From sheet masks to egg white cleansers - here's why we're sold on Korean beauty products

Posted by
Anita Bhagwandas
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Virtually everything on your dressing table has been influenced by South Korean beauty trends. Stylist’s beauty director Anita Bhagwandas heads to Seoul to investigate why they’re the world’s biggest beauty innovator. 

I haven’t even landed in Seoul before I’m aware that things already look very different. The entire crew on my Korean Airways flight all have scarily flawless skin. And I’m pretty sure even the male stewards are wearing more make-up than me. The in-flight shopping magazine (the size of a small tome) is almost entirely comprised of clinical skincare. And, when I glance around at my fellow passengers, I spy people in virtually every row wearing sheet masks – still as a corpse, chins awkwardly jutting up to the ceiling. It’s as though Edvard Munch’s The Scream has snuck in and replaced the usual slack-jawed faces staring at the TV screens. 

I’m travelling to Seoul, South Korea, for the Intercharm Beauty Expo, one of the world’s biggest beauty trade shows, on a quest to understand the psychology behind the world’s most beauty-obsessed nation. Not only are there more products on sale in South Korea than any other country, but the Korean consumer spends twice as much on them as anyone else in the world. And it’s not just the home market that’s driving the industry. In 2015, South Korea exported £1.85billion worth of cosmetics, almost 40% more than the year before. Ever since they introduced the world to BB and CC creams, British and American consumers have been quick to buy into the Korean aesthetic of almost preternaturally flawless skin. Add in the fascination with their notorious 10-step skincare regimes, and a constant creation of cutting-edge ingredients and new products, often in kitsch, Insta-friendly packaging, and it’s easy to see how the phenomenon was born. “Korean beauty fuses function with fun and efficacy, which is why it’s so popular there, and now in the US and UK,” says Victoria Buchanan, from trend forecasters The Future Laboratory.  

So with 80% of what lands on my desk each week now being South Korea-inspired, I want to get under the skin of why this country in particular is so fanatical about beauty in the first place…      

I arrive at a heaving exhibition centre in the middle of town. My jet lag isn’t prepared for how mammoth this trade show is – it’s rammed with brands, inventors and investors looking for the next big thing in K-beauty. Before I even grab a coffee, I’m accosted by a stall holder brandishing a shiny packet: “This is placenta serum,” she says squirting it on my hand with zero consent. “It will make your skin soft like a baby.”

 I quickly deduce that it contains artificially engineered placenta stem cells rather than womb-fresh. But my jaw continues to hit the floor the more products I’m introduced to. Things I didn’t even know existed: sheet masks for your nail beds, chin-straps to tighten your jawline, snail gels promising to smooth the complexion, and bird’s nest face masks (made of actual nests to harness the healing properties of bird saliva). Some of the ingredients may sound bonkers to us, but they’re proof of South Korea’s quest for innovation. As further proof, I also spy some seriously impressive at-home Infrared light facial devices and vials of ingredients that appear to be fresh from the skincare labs. And judging from this exhibition, I predict we’ll all be stocking up on hair sheet masks and pressed serums very soon.

Beauty products or toys? Who knows? Who cares?

The Skincare Obsession

I meet with three Korean women, who have agreed to let me quiz them on their skincare regimes. Sitting in an ultra-hipster cafe nursing lattes away from the minus temperatures outside, it feels like hanging out with my mates back home. But when I ask how much they spend on beauty, stating that the UK monthly average is £112*, the differences become stark. “We spend way more, about £400,” Subin Park, 27, says. “I have so many unopened products in a drawer.”       

These aren’t women who have a fortune to spend on products either. It’s just their priority above all else – fashion, dining out and travel included. I ask them whether the Korean 10-step skincare routine is the urban myth I assume it is. “No, it’s real – some people have 20 steps. The cleansing part of my routine alone is four steps,” says Alice Oh, 24, from Seoul, who works in marketing. And before I can explain the finer points of the classic British cleansing routine, Park interjects: “I went to boarding school in England and my friends would just use face wipes for cleansing. I couldn’t believe it, so I’d let them share my products and tell them what to do. I didn’t understand why they didn’t know how to look after their skin.”

