Anyone interested in skincare will know that the biggest trend over the last few years has been the ever increasing popularity of Korean skincare. At first only finding exotic high end Korean products selectively available to now finding Korean face masks and serums available at Walmart, this beauty craze has officially taken over Western skincare.
But before Korean beauty products crossed over, it wasn’t as if the West was without a skincare industry. We too had interests in anti-aging or blemish control or redness reduction. We also had creams and washes that touted all sorts of benefits. So what is so different about Korean skincare that has made so many rave over it? What is the difference between how Koreans approach skincare as opposed to those in the West?
A large part in understanding the differences between Korean and Western beauty products is understanding the cultural context these products sprang from. Korea is a country where skincare is considered a large part of overall health care. And Korea, along with most of Asia, has always placed a huge premium on health and wellness. Starting all the way back to the beginnings of Eastern philosophy, a person’s bodily health has always been seen as something that directly influences a person’s mindset, personality, and future fortunes. Health was vital and the belief in maintaining good health was often incorporated as a foundational tenet in most Eastern religions. Centuries later, the foundational belief that health is everything still remains the bedrock for Korean skincare. You can see the overwhelming cultural belief in the importance of skincare by how ageless, genderless, and classless skincare is in Korea. Man or woman, rich or poor—everyone cares about their skin.
Of course cultural differences and beauty industry preferences are broad topics that many people could write novels on but to generally understand the differences in approach between Korean and Western skincare, there are four key categories—timing, education, beauty values, and mindset. It is the differences that we have within these four categories that differentiate Korean from Western skincare.
For many in the West, skincare routines are often established when they hit puberty. That’s when hormonal acne, blackheads, and redness bombard us and we are running around trying to slap some semblance of a routine together to defend ourselves against these attacks.
There are many in the West who still view sunscreen as something only necessary for beach trips or long hikes. Many people don’t become aware of the importance of sun protection till an innocent mole begins to look a little more threatening. The timing of skincare in the West occurs when the problem occurs.
For Koreans, the timing is completely different. Skincare begins at birth. Nearly all Koreans are extremely obsessive about sun protection. There are whole industries that only make unique items for sun protection—whole face visors, filtered face masks, arm warmers or long gloves to protect your hands and arms while driving. Koreans use sunblock daily, from babyhood to adulthood, and it is considered a necessary and crucial component of every day skincare. Although it may sound obsessive to the outsider, this is preventing a massive amount of UV damage that gradually builds over a lifetime. Forty years of daily sunblock versus forty years of very little to sporadic sunblock makes a huge difference in the end.
Same kind of daily care is directed towards puberty and the skin issues it brings. In Korea, dermatology is considered an incredibly necessary branch of medicine; you will find dermatology offices everywhere. And because there are so many offices, reasonably priced services can be found in many places. When facing puberty, many Korean teens will go to their dermatologist for extractions, facials, or consultations on what kind of care they should be providing for their skin. They don’t wait till the acne is unmanageable or painful. They go as soon as they feel a change in their skin. They realize that timing is key.
The same mindset applies for anti-aging. Till a couple decades ago, it wasn’t very common for many Westerners to think of skincare in preventive terms. Many Western anti-aging routines began when they hit a certain age’ or they caught their first wrinkle. And those that did try and get a jump on Father Time started perhaps only a few years earlier than the rest.
For Koreans, anti-aging IS skincare. That IS the point of skincare—to maintain a healthy youthful appearance for as long as humanly possible. That is why parents slather their children in sunblock from infancy. That is why teenagers are hyper vigilant of their skin. These are all the foundational building blocks to long-lasting beautiful, youthful skin.
Sheet masks (or ‘packs’ as they’re called in Korea) have been a regular household staple for decades now in Korea. It is not uncommon to see a whole family lounging around for a few minutes in sheet masks, moisturizing their skin. Just like the industries for UV protection, there are a slew of anti-aging products designed to help push back the clock a little bit longer. There are all sorts of rollers (like jade rollers, v-line jaw rollers), wraps (chin or neck shaping wraps), and steamers (water or herbal steamers) that have been in circulation for years in Korea. And it wouldn’t be uncommon at all to see a young, wrinkle-free 22 year old taking advantage of all of these products.
So it’s clear Koreans inhale skincare obsession from birth. It is almost their birthright, in many ways. Everyone is always talking about their skin and any products or methods they are trying out to help it. But even with this obsessiveness, many aren’t just blindly buying products. It’s amazing and quite surprising how well-educated most Koreans are about a lot of the basic skincare ingredients and their effects.
One reason is, as mentioned above, their health culture. Koreans are obsessed with healthcare. And this obsession is manifested in their incredibly prevalent amount of pharmacies. In Korea, there are as many pharmacies as there are Starbucks here. It isn’t unusual to see two pharmacies on one block. And unlike the West, many of these pharmacies are compound pharmacies, meaning that they can make their own proprietary blend of pills or creams. So it is in a pharmacy’s best interest to educate their clients on the pros and cons of ingredients so that they can better appreciate one pharmacy’s custom acne medication over another’s.
