The Cultural Backstory of K-Beauty

This isn’t a story about products. It’s not even my own story. This is a story about a culture where cleansing your face is as ingrained as washing your hands before you eat; where “family facialists” are as commonplace as family doctors; where men wearing makeup to the office is nothing out of the ordinary; and where having fair, supple skin has been a virtue for millennia.

If you’ve ever asked yourself what makes Korean skincare so next-­level, or why Korean women have such ageless skin, we finally have your answer. To decode the fascinating cultural backstory of Korean skincare, keep scrolling!

 How I was first introduced to Korea’s skincare culture? “You know how Starbucks is on every street corner in Manhattan? Same with beauty shops in Seoul.” Gleaming boutiques line the subway corridors, dotting practically all four corners of every intersection. “It’s enticing,”. “There are so many amazing products on the displays; you can’t avoid them.” The way that Korean beauty shops are laid out is like a different world. From floor to ceiling, everything is designed with artistry and precision.

One day I just decided to cross the door of one of them and this is how everything started…

“At the heart of Korean society is Confucianism,” . This refers to a philosophy founded upon a number of different virtues for men and women. These ideals are considered very noble and deeply inform the culture. For women, to be modest and unadorned has always been a strong Confucian virtue. “Think of simple elegance,”  “A clean, soft, healthy look with very little makeup.”

During Korea’s Joseon era, which lasted from the 14th to 19th centuries, the country had its own versions of Japanese geishas, called Kisaengs. These women were the pinnacle of beauty and set all the mainstream makeup trends. Their bold, inky eyebrows and clean, radiant skin inform Korean makeup standards even now.

Today, Korean makeup remains minimalistic and demure: a little bit of eyeliner, defined brows, and maybe a pop of lip color to contrast the skin. There’s never any blush or contour, as these elements interfere with the “virtuous” simplicity of a clean, clear complexion.

Though Kisaengs no longer exist in Korea, there are modern beauty icons whom the culture worships just as much. Most of these influencers come from enormously popular Korean television dramas and K-pop music.

Korean entertainment has a huge impact on trends,”“Especially because Seoul is so dense, like Manhattan,  Some of these women have been famous for 15 years but don’t seem to have aged a day. Fans see their flawless complexions in HD and become obsessed with finding out what skincare and makeup products they use.

Even men are influenced by these trends, it’s not out of the question for Korean men to wear makeup. “They’ll wear BB cream or have their eyebrows filled in,” she says. “It’s not common, maybe a little flashy, but if a man wears BB cream to work, it’s not a big deal.”

“But skincare isn’t only about products,”  “Beautiful skin is an outcome of a healthy lifestyle: eating well, sleeping well, exercising enough, and of course, using products with great ingredients that are right for your skin type.”

 In Korea, there’s a popular hashtag on social media that means “one pack a day” or “one sheet mask a day,” which women use to show off their best sheet mask selfies. Most women don’t actually do a nightly sheet mask , but the hashtag serves to communicate something bigger: a sense of pride in their Korean self-care. “Pride in being high-maintenance,”

So, okay, it’s true: Korean skincare isn’t totally effortless. But neither is maintaining a yoga practice, or going gluten-free, or any other steps one takes toward becoming her best self. Maybe Korea’s Confucian ideals and 10-step skincare rituals haven’t worked their way into mainstream American or European culture just yet, but for me,

that’s where it starts.

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