An Exploration into America’s Obsession with Asian Beauty and Skincare

Author: Jana K. Hoffman
06.24 / Beauty

I clutched a small clear-and-gold plastic bag filled with skincare goodies and made a quick dash to the LA Metro. I had stopped into Palace Beauty, a small family-owned beauty store on Wilshire and Vermont in Los Angeles, for my Korean beauty fix, which generally consists of grabbing a few fun- and effective-looking treatment sheet masks. This time, I added blackhead-removal strips for good measure. I wondered if they'd really work, but figured I wasn't wasting too much money if they didn't. The store manager rung me up and rummaged through drawers to gift me with a few samples to try: packets of soft moisture peeling gel, foaming cleanser, moisturizer, eye cream, and a curious-looking apple-scented SPF, which I would come to love in the following weeks. I felt like I had hit the sample lotto. She was so generous, after all. On the subway ride home, I yet again mused to no one in particular but myself: What’s all the fuss about, and why are Americans so obsessed with Asian beauty and skincare?  

Later that night, I turned my modest studio-apartment bathroom into a makeshift spa — dimly lit lights, soothing music, and all. I used one of the Magis Lene cleanser samples, applied a sheet mask, and kicked back to relax for 15 minutes. I even simultaneously whitened my teeth, which made me look like a futuristic science experiment. As I sat there, iPhone in hand and music playing in the background, I dug a little deeper, curious to learn more about the products I was haphazardly putting on my face. I scrolled my way down a rabbit hole and entered the depths of Asian skincare and beauty online to gather some answers.

This wasn’t the first time that I’d treated myself to a pampering night in. And it most certainly wasn’t the first time I'd gone on an Asian skincare haul. When I was in Thailand, I stocked up on all sorts of masks and products with cute packaging and funny names and unusual ingredients to bring back to the States. Watsons, anyone?

As I traveled through Thailand, I noticed billboard after billboard for "snail white cream" and admittedly asked my Thai friend what the big deal was. It was then that I learned about this eye-opening and specific beauty trend: Asian women’s quest for porcelain white skin. As a fair-skinned caucasian American woman, I thought this was interesting because I’m always on the quest for the exact opposite. Give me a healthy bronzed glow any time of the year, please.

Global beauty standards and skincare trends are truly polarizing. Yet the industry is robust and growing, despite what already seems to be an oversaturated space. According to Grand View Research and as reported by NASDAQ GlobeNewswire, the global skincare market size is expected to reach almost $197 billion USD by 2024. Let that number sink in for a moment. Even more staggering is that 2024 is only seven years away. Both eCommerce and the rising popularity of organic skincare are said to be large contributors to this valuation. In addition, “Asia Pacific is expected to witness a significant growth in the [skincare] product segment…” A Euromonitor International report revealed that 80 percent of global skincare revenue gain by 2019 will come from Asia.

As if the region hasn’t already experienced a serious boost! Asian beauty and skincare have taken America by storm and become much more mainstream in the last two years or so. In fact, beauty is now one of Korea’s top exports alongside cars and electronics. The influx of Asian-branded beauty, skincare, and makeup is not only reshaping the beauty aisle but it’s also impacting American beauty culture in a major way. (Take a look at this Reddit section dedicated to Asian Beauty.)

So why the obsession all of a sudden? It’s impossible to track down the trigger that tipped the scale. But the craze can most certainly be tied to Asian-branded product innovation, exotic ingredients, and, let’s be honest, the cute packaging. We can also attribute successful growth to beauty bloggers and influencers who are on the forefront of beauty and skincare trends. Oh, and the products really do work.  

Locally, we can now purchase Asian-branded products at Sephora, Ulta, Urban Outfitters, and others. Online, just browse Amazon, Soko Glam, AprilSkin, Peach & Lily, Memebox, and Wishtrend. If you live in a major U.S. city, take a stroll through Koreatown or Little Tokyo or Japantown and you’ll likely find a spot that’s stocked with an array of products accounting for nearly every category, from cleansers to masks, BB creams to skin brighteners, and serums to anti-aging creams.

