Yes, K-beauty is certainly a big deal these days. There is no doubting it. Just walk into any mall, and you’ll probably spot a number of K-beauty stores. Early in the year, we tried out a few skincare products from Korean brands.
Now, we put the cosmetics to the test. Do they live up to the hype of creating flawless beauty looks? Read on to find out.
Sulwhasoo Sheer Lasting Gel Cushion, RM210
I’m a regular user of Sulwhasoo’s Perfecting Cushion, which I love, so I was quite keen to see whether this was better. What’s different is that the cushion has a melting gel texture and micro mesh. Basically, it helps absorb the serum and the micro mesh provides a more even finish. The product contains anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals and sea buckthorn berries extracted by freeze-dried method, which helps replenish skin. This is actually really hydrating. After applying, it melts onto your skin to a dewy finish. You don’t need to put on much unless you need extra coverage, as it absorbs really well. Pretty good coverage and gives your skin a radiant glow. Doesn’t really need touch-ups during the day, so yes, this will be added to my cushion must-have list. – Dzireena Mahadzir
The Saem Cover Perfection Tip Concealer 01 Clear Beige, RM26
The pigmentation of this creamy, thick formula is pretty impressive. Meant to provide high coverage for freckles, blemishes and dark circles, it’s easy to apply via its sponge tip applicator. Dab small amounts on your skin and smooth it out with either your fingers or a blender, and in a single swipe you get pretty good coverage. For the under eyes, it doesn’t crease or settle into the fine lines, and it’s a pretty long-lasting formula as the coverage lasts the entire day. It has SPF28 PA++ UV protection, which is great for daytime wear. – Nasa Maria Entaban
The History of Whoo Gongjinhyang: Seol Radiant White Moisture Cushion Foundation Special Set #21, RM235
You can pretend to be a Joseon era empress when you use this luxurious cushion as the brand was created to allow women to enjoy the beauty secrets of Korea’s ancient royal court. This set includes a refill and a sample of the Essential Primer Base. Comparing it to other cushion brands, I absolutely love the glowing effect of this cushion that has serious lasting power and its high sun protection factor of SPF50+/PA+++. However, the coverage does fade after several hours so the staying power of the foundation itself can be improved and it felt sticky on the skin. To enjoy the glow it offers, I’m using this over my powder foundation just to highlight specific areas! I’m still holding out for a cushion that gives a long-lasting glowing effect and coverage, minus the stickiness! – Sandra Low
16brand R U 16 Taste-Chu Edition Pumpkin Caramel, RM53
When I first saw this lipstick’s packaging, I really thought it was a chocolate bar wrapper! The cute packaging will certainly score points with many. The lipstick inside is shaped like a thick crayon and gives out a strong pigment, making application a breeze. My colour was Pumpkin Caramel, a bright, playful shade suitable for day wear. However, I feel the texture is a bit too dry and I need to put on a layer of lip balm first. Would have liked it better if it gave a more moisturising effect. – Wong Li Za
Laneige Layering Lip Bar No.8 Crushed Pink, RM115
Gradient lips is a coveted K-beauty look where the center part of the lips has a deeper colour. It supposedly helps you achieve a youthful look with the illusion of effortless pouty lips. However, to achieve a proper gradient is anything but effortless as it requires blending a number of products like a concealer and different lip colours together. Thankfully, there’s the Laneige Layering Lip Bar with six colours in one convenient lipstick to help get gradient lips. The product feels smooth and easily transfers all colours in one nicely-pigmented swipe. The way the lipstick is cut in a slanting angle also helps when trying to apply into the corner of the lips. If you want that gradient lips without going through too much hassle, then this is the product for you. – Angelin Yeoh
Etude House Play Color Eye Palette #Best Loved, RM114
This palette consists of the 15 most popular colours from Etude House – mostly brown and gold tones. While my choice of eyeshadow shades are usually dark blue and grey (I love the dramatic smokey eye effect), I was surprised that the palette was able to create a sophisticated night-time look when paired with a thick feline flick eyeliner. My favourite shades were the Purple Dress and Coffee To Go. While vibrant colours are not something I would usually go for, I like the palette’s versatility to create both night- and day-time looks with a pop of colour. – Lee Chonghui
Who would have thought that snail mucus, donkey’s milk and horse oil would be something entirely normal in a beauty routine? Or a 10-step skincare regime, though by now we’ve all whittled it down to about five and let’s not forget sheet masks. That’s the power of the South Korean beauty market.
In a culture obsessed with youth and beauty, it was inevitable that the skincare products seen on the pristine perfection of its hallyu stars would make its way worldwide, igniting a beauty revolution.
Previously, Western countries dominated the skincare and makeup market. Most majors brands at that time came from the United States or France, and set the trends.
Then, sometime in the early 2000s, K-beauty started to gain popularity worldwide. Revolutionising the industry and changing mindsets, it was successful at setting a new perceived ideal for what the average woman must look like.
