Is K-Beauty for Everyone? Perspectives on Appropriation and Marketing

I have a confession: I've been in a bit of a skincare funk.  For a long time, I've blamed it on overwork-- working 60 hours a week has left me little time for luxuries like brushing my hair showering daily sleeping more than a few hours a night an elaborate skincare routine, but I've come to realize that it's much more than that.  I'm in a K-Beauty funk, meaning that I've been feeling conflicted and troubled every time I go to wash my face.  It's time for some soul-searching.

As K-Beauty has become more and more mainstream in the west, it's gone from being an ignored niche interest to a widely-marketed source of $$$ from all levels of the beauty industry, shifting from hipster-y hobbyists to an oversaturation of US-based resellers cannibalizing ideas while mega retailers like Sephora and Target stock sheet masks and snail creams.

You might think this is another one of those tired tropes of aforementioned hipster grumpy over their obscure finds becoming mainstream, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Actually, I'm absolutely thrilled that K-Beauty is in such international demand that Sulwhasoo recently launched a whopping 7 shades ranging from #11 to #33, a move which completely shocked a Korean friend of mine as she pointed out that most Korean brands feature only two shades (#21 and #23) and don't address [in her opinion] the shade needs of Koreans in Korea, let alone anyone outside of Korea.

Image from Sulwhasoo's Korean site showing 7 cushion shades
Image from Sulwhasoo's KR site
I'm quite happy that K-Beauty has grown so much in the 4 years that I've been blogging about it, because it's seen exponential growth and it's a totally different scene since the days where I had to use Google Translate to figure out what I was buying.

What troubles me is how it's being marketed, talked about, and presented.

In this post:

  • The trouble with K-Beauty marketing
  • Why I write about K-Beauty
  • 5 Korean women share their thoughts about K-Beauty on the global stage

There's nothing wrong with a little soul-searching to examine one's own motives and reasons for doing, well, anything.   But more important than what I have to say about it, is what the Korean women I know have to say about it, and I'm fortunate enough to have several sources just an email away for me to ask!

The trouble with K-Beauty marketing

For every sincere, heartfelt blog/article like Fiddy Snail's extremely influential How My Elaborate Korean Skincare Routine Helps Me Fight Depression, there are 10 articles with cringe-worthy clickbait-y titles breathlessly announcing "10 Beauty Secrets from Korea! You Won't Believe Number #7!"  and "8 Weird Korean Beauty Products You'll Be Glad You Tried!" and "See the 12 Step Routine that Keeps Korean Women's Skin So Notoriously Ageless!" and "Get Korean Womens' Perfect Skin with the Latest Craze from Seoul!" and so on.  (My eye is twitching from just typing those out.)

On the one hand,  I am aware that media is in the business of attracting clicks and eyeballs, and the 'experts' are usually shop owners looking gain new customers, but on the other hand, no.  Please, no.  There's so much wrong with this approach that there are no doubt a list of scholars from Edward Said onward who are spinning in their graves like a centrifuge assembly line.   I want K-Beauty to be a part of the everyday routines of people who like good products, rather than sold as part of a mystique.

It's not surprising that's the tack taken when marketing K-Beauty; certainly the west has a long (and sordid) history of referencing Asia in an exoticizing way meant to attract and entertain a European audience.  Is it surprising that mainstream western media has reflexively gone for this approach, because it's worked so well in the past?  Nope, but in this case, I think their attempts to recreate the narrative of an exotic spectacle come too late; K-Beauty was already so firmly 'a thing' by the time these scandalized reports of ~~snails in skincare~~ arrived, that snails, bee venom, and starfish were already an everyday thing in beauty forums, online communities, and blogs.  Moreover, it seemed (as it is to this day) that many articles were little more than recycled content taken from said forums, communities, and blogs, with a few token quotes from questionably-motivated sellers. By that I mean "motivated to entertain in order to make money" rather than "motivated to educate and demystify."

I can't speak for new K-Beauty fans, but my reasons for getting into K-Beauty back in the day were extremely pragmatic. BB creams offered me sun protection and makeup in shades that suited my skin tone in formulations that didn't irritate my skin, and at the time, that wasn't something I could get from western cosmetics.

