While browsing the website for Korean fashion magazine Beauty+, I came across a recent post on “The world’s future is [moving toward] Korean beauty! K-BEAUTY Special Forum.” [This is my own likely disastrous translation.]
What caught my eye was a statement by one of the panelists that the South Korean beauty industry offers not only innovation and expertise, but also “skincare that gives a fun and exciting entertainment experience.” This was referred to in the article as 스킨케어테인먼트 (Skincaretainement), which I’m going to switch to skincaretainment just because that spelling makes more sense to native English speakers like me.
As I wrote on my Instagram, I think that skincaretainment is one of the strengths of Korean beauty. It starts with the willingness of cosmetics companies to stun and delight consumers with experiences that go far beyond slathering on a cream. In my experience, Western makeup brands tend to offer a fun, entertaining experience, but skincare is expected to be the A+ student with no extracurriculars and a 9pm curfew. The lesson here for companies is that kbeauty isn’t just about products from Korea, but about a whole different relationship with customers and different goals for what products are supposed to do–goals outside of just firming and smoothing skin. For international fans, the kbeauty lifestyle is very different from walking into a drugstore or even popping in at the day spa regularly. Instead, it’s an engrossing and consuming experience that people like me continue because, well, it’s really fun and interesting.
The point of this post: Korean Beauty = Connection and Engagement
The popularity of Korean beauty has exploded outside of Asia due to the prospects it offers for connection–argued by many people to be the source of meaning in one’s life. In no way is it an accident that kbeauty in the West grew as social media developed. Fruit-shaped packaging and lovely containers generate online discussion thanks to even simple, uncaptioned photos. Collaborations between kpop artists or movie franchises and cosmetics companies allow for emulation and crossover between fandoms. The experience of translating Korean ingredient lists and shopping on Korean sites offer the right level of difficulty and engagement to produce a sense of flow for some people while stunning ingredients and researching their effects does the same for others. Finally, the breakout star of kbeauty that will ultimately open doors for other products to advance in the West–sheet masks–are now designed specifically for sharing and conversation online.
The power of this connection and engagement can work both for and against fans of kbeauty; Fiddy Snails recently wrote on Fashionista about how her Korean skincare routine helped her to fight depression while blogger Adoredee warned against being swept away by the urge to spend when faced with an onslaught of reviews, want, and community frenzy. What’s clear after reading posts like those is that Korean beauty is about so much more than a few supposedly weird products assembled into a list for a clickbait post.
Ultimately, the potential power of Korean beauty in the West lies not just in advanced formulations, but in the way the products are designed to invite connection and engagement in the age of social media.
There are five sections in this post that I think illustrate my points about Korean beauty and connection. Each section contains some overview of the category I’m talking about, product reviews and descriptions (with shopping links), and photos of the yum. You can click on the links to jump ahead.
- The Kbeauty Fruit Basket
- Pretty packaging
- Entertainment collaborations
- Jaw-Dropping Ingredients
- Masks Made for Sharing
The Kbeauty Fruit Basket
When I first explained this post to my husband he suggested that I use a Liberace photo to show what’s meant by skincaretainment.
I had to explain that that’s not a good illustration at all because it suggests that skincaretainment is just a razzle dazzle show with little substance. I mean, I’ve never heard of anyone professing to love Liberace for his skills as a pianist. My Korean beauty fruit basket is a mixed bag of solid products and a few duds–but the ratio of winners to losers seems consistent with the ratio of winners to losers in my collection as a whole. What makes these products special is their packaging and often their ridiculously amazing smell. If you think that the packaging is innovative and wild, wait until you experience the scents.
The best example of kbeauty’s ability to provide both entertainment and good skincare is TonyMoly’s Banana Sleeping Pack [Amazon | eBay | Beautynetkorea]. I picked this up at the Flushing TonyMoly in New World Mall and immediately regretted my decision as I left the store. I had been swept away by the desire to show the people following my social media accounts something really new and cool. I expected that since the packaging is so ridiculous and amazing, the sleeping pack (an overnight moisturizing mask applied at the end of the skincare routine before bed and washed off in the morning) would be kind of junky. I translated the ingredient list while sick in bed one weekend and was surprised to find that it’s actually pretty great [CosDNA]. Moreover, the sleeping pack smells like banana custard, I’m not even kidding. I think that I’ll need to make banana custard the next time I use this because it sets off such a craving that I can’t think about anything but pie and pudding.