In K-beauty, traits like innocence and a healthy glow are important. While American girls for example, want to appear as sexy and grown up, South Koreans try their best to apply makeup to enhance their youth. Even the makeup packaging has bright colours and a youthful vibe.
K-beauty also puts a heavy focus on skincare, as the aim is to not have to cover imperfections in the first place. Instead, it calls for having a clean and smooth complexion that can then be enhanced with using cosmetics.
According to a Euromonitor International report, South Korea’s beauty exports to the US grew 59% in 2015, reaching US$207mil (RM851mil). In 2017, retail researchers Mintel reported that South Korea’s beauty industry was estimated to be worth over US$13bil (RM53bil).
While its popularity in Southeast Asia was almost immediate, it took a little longer elsewhere. In the US, K-beauty started entering the market around 2012 with collaborations between Korean beauty brands and US retailers like Sephora. Then there was K-beauty retailer Soko Glam and Peach & Lily in 2012, which made it easier for Americans to get the products.
Popular South Korean makeup artist Pony in the look she created for Etude House’s latest eye shadow palette, Play Colour Eye in Rose Bomb. Photo: Etude House
“People first started taking an interest in K-beauty, all thanks to the country’s celebrities who emphasise dewy, porcelain skin with natural makeup,” says Etude House senior training executive Elaine Moo.
“Popular K-dramas such as My Love From The Star, which came out in 2013, only helped further push the trend. Then you have beauty influencers from South Korea like makeup artist Pony, who became a hit by posting up K-beauty tutorials.”
As it is, Pony currently has more than five million subscribers on her YouTube channel and six million people on Instagram. And it is not just the Korean girls who have helped push K-beauty.
The boys are no stranger to skincare – or makeup, for that matter. In Seoul, it is common to see them walking around with their faces all dolled up.Enter the label “flower boys” (or kkonminam in Korean). It refers to young men who are concerned with personal style and fashion. Their lifestyle also often includes wearing make-up such as eyeliner or lip gloss.
Another big drive to the K-beauty trend is K-pop stars. With their distinct looks, they have greatly helped introduce Korean makeup to their legion of fans around the globe – and thus, the general public.
Most of them are the face of makeup brands too. Take for instance Jennie Kim from popular girl group BlackPink. She is currently fronting Hera, one of South Korea’s most trendy beauty brands.
The boys of BTS, on the other hand, have had a long-time relationship with VT Cosmetics. They have been collaborating with the brand to release everything from cushion compacts to lipsticks and eyeshadows.
“K-beauty gained its popularity not only in Asian countries. Western cosmetic brands are aware of K-beauty and they are seen incorporating the trend into their cosmetic products as well,” Moo points out.
“For example, the cushion foundation was a product that originated from South Korea. But now, it is widely seen in Western beauty brands such as Bobbi Brown, Estee Lauder and much more.”
K-beauty In Malaysia
In Malaysia, Korean brands also came in around the 2000s but the past five years or so saw a surge in popularity. Etude House, the brand that Moo works for, operates under the AmorePacific Corporation. This South Korean beauty and cosmetics conglomerate is said to be among the largest in the world.
The AmorePacific Corporation also manages Laneige, Innisfree, Mamonde, Sulwhasoo and Ryo in Malaysia. And it is not stopping there, the company is reportedly bringing to our shores even more K-beauty brands by next year.
“The cult status of K-beauty is driven by consumers who want the skin of Korean celebrities, who supposedly use the products,” explains Margaret Chin, general manager of AmorePacific Malaysia.
“In the 2016 drama, Descendants Of The Sun, there’s a scene where Song Hye-kyo’s character uses a Laneige Two Tone Lipbar as a marker to write something on a board when she gets into trouble. Shortly after, that particular shade of lipbar was sold out worldwide.”
Chin adds: “Emphasising skin texture and tone, as well as colours seldom found at existing foreign brands, K-beauty styles defy stereotypical looks for Asian women, such as thin, arched eyebrows, smoky eyeshadow and dramatised cheekbones.
“Instead, it highlights age-defying porcelain-like skin and natural colours that blend well with one’s skin tone. Korean skincare is also more suited for Malaysian weather because of its fresh and light texture and it has been made specifically for Asian skin.”
With the Hallyu wave growing stronger each year, it doesn’t look like the K-beauty influence will fade out anytime soon.
Beauty brands are quick to snap up K-pop stars for their campaigns. Pictured here is Jennie Kim of Blackpink for Hera. Photo: Instagram/@herabeautyofficial
Top K-Beauty Trends
Laneige BB Cushion Whitening. Photo: Laneige
Cushion foundations became popular in 2016, and is now everywhere. Walk into a beauty store and probably all brands (whether Korean or not) have their own versions of the product. A cushion foundation is simply a dispenser that diffuses watery creams through a sponge, providing a thin veil of colour.
The glass skin craze is a rather recent K-beauty trend. Making its debut in 2017, it calls for a person to have absolutely clear, luminous and seemingly transparent skin. Not just smooth, mind you, but poreless and glowing – just imagine looking at the surface of a porcelain glass.
