Is Korean Skincare A Scam?

The worldwide sensation that is K-beauty and its innovative products, multi-step routines, and the promise of “glass skin” have gained a massive following in recent years. But are these products really worth the hype, or is it all a scam?

By Simone Sydel5 min read
Pexels/Monstera Production

Whether you discovered the multi-layered, hydration-focused skincare routine that leaves your skin with a glazed-doughnut glow during the pandemic, or you are an OG K-beauty follower, it's almost certain you've at least tried one Korean skincare product.

Now, we are all about the glow-up here. And the allure of achieving that dewy, fresh-faced “glass skin” look has definitely made us reach for our wallets on multiple occasions. But before you start planning your 10-step skincare marathon, let's unpack this trend and see if Korean beauty elixirs are truly miraculous, or perhaps they are just a part of a bigger picture. After all, it's understandable if you find yourself envying someone's flawless skin, but buying all the products they use might not give you the same results.

The Rise of K-Beauty

The rise of Korean skincare, also known as "K-beauty," as we know it today, can be traced back to the late 1990s when South Korea's economy was booming, and trends like K-pop stepped onto the scene, creating a global market for Korean culture. With increased disposable income and a strong focus on appearance, the country saw a surge in demand for high-quality skincare products and facial procedures. This led to the development of innovative treatments and advanced formulations in over-the-counter products, which quickly gained popularity among Korean women.

In the 2000s, South Korea's government also actively promoted its beauty industry through initiatives such as the "Korean Wave," or Hallyu, which popularized Korean entertainment and cultural trends worldwide. As a result, K-beauty became more accessible globally, leading to its widespread adoption by consumers around the world.

Now, many of us started getting interested in Korean skincare during the pandemic, as being stuck inside our homes made us stray away from wearing makeup every day and pay more attention to our skin's health and appearance instead. Coincidentally, this is about the time when the famous 10-step skincare routines started blowing up on social media platforms like TikTok, with many users claiming that this Korean method of layering multiple hydrating products is the gateway to a plump, glowing, and healthy complexion, also known as “glass skin.”

How Korean Skincare Differs from Western Skincare

One of the most obvious distinctions between Korean and Western skincare tends to be the focus on preventing skin aging rather than reversing the signs once they start becoming prominent. Korean skincare prioritizes hydration to prevent dehydration and skin dryness, which is known to lead to premature signs of skin aging, as dry skin lacks the naturally lubricating and protective oil that keeps it soft, plump, moisturized, and filled. On the other hand, Western cosmetics tend to focus on anti-aging treatments, such as retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids, that aim to reverse the issues that have already formed.

Additionally, Korean skincare focuses on preventing inflammatory skin concerns, such as acne, by infusing the skin with the soothing and calming effect of components like green tea, propolis, snail mucin, and Centella Asiatica, an Asia-native herb rich in several active compounds, including saponins, flavonoids, and Asiatic acid, a component known for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and wound-healing properties. But when it comes to clearing acne, a condition that affects 90% of people at some point in their lives, Western skincare is more likely to reach for synthetic chemicals like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, which work by oxygenating the pores and destroying the airless environment the acne-causing bacteria need to survive.

Finally, the most recognizable difference between K-beauty and its Western counterpart is that Korean skincare routines tend to be more intensive, consisting of multiple steps that involve layering hydrating toners, essences, serums, and moisturizers, while Western skincare often centers around minimalism, simplicity, and efficacy, with a typical Western skincare routine consisting of three or four steps.

What Makes Korean Skincare Stand Out?

From hydration to anti-aging benefits, Korean skincare focuses on achieving a flawless, glowing complexion. But the real secret lies in their emphasis on natural and gentle ingredients. Many Korean brands use traditional herbs and extracts known for their healing and anti-inflammatory properties, and this approach not only seems to be effective but also aligns with the current trend toward clean and natural beauty products.

Korean beauty brands also have high standards when it comes to the consistency and finish of their formulas, which is why K-beauty products are starting to become the chosen option for many Westerners. Take sunscreens as one of the main examples, which are renowned for being lightweight and watery in texture and absorb effortlessly into the skin without leaving any white cast or residue. On the other hand, many Western brands still offer thicker and greasier formulas that feel heavy and uncomfortable on the skin and leave a severe white cast behind, causing people to skip wearing sunscreen altogether.

Moreover, most Korean skincare products are relatively affordable, making it possible for anyone to indulge in skincare and achieve their desired skin goals without breaking the bank. Of course, that's not to say that you couldn't spend a lot of money on Korean skincare if you wanted to; however, affordability and the ease of finding superior quality products for a considerably low price are some of the highlights of this market.