I have to try everything for my job obviously…

Unsurprisingly, Korean culture has long held an obsession with beauty. The earliest mention of skincare regimes was documented in Korean literature as far back as 700BC. Today, there are whole streets dedicated to it – like Myeong-dong, a Seoul landmark akin to London’s Carnaby Street, but twice as busy and four times as long, where every shop has a beauty focus, from fun to high-end. But I did wonder if this latest craze was more of a generational thing. So I arrange a meeting with make-up artist Grace Woo (who is in her 50s) at her beautiful polished concrete atelier.

She’s one of the biggest make-up artists in Korea, working on many ‘idols’ – the so-called pop stars of K-Pop and Korean TV shows. Predictably, her skin and make-up is perfect – so my first question is whether Korean women would ever leave the house without make-up. “There’s no way,” she says sternly. “We believe appearance is a sign of respect for other people, so even if it’s just some BB cream and mascara, we always wear it.” Woo explains that being educated about beauty is something passed down through generations as priority. “Korean mothers try to educate both sons and daughters in skincare, because it makes a person look healthier to have good skin.” She says her nephew has been applying sunscreen himself from the age of five because he’s been told that’s a key step in keeping his skin healthy.

South Korean native Jinha Kim, GM of French-Korean brand Erborian, agrees, saying Koreans have the highest standards in skincare: “People here want products that make an instant difference as well as long-term benefits – and they’ll investigate and do their research before they buy,” she says. And it’s true, many women I speak to tell me they check the manufacture date, which all beauty products in Korea display, so they can check the product was made within the last six months – when the active ingredients are most potent. I even see women using an app called Hwahae that scans barcodes to reveal information about the ingredient lists and application tips.

Another topic that comes up repeatedly with Oh and Park is dermatologist access. Oh explains: “It’s very commonplace in Korea to see a dermatologist, even just for one spot or pimple because it could scar. I went twice a month when my skin was bad because it’s affordable here.” There’s a similar approach to spas too, which seem to be on every corner and boast facilities such as oxygen rooms (to clear the pores), hot stones to massage your feet, and dipping pools. They’re pretty functional-looking but affordable at about 17,000 won (£11) for a scrub using traditional Korean oils. Likewise there are plenty of public baths where you can also have therapies for a small fee. It’s something everyone I meet here does weekly with their mates, like we’d head to the pub on a Friday night.

Searching for hidden beauty treasures

A different attitude 

It highlights the 360-degree approach to beauty that is intrinsic in South Korea. “We’re taught growing up that your appearance is a culmination of your diet, exercise and skincare routine. If I don’t work out then I know my skin isn’t going to be as nice. I’ll eat steamed cabbage and broccoli with lots of fermented foods and drink water to keep my skin healthy too,” says Park. While this all sounds admirable, and part of me wishes I was this dedicated, I can’t help wondering if there’s something darker driving this obsession with aesthetics? After all, the beauty standards are unfathomably high here – which becomes increasingly evident when we visit the wealthy Gangnam area of Seoul. 

I’m told you can tell which areas of Seoul women come from depending on the kind of plastic surgery they’ve had. The women in Gangnam are wealthy, and tend to have a lot of very obvious work done, apparently. Though nobody talks openly or boasts about it, surgery is very much part of life here – indeed, alongside its skincare crown, South Korea also has the dubious honour of being the plastic surgery capital of the world. I remember something Park told me: “Having cosmetic surgery is often a graduation gift from your family before you go to college. I didn’t get it because I was too scared, but many friends did.”  

I spent my rent on beauty, but I got some great stuff

The surgeries she’s talking about are rhinoplasty, removal of a double eyelid with blepharoplasty and having implants or regular doses of filler under the eyes to add ‘bags’ to make them look rounder and more doll-like. Jane Pak, a 29-year-old lawyer, tells me this is totally normal. “My mum would tape my eyelids and cut my eyelashes when I was a baby so they’d grow longer. My uncle said, ‘When you finish law school, I’ll gift you a nose job.’ The look most South Koreans aspire to is that anime or doll-like look: big eyes and smaller facial features,” she says. Though none of the women I’m with have had any, I look to the table of four women next to us - three of them have had the eyelid surgery and I’m pretty sure two have also had rhinoplasty. It makes me a little sad. 

