Korean skincare: We need it more than it needs us

The growing popularity of ‘Korean everything’ in the 1990s brought with it a wave of appreciation for Korean beauty and skincare (commonly referred to as ‘K-beauty’ and ‘K-skincare’).

According to the Korea Customs Service statistics [1], Korea has been exporting more cosmetics on a year-by-year basis and importing considerably less each year. It’s clear that Korea sees the true value of natural, hydrating and soothing skincare ingredients – and the rest of the world are catching on.

In fact, it’s estimated that by 2026, the K-beauty market will be worth £15 billion [2], suggesting that the trend shows no signs of slowing down – and we’re all for it.

What’s the hype?

Many of us will have multiple bottles filled with ingredients that we don’t recognize, that promise to clear, purify, exfoliate, hydrate, tighten and rejuvenate our skin. One of the core pillars of K-beauty is underpinned by a minimalist approach. It’s all about clean, natural and plant-based ingredients, with a focus on anti-inflammation. That means fewer ingredients and a whole lot of ‘less is more’.

Once this notion was in motion, Beauty Balm (BB) creams, and later Colour Correction (CC) creams, were two revolutionary inventions that rocketed in popularity. BB and CC creams are prime examples of how a single product can effectively serve as SPF protection, moisturizer, blemish treatment and foundation all in one. And the origins of the BB cream? You guessed it, Seoul.

In fact, BB creams make up 13% of the cosmetics market in South Korea, and by 2021 more than 11% of men were using BB creams [3]. Notable Korean brands rolling out BB creams include Etude House, Missha, Nature Republic, Skin Food, Sulhwasoo, The Face Shop, and Banila Co. By 2012, early Western arrivals included those from Boscia, Clinique, Dior, Estée Lauder, Garnier, Marcelle, Maybelline, Revlon and Smashbox.

Chasing the glow

One thing that the West has in common with Korea, is that we’re all looking for ‘the glow’. In pursuit of a healthy glow, many of us have turned to chemical formulas, exfoliants and face peels that promise a fast-track to radiant skin.

Retinol – a synthetic derivative of vitamin A – shook up the cosmetics industry in the 1960s [4], pledging to exfoliate the skin, increase skin cell turnover and stimulate collagen synthesis.

Korea’s answer to retinol-based products? Bakuchiol! A natural and less well-known vitamin A alternative that promises low irritability and high efficiency when it comes to achieving rejuvenated and glowing skin [5].

Have there been any major changes, or drivers of change in consumer interest and their perception of the microbiome?

Big drivers over the past year have been wellness and immune-related trends, with COVID-19 being a key factor that has accelerated the maturity and rise of such areas. For example, working from home is thought to have drawn attention to the skin microbiome due to behaviours such as increased use of Zoom, and the pandemic has driven a bigger focus on the microbiome for better immunity and vaccine efficacy. The clean beauty trend also rapidly accelerated as people increasing prioritized product solutions that are clean and safe.

There is also increasing scientific evidence of skin microbiota imbalances triggering or worsening skin concerns, such as atopic dermatitis, rosacea, dandruff, acne and aging, potentially highlighting the importance of the skin microbiome to consumers.

One-step beauty routines and minimal ingredients

K-beauty has evolved over the years from its infamous ten-step routine (see what this could look like here), but 2022 is set to see the rise of a one-step process, with the hybrid product approach used in the original BB and CC formats continuing to grow in popularity. The likes of the Dr Ceuracle Kombucha Essence combines a toner, cream and essence in one product – minimizing the use of multiple products and ingredients that are not always guaranteed to be compatible with one another.

K-beauty brands such as Belif, Cosrx and Dr. Jart+ have dominated the cupboards and headspaces of K-beauty fans for the most part of the trend. But it’s the minimalist formulas that may prove to dominate 2022. Formulas that contain fewer than ten ingredients, for instance, are expected to lead this trend [6].

Korean probiotic skincare

A 2019 Mintel report [7] revealed that sensitive skin is a common challenge among Asian consumers, with 60% of Korean women said to have sensitive skin. The K-beauty industry wasted no time in rolling out dedicated products featuring probiotics. The Amorepacific group launched a ‘Probiotic Skin Barrier’ line for the brand Illiyoon, which became an internet sensation. The gentle formulas use an exclusive probiotic – fermented lactobacillus derived from gat kimchi – and have been adored by K-beauty fans ever since.

Notable products

Simplifying routines and ditching the multistep mindset is big this year. Every 3.1 seconds, Banila Co.’s Clean It Zero Cleansing Balm is purchased – saving cumulative hours bent over the skink.

The K-Beauty industry has not foregone the opportunity to earn its stripes under the watchful conscious-consumer eye. We’re moving away from single-use sheet masks, towards wash-off masks such as SkinFood’s Rice Wash-off Face Mask.

Innovative ways for ingredients to be absorbed into the skin is on the K-beauty agenda. Peach Slices’ Deep Blemish Microdarts deliver ingredients such as niacinamide, salicylic acid, tea tree and willow bark, directly targeting stubborn blemishes before self-absorbing into the skin.

Browse the Content Hub for more and follow us on Instagram if you are interested in reading more about current and emerging trends in the skin microbiome.


1. https://www.trade.gov/country-commercial-guides/south-korea-cosmetics

2. https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2021/02/22/2179695/0/en/K-beauty-Products-Market-to-Reach-13-9-Bn-Globally-by-2027-at-9-0-CAGR-Allied-Market-Research.html

3: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1113328/south-korea-men-using-bb-cream/

4. https://www.vogue.com/article/the-return-to-retinol

5. https://stylestory.com.au/blogs/style-story/new-k-beauty-products-featuring-retinol-and-bakuchiol-on-style-story

6. https://www.vogue.co.uk/beauty/article/korean-beauty-trends-2022

7. https://themonodist.com/2019/12/05/korean-probiotic-skincare-101/

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