Why I write about K-Beauty

With all the current hype, massive export boom, and widespread accessibility of K-Beauty, I feel like sometimes people aren't clear on what my own reasons are for writing about it; certainly the early catalyst for this blog-- writing the reviews I couldn't find/read without Google Translate-- is no longer relevant. Why do I keep using it and writing about it, if that gap doesn't exist anymore? Is it a fixation on Korea, is it the urge to appropriate the Hallyu wave, is it a blind belief in the superiority of Korean products, or perhaps something else equally worth of smashing one's computer in a rage?

The reason I write about K-Beauty is actually really, really simple-- so simple that people miss it-- it's what this blog is about.  Content consistency.

People don't find, read, or follow my blog to hear about how I've been using Suave conditioner for 10 years as part of a three-step method for washing my hair, or my empties of Blinc mascara, or what I think about the latest western makeup trends.   I've never had a strictly K-Beauty (or even Asian) routine, but there's no reason for me to spend time writing yet another review of a MAC concealer.

Does this blog influence me to gravitate toward K-Beauty products when I might otherwise use western ones, so that I'll be able to review them?  Of course.  Do I buy things I might not otherwise buy, just to review them?  Definitely; that's one of the roles a blogger has-- buying multiple versions of similar products for comparison reviews, leaving behind what already works for us, taking risks on the unknown, etc.  Does that mean that it's all I use?  Nope, but it definitely influences my buying decisions.

Hybrid K-Beauty makeup routine
My routine from K-Beauty On the Road: Inappropriate Sheetmasking & Involuntary Strobing, featuring Nyx, Urban Decay, Blinc, MAC, and a whole lotta western hair and body care (not pictured.)
I think if I tried to restrict myself to just K-Beauty in the name of content consistency, I'd be doing my skin and my sanity a disservice.  While I strive to ensure the majority of my blog remains reassuringly consistent (I'm not about to veer off into discussions about how I taught myself spreadsheets in excel so I could properly track the growing seasons of my video game crops even if that's totally why I did it ... ahem) if something really grabs my attention, and it fits within the overall context of my blog, even if it's not K-Beauty I'm going to write about it.  And I do write about it.  If something really captivates me, I'm going to get my paws on it, but it will probably not wind up on this blog unless I can find a way for it to fit.

5 Korean women share their thoughts about K-Beauty on the global stage

While the rise of K-Beauty in the west has had a positive reception overall and has even spurred some skincare enthusiasts of Asian descent to find a new connection with their ethnic background, some Asians in the west have raised concerns about appropriation or fetishization. I was very curious to find out if those who were raised in the west felt differently than those who lived in Korea itself; too often the adoption of cultural elements veers into appropriation. I reached out to women of Korean descent from a wide range of backgrounds, and they all agreed that K-Beauty's rise in popularity abroad with non-Asians was (with some caveats) overall a positive thing.

This section covers a lot of ground:
  • How Koreans in Korea feel about foreigners using K-Beauty
  • Perspectives outside Asia on using K-Beauty
  • K-Beauty is for everyone - and it doesn't need a mystique (seriously, stahp)

Hailey, who was raised in Korea and recently immigrated to the US attend school, developed her interest in K-Beauty only recently; like many Koreans, she sought out western products while in Korea and shared stories of long lines and empty shelves at retail counters selling western brands such as MAC and YSL.  Interestingly, Korea's cosmetics shift from imports to exports is quite recent; no doubt part of this is due to the rapid rise of exports, but the fact remains that there was long-standing strong import market for cosmetics within Korea itself.

This prior preference for western imports was also echoed by industry expert Janice Kang, who as the Director of Marketing for Club Clio USA, has an eye on K-Beauty's inner workings both inside and outside Korea: "I think what fascinates the Koreans the most [about foreigners using K-Beauty] is that to them, foreign brands are always considered more desirable, and are priced at a premium."  According to Kang, Koreans are fascinated by westerners eschewing iconic brands well-known in Korea, such as Clinique and Estee Lauder, for K-Beauty brands like Nature Republic and IOPE.  Neither foresee the interest in western imports disappearing, as Kang explained there is a "status symbol that comes with using foreign products like YSL, La Prairie, Cle de Peau Beaute, Sisley, SK II, etc. and I think those brands will always will be coveted in Korea."