I showed this banana to my sister-in-law today and she was halfway through excitedly requesting one of her own before she halted and, likely noticing the crappy furniture/everything in my apartment, modestly changed the subject. This thing is just that enticing (and, yes, I’ll totally get her one). My 2-year-old nephew similarly fell in love with the banana on first sight, squeezing the rubber container and sniffing it repeatedly. I think it’s the product you want to squeeze, sniff, and share, no matter your age.
Similarly, the TonyMoly Banana Lip Balm is adorable and effective [Amazon | eBay | Beautynetkorea]. The top of the packaging is hard plastic and the bottom is a squeezable dispenser. The balm smells like banana coming out of the tube, but it isn’t noticeable on one’s lips and it doesn’t taste like much of anything at all. It’s a fairly standard balm aside from the packaging. This mini banana inspired less obsession–possibly because it doesn’t resemble an actual banana as closely.
Etude House’s iconic strawberry hair rollers are much less successful at being both entertaining and effective yet they’re such a massive hit after appearing in Lisa Eldridge’s Korea haul video that I can’t find them for sale on eBay [Amazon | TesterKorea]. I have super thick hair and the pack of four could handle maybe 1/8 of my fur. Removing them was difficult. Their main purpose, let’s be real, seems to be helping one achieve cute selcas. I’m not even mad–that’s about as cute as I can get. That said, I’m less happy about how these seem to be my kitten’s favorite toy–I can see the vet bill for Etude House strawberry sponge roller removal surgery whenever Alessandro steals one and runs around with it in his mouth, which is why these are getting banned from my house once this post is done.
The TonyMoly Peach Punch Cleansing Balm didn’t fare particularly well in my massive oil cleanser review on account of the fact that I didn’t like the residue it left behind after rinsing, but wasn’t a total wipeout either on account of the fact that it smells like mouthwatering peaches [Amazon | eBay (make sure to get the cleansing balm and not the lip balm)| TesterKorea]. If you’re less obsessed with a clean rinse and need something that will entice you to double cleanse, BOOM, this stuff is intoxicating. My sister-in-law delightedly took this peach off my hands today even after I explained its limitations as a cleanser. I suspect it’s going to just be a fun addition to her skincare shelf.
TonyMoly, masters of adorable packing and mind-blowing smells, also produce a few hand creams, among them a delectable Tangerine Whitening Hand Cream [Amazon | eBay | RoseRoseShop]. This is effective enough as a temporary hand moisturizer (I wash my hands a lot, so it’s a losing battle, really) and whitening (in reality, brightening–it will make you look like a freshly restored painting) is always hard for me to judge, but the reason you’re buying this is due to the adorable container and the ridiculously yummy scent. The tangerine cream actually has that slightly bitter note–the scent I associate with the white of the rind if your zester cuts too close.
My kbeauty fruit basket ranges from ineffective but cute to surprisingly great and overwhelmingly tasty. As I explained to my husband, the dichotomy between effective products and cute or cool packaging, amazingly true-to-life scents, and bright colors can’t be applied in the world of Korean beauty. Moreover, the appeal of fruit-shaped products across the generations actually resulted in my nephew spending pretty much all of his waking time at my house today playing with skincare under our supervision. He opened containers, squeezed and sniffed products, and mixed everything he liked up in a bowl with a whisk. Overlooked were the two cats, television, and breakable electronics.
In my local Sephora, the two-story palace of cosmetic consumption facing Macy’s on 34th Street in NYC, skincare is sequestered on the top floor, presumably only visited by those who truly care about it. The jars and bottles tend to be sleek, minimalist, and unisex. The false dichotomy between effective and pretty seems to still reign even in the hyperfeminine heart of Western beauty. I mean, maybe people would ascend the damn stairs if there were something as gorgeous as makeup waiting for them on the second floor!
Now, I have no problem with products that could belong on any shelf without causing uncomfortable conversations with gender-policing roommates and snoopy guests. I know that plenty of folks prefer a clean, modern look. At the same time, I think it’s important to make the world safe for pretty, including skincare with traditionally feminine styling. My personality type is far more common in men, it’s a rare day in hell that I wear a skirt, and I dig wearing spicy cologne as much as my usual Chanel Chance. And yet I can’t resist some of the amazingly gorgeous kbeauty products marketed to women.
