K-Beauty: what’s special and what’s not

Belinda Carli discovers the latest beauty trends in South Korea – and predicts what is, and what isn’t, likely to make its way to Australia.

One of the reasons that K-Beauty sees so many successful innovative launches in the West is simply because so many innovations emerge in South Korea. With such a large population of early adapters and extremely high social media usage, South Korea is a perfect ‘testing’ ground for hot, and not so hot, innovations.

What’s Hot?

There’s always so much to see and sample on a visit to South Korea.  The following are trending in stores and advertising campaigns – and likely to gain traction in Australia.

  • Customisation: Consumers can purchase ‘base’ lotions or masks and add serum to them – enabling them to mix and match product to suit their skin’s needs on any given day or season. These products may also use tools that help diagnose the particular skin needs of a consumer and provide a tailor-made product to suit that need. Take a look at how ReMede by CNP (remedebycnp.com) is leading the customisable active trend. There are also greater choices of customised colour emerging, and this trend will spread rapidly through the West. South Korean brands have been careful to pair any customisable colour products with video instructions – it not only helps them sell product to consumers in the first place once they see how they can tailor product to their exact needs, it also helps make sure they mix and create colours effectively for good brand loyalty! View videos by MaiTube to see how effective these can be to sell product and encourage customers to mix their own colour cosmetics. Also note how they sell ‘storage’ containers to hold excess product that consumers make: http://www.maitube.co.kr/front/howto.html  There is one thing that seems common to consumers around the world: they are becoming more particular with what they want, and an increasingly e-based society is enabling this. Companies that harness the concept of customisation will definitely lead the way.


  • Multi-phase and dual pouch products: There were a few ‘dual pouch’ products in the stores and even more ‘dual product’ concepts at In-Cosmetics Korea, the regions’ leading raw material exhibition. Examples included bi-phase emulsion products – where a floating emulsion layer sits atop a gel or watery base, but comes together when shaken; or products where the packaging is dual pouch or dual sachet – both to be opened and mixed when ready for use. This opens up formulation flexibility as chemists no longer need to only use in one product what will sit compatibility together; instead, they can use otherwise incompatible ingredients, but package them creatively for full bioavailability on application! It also gives great visual effect to see the two phases come together.



  • “Free of” claims: There were a large number of products making claims of what products don’t Unfortunately, this is something we’ve a seen a lot of in the West for quite some time, but to see it trending in South Korea means it really is here to stay or potentially return with a vengeance. It represents a backward step for the industry to suggest that many ingredients are harmful when they in fact are not (such as parabens) or naming ingredients with regulatory restrictions as ‘bad’ when most products are free of them anyway (such as triclosan). Unfortunately, there is nothing that changes a consumers’ purchasing behaviour more than fear. In a competitive market such as the personal care industry, we see fear used to drive consumer choices, when really it should be the benefits of a product that lead to selection because regulations help keep consumers safe.


  • Input claims: Conversely, and a big forward step forward I hope comes to the West, and fast, is the trend for companies to actually claim the input of some ingredients in their finished products. What does this look like? For example, ‘with 30 per cent coconut water’, or key ingredients written in percentage inputs or parts per million (ppm) – so consumers can compare products that claim to have an ingredient present versus those with an actual input specified.
  • Seeing is believing: From barely visible sparkle, to 10mm dissolving encapsulates, and even sprigs of actual Ginseng root itself, finished personal care products in Korean stores have visual impact. The concept is simple: if a consumer can see ‘threads’ of gold, they’ll believe it’s in there; if they can see a large sphere dissolve on application, they’ll believe the product provides better delivery. In every store I visited, there were at least a few – to many – products with visual spheres, threads, even plants, in the product itself. Since Korean personal care has already mastered the art of beautiful fragrance and skin feel, it seems obvious the next sensory application was to be visual – and there were multiple examples of this in every store we visited and many of the exhibitor stands at In-Cosmetics.
  • Green is the new black: Finished products in stores and ingredients at the in-cosmetics exhibition showed an overall ‘greening’ of the personal care industry, with multiple ‘natural’ and ‘naturally-derived’ materials now being utilised in personal care products. From emulsifiers to surfactants, oils to preservatives, and more active ingredients than ever before, the growing green trend was extremely evident in South Korea this year. While Australia has often led the way with the use of natural and naturally-derived ingredients, seeing this trend in Korea showed just how strong this trend will continue to be with future launches. Interestingly, ginseng and traditional Eastern medicine extracts and foods featured heavily in both finished products in stores and raw materials at the in-cosmetics exhibition. This no doubt boosts local and traditional economies and cultural exchange, which is great for any industry.