How Koreans in Korea feel about foreigners using K-Beauty

As someone who just recently converted from an all-western cosmetic routine to a hybrid K-Beauty routine, Hailey's opinion on westerners using K-Beauty was both pragmatic and full of newfound pride in Korean cosmetics, stating "first, people can do whatever they want.  Second, Korean products are good for everyone :D" and added that her mother (a long-time Hanbang fan) is pleased that she's using Korean products and that Hanbang cosmetics are being appreciated by a wider audience - including stray Canadians.

Curious about how Koreans currently in Korea perceived K-Beauty and its popularity abroad, I reached out to Amy, who attended school abroad before returning to Korea, where she started a buying service as she finished a degree.  (You can read my rave review of her service here.)  She explained that her enthusiasm about foreigners using K-Beauty actually predates her business: "I'm totally appreciative of the fact that people of other races enjoy using [K-Beauty] products but even before I started this lil business I tried to get all my NZ friends into it."

I was particularly curious about her friends' and family's perspective and what sort of personal experiences she could share.  Amy acknowledged that part of it is the economic boost, but it extends beyond just the bottom line: "I've never seen any Korean who isn't appreciative about the fact that [K-Beauty] is booming outside. There's literally no negativity regarding the fact that people of other races use [K-Beauty] products here." Kang also expressed that native Koreans are as proud as they are surprised at the international interest.

Perspectives outside Asia on using K-Beauty

However, considering how Asian products are marketed in the west, I wanted to find out how the Koreans raised outside of Asia felt about it; was K-Beauty falling into the typical trap of appropriation?

I spoke with Pia of Life of Pia, an Korean-Australian adoptee who identifies "as both Australian and Korean but I actually feel less Korean in Korea" due to a combination of not speaking the language and being mis-identified as Chinese, according to a Korean friend of hers, because of her "too dark" skin tone.  (Interestingly, Hailey mentioned that she's easily able to discern between Korean-Americans and recent Korean arrivals due to the latter's preference for ultra fair base makeup, whereas Korean-Americans tend to choose shades that are a match for their natural skin tone.)

As a food (and travel/beauty) blogger, one of the ways that Pia connected to her Korean heritage was through food, but she didn't feel the same deep cultural connection (and ensuing appropriation risk) with her skincare: "It never occurred to me limiting [K-Beauty] to Korean or Asian people would even be a consideration. As a consumable product, I just assumed they were products for people with skin."

Blam!  Lightbulb moment-- was this the key difference?  An industry designed for universal consumption by a nation historically focused on a strong export economy?

My mind immediately leapt to all the products I've used which were manufactured not by cosmetic giants, but by general commerce giants, such as LG who not only makes the electronics that have been in western living rooms and kitchens for decades, but also History of Whoo, Su:m37, Sooryehan, The Face Shop, VDL, and many other major cosmetic brands.  Perhaps L'Oreal is also making TVs and toasters in a secret side company for all I know, but LG isn't shy about their slice of the cosmetic cake.

Screengrab from LG's beauty section of their global site.
Screengrab from LG's beauty section of their global site.
Pia made an excellent point on skincare being an export like any other, with serums and toners next to smartphones and televisions: "Korea is a country known for manufacturing and export of goods, so it would make economic sense that their skincare industry could also become one of their big imports."  Kang likened the importance of skincare as a "ritual of hygiene and self-care" being standard alongside brushing your teeth, and that K-Beauty's export-friendliness has a simple origin: "K-Beauty is about beauty products and trends that just happen to be from Korea or developed by Koreans due to their super competitiveness and ability to move/respond quicker." This was echoed by Amy, who explained that Korea isn't just exporting the existing industry, brands are releasing products targeted for the global market before they're promoted within Korea itself: "Some products even market overseas first and then make their way into the Korean market."

