, with 68% mountain yam extract, which is heralded for its moisture-replenishing powers.

Urban Outfitters
Look out for a Korean-inspired line coming this summer. The beauty buyer Nina Gill says: “We’ve focused on Korean-style ingredients for the face masks, for example.”

Cushion foundations
Liquid foundation in a compact, applied using a spongy cushion to give dewy coverage. Look for them by your favourite big make-up house, or at Topshop Beauty (Air Cushion Skin Perfector, £16.50; from May 5).