K -beauty has taken the world by storm. South Korean make-up trends such as bright-pink ombre lips, pale dewy skin, and thick, straight eyebrows have become ubiquitous from Hong Kong to Ulan Bator. More than simply a cosmetic trend, K-beauty has become major cultural force throughout Asia and beyond.

“The typical Korean beauty we would imagine is very fair-skinned, a small face with a small pointed chin, a narrow nose with a slightly upturned tip, and large eyes with double eyelids,” says Bettina Ding, a Chinese luxury retail specialist at Cherry Blossoms Marketing Research and Consulting. “Such typologies of beauty have a far-reaching impact on other countries, starting off with China and Japan, then across Southeast Asia and now possibly the West.”

Since the mid-2000s, K-beauty has become one of South Korea’s most successful cultural exports – along with K-pop, K-dramas and K-fashion – thanks to savvy online marketing, the rise social media and, most importantly, the overall spread of Korean culture.

For many Asian women, K-beauty is both inspirational and aspirational.

‘To me, Korean women have something Japanese women are losing … they’re [strong] and sexy,” says Lina Hitomi, a Tokyo-based branding expert who has consulted for fashion and cosmetics firms. She believes K-beauty’s affordable price points are attractive to younger Japanese consumers.

“Japanese beauty products are a little bit more expensive, but Korean products they can buy a whole set – repeat and buy. I look at young people’s magazines and a lot of sections now feature K-beauty [trends]. So it’s to do with pricing and then also that K-beauty is more sexy and more dynamic.”

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The industry has also launched wildly popular, near-religious skincare philosophies and practices – just search for “Korean skincare” to be inundated with millions of reviews and tutorials from around the world.

From multi-step nightly routines that promise to whiten, brighten and restore youthful vigour to snail creams, snake-venom sera and the gold and caviar-enriched sheet masks that beauty bloggers and experts swear by, Korean skincare is booming.

The K-beauty market was worth US$13 billion in 2017, according to research firm Mintel. Skincare comprised the largest segment, at 51 per cent or US$6.5 billion in sales, with sales projected to reach US$7.2 billion by 2020. Since 2015, South Korea has been the world’s second-largest cosmetics exporter behind France, according to the country’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.


South Korea’s largest cosmetics maker, AmorePacific, is the brains behind some of the best-known K-beauty labels including Laneige, Innisfree, and most notably Iope, which propelled the Korean CC cushion compact craze a few years ago. AmorePacific brought in 6 trillion won (US$5.3 billion) in sales last year alone thanks to the international demand for its products.

Another major player, LG Household and Healthcare, which is behind popular brands such as The History of Whoo, saw sales of 1.32 trillion won (US$1.2 billion) in 2017. The company’s offerings include cosmetics inspired by Korean royalty, such as whitening creams that use placenta and other ingredients said to have been used by the queens of ancient Korea.

While these brands dominate the market, smaller companies are also riding high on K-beauty’s success.

Independent online retailer StyleNanda, best known for popularising street fashion and highly stylised glossy make-up trends, has seen its 3CE make-up take off across Hong Kong, mainland China and other parts of Asia. The look is so popular that it has been satirised by Hong Kong cartoonist Plastic Thing.

As K-beauty goes from strength to strength, brands outside South Korea are vying for a piece of the pie. StyleNanda was acquired by global cosmetics giant L’Oréal in May, a sale estimated by Reuters to have been worth about U$400 million. StyleNanda brought in US$152 million in sales last year, 70 per cent of which came from 3CE sales, according to The Korea Herald.

In 2015, Estee Lauder Companies – which owns Estee Lauder, MAC and Clinique – invested an undisclosed sum in South Korean brand Dr. Jart+, with plans to oversee its global expansion.

A year later, Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital Private Equity acquired majority stakes in cosmetics maker Carver Korea for more than 350 billion won (US$309 million) – and L Capital, an investment arm of French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, purchased a 7 per cent share in cosmetics brand CLIO for US$50 million.

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K-beauty’s runaway success has also spawned counterfeiters and copycats looking to exploit the well-promoted mystique of Korean women and their luminescent skin.

Shalen Aik, a Singaporean blogger, last year posted a comparison of real and fake Innisfree green tea masks, the latter of which she had purchased online from a reputable seller who had over 800 glowing reviews.

“I don’t understand why they cannot tell that it’s fake,” Aik wrote. While the fake mask had a similar scent to the genuine article, it was wispy and thin – and caused a burning, itching sensation when used.

