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Unpacking The K-Beauty Obsession


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By Lucy Cocoran on 3rd April 2024

K-Beauty entered the US beauty market in 2011 and has been steadily increasing popularity ever since.

Despite its big splash and quickly established fanbase, it remained misunderstood for quite some time. Appearing overwhelming to the uninitiated, its alleged 10 step routine and countless lotions and potions was a slight deterrent for people who valued simplicity.

However, what many didn’t realise, was that at its core, K-Beauty was all about simplicity.

In reality, the movement boils down to a few key concepts and hero products, which, once nailed, can become a staple in any skincare routine. 

Below, The Sybarite speaks with Jin Kwon, founder of TONIC15, to discuss all things K-Beauty, from its innovation pipeline to most popular products. 

With so many skincare movements, what is it about K-Beauty products that make it so special?

Korean beauty products are so popular because they offer unique benefits that make them stand out amongst other movements. First of all, innovation in beauty is so important in Korea so technology evolves very quickly. This is why brands can stay one step ahead of the consumer not only in Korea but worldwide, and they are often the first to bring new skincare technology to market. So, you know you’ll get the most innovative formulas when you’re using K-Beauty products. 

Secondly, Koreans take a skin-first approach to beauty, which is a trend that has gained in popularity worldwide. I often get asked what the main difference is between Western skincare and Korean skincare. The big difference is that K-Beauty focuses on soothing and strengthening the skin barrier much more so than Western skincare routines. Koreans believe that hydrating and protecting this delicate barrier is the key to everything when it comes to good skin. 

Is K-Beauty really a 10 step routine or can it be done in less?

It absolutely can be done in less. This 10-step routine is a myth. I don’t know anyone in Korea who actually indulges in a 10-step skincare routine. Despite the snail slime, 10-step routines, glass skin and cushion foundation trends that made Korean beauty part of the global mainstream, we’ve used TONIC15 to shine a spotlight on the pared back approach that K-Beauty also has to offer. Korean beauty today is actually a power player for simple, plant-based, innovative skin solutions that really work one step at a time.

What is the biggest misconception people still have about K-Beauty?

I believe it’s still the 10-step routine. I founded TONIC15 to dispel the myth that Korean Beauty is all about complicated ten step routines, and gimmicky ingredients and packaging. Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually all about simple but effective regimes that focus on gentle layers of hydration and repairing the skin barrier function. 

What are some of the hero ingredients in K-Beauty products and what is their purpose?

Koreans really focus on soothing, hydrating and repairing skin. Due to this, you’ll see products in a K-Beauty lineup that rely on calming and repairing botanicals such as Centella Asiatica, Mugwort, Propolis and fermented tea paired together with tried-and-trusted soothing hydrators like Niacinamide, Hyaluronic Acid and Ceramides. Add one or many of these ingredients to your skincare routine and you’ll notice the difference it makes – reducing dryness, acne and fine lines, while adding a glow to your skin.

A brighter, more glowing complexion is also a must in Korea, so ingredients such as rice, niacinamide and gentle enzyme-based exfoliators (such as papaya and papain) are also quite commonly found in K-Beauty products.

Anti-pollution is a big part of the K-Beauty ethos, why is this so important?

Similar to other environmental factors (such as the sun), pollution can trigger inflammation and redness in our skin and make it more susceptible to damage. Our skin barrier protects us from the effects of pollution as well as preventing moisture loss and fighting against the signs of ageing.

Repairing a damaged skin barrier is at the cornerstone of the Korean skincare ethos as comprising it can cause a multitude of skin concerns including redness, excessive dryness, peeling and even blemishes and acne. Because of this, it makes sense that a focus on protecting skin from dirt, dust and city air is key.

Toners and essences are both key players in the K-Beauty range – what function do these serve in a skincare routine?

Toners and essences make up essential steps in a K -beauty skincare routine but as they often look the same and can have similar textures it can be confusing to figure out which one (if not both) are best for your skin. Toners are used post-cleanse to remove any leftover dirt, oil and debris and work to balance the skin’s pH level. An essence functions more like a serum. It helps to hydrate skin and is generally formulated with a higher concentration of actives. An essence also helps the ingredients in the rest of your skincare products to work harder. Despite these subtle differences they’re used interchangeably in a true Korean skincare routine. 

Innovation is paramount to the K-Beauty movement. Why do you think it is so important to continuously develop new products?

Traditionally Koreans generally have high beauty standards and place an emphasis on skincare over makeup. They’re also very savvy consumers when it comes to skincare, even from a very young age, so their knowledge of good skincare routines and habits is ingrained in the culture. Because of this, the industry has to keep up with constant demand from consumers to offer the most advanced technology on the market.

If someone was going to purchase one or two K-Beauty items, what would you recommend starting with?

I’d suggest starting with the basics of a K-Beauty routine. A double cleanse is the first step, followed by a brightening, anti-pigmentation serum for a more even tone which is a cornerstone of a Korean ‘glass skin’ routine. To finish, a lightweight moisturiser is equally essential to lock-in hydration and the products from your previous steps.  

The below are three products I’d recommend…

Best for double cleansing - AROMATICA Orange Cleansing Sherbet is the ultimate first cleanse balm that glides onto skin to remove dirt, debris and even hard-to-purge makeup. We love how it leaves no residue once washed off and smells gently of orange.

Best for hydration - Dr. Ceuracle’s Kombucha Tea Gel Cream drenches dehydrated skin in moisture but still keeps oily complexions in check. Just like the rest of the Kombucha range, it’s packed with the famous fermented black tea compound that’s rich in probiotics and vitamin B amongst other nutrients which work to feed, nourish, hydrate and strengthen skin

Best for anti-pigmentation - ISOI Blemish Care Up Serum is one of the bestselling serums in Korea, and for good reason. It is infused with the botanical Arbutin and Bulgarian Rose Otto Oil and it doubles down on the pigment-producing cells in your skin so dark patches, spots and an uneven tone are no match for this super serum. 

What are some of your best-selling products and why do you think they do so well?

I’ve put a few of our bestsellers below. These products are either tried-and-trusted cult classics that our customers return to time and again because they simply give good skin results or they’re products that are trending, such as the Picasso makeup spatula. It was the cult makeup tool in Korea and it went viral when we first launched it on TONIC15 in the UK. 

I’m From Rice Toner 

This cult classic toner is a gentle formula made from organic rice to whisk away excess oil while hydrating and illuminating. 

Picasso Foundation Spatula 

This bestseller is the viral stainless steel foundation tool that will perfect your skin finish. It makes applying a light, thin layer of foundation so simple thanks to its ergonomic handle and delivers a luminous second skin effect too. 

Klairs Supple Preparation Toner

This is the original hydrating, balancing and calming gel toner. Hyaluronic acid, Centella Asiatica extract and amino acids provide super-hydrating results from this pH balancing formula.

Beauty of Joseon Ginseng Moist Sun Serum SPF50+ PA+++ 

SPF is a non-negotiable in any K-Beauty routine. UV rays can penetrate through clouds, all year round so make a high factor SPF part of your daily skincare routine. I can’t get enough of the serum-like texture of this lightweight formula.

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