K-Beauty is for everyone - and it doesn't need a mystique (seriously, stahp)

Although BB cream was the flagship K-Beauty product, its downfall has always been the limited shade ranges, which isn't a factor in skincare.  Skincare doesn't need to be watered-down or repackaged to fit European sensibilities, which is (I suspect) why so many haven't waited for westernized versions to appear (remember how awful western BB creams were?) or jumped the usual middleman of domestic resellers and "curators" and are sourcing their products directly from Korea.  Pia noted that when it comes to appropriation, K-Beauty isn't following the same pattern, saying she gets the "whole appreciation/appropriation with food and fashion ... [b]ut skincare and makeup has me baffled ... I just can't see that side."  It makes sense-- is a gradient lip or dewy skin going to have the same kind of deep connections to tradition as food does?

She linked me an article on appropriation in food by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen as an example of the kind of stomach-churning appropriation she (and many others of Asian descent) faces on an ongoing basis, explaining that she feels "more connected with Korean culture through food and language, I don't feel that with [K-Beauty]."

Unlike Nguyen's depressingly accurate observation that "the smells that emanated from my lunchbox did not always delight my white classmates" yet they're now gleefully posting "hipster rip-offs" on their Instagram accounts, I pondered whether K-beauty has faced the same reaction-- after all, no one is side-eying BB cream sitting on someone's vanity, sneering about how "weird" it is?  Pia definitely has seen the appropriation of food and fashion, but K-Beauty "products haven't been watered down ... But the marketing of it is so uncomfortable. It plays on these awful Asian stereotypes."

Can we say it again for the ones in the back of the room?  The observation that it's the marketing which is problematic, rather than the way the products are used by individuals, was something that Korean-Japanese-Canadian (now living in the US) Chanda Kim of @Brauwin also made.  She sees "a lot less appropriation" with K-Beauty compared to the other cultural elements we discussed, and that "most people I see who are actively interested in it are simply interested in finding good quality affordable skin care options that suit their needs."

Yes. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

When it came to what people are emulating, she's seen "more of an embracing of the Korean ideal of natural glowing skin achieved with minimal makeup than I have seen an appropriation of the culture in this respect."  Obviously I'm biased, since this pretty much nails why I'm into Asian cosmetics, but I don't get to decide what is and isn't appropriation, eh?  I asked her if she could give me any examples of when it does cross a line, even if it's rare; and thankfully it's a minority: "the only examples of appropriation I can think of are those who only buy [K-Beauty] because they believe that being Korean automatically makes it 'better'."  Facepalm.

Nathan Fillion side eyeing appropriators
Don't do that.  [source: giphy]
Like anything else, there's the good, the bad, and the mediocre, and Kim pulls no punches about it: "In all honesty there is a fair amount of crap in the Korean market just as with any beauty industry because the purpose is to get people to buy into the latest "miracle", but there is a small number of people I have met who simply buy into the stereotype that  Korean beauty products are "just better" without having done their research."

I suspect this outlier group has a Venn diagram overlap with the people who also feel that a skincare routine has to be 100% Korean products to be called "K-Beauty", despite non-Korean products regularly taking top honours in blind tests on Korean beauty shows like Get It Beauty, and the hybrid routines and beauty kits of top Korean gurus and makeup artists.  I get that it's in the best interest of shops attempting to be the gatekeepers of K-Beauty in the west to sell the idea that Korean products are naturally superior, that a routine needs to have a multitude of steps, and that all those steps need to be Korean.  (And from their shop, naturally.)  I get that exoticism captures traffic and clicks, and this is why some are willing to capitalize on their cultural affiliations for the sake of profit, like those Nguyen derides for turning their culinary heritage "into a gimmick" as a "way to stay relevant in a rapidly changing capitalist market."  I think that it's actually damaging the future of K-Beauty for the sake of short-term profit, because selling something on the basis of exoticism does a disservice to everyone.

Maybe my outlook is too heavily influenced by growing up, like Kim, in an epicentre of multiculturalism; the Greater Toronto Area (and it's surrounding cities) has one of the most diverse populations in Canada. Over 49% are members of a visible minority, and 70% of Toronto itself identifies as being of Asian ancestry.[source]  I asked her if she felt whether this influences the way in which those of European ancestry, like myself, view Asian cosmetics and Asian goods, versus what she's experienced after immigrating to the US, and she said: "Absolutely! I think that the exposure to other cultures that we experienced in the GTA makes people less wary of new things whether it be food, entertainment, or beauty products."  Thinking back, I realized my introduction to Korean culture via food, and then via a friend in university, predates my exposure to the Hallyu wave by at least a decade.