In New York City, Kat Hargrave has dabbled with Asian skincare. She learned about the trend through some random articles, Buzzfeed lists, and even a recommendation from a trusted friend. Hargrave has used Asian-branded products for about three years and spent approximately $100 on new products this past year. Her go-to's? MIZON All In One Snail Repair Cream, Biore Sarasara UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen, and Rice Water Bright Cleansing Light Oil. “I have very fair skin and need to wear sunscreen pretty much all the time, so it was great to find a light facial sunscreen that smelled nice and didn't feel like Crisco on my skin,” Hargrave said.

In addition to MIZON and Biore, brands like Shiseido, TONYMOLY, Etude House, Neogen, KOSE Softymo, Dr.Jart+, and SKINFOOD are dominating the category. A TONYMOLY-holic, New Yorker Amanda Croce has adopted a 10-step Korean skincare regimen: 1. Oil cleanse; 2. Cleanse with a foaming cleanser; 3. Exfoliate (only 1-2x a week); 4. Toner; 5. Essence; 6. Ampoules (Retinol or Vitamin C Serum, etc.); 7. Sheet mask (or under eye mask or nose mask); 8. Under eye cream; 9. Moisturize; and 10. Sunblock, if it's the morning. Yes, you read that correctly.

Croce takes skincare very seriously. “[Asians] have FLAWLESS unlined, non-aged skin because they're obsessive about it,” she said. “Also, they treat the whole process as an indulgence, which is so important. It's self-pampering; one more way to make yourself feel beautiful and confident and happy.” As for her obsession? She’s conflicted. “[It’s a] toss up between It’s Skin Honey Sheet Masks and SK-II essence,” she said. “Those sheet masks are a game-changer; you look incredibly glowing immediately and for a day or so after (it's perfect pre-date). SK-II essence makes everything absorb into your skin so nicely.”  

Here on the West Coast, where I’m currently sitting and writing this story, Los Angeles-based makeup artist and skincare aficionado, Kendell Cotta, uses Asian makeup and skincare products both on-set and at home. “For my kit, I absolutely love to use NARS Multi-Action Hydrating Toner,” she said. “It exfoliates and hydrates the skin. I use it every day and on everybody.” Side note: NARS skincare is owned by Shiseido.

Cotta has also recently “gotten into” essences, which deliver natural ingredients deep into the skin after cleansing for softness and hydration. They’re often mistaken for toners, but essences are not meant to cleanse or rid the skin of dirt and grime. Her favorite essence is made by an up-and-coming Korean skincare brand called Erborian, which means “Herbs of the Orient.”

As for makeup, Cotta loves Erborian BB and CC creams. “I don’t necessarily use it on set just because it has SPF in it,” she said. “But I do suggest it for every day because it’s like an all-in-one skin perfector.” Erborian also sells the compact cushion, which is a Korean innovation and recently adopted by Lancome.

Personally, Cotta loves Too Cool for School under eye masks and the brand’s coconut sheet mask, which hydrates and brightens skin. In Tampa, writer/editor, Ashley Kritzer, is “low-key K-beauty obsessed” and also stocks up on Too Cool for School. Over the last year, she’s spent up to $100 on new products from popular aforementioned brands TONYMOLY and MIZON. But her current obsession? “Probably the snail cream because my skin is so much better — brighter, it seems — when I use it.”

Globally, we’re obsessed with trying out new eye creams, finding better ways to avoid zits, eliminating unwanted fine lines and wrinkles, and can’t seem to get enough of the latest and greatest skincare and beauty products. Among that obsession, Asian beauty has stolen the spotlight and shows absolutely no signs of giving it up.

Want to know what Asian beauty and skincare products the MISSBISH editors can’t live without? Head over to our latest #MISSBISHNEEDS for the roundup. 

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