When I started writing about Korean skincare, it was still a pretty novel topic in the Western world. My German readers were particularly suspicious of K-beauty, thanks to that good old German xenophobia and general mistrust of new things. Not only would many of them mix up South Korea and China, or think Korea and Japan were basically the same country (a very problematic mistake to make, given the volatile history between these two), they also had all sorts of wrong (and often racist) misconceptions about Asian beauty products.
Mainstream beauty publications in the West sure do not help when it comes to clearing up myths about Asian skincare products, from selling Western marketing concepts such as the (in)famous 10-step K-beauty routine as something all Koreans religiously obey to creating an annual new, pretty much made-up skin trend, be it “glass,” “cloud,” or “cream” skin. That latter one was a particularly amusing “trend” to read about, because basically it originated from, I believe, Western beauty editors somehow mistaking “cream skins”—milky-white, oily toners—for a skin aesthetic. And ah, it was rather hilarious to see them try to grasp at straws explaining this made up “aesthetic” without making it sound problematically colorist.
Beauty publications do not help when it comes to myths about Asian skincare, from the (in)famous 10-step K-beauty routine to made-up skin trends like “glass skin.”
So, let’s look at five common myths about Asian beauty often perpetuated by mainstream media and Western K-beauty shops.
Myth 1: It’s All About K-beauty!
I’ll admit it, at first I was all about that K-beauty goodness too, mostly due to the fact that it is the most readily available Asian skincare here in Europe. It was and still often is hard to find information about what other Asian countries have on offer in regards to cool and interesting skincare. Even in 2021, mainstream publications still mostly focus on Korean beauty, with a dash of Japanese beauty thrown in for good measure. There is also this tendency in the West to equate “Asian” with a small chunk of the continent, particularly the East to Southeast, forgetting—just for starters—the entire Indian subcontinent. Which is such a shame because when I first found out about the absolutely gorgeous, Ayurveda-based holistic spa and skincare brand Forest Essentials, I was instantly enchanted.
And then there is Taiwanese beauty, which arguably has produced the world’s best sheet masks, easily surpassing K-beauty favorites with their high-tech materials and fascinating ingredients such as Job’s tears, great for oilier, acne-prone skin types. Many Taiwanese brands started as part of a dermatological clinic, with professional expertise at the heart of the product range. Brands such as Dr. Wu or Dr. Morita are well-respected in Asia, but hardly ever get a mention from large-name online magazines here in the West, and it is a true shame given the quality of T-beauty.
Myth 2: Asian Beauty Routines Are Time-consuming, Complex & Confusing
When I started freelance writing and blogging with a specialization in Asian and niche brands, most of my potential freelance clients wanted me to write about one topic only: the 10-step Korean beauty routine. Readers and followers, too, mostly had questions about the “right” way to organize those mythical 10 steps, or fretted over which 10 products actually belonged in that routine. Was it “cleanser, second step cleanser, essence, toner, serum, ampoule, sheet mask, eye cream, cream, sleeping cream”? Or maybe the essence needs to come after the toner? And what do I do if I want to use actives? Are 11 steps too much for a nighttime routine?
There was and still is so much confusion and anxiety over “right and wrong” when people get into Asian skincare, and most of it is actually unfounded. It’s sad how many people have this preconceived notion that J-, T- and K-beauty are just too time-consuming to get into, with far too much research needed to get it right.
Guess what: That famous 10-step skincare routine is a made-up marketing concept, started by an American K-beauty shop owner, who used it as an easy-to-grasp template to sell a bunch of products in one go. You will in fact be hard-pressed to find Koreans who sit down each morning and each night to rigorously go through those 10 steps. Rather, as with most skincare junkies, different products and product categories feature in their routine on different days, with routines ranging from three to five to maybe even 12 steps, depending on time and mood. Honestly, if you want to try K-beauty, focus on first integrating a good sunscreen, start using a cleansing oil in the evening in tandem with your foaming cleanser, and add in a hydrating product such as an astringent-free toner, a hyaluronic acid serum, or an ampoule treatment before your moisturizer.
You will be hard-pressed to find Koreans who rigorously go through 10 steps. Rather, as with most skincare junkies, routines range from three to five to maybe even 12 steps.
