Heather Ibberson

March 29, 2021

Has the hype around K-beauty slowed down?

The origins of K-beauty and its influence across Western culture and other beauty brands.

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Globally known for the 10-step skincare routine, K-beauty has transcended from a trend to a mainstay especially in Western culture, where we see more beauty brands offer similar products.  

Korean beauty has been the most talked-about country-led movement in the past decade, with 31% of UK consumers stating they think K-beauty is quite popular in their country. We look at how COVID-19 and Hallyu have accelerated its growth, including which famous brands are creating their own products inspired by K-beauty trends.

When did K-beauty take off?

Back in 2011, Sephora started carrying Dr Jart+, offering two of its BB creams. A year later, Soko Glam launched in 2012 to help consumers discover Korean skincare and beauty trends. In recent years, K-beauty created a skincare wave, evolving past the 10-step skincare routine to focus on dermatological ingredients and a rise in exciting, new indie brands.

Enticed by its kitsch and unique packaging, Korean beauty has widened the Western customer's appetite for new products and categories they hadn't tried before.

EDITED tracked the first email communication mentioning K-beauty as far back as 2014 - sent by Urban Outfitters. Communications picked up more in 2017 as the trend began to go mainstream.

2014 2017 2018 2020
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Urban Outfitters Email US - Sep 26, 2014 Selfridges Email UK - Jun 28, 2017 ASOS Email UK - Oct 5, 2018  & Other Stories Email UK - Jan 23, 2020

Has growth slowed?

K-beauty is transitioning from a trend into consumers' mainstream beauty routines - the growing demand for the sheet mask being a prime example.

Consumers are still searching for Korean beauty products too. Cult Beauty reported searches for K-beauty rising by 140% in 2019 and Net-a-Porter reported a 42% increase in its Korean Beauty category since the launch of its Korean Collective campaign in the same year.

In a study by Statista looking at the global popularity of K-beauty, 31% of UK respondents thought that K-beauty is "quite popular" in their country (with 21% stating it was very well-known).

The value of exports from South Korea has also increased over the years, growing by approximately 660% during the last decade. In the US alone last year, the country imported more than $624 million in Korean cosmetics.

COVID-19 accelerates skincare & wellness movement

The skin first, makeup second philosophy, which originated in South Korea, has caught on with Western consumers. Skincare has also played an enormous role in the growing wellness movement, which sees clean beauty and sustainability become increasingly important. Something which South Korean skincare brands are focused on like Innisfree that are using natural and ocean-safe ingredients.

The K-beauty skincare wave has widened Western consumers' appetite for new products and categories that emerged in South Korea, such as cushion compacts and sheet masks. Sensorial textures such as gels and cloud creams are seen in product descriptions popularized by Korean brands like Too Cool For School. Now, companies are strategically acquiring brands or spinning off existing lines to incorporate skincare.

Urban Outfitters Email US - Feb 8, 2018

Hallyu: the Korean wave

The explosion of K-pop stars into mainstream culture has further propelled the Asian beauty industry. These stars embody the Korean beauty narrative, with male members in particular challenging Western beauty norms.
With more celebrities endorsing K-beauty brands, fans are getting introduced to the South Korean beauty market. For instance, Song Hye Kyo is the face of luxury Korean skincare brand Sulwhasoo and Jun Ji Hyun for HERA. Gaining traction outside of Asian markets, Airbnb recently hosted an "Inside K-Pop" makeup event with singer Jamie on January 26th and haircare brand Insert Name Brand launched a range of wigs this year inspired by well-known bands like BLACKPINK.
Tiffany Young - Image via Vogue

Wholesale or DTC?

Most Western customers buy Korean beauty online with Amazon and K-beauty sites such as Soko Glam main places where consumers shop. As we see Amazon compete as a major e-commerce destination for beauty, AMOREPACIFIC and Mamonde are now available to buy on the website. Overall, wholesale selling is a sustainable long-term strategy for brands looking to catch a global audience's attention due to the ease of discovery.

However, brands like Glow Recipe have successfully created a strong online community through Instagram, initially launching as a DTC e-commerce marketplace and creating a separate community page called @realglowgang to connect with its audience. This close interaction with its customers has helped strengthen the brand's online presence and build its loyal customer base.


Urban Decay's latest priming spray is described by the brand as inspired by the Korean water trend. Translating to "diving" or "dunking," Jamsu involves dunking a face full of foundation/concealer into water to create a matte effect and long-lasting finish.

Glass skin

In comparison, glossy skin is commonly associated with K-beauty and is not just seen as a descriptor for skincare products, but within makeup too. Rimmel's jelly highlighter takes cues from Korean beauty's glass skin trend, featuring a unique jelly texture and water-based bouncy formula - textures commonly found in Korean beauty products.

Korean red pine

This plant is set to be a trendy ingredient trend for 2021. Murad has used the extract in its clarifying water gel as the ingredient fights quorum sensing, "known to cause microbiome imbalance and irritation associated with acne breakouts (including maskne)."

Botanical ingredients

South Korean beauty brands are leading the way in bio-tech cosmetics as demand for natural ingredients increases. NUDESTIX describes its cream concealer as containing "innovative, skin-loving Korean botanicals that visibly smooth skin texture."

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Urban Decay Rimmel Zuhair Murad NUDESTIX


What's next?


Japanese beauty has a much stronger emphasis on science and technology, and focuses on a more minimal skincare routine - sunscreen, cleansing oils and lightweight moisturizers. While K-beauty is often associated with younger customers, J-beauty's focus on quality over quantity attracts a more mature customer.

Image via Tatcha


Chinese beauty focuses more on ancient beauty rituals and skin treatments such as Gua Sha. C-beauty has risen in interest due to micro-influencers taking pride in promoting their home brands on websites such as WeChat, Weibo and Little Red Book - with 72% of Chinese beauty brands using keywords such as "Made In China" to mark their locally made status.

Pink Bear - Image via Tmall

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