That doll-like, hyper-westernised look (slim noses, pale skin, pink cheeks and lips with large eyes) is the dominant aesthetic here though. And it’s the look that the K-Pop idols have. Make-up artist Woo tells me that they are the ones who heavily dictate the trends here, not fashion. She offers to demonstrate the current idol look on me, inspired by girl band Red Velvet – and as if on cue her assistants squeal at their very mention.

While it appears pretty simple, an hour and a half later, Woo is still painstakingly applying a soft red shadow and peachy lipstick to my face (a look I see on many women here). “In Korea we enjoy the ritual of perfection in beauty – we have to get it right.” I wonder how right she’s going to get it when I see she’s using no foundation whatsoever (just a BB cream), pearlised primer and some concealer. But when she passes me the hand mirror, I’m shocked at how healthy my skin looks. Yet still, I instinctively ask for powder for my forehead just out of habit, but Woo says no. “We want shine – it’s youthful and fresh and shows your skin is hydrated. Nobody uses much powder or foundation here – matte is ageing.” Woo shows me another idol trend. ‘Puppy eyes’ is flicking your eyeliner downwards rather than upwards to “look like a sad/cute baby animal”, which sounds a bit teeny. I ask when girls start wearing make-up here. “Around 10,” Woo says. ”Mothers will buy them lip tints and BB creams to make sure they’re using good quality products and not cheap ones.” That’s part of the reason so much of the beauty packaging here looks like cute toys – many of the products on offer aren’t actually aimed at adults.  

Going to extremes

While Seoul was everything I’d hoped for and more, I can’t get over the uniformity – everyone seems to want to look the same. I ask the girls if they’d ever wear green eyeshadow – like the one I’m wearing. “That’s way too experimental for me,” says Oh. “But I do have a million different shades of brown shadow,” she laughs. “Our country is very conservative, so wearing any bright colours means you’d get stared at. People want to blend in.” Park chimes in too: “I’ve never worn a red lipstick – that’s a new thing for us here and very bold.” That seems odd juxtaposed against a culture that is so deeply rooted in extreme beauty like seemingly westernising plastic surgery, OTT (but brilliant) product packaging and what seems like an unhealthy obsession with appearance. But I’ve also gone from thinking that 10 skincare steps each morning was excessive to preaching about it to anyone who will listen - since following it I’ve never received so many compliments on my skin. Ever. And that’d without resorting to the placenta serum just yet. Maybe one day.  

The ultimate Korean kit

After a K-beauty fix? Here are the products worth investing in - plus Erborian are offering Stylist readers 20% off with the code STYLIST20 from now until 20th of March.

1. Face Mist

Eborian Bamboo Splash

The shea butter pearls instantly nourish skin. 


2. Cleanser

Eborian Double Mousse

This herbal foam gently cleanses away the day. 


3. BB Cream

Klairs Mochi BB Cushion

This balm-like BB compact offers buildable coverage. 


4. Sheet Mask

The Oozoo Face In-Shot Illumination Mask

Insert the syringe into the sheet pouch then apply.


5. Moisturiser

Dr Jart+ Ceramidin Cream

Keep skin plump thanks to time-release ceramides.


6. Primer

Tony Moly Egg Pore Silky Smooth Balm

Thanks to egg whites, this primer minimises pores. 


7. Lip Kit

Holika Holika Golden Monkey Glamour Lip 3-Step Kit

A mini facial for your lips.


8. Hand Cream

It’s Skin Cookie & Hand Cream

’Cookie’ pieces exfoliate as the skin softens.


9. Sheet Mask

Tony Moly Megatox Moist Shot Mask

Once the mask is unrolled, hyaluronic acid softens skin.


10. Eye Pads

Oh K! Cooling Eye Pads

These patches will rid your eyes of dark circles.