Pastel peach and soft yellow shelves display small vials and pots at a new shop that opened in Macy’s Queens department store last month. At first it looks like any other cosmetics display, promoting goods that “tone,””hydrate” and “treat” facial skin. But two giveaways suggest something different: the products are labeled in both Korean and English, and ads throughout the shop feature images of Asian women with immaculate skin.
Peach & Lily, an up-and-coming Korean beauty online retailer, just opened its first offline location in the heart of Macy’s, a quintessentially American department store. The opening is just the latest sign that the small country’s main export industry is now a hot new trend in America.
When it comes to beauty, French cosmetics have been the global gold standard for decades. France’s international cosmetic exports are worth $11.5 billion a year, more than six times what South Korea sells to the world. But French export sales have stagnated, while the market for Korean skincare and makeup products expanded by 73 percent over the last year, according to Mintel, a global market intelligence agency. That makes Korea the world’s fastest-growing beauty marketer, says Mintel.
Beauty bloggers and customers say Korean products have two major selling points: their hypoallergenic properties and their reasonable prices, compared with similar products from more traditional sources. Both qualities have helped Korean beauty products gain a foothold on the overcrowded shelves in mainstream shops such as Sephora, Target and Ulta.
“I tried a few to see what it was all about, and I now I can’t go back,” said Stephanie Kuo, 24, a shopper at the new Macy’s Peach & Lily store. “My skin gets irritated easily, and the prices aren’t crazy, so this is kind of perfect for me.”
Though they are new to most American consumers, Korean beauty products have enjoyed popularity in Asia for decades.
But now, they “have reached market saturation in Korea” said Elena Rogow, 26, writer for the blog Pheomelanin Sufficient. Rogow says she has tracked the growth of Korean beauty products in the U.S. since they first appeared in 2006. America is an attractive target for overseas growth, she says, in part because the products are not subject to import and luxury taxes.
According to Rogow, Korean cosmetics were a small niche market in the U.S. for several years. But now, “several brands are becoming well known enough to sell directly to consumers in English-language websites.”
Word of mouth was the first ally to K-beauty as it started growing in the US. Many consumers were drawn to the all-natural plant, mineral or animal ingredients in most Korean products – and the absence of irritating products such as alcohol. Rogow said her severe allergies made her an early convert.
“My dermatologist had stopped carrying cleansers, and I was sick of using Cetaphil,” she said. She tried a face wash from DHC, one of the few Korean brands available in the U.S. in 2006.
“It didn’t dry me out or cost over $50,” said Rogow. “It was amazing.”
But the Korean products can be complicated, requiring a serious time commitment. For example, some Korean facial regimens call for applying up to 14 different products each night.
“Beauty is crucial in Korean culture,” said Fanny Zhang, manager at ANF Cosmetics, a Canadian-based e-commerce company that sells Korean cosmetics throughout North America. “You pile on toner, moisturizer, ampoule, serum, cream, etc.”
Alicia Yoon, CEO of the Korean brand Peach & Lily, acknowledges that multi-layering of Korean skincare products can be a challenge to explain to new American buyers.
“Some customers may be overwhelmed, “ she said, “but we’ve found that they’re not unwilling to put in the work.”
Perhaps a bigger hurdle for some newcomers to K-beauty are the more exotic “all natural” contents – like snail mucus, the main ingredient in a cream that beauty blogger Renee Khuong remembers buying from Nature Republic in early 2014.
“My skin is supple, glowy, firm and soft after a month of use” concludes her review in Beauty & the Cat.
Not everyone is fascinated by unusual animal products, though.
“A lot of those are made with stuff I’m not comfortable with,” said Sara Forester, 27, who was shopping at a Sephora store in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Forester prefers to trust a select few brands she’s known for years — and none of them are Korean.
“It’s unbelievable; I spend $200 a month on those creams!” Forester said, picking up $72 Dior Capture Totale eye serum. She didn’t look twice at the store pamphlet describing some of the Korean cosmetics available: “I just stick with brands I know.”
Forester’s brand loyalty is good news for long-established Western manufacturers like Dior, Clarins and Guerlain.
But will it last? When it comes to cosmetics, many consumers seem to be in a constant search for the next new skin miracle. Unless they can convert enough customers to survive on their own, Korean beauty companies should enjoy the momentum while it lasts.