Most importantly, it’s time to finish overthrowing the notion that a pretty, feminine exterior somehow signals a less effective interior.
Some of the prettiest products I own are made by Chosungah22: Wonder Milk and Villa de Garden Toner.
Villa de Garden Toner is amazing in that it’s one of the prettiest products I’ve ever seen, but also loaded with a ridiculous number of flower and root extracts–if you have the HwaHae ingredient app, you can see the list here [eBay | Chosungah’s English international site]. Despite the effectiveness, the job of this toner is mainly to look gorgeous on my workstation when I post an #abshelfie. It reminds me of learning reflexive verbs in Italian class and the sound of my teacher’s voice saying “it is pleasing to me.” This toner is so pleasing to me.
Wonder Milk, which is bait for Tumblr pale blogs, not only produces milk-like bubbles when shaken (it even sounds nice in the bottle), but it also nourishes dry skin (CosDNA) and smells a bit like baby powder [KoreaDepart | Chosungah’s English international site]. I was actually pushed to finally buy this after seeing a photo post of this product on Tumblr–with zero explanation the post had over 10,000 notes, meaning that it was a viral hit based just on the way it looked.
Shara Shara Fairy’s Make-up Synergy Sun Cream is past my aesthetic limit, but I can see this being a hit with people who aren’t freaked out by the doll aspect or who might be younger [KoreaDepart | KoreanQueens (Europe) | YesStyle]. My nephew happened to love this doll.
The doll’s body actually pops off, revealing a pump that dispenses sun cream. I can’t get my pump to work, but the cream is actually SPF45 PA++, so it’s not the worst sun cream on the market. This product honestly terrifies me, but it’s certainly entertaining and provided hours of entertainment online when it was sent in a Memebox last fall.
This VDL Festival Nails shoe nail polish inspired horror in my co-worker, but I happen to love the over-the-topness of it [KoreaDepart | eBay | Cosmetic-Love]. The polish is a super sheer pink and it seems to be just as good/bad as any other polish I’ve tried. It took me about five attempts to buy this polish because it kept selling out before my order shipped.
The grown-ass woman countrerpart to the Shara Shara sun cream is Su:m 37 Skin Saver Melting Cleansing Balm, a product worth buying for the packaging alone [Amazon | eBay | KoreaDepart]. The elegant spatula is actually magnetized so that it clings to the lid of the container, always on hand for scooping. This product actually took first place in the balm category of my oil cleanser review although I preferred liquid oil cleansers to balms in general. When I compared the second place balm to this one, I realized that they were quite similar aside from the fact that this one costs about three times as much–the combination of brand and packaging makes this a coveted product while the second place balm toils without much fame. Such is the power of beauty.
In case you haven’t read my about page (which I desperately need to update), I should note that I actually got into Korean beauty because I’m originally a kpop fan. My favorite band, SHINee, endorsed Etude House before late 2014, so I got interested in the products they were marketing and I also wanted pretty, youthful skin like that of the members. Yes, kpop boyband members market skincare and makeup–and they’re clearly good at it because I was lured deep enough into the abyss that I started this blog. At first, the appeal was sampling whatever new product for which SHINee had filmed a commercial. But that was just a gateway drug and soon I was hooked.
If cosmetics companies in Korea failed to include kpop men in skincare and makeup marketing would fan-b exist? I’m not sure. It’s possible that some other hook into kbeauty such as fruit-shaped products would come along and grab me, but maybe I wouldn’t get as deep without the kpop angle paving the way.
If there’s a place where one could say that kbeauty value gets a bit iffy it’s in the items created for kpop endorsements and movie licensing. Since these products are pretty much sure bets to fly off actual and virtual shelves, it seems that most of the money is invested in working with the idols and movies bringing in the business.
A hot kbeauty topic recently has been the Laneige Homme Avengers skincare line [eBay]. Despite having never tried these products in any way, past experience with branded items suggests that unless you’re a total Avengers fangirl or fanboy, these products as products are going to fall short of HG status. Then again, past experience also shows that sometimes putting a product associated with your favorite band or movie on your face is worth a step down in quality or step up in price because something else is gained from the product.
