It started with BB cream.
I was an editor at Audrey Magazine, and one of our summer interns pitched a story about BB cream. Now, I had heard of BB cream — the miracle product discovered by a German doctor to soothe the skin of post-peel patients and co-opted by Korean chemists as a do-it-all moisturizer, primer, foundation and sunscreen in one. But it was a product exclusively used in Korea then; you could only get it there, and not very many Korean Americans, much less Americans, knew about it.
A few years after we published the story, BB cream mania had reached the States. Dr. Jart was the first Korean brand to hit the mainstream, debuting at beauty giant Sephora in 2011. And it took off like wildfire. Soon, every major (and minor) beauty brand had launched their own version of BB cream, from Dior to Estée Lauder to Maybelline.
It was eye-opening and surreal. For someone who grew up watching her mother pat, pat, pat her skin every night in what I now know to be the Korean 10-step layering skin care regimen — using “skin” (or what we now call a hydrating toner), essences, lotions and night creams — while I lightened my hair with Sun-In and dried out my T-zone with the alcohol-laden Sea Breeze toner, it was like the world had turned upside down. Suddenly, my mom’s skin care regimen was the hot new thing, and everything I had been taught about beauty by Seventeen magazine and Vogue was wrong. Readers began begging for more information on the Korean beauty regimen. I, in turn, turned to my mom and began grilling her on every single product that she used. When it came to skin care, essentially, I had become my mother.
Cushion compacts soon followed BB creams, with Sulwhasoo’s Perfecting Cushion the gold standard. Even Physicians Formula, the drugstore brand known for that oh-so American obsession with bronzers and contouring powders, has come out with its own cushion compact. (Lancôme and other brands have also come out with their own versions, but based on reviews, they don’t come close to the perfectly porous sponge and specialized puff that AmorePacific, Sulwhasoo’s parent company, invented.)
And there are no signs that this Korean beauty obsession in the States is ending anytime soon. Sheet mask selfies abound on Instagram. (Dr. Jart started sheet masking models backstage at New York Fashion Week a couple seasons ago, and now practically every runway beauty look begins with some form of skin care.) A recent Neutrogena ad for its new makeup remover cleansing towelettes and scrub espoused the Korean double cleansing method: “Clean is one thing. Double clean is the new thing.” More and more beauty brands are coming out with their own hydrating toners and facial mists, non-negotiables in Korean skin care. Even the venerable beauty brand Elizabeth Arden, which opened its first Red Door salon on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1910, has launched its first pre-serum, something I first heard about in connection with Korean skin care a few years back.
Oh, and strobing? Yeah, Korean women have been pretty much doing that for practically a decade now. (They call it mul-gwang, that super dewy, highlighted look. They even have injections to give you permanent mul-gwang, but that’s a whole other story.)
The funny thing is every beauty innovation that’s come out of Korea (and copied in the West) has been revelatory to me. These are no passing fads; they’ve become permanent fixtures on my vanity and in my skin care regimen. BB creams? My favorites are from Shiseido, IT Cosmetics and Amarte. Those new blemish dots by Peter Thomas Roth (inspired by the ones by Korean brands Missha and others)? Brilliant. Sulwhasoo Perfecting Cushion is alone-on-a-desert-island vital to me, and I stash a facial mist in practically every flat surface in my house.
And not because they’re trendy — because they work. And that, perhaps, is the reason why I believe Korean beauty is here to stay.
Mother does know best, after all.