K-beauty A to Z: An Interview with Janice Kang


What is K-beauty?

Many have their own view on what K-beauty is, so I’ll describe what we think it has come to mean. Cleansers, toners, moisturizers and more are all established product categories produced by beauty brands across the world. What K-beauty does is fuse these existing products for a new take on them.

To those who develop K-beauty products, Korean beauty generally means two things: 1) beauty products and formulations developed and manufactured in Korea by Korean beauty companies; and 2) skin care and color cosmetics inspired by Korea and its cultural trends.

1. Many product categories were invented outside of Korea. However, Korean developers further expanded these innovations with a focus on boosting their popularity; making them trendy, “must-have” products that are integral to Korean beauty consumer routines.

For example, the very first BB cream was originally a German innovation introduced to Korea by the Dr. G brand, from Gowoonsesang Cosmetics. Due to its benefits and popularity, it became a staple in the beauty regimes of many women across the country, and now, the world.

2. Skin care in general is also an integral part of daily hygiene rituals for both Korean men and women, as it relates to the desire to feel attractive. In fact, it is as important to regular daily care as brushing your teeth or showering. It generally consists of cleansing, toning, applying an “essence” and moisturizing.

Not surprisingly, as these steps became ritualized and standardized, added steps such as sheet masks, sleeping packs, etc., and innovative product categories, such as “first essences,” emerged as necessary additions to skin care regimens.

Are there major differences in East vs. West K-beauty?

One thing that makes Korean beauty formulas different from Western beauty products is the influence of “hanbang,” also known as traditional Korean medicine. Hanbang skin care is distinctly Korean, as it is formulated with herbs traditionally used for medicine. Ginseng, Centella asiatica and chaga mushroom all have amazing health and skin care benefits.

Another difference is in color cosmetics, which are heavily focused on socioeconomic history. Korea was built on a strong agricultural class, i.e., farmers, and the majority of the population spent more time outdoors while the aristocracy stayed indoors. Clearer and paler complexions were therefore viewed as more noble and beautiful—a sentiment that still exists today. Thus, sunscreens, lighter foundation colors and brighter lip and eyeshadow colors are still big in Korea.

What new variations in K-beauty do you predict?

We expect to see natural ingredients and formulations continue, in addition to doctor/dermatologist-backed formulations and products. Many Korean women see their dermatologists regularly for everything from facials to other procedures. Korean dermatologists are also able to offer the advances of Western medicine alongside traditional Korean medicine. This fuses the best of both worlds. It’s the best of nature and science coming together.

How do products in a K-beauty regimen interact?

Skin care products in a K-beauty system, as is common for most beauty products and brands with solid scientific and R&D strengths, are structured to work together both physically and biologically.

Biologically: Many K-beauty brands offer gentle or mild formula options to effectively cleanse while minimizing the disruption of skin’s natural balance, which later products in the process often aim to replenish. Since cleansers based on some surfactants can disrupt skin’s moisture balance and pH levels, cleansers in a K-beauty system may be offered in a low-pH formula, or a more gentle or milder formulation. This is because skin’s natural pH usually sits between 4.5–5.5. A good example of such a cleanser would be Derma Dr. Lab’s Mild Bubble Foam or Goodal’s Moisture Rich Cleansing Foam.

K-beauty fuses existing product types for a new take on them.

Physically: From a purely physical view, products are typically applied from the lightest texture and thinnest viscosity to the heaviest; imagine the way oil sits on top of water. Skin is an organ with porous and sponge-like properties. Therefore, applying products from the thinner and less viscous to the heavier, lipid-based formulations allows for the most effective absorption of products, so active ingredients hit their targets, improving their efficacy.

Another example is with the vastly popular peeling gels. Exfoliation is a vital part of skin care and a naturally occurring phenomenon in skin. When skin cell turnover is disrupted or poor, it leads to the poor absorption of skin care products, clogged pores and many other imbalances. So, rather than using heavily abrasive granular materials such as ground apricot seeds, or the now-banned polyethylene beads, Korean consumers are using chemical and/or mechanical peeling mits and gels.

Mechanical versions of this product usually include natural cellulose in their formulations, and with a gentle massaging action, they help to remove dead surface cells bound to natural cellulose by pilling or “noodling” them. Some formulas include: natural ingredients known to minimize the disruption of skin moisture levels; vitamins and other ingredients that benefit skin health; and anti-inflammatories to minimize or soothe irritation, especially since exfoliation is a stimulating process.

Once skin undergoes peeling/exfoliation, it is better prepared to receive or absorb active ingredients so, in turn, they better penetrate the layers of skin. As an example, a big trend in K-beauty is the all-popular sheet mask, but to achieve the best results, i.e., serum/essence ampoule absorption rates, it is highly recommended to pair the mask with exfoliation/peeling prior to application.

What technologies have enabled the K-beauty trend?

One of the strongest influencers from Korean tradition is the aforementioned hanbang approach to skin care. It has hundreds of years of history and proof of efficacy. Thus, utilizing such ingredients in K-beauty formulations has been integral to its success in Korea, which recently has come to light to the rest of the world due to the popularity of K-beauty.

In addition, Korean consumers have always held an affinity for nature. The concept of well-being and holistic care has strong roots in Korea, so it’s no surprise these formulations, which are often produced with natural ingredients, are popular. Hanbang ingredient processing methods, such as fermentation, have driven their popularity as well.

How do you see K-beauty evolving?

Rather than new technologies, I see existing technologies and formulas improving. Two of the biggest things happening in Korea now are:

Anti-pollution/protection and care for skin, with a focus on the external environment. This is due to current environmental concerns; i.e., China’s development has resulted in increased pollution, which spills over into Korea. As a result, the air quality is poor and anti-pollution skin care and benefits are important.

Cosmeceutical/dermaceutical skin care. Finally, people are interested in effective skin care with science at the forefront. Many proven ingredients and formulations are backed by scientists and doctors, and consumers are very educated in Korea. We expect to see formulations backed by nature and skin care ingredients that compliment and boost skin’s natural functions; think of ceramides, squalane, nourishing plant extracts, antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.

We expect to see big movements toward these two categories.

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