That said, the step down in quality or value doesn’t need to lead to a catastrophic fall. Peripera’s Wholly Deep Frozen Auto-Liner set didn’t have the same quality as the Peripera Smoothie liners (which benefit from being super smooth–although they require sharpening), but the set was fantastic nonetheless [Amazon | eBay].
So far, this set has been glittery and packed with only colors I adore. Other fans who have used the pencils more extensively report that the glitter and auto liner function seem to have combined to make the leads prone to breaking.
In a perfect world, the pigmentation would be a bit richer, but that’s a lot to ask of liners as glittery as this (the glitter isn’t showing up well in the swatches). Overall, the combo of the fabulous colors, cute branding, and twistupability make this set pretty awesome.
Is this the best mask ever? Absolutely not. Do I get excited when I look at it and reflect on the fact that it has all 12 original members of EXO on it? Absolutely. I used one of these masks before and I found it strangely astringent and unsatisfying but not awful. Let’s say it was sub-MAMA, but not as bad as Wolf. And yet this mask is special to me.
Keep in mind that this mask, like my tiny standee of also-tiny D.O. from EXO is supposed to be a free gift with a Nature Republic purchase. In practice, outside of Nature Republic stores, these fanservice items are sold as merchandise on eBay and at KPopTown. In Nature Republic stores, the freebies are given to fans who make purchases of a certain won or dollar amount or purchase special sets or products associated with the band.
My favorite kpop x kbeauty crossover item is the Missha Glam Art Nail Sticker with the TVXQ logo. I feel like both my TVXQ fangirling and nail sticker skills need to level up by 5,000 before I deserve to bust out these limited edition treasures.
Other items like the 2AM Beauty Toc Gold Egg [eBay] and Girl’s Day Secret Star Girl eyelashes [KoreaDepart | Amazon | eBay] are licensed goods endorsed by kpop idols, but not sold by the major high street kbeauty retailers.
The 2AM egg, possibly in reaction to Seulong and Jinwoon deciding to sign with other agencies, decided not to work. At all. Cue a sad 2AM song (which narrows things down to about 100% of their discography, seriously, it’s like labelmates 2PM get to have all the fun).
The Girl’s Day eyelashes are pretty standard, but this is my first time ever wearing false lashes for more than 5 seconds, so I feel like it’s a special moment, wow.
WOW. I just…wow. I get why people do this (and I have naturally long eyelashes). I have Disney bunny lashes! They’re so adorable and pretty! The whole lash strip is a bit much for a novice like me, but omg. LOVE. And, yes, I was thinking about getting my Darling style on while struggling through the application.
Although the products created for endorsement and licensing deals may look a bit cheesy and ridiculous to those outside of the fandoms to which they’re supposed to appeal, the products are effective at helping people unacquainted with Korean beauty brands or certain kbeauty conventions (like false eyelashes) fall into them and get hooked.
A critical part of the international kbeauty fan experience is struggle. The struggle to digest 10+-step routines. The struggle to know where to shop and what to buy. The struggle to translate Korean ingredient lists. And yet, as blogger Snow White and the Asian Pear recently mentioned in response to my initial Instagram post about skincaretainment, the difficulties of being a Korean beauty fan can lead to a sense of deep engagement and entertainment due to researching and testing products valued for both their ingredients and their aesthetic appeal.
I’m pretty certain that manufacturers’ kbeauty ingredient choices are sometimes driven as much by a desire to garner attention as the effectiveness of the ingredients. In some cases, the ingredients are both effective and shocking, but the skincaretainment culture means pushing the envelope and continually offering something new–something worthy of surprise, delight, and sharing. If Instagram swoons at fruit packaging and Tumblr at pretty products, the Asian Beauty community on Reddit (frequented by talkative fans, lurkers including actual kbeauty shops and brands, and certainly bloggers like me) lives for ingredient discoveries.
The product that most impressed my husband (he served as my review board for this post) was the Cosrx Blackhead Silk Finger Ball [Amazon | eBay | Wishtrend]. These are actual silk cocoons that one soaks in water and then places on a finger in order to gently help with exfoliation. I don’t find them to be particularly effective when compared to things like good gommage peeling gels, but they’re fun to use and even more fun to talk about.