BB, CC, DD Creams
In 2013 or so, BB, CC and DD creams were huge. Despite the variations between the three, they have one general purpose – to give the user a bit of colour with a moisturising benefit. Think of it as a foundation but with skincare properties. These creams are now not heard of much, as they have been replaced by the cushion foundation.
Double cleansing is a skincare method that most Korean women swear by. It hit peak popularity globally in about 2016. All a person needs to do is start washing their face with an oil-based cleanser, followed by a gel or cream cleanser. This is said to first lift dirt and grime, after which they are easily removed.
The K-beauty 10-step skincare regime came to light in 2018. It starts with cleansing with an oil cleanser followed by a foam cleanser (from the double cleansing method), then exfoliating. After that, apply a toner, essence, serum or ampoule, sheet mask, eye cream, moisturiser and sunscreen.
An example of a complete range of skincare. Photo: Innisfree
For Korean stars, achieving the perfect look all comes down to having the right hair and makeup. Just consider K-pop music videos. A large part of the appeal is visual, with glamorously showy appearances an absolute must.
It is the same in K-dramas. The woman who’s crying over her cheating boyfriend? She has a flawless, made-up face. Or that angsty police officer who’s going through an existential crisis – you might think he visits a hair salon before work everyday.
But it is not all about being dramatic. At the moment, K-beauty calls for subtlety. Think of your everyday, on-the-street appearance, but, of course, amped up in the right way to highlight perfection.
For the average person, achieving the look is not impossible. You just need to know the trends that are currently big in K-beauty at the moment. That, and a little (ok, maybe a lot) of your time each morning.
Two of our journalists, Chester Chin and Lee Chonghui, were sent to the Leekaja Beauty Salon in Kuala Lumpur to experience the Korean beauty treatment. After two hours, they emerged looking impressively well-styled.
The Leekaja Beauty Salon was established in 1972 in South Korea and was the first franchised hair dressing brand. Since then, it has branched out with 130 shops in the country itself, with outlets overseas.
- Chester Chin (before).
- Lee Chong Hui (before).
Keep It Natural
According to the Malaysian salon’s hair director, Cho Sang-sook, the big trend right now is to seem natural and almost effortless.
Think soft curls, with the appearance of freshness. This is in contrary to Western looks that are more sexy and grown up.
“Korean girls are very fond of having lightweight hair. Even if a person has long hair, she cuts it into wavy layers so her hair would feel and look lighter. You could say it gives the illusion of being natural,” she explains.
For Chin’s hair however, Cho decided to go with “comma dot bangs”. This is popular in South Korea, where the hairstyle suits guys who have a long and thin face. It also helps give volume to those with shorter and thinner hair.
The hairstyle is said to be a favourite among many K-pop idols and Korean actors. It is named as such because of how it looks with the front portion of the hair curled inwards, resembling a comma.
- Cho Sang-sook.
- Baek Hyun-woo.
Baek Hyun-woo, who is also a hair director at Leekaja Malaysia, says that nowadays, everyone is constantly scrutinising each other’s looks. This has put the pressure on even Korean guys to look their best. Thus, they really don’t mind primping themselves.
“I think that when you approach another person, the first thing that attracts their attention is your looks. So Korean guys feel the need to look handsome, even if it means that we have to put on makeup.”
Baek gave Lee a rather chic hairdo. He softened her features with a shorter cut on the sides and front, while tying the back into a very loose ponytail. This offers the impression of a natural wave.
He says that the hairstyle is indeed popular in South Korea. It is difficult for him to pinpoint a specific person as inspiration though, as the look is something that a lot of K-pop stars are sporting right now.
From left: Lim Zi Jun; Etude House senior training executive, Elaine Moo; and Jessie Soon.
It’s All In The Finish
Etude House makeup artists, Jessie Soon and Lim Zi Jun, helped complete the two looks. They gave our journalists a flawless face.
The most important thing when trying to achieve the K-beauty look is having skin that is healthy and clear.
“Guys need to have clean looking skin. They should have very defined eyebrows that look tidy. Nowadays, even the men are taking good care of their skin – moisturising or even applying foundation,” says Soon.
“I think the secret to getting that perfect finish is choosing the right undertone for your foundation. If you get this correct at the very beginning, you will be able to achieve that natural look very easily.”
Having two-tone lips is also apparently popular. It calls for the application of a lighter shade as a base and a darker one for the inner areas. In South Korea, two-tone lips are said to give a more youthful and innocent appearance.
“We followed the Korean style in having clean skin that is slightly moisturised. For the lip and blusher colours, we synchronised colours. This is a trend there now, matching the lipstick and blusher,” says Lim.
All the products used were from Etude House. As a South Korean brand, Etude House aims to spread a fun makeup culture. It offers everything from eye palettes to cushion foundations and more.
Our models of the day looking cool with a well-made up face and natural, casually styled hair after two hours of primping.