Americans tend to think international beauty trends are unchanging and absolute. All French women wear red lipstick, right? All Italian women use olive oil as moisturizer. All Icelandic women bathe in sulfuric hot springs. Sure, many people do (these practices have withstood the test of time for a reason), but not everyone, and certainly not all the time. The beauty landscape is always changing. Beauty products and rituals cycle in and out of popularity no matter where you in the world you end up.
That certainly holds true when it comes to South Korea, which is the world's unofficial authority on all things skincare. Most of us are familiar with K-beauty (and K-skincare), or at least we think we are. It's all about that coveted 10-step skincare routine, right? Not necessarily. Last year, our editorial director, Faith, took a trip to Seoul and came back singing the praises of skip-care, a concept that allows for using fewer products without sacrificing results. According to Brian Oh, co-founder and CEO of VENN Skincare, instead of using multiple cleansers, toner, essence, serum, ampoules, masks, moisturizer, eye cream, and sunscreen as devotees have done in the past, many Korean men and women are now interested in simplifying their skincare routines, sometimes streamlining their traditional 10-step skincare routine by half.
In order to understand why the prevailing skincare philosophy and market has changed, we need to first understand its origins. "Skincare routines using multiple products for a 'comprehensive facial treatment at home' became very popular in South Korea as early as the 1960s with the rise of direct selling," Oh explains. "Direct sellers, popularly called 'beauty counselors,' would visit homes with a large bag filled with different skincare products, and would offer free facial treatments with their products."
Oh continues, "They would recommend a multi-step routine with their products, starting with multiple cleansers to remove makeup and deeply cleanse and exfoliate the skin, toner, essence, serums and ampoules, treatment masks, moisturizer, eye cream, treatment creams and sunscreen. Although direct selling isn’t the only reason why multi-step skincare routines became culturally popular, it definitely played a significant role, because it was historically the main (and very effective) channel for companies to market and sell their products and for consumers to learn about and purchase products in a very densely populated and highly networked country."
There are a couple of different reasons why there's a growing interest in streamlining and multi-use efficacy right now. One of the reasons is global interconnectedness. Another reason is ingredient awareness and something called 'body burden,' which refers to the total amount of a specific chemical or ingredient found inside the body. According to Oh, the idea is that through reducing the amount of skincare ingredients you use, you can also reduce the amount of chemicals absorbed into your body.
"With the rise of Internet, people gained access to information and basically became very educated about skincare products, ingredients and health (including body burden)," Oh explains. "Korea has the world’s fastest average internet connection speed, with over 92% of the population using the internet. In the past 5 years, 'minimalism' in skincare has become very popular in South Korea, especially as people have also become very conscious of 'body burden' from what they eat and apply on their body."
With access to information, people now understand sing multiple products is not necessarily good for their specific skin, and ingredients and formulations have advanced with time to offer streamlined yet highly effective skincare solutions. "Also," Oh adds, "with South Korea currently having the longest average working hours among all developed countries, people are gravitating towards streamlined skincare for practical reasons as well. Now, I’d say it would be difficult to find people religiously practicing a 10- or 12-step skincare routine, and is definitely no longer the norm," he says.
That's where VENN comes in. It's a small line of skincare products that use highly-effective ingredients to do a little bit of everything. It was born from this idea of streamlined skincare. "Streamlined, minimal skincare is the new trend, and now, it’s all about cutting down the products while maximizing the results," Oh says. "We see that in the products now trending in South Korea, and also the great tractions we’ve been getting in South Korea from both retailers and consumers."
Take this Red Oil Serum, for instance. It's formulated with 34 natural botanicals and essential oils (including phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals from plants that are known to survive extreme environments). It hydrates the skin, increases elasticity, and boosts radiance, all without synthetic fragrance, parabens, silicone, phthalates, mineral oil, sulfates, or colorants.
Alicia Yoon is an esthetician, Korean skincare expert, and founder of Peach & Lily. She's quick to point out that the average Korean skincare routine still generally involves more steps and products than the average American skincare routine. "The typical skincare routine in Korea is still more multi-layered than routines found in the US," Yoon says. "For example, double cleansing has not gone anywhere, and people are still very into essences and using multiple serums, and then of course indulging in all manners of masks...Having said that, beauty technology—when it comes to multi-tasking products that are effective—has come a long way in Korean beauty labs, and that allows for some steps to be effectively combined which can help on days you want a shorter routine or when you're traveling or at the gym, for example."
"We were able to harness the power of these multi-tasking beauty technologies when we created the Lazy Day All-in-One Moisture Pads, which is a toner, serum and moisturizer in-one, allowing for a super condensed routine for those lazy or busy days." (These pads are soaked with hydrating moisture, which sinks into my skin without leaving a greasy residue behind. I love them, and I use them often).
"However, if you go to beauty stores in Korea or look at the shelfies, full blown skincare routines are still very much present because ultimately, the principles still remain: skincare has a ritualistic element, but moreover, skincare isn't about the quick fixes, but gentler layers of products and treatments that help nourish skin over time allowing you to have truly healthy skin from the inside out," Yoon explains.
As for the specific ingredients that are trending (because as we all know, Korean skincare is all about the efficacy of the formulations), Oh names peptides and phytochemicals, specifically. "Peptides are considered a new generation of functional ingredients that replace the vitamins," Oh says. "Previously, peptides were used in medicine, but now, in Korea, peptides are very actively used as functional actives in cosmetics, as they are considered highly effective and multi-functional, yet very stable and safe (while vitamins A and C tend to have stability issues)."
Phytochemicals, on the other hand are "compounds produced by plants that help plants sustain their biological activity and growth. Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea Leaf) Catechins, Ellagic Acid, Anthocyanin and Quercetin are phytochemicals with very powerful antioxidant functional efficacy on the skin, and are also trending ingredients in Korean skincare products," he says. "Ginsenoside Compound K is also an extremely powerful phytochemical from Panax Ginseng that we’ve been researching and have used as a key ingredient in our products. We are researching other phytochemicals with Asia Seed (a public company in South Korea that develops functional hybrid vegetables) to apply to cosmetics in the K-beauty space."
Yoon names a few different ingredients. The first of which is is centella asiatica, a calming and soothing botanical that's known for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. "Centella asiatica remains very popular for its soothing and nourishing properties. Hydrolyzed sponge that act as microspicules in formulas are seeing a growth. And a lot of ingredients that are cleaner versions of more common but potentially harmful chelating agents, emulsifiers, and preservatives as Korean beauty has been very much focused on clean and natural beauty for the last handful of years." (BTW, you can find centella asiatica in Peach & Lily's Original Glow Sheet Mask Set).
This newfound respect for multifunctional minimalism isn't just affecting the skincare market. It's affecting the makeup market, too. "We see a similar trend in makeup—for example, all-in-one hydrating sunblock foundation cushion. If a product can deliver multi-benefits very effectively, it will do well in the Korean market. If a product can achieve that using clean, non-toxic ingredients (for Koreans, the popular measuring standard being EWG’s Skin Deep Database and also the ingredient rankings in the cosmetics app 'Hwahae'), it is a holy grail," Oh says.
At the end of the day, Yoon wants you to know that skincare (and makeup for that matter) is all about doing what works for you and your skin. "There isn't really a norm or has really been a norm," she says. "In general, yes, there has always been more steps and layers than routines I've seen from elsewhere. And the '10-step' nomenclature is a way to capture this. Ultimately, skincare has always been about really knowing your skin and tailoring a routine to fit your skin's needs."