Thanks to the Korean skin-care phenomenon of the past few years, American consumers have learned their ABC's via BB and CC cream. But many Korean beauty treatments remain fascinating, complicated procedures, such as the typical "Korean" skin-care routine, which is rumored to contain up to 12 steps and products with questionable ingredients. In hopes of demystifying it all, we spoke with Alicia Yoon, Harvard Business School graduate and CEO of Korean beauty site Peach and Lily. As a trained aesthetician who takes trips to Korea multiple times a year to research and understand the country's beauty landscape, Yoon talked to the Cut about what makes Korean skin care so intricate, and whether you should be trying donkey milk, cheese cream, horse oil, or any of the new trends she's recently observed in Korea.
What makes Korean skin care different from American skin care?
Korean skin care tends to include more natural ingredients and formulations because of the rich history of using ingredients found in nature, like ginseng, ssanghwatang mushrooms, and rice. It’s also set apart in the effective delivery mechanisms of the active ingredients. It’s not to say that other non-Asian brands don’t get this right, but because of the supply/demand dynamics, very well-priced items in Korea will have exceptional formulations.
Additionally, Korean skin care experiments with more niche and “adventurous” ingredients because Korean women tend to be more open to exploring and testing. In the U.S., I find that the major beauty brands are careful about launching anything too zany because, perhaps historically, American women would rather stick to more known ingredients like retinol and vitamin C. Finally, on a more superficial level, I find that products tend to be packaged more creatively and with better applicators for lower price points.
Why do you still see Korea as a hotbed for skin-care innovation?
The industry is only going to be as good as the consumers. Korean women are the most globally demanding and skin-care-savvy consumers, using up to 15 products a day, which is seven times more than [in] the U.S. The country is also one of the most connected online, with product reviews spreading virally overnight. Beauty labs in Korea have had to deliver on these high demands and responded by pouring huge per capita spend into beauty innovation.
This then begs the question: Why and how are these women so demanding and skin-care savvy? I think this taps into the deep Asian beauty heritage of skin being a status symbol of sorts. Centuries ago, women of nobility did not go outside and were more educated and had fairer and more beautiful skin. That resulted in notions of being “beautiful” as conflated with having healthy, radiant, flawless skin.
We’ve seen cushion compacts and extensive skin-care routines. What are some other new things in skincare you are seeing?
In Korea, there is a big skin-care trend toward taking products and rituals from gwa-lee-sheels, which roughly translates to “maintenance clinics.” These are spalike places that clients go to weekly to receive more regular facials to maintain skin, and the idea is to go somewhere (like the gym) to regularly upkeep skin. A lot of brands are beginning to produce products that are an extension of these clinics. These include things like much more intensive modeling masks and serums that come with applicators. At-home devices are beginning to trend in Korea. Women are also beginning to talk more about exercising the underlying facial muscles to keep the skin from sagging (just like how you would exercise your body muscles).
Donkey milk has been brought up on Korean beauty blogs once in a while. There aren't that many products that have this. Cleopatra bathed in this. It is known to be gentle and soothing for those with sensitive skin and eczema, and [has] four to five times more vitamin C than cow’s milk and [is] rich in proteins.
Horse oil is also featured front and center at some of Olive Young’s (one of Seoul’s largest beauty-supply stores) flagship locations, but apparently Chinese tourists have come to love this product. Horse oil is known to sterilize and also renowned for its absorbent properties. We have this product in our office, and it smells quite pleasant and feels like a soft, lightweight cream that does absorb quite well.
Cheese cream was a trend for a hot second and died down quickly. It has been a bit of a flop in Korea. Enprani’s Bounce Cheese Cream is probably the most well-known, but beauty-supply stores all state that sales are very lackluster. Olive Young’s store manager let me know that customers often complained of a slightly tackier finish and that it didn’t hydrate so well.
What Korean beauty trends do you think will actually make it to the U.S.?
We expect essences and sheet masks to make a huge splash this coming year. An essence is typically a lot less concentrated than a serum. With the idea being that very dry skin has a hard time absorbing serum, an essence helps “boost” the hydration of the skin before the serum. It is typically a lot more liquid-y than a serum and really addresses the hydration issue in skin, which is the cornerstone to healthy skin. I like the one from Cremorlab, which uses its own mineral-rich, pristine thermal water source, and this water is even used for hydrotherapy in cancer patients.
Cushion makeup (not the cushion compact) will also catch on in the U.S., I believe. Overnight sleeping masks/packs I think will also become more popular in the U.S. Water-based gel creams and skin-care products will also catch on here in a big way and already [are] becoming bigger thanks to brands like Laneige.
Do you think that a "Korean" skin-care routine is effective because of the number of products used, the amount of time devoted to it, or quality of products?
I think it's a combination of the above. A large part of the Korean approach in skin care is being empowered to understand the right products to use for your skin type, and then being consistent. Never skipping that a.m. or p.m. routine is half the battle. Finding the right products, sticking to the perfect regimen, and taking advantage of the hypertargeted solutions Korean products can provide will go a much longer way even with just three or four steps. It's better than using a 12-step regimen that isn’t quite the right fit for you or combined in a way that negates certain active ingredients.
What would you say to skeptics who aren't sure that Korean skin care is for them?
This is a common misconception that Korean skin-care products are just for Korean women. Skin-care products are universal across all backgrounds and should be selected based on function and the person’s actual skin type. Korean skin care delivers products across a whole host of skin types. Something like the Apple Smoothie Peeling Gel would be a great first product for a skeptic to try because the results are instant! It exfoliates your skin gently and you can see your dead flakes rolling off with the product as it breaks in texture. This has a super-high repeat-purchase rate on our site for this reason.
This interview has been condensed and edited.