Glossy skin, straight bleach-tinted hair, a famous face: South Korea's beauty industry has come to dominate the world over — Japan included.

From 2017 to 2023, Korean cosmetology exports have increased 219%, totaling more than $530 billion (about ¥82.6 trillion) and surpassing Japan’s import of French beauty products for the first time. Touted as effective yet affordable, Korean beauty routines promise prospective buyers the same thing: the smooth, healthy and youthful yuri pibu (glass skin) popularized by idol groups like BTS and glamorous actor-models like Jun Ji-hyun.

“Korean and Japanese skincare trends and demands are not so different these days,” says Kay Lan, an international business development counselor at Ginza’s Bianca Clinic. “Korea likes shiny, moisturized skin, and Japan follows the trend.”

Given the popularity of Korean beauty products and the high chance of having a cream, cleanser or even booster injection recommended by ads or word-of-mouth, it’s worth investigating: What is the actual story of Korean skincare? Is it significantly different from other countries’ cosmetic exports, or is it smoke and marketing?

History of the ‘Korean Wave’

Often described as the Korean Wave (“Hallyu” in Korean), South Korea’s global popularity has been influenced by cultural and socioeconomic factors dating back 70 years. Proto-K-pop began with Korean-born American vocal group The Kim Sisters in 1953, the same year the Korean War ended. Three years later, as the country’s economy recovered, South Korea’s entertainment industry seized on idol groups and early television broadcasting as a means of soft power. Consumer culture as a response to war trauma further fueled the growing domestic interest in South Korea’s music and television, as many Koreans of the 1950s and ’60s sought hope and escape from postwar hardships. As television continued to develop throughout the ’80s and ’90s, familiar themes of rags-to-riches, historical dramas, war crimes, espionage and love triangles began appearing more and more.

Countless consumers seek the smooth, healthy and youthful
Countless consumers seek the smooth, healthy and youthful "yuri pibu" (glass skin) popularized by idol groups like BTS and glamorous actor-models like Jun Ji-hyun. | REUTERS

The democratization of South Korea in the late 1990s and the government’s new globalization strategy sought to export the country’s rich and thriving popular culture abroad at a higher rate than ever before. Musical artists could experiment and express themselves openly and combine Korean traditional music with hip-hop and other overseas styles, spawning the first generation of modern K-pop epitomized by boy group H.O.T. Early 2000s internet platforms like YouTube launched Korean music and television into the global eye, and Korean pop bands, dramas and movies became huge hits across China, Japan and Southeast Asia.

The 2010s (popularly considered the third generation of modern K-pop) marked the country’s cultural exports and marketing fully penetrating the West, with idol groups like EXO and BTS entering the scene. Around 2010, Korean beauty products first began to attract overseas attention, with the introduction of the base, hydration and sun-protection combo BB Cream — a lighter and gentler alternative to traditional foundation makeup.

Since then, the Korean Wave has been a combination of the three giants: K-pop, K-drama and K-beauty — all of which are often intertwined in marketing. Fans of Korean pop culture gaze enviously at the clear complexions and fresh-faced makeup of idols and actors, while both dramas and pop idols openly market and promote specific brands.

Philosophy and ingredients

Due to the intense commercialization surrounding the Korean skincare industry, it is sometimes hard to determine what aspects are true and which have been exaggerated or exotified for consumers. Many myths such as the 10-to-15-step routine, rarely undertaken by actual Korean women and intended to sell a large range of products, are more or less perpetuated by online bloggers and skincare companies to appeal to non-Korean customers.

Beneath the glitz of fads and buzzwords, South Korea does have an interesting and unique relationship with skincare. According to experts, aspects like prioritizing skincare over makeup, religiously applying sunscreen, adapting product choices and routines to your skin’s specific needs, and generally choosing gentler combinations of ingredients over the “more is better” approach define the best aspects of Korean skincare culture.

When choosing your own skincare routine, Korean products are an excellent place to start due to their high quality and relative affordability, particularly if a high-end Japanese brand like Shiseido is not in the budget.
When choosing your own skincare routine, Korean products are an excellent place to start due to their high quality and relative affordability, particularly if a high-end Japanese brand like Shiseido is not in the budget. | BLOOMBERG

At the same time, Korean routines (especially the layers of hydration) tend to be more complex than Japan’s counterpart beauty industry of “less is more,” making K-beauty something of a sweet spot between Japan and the West.

In another striking difference, Western skincare products focus on a corrective approach to skin issues, often stripping the skin of oils and using harsher ingredients like retinol, azelaic acid and other exfoliators. While exfoliators are useful and important in refreshing skin, over-application and one-size-fits-all marketing of harsh acids have disillusioned many consumers. Korean skincare, by contrast, focuses on maintenance rather than correction, and uses layers of moisturizer together with ingredients like hyaluronic acid, lower dose alpha hydroxy acids, ceramides and allantoin. Many of its ingredients are identical to Western skincare products but they appear typically at lower and gentler levels.

Korean skincare is also known for sometimes using surprising ingredients such as snail mucin and bee venom, which have shown promising results in short-term trials but still need more studies to confirm long-term effectiveness — this contrasts with J-beauty’s preference for time-tested and traditional ingredients like seaweed and green tea.

In recent years, one of the most interesting aspects of Korean skincare has also been its mixture of cutting-edge technology and traditional herbal medicine. On the one hand, the export boom of K-beauty has motivated the South Korean government to invest greater funds into cosmetic technology and skin diagnosis programs to nurture the country’s bio-health industry. On the other hand, Korean products sometimes include hanbang (herbal) ingredients such as ginseng, green tea, centella, mugwort and rice water, among others.

Particularly in upscale beauty clinics, Korean injectables and skin boosters have been gaining popularity in Japan. One example is Juvelook, wherein hyaluronic acid and a type of polylactic acid are injected across the cheeks and forehead to promote hydration and collagen production. Another is Rejuran, a booster consisting of salmon DNA extract applied to the crow’s feet around the eyes.

“Skin boosters are a huge trend right now,” says Lan of Bianca Clinic, where both Rejuran and Juvelook are offered.

Bespoke approach

When choosing your own skincare routine, Korean products are an excellent place to start due to their high quality and relative affordability, particularly if a high-end Japanese brand like Shiseido is not in the budget.

Particularly in upscale beauty clinics, Korean injectables and skin boosters have been gaining popularity in Japan.
Particularly in upscale beauty clinics, Korean injectables and skin boosters have been gaining popularity in Japan. | GETTY IMAGES

The first step is always to research products with good reviews from people with similar skin types as your own. If you don’t know your skin type or you’re in doubt, book a session with a dermatologist or a licensed medical spa esthetician to learn about your skin’s needs — a bespoke skincare regimen will go miles farther than a TikTok trend.

Other good rules of thumb to take from both South Korea’s and Japan’s beauty industries are to include broad-spectrum SPF with every morning’s ablutions and also to use moderation when it comes to treatments such as exfoliating acids and drying cleansers. Similarly, that also applies to the number of products: A few good choices tailor-made to your skin, the season and the humidity or dryness of the climate will go much farther than a 10 or 15 cream menu. As we enter Japan’s boiling summer season, sweat- and rainproof sunscreens and setting sprays are the way to go.

Much like South Korean music and television, the world of skincare and its fascinating technologies make for an excellent jumping off point to learn about the country’s history, economy and cultural relationship with health and beauty. There is always more to learn and explore.