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Black women are bored with Western beauty brands, is Korean skincare the answer?

Mainstream cosmetic companies in the UK are still ignoring the plights of people with darker skin, so now these Black women are turning to K-Beauty.

15 Nov 2020

Like most people in the West I first came across K-Beauty through influencers. After watching a few videos, I decided it was time to try for myself. I started slowly with sheet masks to see if they were worth the fuss and immediately I was hooked. The love for Korean skincare is very real. 

From the unbelievably cute packaging to the science-focused approach, it has become my go-to for skincare. Like a lot of Black women, particularly my fellow darker-skinned women, I often felt excluded from the beauty and skincare conversation. Whether it’s in terms of representation behind or in front of a brand, Black women rarely get a seat at the table and if they do, they’re almost never at the forefront. 

K-Beauty is the umbrella term for skin-care products that derive from South Korea. The trend has gained popularity worldwide, especially in East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. It seems the US and  Europe are finally catching up. K-Beauty focuses on health and hydration, which is a different approach to skincare products in the West. Plus, it feels like it’s made for everyone, including Black people.

Natalie Wilson, a K-Beauty fan from London, echoes that feeling of alienation. “Mainstream Western beauty didn’t see me. When it came to products, they would treat redness or rosacea, which doesn’t often affect people of my complexion,” she says. “Western beauty felt like it was more about brand loyalty, rather than what works for you. It felt like a pyramid scheme.

“Even sunscreen, it’s a travesty, you can see Black people weren’t considered in the product development, otherwise they wouldn’t try to make you look like Avatar.” Sunscreens available in the West always seem to leave an off-purple, slightly ashy residue which doesn’t work for our skin. Whereas K-Beauty sunscreens are often made of a low-hormone chemical formula meaning anyone can wear it. As opposed to the hormone imbalance in common sunscreens.

“Conditions like hyperpigmentation, eczema and even melanoma on Black people often go unnoticed by brands”

For a long time, I could only buy beauty products from my local hair shop or I’d have to trek all the way to central London to find products that worked for my skin. But the retail experience as a Black person in the UK is less than favourable. Too many times I have found shop staff and security following me around because I dared to stare at serums for too long. The unpleasant experience only adds to the presiding issue. While I haven’t personally experienced a real-life K-Beauty retail store, the online community and thorough information have made me confident when purchasing online.

Natty Kasambala, a Creative Strategist from London (and former gal-dem editor), has been using K-Beauty for more than four years and is well aware of that feeling of exclusion for Black women from mainstream beauty. Speaking with Natty I could feel her indifference with the industry as a whole. The consistent overlooking of multiple skin tones (an issue Korea has too with makeup) and how products like SPF should be universal but end up being the opposite. On the topic of SPF, she speaks candidly, “I’ve never had extreme acne but I’ve also never had really amazing skin. So as a teenager I literally would just use stuff like Neutrogena without any real insight into what it was doing. Things like how SPF can stop you from getting hyperpigmentation, all those things. We’re just ignored really.”

Black people have long been excluded from most medical conversations and how different physical conditions show up on us, so it’s no surprise when it comes to Western dermatology, it’s the same case. Conditions like hyperpigmentation, eczema and even melanoma on Black people often go unnoticed by brands and there’s the myth that we cannot get sunburn. Ingredients like Retinol are key in fighting hyperpigmentation yet most of the time, these products are marketed to white women.

One of my favourite aspects of K-Beauty is its approach of seeing skin as more about health than simply vanity. According to Abiola Renee, co-founder of the eco-friendly K-Beauty store Skin Library, it’s very common for families in South Korea to have dermatologists alongside a family GP and dentist.

“The Korean approach to beauty is a prevention rather than a cure kind of attitude and it’s like that from birth,” Abiola says. “It works so seamlessly in their society because it’s part of Korean culture – if you look at the history of Korean culture, they’ve always had that method. It’s very common for families to have a dermatologist, or aesthetician and the idea of taking care of your skin. It’s passed down from generation to generation.”

I personally find taking care of my skin incredibly therapeutic and definitely think it’s linked to better mental health for me. “South Korea is the big capital for skincare at the moment because their innovation is far ahead of many of the other countries’ counterparts,” Abiola continues.

After deep-diving into K-Beauty’s marketing strategies, such as it being genderless and health-focused, it’s clear their target markets are, well, everyone. Why is it that brands over here have decided that only women need to look after their skin? For far too long now, we have allowed men to get away with using five in one bathroom products.

Inclusivity sells and brands like Aesop, Byredo and Fenty Skin have always led with gender-neutral campaigns, promoting healthy skin as part of a healthy lifestyle. I think it’s a mixture of Western brands realising the very real power of K-Beauty, and consumers very loudly switching off from tired, gendered advertising tropes.

But the rest of the industry doesn’t seem to be catching on. According to Influencer Intelligence 2019, more than 70% of all health and beauty adverts are geared at women. So the real question is essentially when are mainstream Western brands going to drop their archaic ideas and step into the current day, promoting health over vanity? 

“You can’t escape the very real issue of anti-Blackness in Korea, and while these products might work for us, they aren’t necessarily made for us”

Now I’ve come across skincare blogs like The Klog, from Soko Glam founder Charlotte Cho, I feel like brands are actually choosing to engage with me rather than just sell to me. This was the first time I’d ever felt like a beauty brand was actually choosing to engage with me rather than just sell to me. I was becoming more and more intrigued as I could see that K-Beauty appears to be a space more and more Black women were comfortably turning to. It’s normal to read reviews and articles by Black women and to see their images used overtly on Klog’s site, long before the reckoning that was June 2020.

“I think K-Beauty is becoming so popular because it focused more so on ingredients and results than messaging,” Natalie says. Sites like Reddit were also crucial to K-Beauty’s global rise. “The online communities were also quite inclusive. For example, during AB Beauty’s heyday on Reddit, people would disclose their MAC foundation shade meaning you could find people that had a similar skin tone and see what they used in their routine. Tiffany and Lupus as well as Sheryll from The Wanderlust Project were major guides for me and it was great to see and read experiences from Black women of K-Beauty products.” 

Another big draw to K-Beauty products is its price point. Generally, the best quality skincare products in the West tend to sit in the luxury end which is unrealistic for a lot of people to buy regularly, not just Black women. This is what drew Aisha, 21, from Birmingham to Korean skincare products: “I can’t afford luxury products regularly and it’s easy with K-Beauty because so much of it is accessible to everyone.” 

K-Beauty is certainly making strides, but there’s still work to be done. You can’t escape the very real issue of anti-Blackness in Korea, and while these products might work for us, they aren’t necessarily made for us. Nearly half of the Korean population use some sort of skin-lightening treatment. Light skin is still seen as the beauty ideal. As Vogue Business reports, terms like 黑丑穷 (hei chou qiong), translating to “black-ugly-poor”, have been used to describe undesirable things.

Ultimately, it’s clear that Western brands need to realise that K-Beauty is a real threat to the current beauty landscape. K-beauty still has work to do, but at this rate, it won’t be long before Western brands’ once-loyal fanbases switch to brands that understand them, for good.