Sidmool’s Secret of Red Astaxanthin Concentrate, from what I can gather from my haphazard tests (there’s a reason it takes me months to review things–I test products in zigs and zags and with many different accompaniments–I wish due to a sophisticated scientific method, but mainly because I’m disorganized), is a surprisingly effective skin brightener [eBay]. Astaxanthin is a phytochemical that is harvested from plants living in the sea–this is the image that got me excited about it:
The idea of sea creatures and plants being turned into an anti-oxidizing, brightening, firming serum really appealed to me. Ok, I wanted some shrimp slime on my face. That’s mainly it.
The mushrooms look pretty cool and after doing a basic check of the ingredients, I grabbed this just because, wow, yes, mushrooms on my face. That’s literally the thought process sometimes: cool ingredient, yeah, let’s do this. I may need to rethink that because I’m not certain that my (still fairly youthful) skin has firmed as a result of using this regularly. But mushrooms!
The secret ingredient in Ohui’s The First Geniture cream is an embryo-derived stem cell culture medium called CHA-HSCMTM [eBay | KoreaDepart | Amazon]. As in…human stem cells. I’m in the process of testing this cream and researching the origin of the stem cells and claims of the manufacturer because OMFG this is the most provocative, potentially cutting-edge, potentially ridiculous, and costly cream (it’s about $750 for 77ml) I can fathom. Even within the world of Korean beauty, this is pretty much the jaw-dropping extreme.
To skincare fans, a new active ingredient and the research associated with understanding it can be just as entertaining as a squeezy banana sleeping pack. Although one would think that the shopping thought process behind buying products based on interesting ingredients would be more sophisticated…clearly that’s not the case for me. ahaha I put about as much thought into buying each of these products as I did the items in my fruit basket.
Masks Made for Sharing
By sharing, I mean on social media. While Western celebs like Lady Gaga are just starting to share selfies of themselves wearing basic sheet masks, the kbeauty skincare mask selfie trend has evolved far beyond ill-fitting, be-bubbled cotton to embrace printed masks, stylized skincare patches, masks that bubble, and masks that treat many parts of the body.
The animal print sheet mask trend has been in full effect for a few months, causing me minor heart attacks when looking at my Instagram feed as people I follow post genuinely terrifying (to me) selcas of themselves wearing transparent cartoon animal faces [eBay | Memebox].
Sheet masks made of lace have existed for a bit. Printed masks continue to be created en masse, including traditional Peking Opera character printed sheet masks [KoreaDepart | Amazon | eBay] and masked ball printed sheet masks [eBay | KoreaDepart].
My favorite share-worthy masks are bubbling packs (here I am wearing one). Fan favorite Elizavecca Milky Piggy Carbonated Bubble Clay Mask foams up from what looks like a clay slime to an incredible, foamy, voluminous mask [Amazon | eBay | Memebox].
Sometimes it’s not the mask itself, but the process of masking that’s worthy of social sharing. Tosowoong Rice Paper Pack is a convenience version of a homemade rice paper mask technique demonstrated on Korea’s Get It Beauty [Amazon | eBay | KoreaDepart].
Just to be clear: the technique shared was intended to prevent one from having to buy masks…and you can now buy the mask kit based on that low-cost DIY technique. LOL I bought mine directly from Korea, where it costs more than some hydrogel masks. I cannot make this stuff up. hahaha
Finally, sometimes it’s the things that one can’t quite say on social media that make a mask worthy of viral fame. The Nadu Skin The First Love Gentleman and Lady Point Packs were sent in the OMG 4 Memebox last year [Gmarket]. They’re actually masks for private bits. Yes, you read that correctly. Needless to say, the inclusion of these incredible masks set off quite an amazing discussion on social media as people debated their appropriateness, reviewed them, misused them, and generally had a good laugh.
Thanks to share-worthy masks and selfie culture, skincare is transitioning from a private ritual to a public display–and kbeauty masks help up the skincaretainment value of masking.
Lost in the surface-skimming chatter about weird products is the reason why people use this supposedly weird stuff in complex routines. For some people, it’s simply about having good skin. Yet for others, Korean beauty has become a source of connection with other fans, a national culture, and even their own hurting bodies and minds.
I think that the concept of skincaretainment resonated with me and others because the neologism so potently describes what makes Korean beauty special; it’s about more than just stuff you put on your skin. If kbeauty stays true to the idea of skincaretainment, it has the potential to change far more than formulations for a long time to come. Yes, it’s very possible that the world is moving toward Korean beauty.
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