Korean skincare is all about indulging in the process of taking care of your skin. The multi-step routines encourage users to take their time and focus on self-care while indulging in the textures, scents, and sensations of each product. This ritualistic method of skincare not only nourishes the skin but also has a relaxing effect on our minds, making it more than just an everyday routine but a form of self-care that can reduce stress, increase the feeling of well-being, and ultimately improve our skin's health and appearance.

Is Korean Skincare a Scam?

While Korean skincare has been a massive global success with many devoted followers, more and more people have started sharing their opinions on why the popular beauty trend might work for some but not others. In one of her TikTok videos, Sally Olivia Kim, a Korean-American entrepreneur and founder of Crushed Tonic, explains that Koreans don't actually have a 10-step skincare routine but instead take their healthy diets extremely seriously,

"Everything in Korean skincare is directly correlated to our diet," Sally says, explaining how Koreans eat collagen with every meal, whether that be in the form of fish skin, pork belly, or bone broth, which naturally increases collagen production in the body, contributing to skin's health, plumpness, firmness, and youthfulness. After all, it's no secret that what we put into our bodies can significantly impact our skin's health and appearance.

This also ties into the massive supplement culture in Korea, where taking supplements for skin health and beauty is the norm, or as Sally explains, "just part of life."

"There's no one trying to debunk supplements in Korea. Everyone just knows that they work," she adds.

So, while Korean skincare products may have their own merits, it's certainly important to remember that they are just a part of a larger cultural practice that includes a healthy diet and lifestyle, which could explain why many people don't see the same results as those who follow traditional Korean practices.

Jenna Yi, a wellness and healing influencer, also confirms this, mentioning in one of her videos that many Koreans choose to nourish their skin from the inside out rather than relying entirely on skincare products. Besides collagen, Koreans also enjoy fermented foods, with kimchi being one of the staple items in their diet, known for its probiotic and antioxidant properties that are fantastic for gut health and, therefore, the skin. Our gut and skin health are closely connected through our microbiome, which plays a significant role in determining the health and appearance of our skin through shared bacteria, so consuming fermented foods with probiotic properties definitely contributes to the world-famous Korean “glass skin.”

"Even Korean alcohol is better for you," Jenna continues, with drinks such as makgeolli, a light sparkling rice wine that contains gut-friendly probiotic bacteria, being a traditional favorite among Koreans and literally helping them glow from the inside out.

While diet and skincare are critical factors in pursuing flawless skin in Korea, we cannot overlook the country's prevalent plastic surgery culture. Often labeled the “plastic surgery capital of the world,” South Korea holds a distinctly open attitude toward cosmetic procedures, with one in three women between the ages of 19 and 29 having done some type of facial correction at least once. From double eyelid surgery to nose corrections and elaborate facial treatments that often involve the use of highly developed tools and machines, these procedures have become a normalized part of the culture, driven by the desire for a youthful and idealized appearance.

This societal acceptance and the prevalence of plastic surgery add another dimension to the discussion surrounding the glowing skin of Koreans. Therefore, it's essential to remember that while skincare routines and healthy diets play a significant role in skin's health and appearance, the desire for flawless skin in Korean culture seems to extend beyond the bottle of a herbal-based serum or pot of kimchi, and often leads to the surgeon's table. All this information suggests that perhaps the real secret behind Korean skincare is not just in the products, which has made many believe that K-beauty might be a scam.

Yes, Korean beauty is clearly part of a larger cultural practice that includes a healthy diet, lifestyle, and professional procedures, but this is hardly enough to discredit the products as ineffective or a total scam. While results will vary from person to person, many people who don't necessarily follow a Korean diet or lifestyle habits have achieved clear and healthy skin with Korean skincare, which is why the trend has become a global sensation. 

On the other hand, there are definitely those who haven't had much success with Korean skincare, and that's okay too. Not every product or routine works for everyone, regardless of where it comes from. At the end of the day, Korean skincare is just another approach to skincare, with ingredients that focus on hydrating, nourishing, and soothing inflamed skin rather than targeting a specific skin concern. This might be helpful for some individuals but not for others who would perhaps benefit more from a targeted treatment.

So, while Korean skincare products may not be a miracle solution for everyone's skin, it's certainly worth trying out and finding what works best for you. Additionally, adding some collagen-rich foods and fermented goodies to your diet might just give your skin the extra health boost it needs to get clear, healthy, and glowing.

Closing Thoughts

Korean skincare may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to perfect skin, but it's certainly not ineffective or a complete scam. 

As always, it's important to remember that everyone's skin is unique and requires a different approach to treating the concerns it's experiencing, no matter how common they may be or how popular a beauty trend is. That’s why, instead of falling for the hype or completely dismissing something as a scam, it's essential to do your research, understand your skin's needs, and find what works best for you, whether that's in the form of a few skincare products, diet and lifestyle changes, or a combination of both.

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