Willing to commit to a celebrated, if wearying 10-step beauty regimen? From South Korea come peculiar peel-off masks and creams with weird ingredients that promise a spectacularly dewy complexion.
IF SNAIL CREAM and sheet masks are already part of your beauty routine, congratulations: You’re officially on the cutting edge of beauty. Now please step aside while the other 99% of us catch up to the K-Beauty trend.
K-Beauty—the umbrella term for all South Korean imports in the skin care, makeup and bath-and-body categories—has been attracting fans in the U.S. Over the last 18 months, it’s cultivated a certain gentle, nature-meets-technology ethos. Boosting its appeal is packaging that comes with poppy colors, nonsensical names like Tonymoly and bottles whimsically shaped like pandas and cracked hard-boiled eggs.
Even more hyped than the products themselves, however, is the ultra-elaborate K-Beauty skin-care regimen espoused by popular websites like Soko Glam and Peach & Lily, both of which are run by Korean Americans. Incorporating up to 10 (and sometimes more) steps, the typical regimen kicks off with a “dual cleansing” ritual (via oil- and water-based products), winds its way through a series of sheet masks, essences, serums and rich moisturizers, and wraps up with SPF 35 sunscreen. At night, you swap out the sunscreen for a thick, gloppy “sleep cream.”
Missha Cell Renew Snail Cream, $45 sokoglam.com
Many of these beautifiers are laced with outré ingredients such as snail mucin, culled from the gooey substance snails leave in their wake and said to boost cell regeneration; bee venom (an anti-inflammatory “faux-tox” alleged to relax facial muscles); moisturizing starfish extract; and firming-and-tightening pig collagen. “For years, Korean women have focused on skin care products rather than makeup,” said Sarah Jindal, senior innovation and insights analyst for market research firm Mintel. “The ultimate goal is to achieve a complexion that has a dewy, glowing finish, one that doesn’t need concealers and foundations to hide it.”
Each complexion, the reasoning goes, needs a customized routine that addresses factors such as hormonal fluctuations and lifestyle choices. The repetitive cleansings, masks and layers of moisturizers minister to skin that’s suffered a litany of assaults, which may range from hormonal shifts to wrinkle-inducing UV rays to the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
Unsurprisingly, some dermatologists applaud this skin obsession: There’s a decided upside to both expanding a regimen beyond the basics (cleansing, moisturizing) and addressing specific issues like fine lines, enlarged pores and uneven skin tone, said New York dermatologist Dennis Gross, who nonetheless doesn’t prescribe 10-step protocols for his patients. A customized skin-care routine “makes good sense from a skin-biology standpoint,” he said. “But the Koreans don’t own the highway on this; most of my patients are up to at least four steps, including a daily peel and a serum.”
Freelance business consultant Soojin Min—a longtime fan of Estée Lauder, Chantecaille and Kiehl’s skin care—recently added products from Korean imports Sulwhasoo, AmorePacific and Hera to her daily routine and isn’t put off by the extra labor they demand. “I feel they have fewer chemicals,” said Ms. Min (a statement for which there’s no supporting research). The Seoul native, who splits her time between homes in Hong Kong and Bronxville, N.Y., “was happily surprised to see a K-Beauty section at Sephora when I was in Manhattan.”
For the K-curious eager to go for the glow, the best approach is to incorporate one additional step at a time. Sheet masks are perhaps K-Beauty’s most effective contribution to the world of skin care because they deliver a saturated dose of hydration to dry skin. They’re an easy add-on and come in a single-dose package (as low as $2) or 5-packs (around $20).
Another smart, albeit pricier, approach is to follow one of Peach & Lily’s well-thought-out “Korean Skincare Routine Kits.” Customized according to skin type (oily, normal, dry, etc.), these include 10 or more products, at a total cost ranging from $225 to $250. If that’s too much of a financial commitment, start small by sampling a nightly snail-mucin cream. Don’t be squeamish: The delicately scented, rich formula feels smooth, not oily, when applied to your skin. Bonus: You’re less likely to scare other people after rubbing it on than if you pop up wearing one of the peel-away Freddy Krueger-esque masks.