As an industry we have looked to Korea for Beauty innovations for years. K-Beauty is synonymous with fun, affordable and seriously cutting-edge formulations.
What about Clean Beauty?
There is a Clean Beauty scene in Korean Skincare. It is vastly different from that of the US or Europe. One key differentiator is Most Korean brands are not independent. The vast majority are backed by a parent company who is already well established in the industry either a manufacturer or a larger brand who have multiple sub brands. This changes the dynamics.
A surprising fact….
The US NGO Environmental working group who rate products and ingredient based on their safety is surprisingly well known in Korea. In fact, it might be better known in Korea than in the US! As with many things in this wonderful country the fame came from a TV show and has since picked up pace. Despite very few Korean brands actually being EWG verified they still use EWG ratings in their marketing communication, even in store by saying all the ingredients are rated 2 or below. Another thing that is interesting is many brands whose formulations are not that clean don’t use artificial fragrance. Very few brands seem to be certified by other global bodies. I saw one or two Ecocert but usually just on one or two products in a range.
Ingredients – are the brands really Clean?
Like anywhere some are, and some aren’t. Natural ingredients are top of mind of many of the brands and they are emphasizing this in their formulations and marketing
Not all of these brands are very clean, many still contain questionable chemicals like PEGs, BHT etc. Artificial fragrance seems to be quite widely left out of formulations – this is probably because it is quite easy to replace without effecting efficacy where as some of the other ingredients above, they find more difficult to replace.
Having said that here are few that are leading the way in Korean Clean Beauty (disclaimer I haven’t checked all their products…but just the ones I have tried)
Sustainability not high on the agenda…
There is plastic everywhere in Korea. From the seeming crazy of sweet, highly flavoured, cold drinks all in disposable plastic containers with straws to the cultural obsession with overpackaging. Everything is packed and double packed supposedly for hygiene but also it is just what is expected here. I saw hardly any brands trying to push a sustainability agenda in their packaging or message. I don’t think the Koreans are demanding it and from some reports the packaging manufacturers just don’t have the solutions available. This is a real shame and I hope that the public and the industry will change soon.
Clean Beauty is not segregated at retail
There are not really dedicated Clean Beauty retailers but many of the major chain stores are stocking clean beauty brands. Chicor has a whole section in their flagship dedicated to new brands and many of these were clean. Atrium who traditionally only stocked Amore Pacific brands (as they own the chain) is now diversifying into other brands – they had Clean brands. But they don’t have their own section in the stores either it really is all thrown together so customers need to know what they are looking for. As mentioned above some brands have information on shelf about ingredients and EWG ratings to help consumers navigate.
What about foreign brands?
Korea is a tough market for foreign brands in general. If you have a mega brand name then there is a market for you eg: Chanel, Dior, Mac etc but for independent brands there is a lot of competition. As for independent brands Aesop has done well in Korea by really investing in their store designs by using expensive materials and local architects – reinforcing their positioning for minimalist chic.
I saw Farmacy in Chicor, Dr Bronner’s in Olive Young and a few brands in Boots but not a lot else, aside from the large L’Oreal, LVMH group brands and my focus was on Korean brands, so I am sure I missed some niche ones. This will change with Sephora coming in in October, they are bringing several niche brands like Gallinee so will be very interesting to see the response. But it is a tough market for foreign brands as K-Beauty is so strong and Koreans believe the quality is very high and the prices are often aggressively low.
Many independent international brands come in and are sold in Instagram stores rather than physical retail. If one of the big influencers picks you up and makes a big splash, then you may just have a chain store knocking on your door.
Visit the market – it is without a doubt worth the trip. Not only can you get inspired but the quirky fun K-Beauty brands but also it is a mecca of OEM producers so you can look at possibly formulating in the market. Intercharm Korea is an annual trade show with mainly Korean brands it was a good opportunity to see some local trends and meet local brand founders.