Myth 3: Asian Beauty Brands Love to Use Exotic, Strange Ingredients
Holy xenophobia, this one always gets to me when I read about supposedly new trends from the world of Asian beauty. It all started with what people often still cite as the number one K-beauty ingredient: snail mucin. Given its slimy consistency and slightly icky origin if you, like me, have traumatic memories of picking snails off the home-grown lettuce, it is easy to see why the idea of “snail slime” in skincare might be strange to people. But then, snail really isn’t as big of a deal in Asian skincare—no, not even in K-beauty—as so many articles make it out to be. Yet for a long while, snail was touted as the most popular, the most widely used, the number one must-have K-beauty ingredient, and online magazines loved to emphasize the weirdness of it all.
Let’s face it, this equation of “Asian” with “weird and exotic” is really just a racist stereotype, meant to paint K-beauty and co. as “the other,” as distinctly different from “normal” Western skincare. Either K-beauty is belittled as kind of a cute but ultimately simply too alien and strange “trend,” or Asian beauty products are fetishized as fascinatingly exotic, to be gawked at and enjoyed for their strangeness. Japanese beauty products in particular are often painted in the context of its exoticism: You can basically play “fetishization bingo” for each article talking about J-beauty, with the mention of geisha culture and those bird droppings they used for their eye care basically the free square on the bingo card. Sure, Asian brands use very unique ingredients such as centella asiatica, heartleaf, or ginseng, but there is nothing “weird” about them—they are often traditional healing herbs similar to our chamomile extract or cornflower water. The only thing that makes them “exotic” is merely the framing by media outlets.
You can basically play “fetishization bingo” for each article talking about J-beauty, with the mention of geisha culture basically the free square on the bingo card.
Myth 4: Japanese Skincare Is the More Sophisticated Older Sibling to K-beauty
I cringe very hard whenever I see another “J-beauty vs. K-beauty” hot take online, because most of them tend to pit the two against each other in a way that lets Japanese beauty look like it’s just oh-so much more sophisticated and grown-up. Somehow, J-beauty tends to be described in almost reverent tones, as this “ancient tradition” with a ritualistic, zen-like quality. Meanwhile, K-beauty is usually seen as cute, cool, and almost a little bit silly. Oh, those silly Koreans and their sheet masks (Japanese people use those too), their cute product packaging (because Japan isn’t at all known for its kawaii aesthetics), and again, those strange novelty ingredients. The picture that is often being painted is an uncomfortable one: J-beauty is traditional, mature, sophisticated, while K-beauty is kind of silly and flashy, with little substance once you open that cute packaging.
Given the difficult relationship between the two countries to this day due to a long history of colonialism by imperial Japan, this is just such a problematic and tone-deaf take. Imperial Japan actively suppressed Korean culture for decades, painting it as “less than” Japanese culture. Of course the Korean skincare industry is younger than the Japanese one, given that Korea was a de facto occupied country at a time when Japanese beauty brands such as Shiseido were founded. Apart from that, it also simply isn’t true that there isn’t a longstanding tradition of beauty rituals and the use of herbal remedies in skincare in Korea. Camellia flowers, for instance, were used to create hair oils as far back as the Silla dynasty (ca. 57 BCE to 935 CE). Truly, both countries produce wonderful, sophisticated, and highly effective beauty products!
Myth 5: All Asian Brands Conduct Animal Testing
I feel this is another one of those misconceptions based on racist stereotypes about Asians—you know, this belief that they all just love to torture animals, while we good white people of course would never harm a fly! Except, well, firstly, Western brands are just as much known for having a long history of animal abuse, even if animal testing by now is banned in large parts of the world (the EU banned it as far back as 2009). Yes, mainland China still demands animal tests be conducted for newly imported skincare products, but that ruling is apparently about to be toppled. And even with that problematic law in place, many brands found ways around the mandatory testing (e.g., finding Chinese manufacturing sites for those products, as domestic products do not need to be tested).
Cruelty-free skincare is currently booming in Korea, with more and more brands proudly committing not to sell in mainland China.
And, again—China is also not synonymous for all of Asia. While animal testing is still legal and possible in Japan, it isn’t a requirement by law, and South Korea banned animal testing in 2018, as did Taiwan in 2019. Not only that, cruelty-free skincare is currently booming in Korea, with more and more brands proudly committing not to sell in mainland China (Aromatica being one of those brands). There are so many amazing K-beauty brands that are vegan, cruelty-free, and organic, with consumers keen to support their ethical stance. Immensely popular Korean brand CosRx only uses snail mucin harvested in a way that won’t affect the animals’ welfare, for instance. And K-beauty giant Amorepacific even launched a new brand called Enough Project that is vegan, cruelty-free, and free from gendered marketing.
What are some Asian beauty myths you’d like to debunk? Let us know in the comments!