How Korean And American Beauty Products Differ

by Helena Kim

Being multicultural means that I get to shop for beauty products across two markets: The Korean and the American. This is a blessing and a curse — a blessing because I get twice the options, and a curse because the two markets seem similar but are drastically different. From my experiences, I have noticed that Korean makeup brands try to utilize the dewy, no makeup look whereas the American beauty market goes for the heavy contour and matte style. Additionally, Korean skincare products mostly focus on moisturizing and replenishing skin by using natural ingredients, where American skincare lines prioritize eliminating and drying out bacteria from skin.

I’m not here to convince you to use one country’s products over the other — because let’s face it, everyone’s skin is different and you’ll have to keep testing new items until you find one that is a good fit with your specific needs. It has taken me years of personal research to figure out a good skincare and makeup regime that works for me — and it’s still a working process.

Let's just try looking at the best-selling items in the two markets. On Sephora’s website, the top-selling face makeup products are Bare Mineral’s Face Powder and Tarte’s Amazonian Clay Foundation (I own both and both are dry, heavy and cakey — but offer amazing coverage). But go to an online Korean beauty store, and the best-selling face makeup items are BB Cushions and CC Creams.

You Can Shop Sephora's Top-Selling Face Makeup At

It’s obvious that the two markets are different due to the cultures' varying standards of beauty. Just flip through magazines from the two nations and from the get-go you can point out each culture’s beauty standards. Americans glorify the tan, fit, smoky eye look. Koreans go for the petite, glowing, minimal makeup look. But as a Korean-American, it gets daunting to have to choose a certain style — a certain box. Why if I want to do both? Can I have glowing white skin and still contour? Can I do a dewy look whilst being tan?

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Left: IU, 21, Korean Singer/Songwriter. Right: Ariana Grande, 21, American Singer/Songwriter.

The differences between the two markets, I’m sure, have a lot to do with science and the needs accumulated by each culture. Asian skin tends to have a more compact epidermis that slows down the rate at which the skin absorbs skincare products — which explains why Koreans have adopted the “8-10 step skincare regime.” Caucasian skin tends to burn more and tan less, whilst Asian skin tends to burn less and tan more — perhaps due, in part, to Korean cosmetics having a great deal of sunscreen in them. Most makeup products from Korea have a minimum of 25 SPF, but 50 SPF is fairly common. The high SPF also makes the face makeup appear more sheen and "ghostly," ultimately helping Koreans achieve that white and dewy look they so covet. This idea also seems to support why Koreans don’t get premature wrinkles — because they use a lot of sun protection whilst Americans are all about having that "sun-kissed skin."

When you really think about it, all of this is super strange, but unsurprising when you consider that both Koreans and Americans attribute their skin tone preferences to social class history. Koreans gravitate towards pale skin because history dictates that commoners often worked outside in the fields, and therefore having white skin indicated that you were of a higher class. In America, however, being tan is an indicator that you’ve been somewhere warm on vacation, while being pale is a sign that you’ve been cooped up inside working and haven’t had the luxury of relaxation and glamour. This wasn’t always the case for Americans: For centuries, tan skin was considered unattractive and it wasn’t until Coco Chanel came back with an accidental tan that olive skin became the "new thing to do." I cannot help but wonder if, with time, Korea will change its overall perception and begin to love tan skin as well. But I have my doubts: Koreans are raised to be well aware of the sun’s damaging effects and would rather fake bake than actually have the sun penetrate their porcelain white skin.

Interesting how that works, right? I think it taps into the fact that Korean skin tans more easily than Caucasian skin, and people always want what they can’t have. I remember going on vacation with a few of my Caucasian best friends and they were frustrated at how easily I bronzed when they turned painfully red. Again, as a Korean-American I have flip-flopped between the two extremes throughout my life. (Though as of recently, I’ve been into the pale look — only for the sake of my skin. Come the first sign of what looked like a tiny eye wrinkle, I freaked out and have been religiously using anti-aging creams in hopes of holding onto my early twenties.)

The difference in beauty products between the two countries might also have to do with the climate. You think Chicago and NYC are cold? Seoul, South Korea has had a high of 8 degrees all of January 2015, and a low of -4 degrees. So far in February, Seoul’s weather averaged between -8 to 8 degrees. But although it’s extremely cold, it doesn’t snow often — which makes for very hard and dry skin. So that solves the mystery of why Korean skincare products are chalk-full of moisturizing ingredients.

It wasn’t until this past year that I noticed more non-Asian magazines and beauty bloggers raving about Korean products. Maybe it has to do with the Korean industry stepping up its marketing strategy or just the natural effects of the “melting pot." But I mean, just because Korean beauty products were formulated with pale-skin-loving, compact-epidermis-having, cold-climate-living Koreans in mind doesn’t mean that they aren't suitable for Americans! And the same goes for Koreans experimenting with American brands.

So: Do you have oily skin? Maybe play around with some moisturizing Korean products (oily skin actually means you have dry skin and it’s your body’s way of compensating for that dryness). Or maybe you have problems with a breakout and need an American product laced with benzyl peroxide to eliminate bacteria and fix that acne overnight? Whatever your need may be, don’t shy away from one country’s market or another. Embrace them all, listen to your skin and do your research. Here are American beauty products that Koreans go crazy for and Korean products that Americans are obsessed with to get you started on your road to beauty and skincare confusion!

Images: Fotolia; Giphy