In January 2017, a Malaysian woman ended up in hospital after experiencing a serious allergic reaction to a product purporting to be Nature Republic’s Soothing & Moisture Aloe Vera Soothing Gel.

Doctors deduced she had likely used a fake version of the hugely popular product.

That July, Chinese authorities seized over 90,000 counterfeit South Korean cosmetics products in Ningbo. The seizure was part of a larger haul of over 53 million counterfeit and defective goods to be exported to countries like Vietnam, where Korean culture is extremely popular.

In December 2017, Hong Kong customs seized over 5,200 counterfeit cosmetics valued at HK$600,000 (US$76,750), including items passed off as top Korean brands such as Innisfree and Laneige.

China and Hong Kong produce an estimated 86 per cent of the world’s counterfeit goods, according to a 2015 report by the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation. While most K-beauty fakes made in China end up being sold online, many end up being sold in their purported country of origin.

In October, South Korean media reported that over 64 billion won (US$56 million) of counterfeit Korean cosmetics had been uncovered over the last five years at 193 different stores in the nation. More than 80,000 fake cosmetics from China had been sold over the period, according to the Korean Intellectual Property Office. Many of these products contained unhealthy levels of titanium dioxide and ethyl hexyl methoxycinnamate – compounds used as ingredients in sun-care products – which can cause allergic reactions.

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Local media said that while many of these products were manufactured in China, they were imported back to South Korea – ironically to be sold to Chinese visitors hoping to avoid fakes back in their own country.

Chinese consumers have started to take notice. Explaining that many such cosmetics are sold in tourist districts such as Myeongdong in Seoul, Weibo user Amour_C wrote. “These shops decline Koreans, and only allow Chinese tourists to enter. Chinese girls who love to use Korean make-up will stop purchasing it because they don’t want to become disfigured. Koreans think Chinese people are stupid and want to earn more money.”

Other users warned Chinese visitors not to enter unofficial duty free shops.


While counterfeit goods are generally prohibited and severely dealt with by the South Korean government, legal experts say K-beauty brands also have a duty to help eradicate fakes.

“As right holders, businesses have both the right and responsibility to remove fake products from online platforms,” says Joan Porta, vice-president of customer success at brands protection specialist Red Points.

“Beyond the obvious reputational damages counterfeit products can have on a business, in some cases it can pose an even greater threat to customers’ health and safety. This, coupled with countless horror stories in the media of products containing harmful ingredients such as substandard cosmetics, has made it a priority for brands to protect their consumers.”

This summer, Chinese cosmetic brand Sulansoo was found liable for copying AmorePacific’s herbal skincare line Sulwhasoo and fined 500,000 yuan (US$72,700).

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“If a legitimate brand’s trademarks, designs or copyright have been infringed on, then they can take action,” says Christine Chen, a partner at Winkler Partners in Taiwan. “The precursor to this of course is that the legitimate brands have taken sufficient action to prevent the copying in the first place. Additionally, unfair competition and consumer protection laws can also prevent fake products and brands from operating in the market.”

Beyond counterfeit products, some question whether participating in K-beauty is politically correct.

“I’ve always wondered what we’re doing with K-beauty right now in Japan – is that cultural appropriation?” asks Lisa Tanimura, a writer and fashion expert based in Tokyo.

“We have this history of colonisation, and we’re sort of taking in what’s popular in Korea and adopting it within a Japanese context.

“But it’s so weird because we colonised the f*** out of Korea you know? And then we pretend nothing happened now and we’re like ‘Oh Korea’s doing well, can we copy some of that?’”

But as intellectual property specialist Laura Wen-yu Young points out, there is no copyright for culture.

“Cosmetic products can be branded and trademarked,” she says. “However, if something is a cultural trend or phenomenon that did not originate with one person or company, it may be that no one has a monopoly on use of that.”

For Irene Kim, co-founder of My Seoul Secret, a medical tourism agency based in South Korea, the rise and spread of K-beauty is something of which the country can be proud.

“Korean beauty has taken over the world by surprise and the beauty industry has forgotten about the Japanese style of beauty and its cosmetics,” she says.

“There is really no right or wrong answer in the reality we live in. Imitation can be the sincerest form of flattery and it was less than a decade ago, Korean women were emulating the Japanese-style make-up. People tend to mirror those they love or admire.”