Kim pointed out that exposure might be more unusual than I realized, and my experience would have a significant impact on how I perceive K-Beauty, because "being exposed to a diverse number of cultures lessens the perception of exoticism or labeling something as esoteric because you are able to see more commonalities than differences between cultures."  Her points made me take a step back and reflect-- just because I might perceive Asian goods (including cosmetics) in general as familiar and commonplace (because they were), that might just be a product of where I'm from and the pursuit of K-Beauty as an exotic novelty may be very real.  Except that it's not, really, once you get outside the sphere of vested interests trying to drive sales.

That's a shame, because I think K-Beauty is an excellent opportunity to bring more diversity to beauty ideals in the west (and vice-versa, as Sulwhasoo's shade expansion would suggest) and encourage things like self-care, consistent sun protection, and awareness of one's skin.  I don't think that needs exoticism; it's already revolutionary enough already.

I'd like to give a huge thanks to all my sources for their voices and insights on this complex topic; I could have written several posts' worth and still just scratch the surface of what you had to say.  At the end of the day, when I look in the mirror and ask myself "Why K-Beauty?" the answer is simple: because I want better skin, and I want to share that journey with others and have fun while doing it.

What's your reason for using K-Beauty?  Hit me up on Facebook or Twitter and let me know!

Have something you'd like to share with me in general?  Snap a pic and tag me on Instagram at @snowwhiteandtheasianpear because I'd love to see it!

All the best,


  1. Great, great post, Cat. I used to only use western cosmetics and skin care, simply because I wasn't familiar with K-beauty and didn't know where to get it, nor could I really understand the packaging and labels. But the increased accessibility and information available on a variety of K-beauty brands has really opened up my options. And that's what K-beauty should be: just another option in this mega world of skin care and cosmetics. (Granted, a high quality, technologically advanced, innovative option.) :)

  2. So great! As you wrote, I'm into the Korean products/skincare for the simplest reason: It's affordable and it works for me. Besides, can adhere to the fact before knowing (or using k-beauty) I neglected my skin for many years, and seeing my first wrinkles motivated me to give a fight to aging process. So, what is Kbeauty taught me? To cleanse properly, to use good products for my skin (no more burning toners for my skin, no more lemon or taking sun to heal acne -parents advice-) and most important thing: to use sunblock daily.

    I love how kbeauty is growing in here, but I am really with a raised eyebrow seeing that all you named before -how miraculous, how exotic, how mystical is kbeauty according journalist and Shop owners, just to sell- but for now, I can only just tell people near me that Kbeauty is safe (because in here people points kproducts as chinese, and chinese has a bad reputation mostly due the counterfeited products), affordable, it works, but not does miracles, but instead, teach us about the importance of taking care of our skin, know our skin and "read" the signs about this is good or not for it.

  3. Slow clap for this entire post <3

  4. Interesting! Although Korea's traditional exports (electronics) have been declining (I'm guessing competition from Chinese/cheaper products) therefore I'd be questioning who is really marketing the skin care as unique/exotic? Maybe the brief comes from Korea itself - Diversification (expanding target market) & Differentiation (positioning product as different in a competitive market). Additionally it isn't surprising LG does skin care - LG is after all a 재벌 [Chaebol]; a business conglomerate that has no real Western equivalent.

  5. Excellent post! I agree with many of the perspectives offered by you and the other ladies who shared their personal experiences with Korean beauty. I think it's truly amazing to be able to notice that eastern and western cosmetic and skincare brands have been taking note of certain innovative products and working to create them within their own companies (American companies began creating bb and cc creams and korean companies like Sulwhasoo creating a wider variety of complexion shades for their makeup). The pursuit of nice skin and beauty is worldwide. It's nice to step back and realize that at the end of the day you can utilize whatever skincare and beauty options you want because of the thousands of products that exist now within the western and eastern beauty/skincare markets. I also utilize a hybrid k beauty routine thay utilizes Italian, english, American and korean beauty products. I do almost solely Thank korean skincare and beauty for teaching me the basics of skincare that I wasn't taught. My skin overall had improved because I have incorporated those fundamental teachings. Thank you for writing this very thorough examination of k beauty and skincare. I also appreciate your refreshing and unique perspective as well including the pespectives of the other lovely ladies.