I’m hoping we’ll see more of the ‘truth in labelling’ concept come to the West, along with some of these exciting and clinically proven local extracts.

What’s… not?

So now we’ve looked at what’s hot, let’s take a look at what, well, wasn’t – at least from a Western perspective. There were a lot of ‘different’ ingredients being used which I really can’t see making it to Australian stores, yet they had major advertising campaigns and multiple brand launches using them in South Korea. Before I list these, please let me remind you we are talking about an Eastern culture here, so some of these items have been traditionally used as medicines or foods for centuries. This means that while they are a little ‘strange’ to Australians, they are quite acceptable and even considered a genuine ‘value add’ in Asian and South Korean cultures.

  • Bird’s nest extract: This ingredient is based on an extract from the nest of the swift, which creates its nest using its saliva. This extract is apparently rich in nutrients and immunomodulatory agents. Before you start gagging, let’s look at the evidence; it’s even been clinically proven in respected medical journals to inhibit the influenza virus and regenerate cartilage! Obviously, it is highly refined and in a much more diluted form when used in cosmetics.
  • Horse oil: Its popularity is based on its emolliency, being apparently very similar to human oil in its composition, particularly linolenic acid content. I’m not exactly sure how they extract the horse oil, and I didn’t ask… just picturing oil from the flanks of a horse was enough for me to walk past these products.
  • Snail filtrate ferment: Snail filtrate has been used in Asia for a few years now, and has had a resurgence in Korea. These types of products are a big feature in most skin care outlets, and there is significant clinical data to prove that snail filtrate is effective at boosting hydration. There is even Gold Snail skin care – where the snails were fed with gold green tea for apparently even more efficacious and pure filtrate.
  • Shark’s fin: Traditionally used in soups, shark fin has found its way into cosmetics. In personal care, it is claimed to boost elasticity and collagen, especially around the delicate eye area.
  • Spider venom: Synthetically produced as an analogue to spider venom, it is a new age Botox alternative. We also saw similar synthetic analogues for jellyfish venom.
  • Gold and precious gems: Okay, so they are beautiful to wear, but I’m not sure why it’s added to skin care – and I couldn’t see claims as to why either, besides the imagery to justify the expense that using gold and precious gems seems to inspire.

I’m not expecting much of this to reach the West, if for no other reason than the stand-off we’ve had against animal-derived or based ingredients for many years now. I also don’t think the average Western consumer is going to be prone to apply bird’s saliva or snail slime to their skin – even if it’s not the true form these highly refined extracts take, that’s not what they’ll think!

Trends to hope for…

Since the West has already exhausted ‘free from’ claims, I’m personally hoping we’ll see industry move to ‘truth in labelling’ with what’s GOOD about the product highlighted, as well as its input. Seeing the dynamic creations possible by customisation, as well as the multi-phase and visual effects trends was highly inspiring. If you’re a personal care brand take note – it’s where the industry is heading!

Belinda Carli is the director of the Institute of Personal Care Science (IPCS) which provides distance training in cosmetic formulation, brand management and regulatory affairs. Contact belinda@personalcarescience.com.au or visit www.personalcarescience.com.au.


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