Face ValueHow K-Beauty Repackaged Skincare as Self-Care

Photo credit: Shane Devlin/Unsplash

Hannah Amaris Roh is Bitch Media’s 2020 Sacred Writes Writing Fellow

These days, when everything seems to be spiraling out of control and each crisis is compounded by another crisis, I desperately try to take solace in any routines that help me feel a semblance of control. Skin care is no exception. I completely relate to New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino’s experience of skincare as a coping mechanism, and I must confess that one of my favorite things to do at the end of the day is to wash my face. It’s as if the ever-present anxiety of living through a global pandemic becomes a little more manageable by adhering to some kind of ritual. If only I could wash away this sense of doom and soothe my way into a good night’s sleep. Despite my own aversion to Korean beauty standards, I’ve found the 10-step K-Beauty skincare regimen—which has exploded the global beauty market in recent years—to be disturbingly enticing.

And the complex skincare practice that defines K-Beauty is, indeed, marketed as a holistic ritual. Charlotte Cho, founder of the U.S.–based e-tailer Soko Glam, says that when it comes to beauty, “Koreans have a skin-first philosophy—they believe that skincare should be enjoyable and that it’s an investment in their overall well-being.” In her 2015 guide, The Little Book of Skin Care: Korean Beauty Secrets for Healthy, Glowing Skin, Cho tells readers that skincare is “not just about the products on your bathroom shelf, but a mindset that permeates your lifestyle, from the food you eat to the clothes you wear.” In other words, to begin with skin is to see “beauty” as directly linked to your “health and well-being,” less about covering your face with makeup than about treating skin from the inside out. Rather than approaching skin as the site of problems—acne, wrinkles, sun damage—Cho sees skincare as self-care. Both Soko Glam and fellow K-Beauty e-tailer Peach and Lily even have their own blogs (Soko Glam’s is actually called a “Klog”) featuring tips, trends, and ideas for overall wellness.

For those not already familiar with it, the standard K-Beauty regimen comprises at least 10 steps. It starts with an oil cleanser that lets makeup melt away (scrubbing is a big no-no among K-Beauty influencers like Alicia Yoon). Next comes a water-based cleanser to ensure the removal of any residue. Third is an exfoliator, used particularly on blackhead-prone areas. That’s followed by a toner that “prepares” the skin to absorb the products required by the next six steps. Fifth is an essence, a purportedly concentrated formula that provides the most essential nutrients to nourish and replenish your skin. The sixth step involves ampoules like boosters or serums (though the difference between these and essences is still unclear to me). Seventh is the familiar sheet mask that has recently become a standalone staple in beauty retail. The eighth step is eye cream; the ninth is moisturizer. And tenth, sunscreen in the morning or a thick night cream before bed.

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The regimen’s order, particularly the middle steps, can vary slightly depending on the brand, but there is nonetheless an order. The K-Beauty discipline also emphasizes the specific method of application: The copy for this Sulwhasoo eye cream, for example, specifies that it should be applied only with the fourth finger, patting the cream with small circular strokes in a clockwise direction under the right eye, counterclockwise under the left eye. For K-Beauty disciples, skin must be treated gently, with respect and even reverence. A sheet mask, for example, isn’t just a product that treats your skin while in some cases also making you look like a cartoon panda: Rather, it is the “soul” of the routine, according to Cho’s guide, a “quiet, meditative ritual.” Korean beauty products entered the U.S. market in 2012 via retailers like Sephora, followed that same year by Soko Glam and Peach and Lily (both founded by Korean Americans).

The South Korean government backed the exportation of beauty products by giving tax breaks to export-only companies and working closely with the Korean International Trade Association, which has helped smaller Korean companies break into the U.S. market. The beauty industry was one piece of a larger ongoing push to export Korean pop culture (also known as hallyu, or the “Korean wave”). Since 2009, the Korean government has also capitalized on the global K-Beauty trend by further supporting cosmetic-surgery tourism. According to Euromonitor International, South Korea’s beauty exports to the United States had a staggering 59 percent increase from 2014 to 2015, reaching $207 million. By 2017, South Korea ranked among the top 10 beauty markets, at an estimated $13 billion. The philosophy that makes K-Beauty intriguing to U.S. consumers and beauty editors is, of course, the claim that “more is more.” In contrast to the French-inspired beauty mantra “less is more” long embraced by American beauty media, K-Beauty pitches the value of not only more steps but also more options that can be tailored to each consumer.