And this kind of prevalence of pharmacies and skin-educating has been around for decades, long before YouTube or the wide easy beauty selections of online shopping. Being this skincare-fluent and obsessed, in the early days of the internet, Koreans would write pages and pages of blogs on skincare. They would make detailed charts on what was in each product and how those ingredients would interact with each other. But even before the internet, there were books, articles, magazines, clubs, panels—all existed for the sole purpose of understanding the process of protecting and maintaining their skin.
But of course, that isn’t to say that all this research and studying doesn’t sway them into the trendy new ingredient. There are trends, just like anywhere else, and you can see it in the products that come out. One year, everything has snail mucin in it because of its ability to hydrate. The next year, everything has pig collagen because pig collagen was shown to have the most elastic fiber construction. The year after that, everything has donkey milk because of the milk’s ability to hydrate while also brightening.
And they aren’t just trying to discover new ingredients. This is also the country that invented the 7 Skin Method, the skincare method of layering moisturizing toner seven times for ultimate hydration and suppleness. Korea is nothing short of obsessive when it comes to creating new techniques, methods, and routines. Everyone is constantly experimenting and innovating.
This is probably where the biggest difference between Korean and Western skincare lay. Because at the end of the day, what is our skincare routine attempting to accomplish? In the West, it’s hard to pinpoint a strictly black and white list of wants. Sure, many of us want anti-aging. But what about reduction of redness? What about reducing or eliminating freckles? What about hyperpigmentation on darker toned skin? It’s hard to layout one all-encompassing goal for Western skincare because the West is so wonderfully diverse. There are all types of faces, all types of skin, and so of course, all types of skincare goals.
Korea, like most of their other Asian neighbors, is a very homogenous country. The population of Korea is Koreans. Everyone has relatively the same skin tone, type, and texture. So for Koreans, it is easy to spell out their skincare goals: extremely fair, dewy skin, ideally on a small size face with a V-line chin (although the last bit is a bit beyond hat skincare alone can accomplish).
And there are no variations in beauty standards in Korea. In the West, some can say they prefer a curvier body type or a face with freckles. But in Korea, much like the population, the beauty values are are one homogenous things. they all want the same thing and if you aren’t reaching for and valuing the same goals, you are looked upon as the outsider.
It is because of these very specific goals and their obsession with skincare that you don’t see products addressing a lot of issues that people outside of the Korean skin tone and texture might be dealing with. It is why many of their beauty products are only offered in a very limited range of skin tones. Everything was made catered to Korean beauty values.
It took time for the West to see and acknowledge the kind of skincare that was available in the East. It will take time for the East to see and acknowledge the beauty of diversity in skincare and beauty values. But with the world knitting closer together thanks to technology, Korea is slowly starting to expand their beauty world and it is very clear that soon, many values will overlap in time.
And finally there is the difference in mindset—the mindset of what skin health is and how it relates to the rest of our bodies.
For Koreans, their approach to health is very much holistic. Everything is connected and when one aspect of the body is out of alignment, it can cause a domino effect on the rest of the body. There is a reason why there are so many pharmacies in Korea, why herbal health drinks have been popular for centuries, and why Koreans are so aware of their skin’s health—it is all related.
A healthy body leads to healthy skin; conversely, unhealthy skin can also be an indicator of an unhealthy body. Their approach is to take in the overall condition of the body, taking care to treat it from the inside out. You can see this mindset by their timing, as mentioned earlier. They recognize that what you do early on can affect you later in life. You can see it in their education. They research and understand foundational ingredients so that they may better treat themselves and their skin.
This kind of holistic, interconnected way of thinking is becoming more pervasive and popular in the West. Many are beginning to recognize the body as a whole and taking care to not just treat the ill parts separately. And people in Western skincare are also taking notice of this shift. There has been a recent boom in the vitamin industry. You can see customized vitamin companies or hair and nail gummy companies popping up left and right. And these companies are growing based on the growing recognition that if we provide better nourishment and care from the inside, it will manifest itself on the outside.
This kind of integrated, holistic mindset is what will help us achieve not just better skin but better overall quality of life. It teaches us to value our bodies and to understand what it needs so that it can provide us with healthy years and hopefully beautiful skin to boot.
Like we said earlier, there are many differences between Korean and Western skincare and hopefully some of these points have highlighted a few of those differences. But recently, those differences are shrinking with every passing year. The world is becoming much smaller with distances between countries evaporating with the ease of technology. We are learning new ideas from each other, incorporating our old ideas into them, and synthesizing something totally new and fresh. Regardless of what or where new skincare ideas come from, having open minds means we can add to the arsenal of knowledge that will help us create the best and healthiest version of ourselves.