  6. This is so, so interesting, thank you for sharing. As a non-Asian I can only listen and stay in my lane when it comes to these sort of topics; and as a non-Asian WoC I've had to stop several times in my journey to ponder whether I'm getting dangerously close to the "Orientalism" mindset and what do I need to change to avoid those muddy waters. For me, getting into K-beauty was basically about it being the cheapest way of acquiring certain skincare products and formulas that are not available in my country (buying from the US or Europe means paying customs yes/yes, and I swear I'm a law-abiding citizen... but not with this lol). I've also been dealing with acne since age 10, and I've pretty much tried everything there is to try here (thank you, acne...??) so I said "Why not?" I've had some great, rewarding moments and I'm happy to see others' journey as well.

  7. I REALLY appreciate this post, Snow, thanks so much for taking the time to write it and to also consult your Korean friends and colleagues. Whodathunk you could mention Edward Said on a beauty blog, lol!

  8. I appreciate this post a lot. It was interesting to read their perspective. I've had a somewhat similar experience. I grew up in India and moved to the US 10 years ago. When I was in India, all the age old skincare traditions were pushed aside in favor of the western skincare products. Now that I'm here, I'd like to go back to my roots and follow the age old tried and tested tips but cannot find the ingredients similar to what we get back home to do so. This was partly a reason for me to get interested in Korean products. I like their gentler approach to skincare.
    I've been reading your blog and it has been SO helpful in guiding someone like me. LOVE your post on putting the skincare products in order! It's like I've found a skincare twin. I'm the same skin type as you are and I've recently moved to AZ.
    I wanted to ask you if you could recommend a good gentle cleanser to use with Clarisonic? For some reason, Clarisonic is the only thing that keeps acne at bay for me. But after moving here, my usually oily skin is dehydrated and super dull. I've been trying out so many 'gentle' cleansers and they're all drying out my skin when used with Clarisonic. I know you recommended Sum cleansing stick, do you use it with Clarisonic? Also, the Mizon gel was enough to moisturise my skin where I lived before, but now I find it insufficient. I use Missha FTE spray, Shark sauce and then the Mizon gel. When I wake up, my forehead feels dehydrated and skin is very dull overall. I know you've raved about Joseon cream, but I'm not able to find it anywhere. Any chance you could recommend a substitute?

  9. I don't know if someone will see this but I wanted to comment anyway because I thought this was a fantastic post! I use Korean skin products because I lived in Korea for 2 years, and it was the first time I had enough money to really explore skincare beyond buying Neutrogena cleanser and Oil of Olay moisturizer. And lo and behold, my skin looked the best it ever had after incorporating a few Korean products, and I guess I've stayed loyal ever since. It never really occurred to me it could be an appropriative thing--I used it because it was the most affordable option at the time, and then when I moved home I tried switching to American/Western brands, but my skin revolted (probably a combination of new environment/new food/new skincare) and I switched back to the original products I'd been using. My skin calmed down a bit more, and as I've researched products to help with newly-sprung issues, I do tend to seek out Korean skincare first because I've had good results in the past, it's more affordable than a lot of options here, and it's fun. I honestly had never considered the appropriation that could possibly take place, so I will definitely think more carefully about this in the future. Honestly, I feel like I came into my own re: skin care using Korean products, and I'll probably always look for solutions there first. I have been reading more about French products and I've got a few products I'm interested in, so I'd eventually like my skincare to be a hybrid of philosophies and products. That said, you will pry my daily Olay moisturizer out of my cold, dead hands ;)

  10. Thanks for this insightful post and the opinions you have sought. I live in Singapore and Korean cultural imports and products are pretty popular here among the Chinese majority. Korean and Japanese products are regarded as superior quality and perhaps more 'familiar' than western products. I started off with masks a long time ago since it's so mainstream here, and then with some items from k-brands that I found online which suited my skin issues (1 minute lip scrub - so awesome). Now, with the help of your blog and trial and error, I do find myself drawn to k-brands first since they are affordable for me, gentle, and suit my skincare needs.