But undergirding this claim is another philosophy: that new and affordable is always better. In that sense, the K-Beauty phenomenon mirrors the rise of fast fashion. As of 2015, there were between 1,800 and 2,000 beauty brands in South Korea. In such a competitive market, as Charlotte Cho tells NewBeauty, “for a product to ‘make it,’ it has to contain awesome ingredients and have eye-catching packaging so that it really stands out.” It also has to move quickly: The Korean brand Tony Moly has been known to bring products from development to production in just six weeks. So behind the cute and sparkly packaging of so many K-Beauty products is the pressure for fast and furious innovation. As Christine Chang, the cofounder of Glow Recipe says, it’s “skin-tertainment.” Tony Moly, for example, has a panda face cream, a peach foot mask, and a colorful assortment of face masks. Brands add to the appeal of K-Beauty with claims of “clean beauty,” with natural ingredients. But terms like “clean,” “green,” “natural,” and “chemical-free” are open to interpretation and can thus be claimed by pretty much any brand.

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The “green” claim is particularly dicey given that packaging materials can also have dire environmental consequences: K-Beauty is part of an industry that generates an immense amount of plastic waste. Every single sheet mask, for instance, comes in its own individual packaging. The more skincare steps, the more plastic products—including a bewildering number of free-with-purchase tiny samples in tiny plastic tubes. While some plastic may technically be recyclable, chances are that these plastics end up in landfill. As with fast fashion, K-Beauty products sell at affordable prices and are mass-produced at dizzying speeds. More is more…that goes to waste. The cruel irony behind this unawareness of our own relationship to nature is that K-Beauty is all about the “natural” look, the “no makeup” look that overflows with youth. And in order to achieve flawless skin free of blemishes and wrinkles, one must first seek out a lifestyle of “wellness.”

Cho’s Little Book of Skin Care illustrates this lifestyle: drinking between six and eight glasses of water per day, sleeping well, resting, eating “clean,” staying extremely vigilant of the sun at all costs, and avoiding all types of stress. An immense amount of effort and discipline, not to mention time and money, is needed to achieve this “natural” appearance of “glass skin”—K-Beauty–speak for the dewy, seemingly translucent skin that marks youthfulness and good health. It’s this underlying equation of “beauty” with health and a hard capitalist work ethic, that may be at the heart of K-Beauty’s appeal. While both K-Beauty and French beauty prize a “natural” look, K-Beauty ritualizes self-discipline, rather than effortlessness, as a moral value. When skincare becomes self-care, it becomes the precondition for being your “best self.”
In a cultural landscape that’s oversaturated with discourses on “how to be your best self” (or what Gwyneth Paltrow infamously called the “optimization of the self” in her recent series The Goop Lab), K-Beauty is just one more tool for self-actualization. And if self-optimization is an endless quest, K-Beauty’s more-is-more philosophy is right in step with that journey. The K-Beauty industry entered the U.S. market just as “wellness” emerged as an alternative to traditional Western healthcare, which had become increasingly inaccessible and unaffordable. Some brands, like Sulwhasoo, use Korean medicinal herbs, marketing their products as “holistic beauty from Asian wisdom.” K-Beauty retailers could thus position themselves as lifestyle brands capable of identifying the “root” cause of health problems and empowering consumers to take control of their own health in just 10 steps.

In a cultural landscape oversaturated with discourses on “how to be your best self,” K-Beauty is just one more tool for self-actualization.

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The industry serves to underscore the idea that health (and hence beauty) is indeed a privatized practice, and that the production and consumption of more products is the way to achieve it. And despite a handful of “luxury” brands, the K-Beauty market fills a needed niche: wellness “on a budget,” claiming its accessibility to a wider range of consumers. In a recent Atlantic piece titled “How the Pandemic Defeated America,” Ed Yong writes that Americans tend to view health “as a matter of personal responsibility rather than a collective good.” As a result, he argues, “Americans often misperceive historical inequities as personal failures.” I think he’s right. While I still believe that it’s important to take care of ourselves (and understand Cho’s more general advice like drinking more water and getting more sleep), these individual efforts can only really make a difference if the larger ecosystem allows for it. 

What the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed is just how broken our healthcare system is, and the continued American fealty to this idea of personal responsibility elides the reality that personal ethics are inevitably entwined with collective ethics. We’re living through an environmental crisis, a racial-justice crisis, and a public-health crisis that have themselves culminated in a deep moral crisis about what we owe one another, our planet, and our future. Even as my own panicking brain is enticed by the belief that purchasing an oil cleanser online will manage my mental health, I have to reckon with the fact that there’s actually no such thing as “my” health. The pandemic—more specifically, America’s systemic failure to respond to it—has shown us that we’re inextricably tied to one another, whether we like it or not. But that’s the thing about capitalism: Commodifying our health exploits and ritualizes our desire for self-mastery, numbing us within an apocalyptic landscape of our own making.

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Hannah Amaris Roh, a Korean American writer with glasses, smiles at the camera
by Hannah Amaris Roh
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Hannah Amaris Roh is a Korean American writer and academic. She grew up in Incheon, South Korea, and has lived in various places throughout United States, including Atlanta, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Chicago, and now Austin. She received her PhD in Philosophy of Religions from the University of Chicago, and a Master of Divinity from Yale University.