In Exclusives, Insight, Trend

South Korea’s cosmetic industry has seen increasing success over the past couple of years, reaching mainstream appeal in the West. Its swift rise to mainstream popularity is unparalleled. In the past five years alone, South Korean beauty exports have grown from $1 billion in 2012 to $2.64 billion in 2017, according to the Korea Customs Service.

K-Beauty entered the US market in 2011 when Sephora began carrying South Korean skincare brand Dr. Jart+. Since then, Korean beauty products have become coveted in Western markets, prized for their scientific innovation, unusual ingredients, and Instagrammable packaging. E-commerce platforms such as Peach & Lily and Soko Glam were trailblazers, introducing a wide range of products to the American market. This led to large-scale adoption by brick-and-mortar retailers like Sephora, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Target, who now have a selection of K-Beauty on offer.

While the K-Beauty wave has appeared to be everlasting, there are signs that J-Beauty is poised to make a return as the go-to authority in the cosmetics industry. Jing Daily reported that Korean beauty conglomerate AmorePacific, the 14th-largest cosmetics company in the world with 33 brands under its umbrella, reported a 76% reduction in net profit in the final quarter of 2017, due in part to a drop in the Chinese market.

A 2018 report by L2 on beauty in China found that the digital visibility and sales of J-Beauty brands were increasing at a faster rate than K-Beauty brands in 2017. In addition, China and South Korea’s crumbling relationship has caused a decrease in the number of Chinese visitors to South Korea, dipping to 4 million last year, down from 8 million the year before. In the same year, Japan saw a 15% increase in Chinese visitor numbers, reaching 7.35 million in 2017.

Skincare is deeply rooted in all Asian cultures, but each country has a unique approach. The distinct rituals and ingredients of each culture stretch back centuries. As neighbors with a shared history, Korea and Japan have a number of similarities in their approach to skincare that starts with a focus on local ingredients and practices that are ingrained in daily life, following ancient wisdom and rituals. In both cultures, a pale complexion is the ultimate symbol of beauty. Women actively avoid sun exposure and always apply SPF, contributing to their smooth and fair complexions. Hydration is also essential. Both beauty philosophies focus on moisture as the foundation of beautiful skin, developing advanced technologies and innovations for hydration.

Despite these similarities, it is interesting to look at where J-Beauty and K-Beauty diverge to better understand the recent shifts in the marketplace.


  • Focused on rapid innovation
  • Zany ingredients
  • Boundary-pushing products
  • Complex, multi-step routines
  • Trend-driven fast beauty


  • A “slow” beauty approach
  • Future-facing science
  • Time-tested products
  • Simple rituals
  • Refinement and longevity


“In comparison to Korean beauty, which is known for its fun packaging and of-the-moment formulas and colors, J-Beauty is centered around quality manufacturing, understated opulence, and groundbreaking science and technology,” explains Frances Grant, Senior Vice President of marketing for Shiseido Cosmetics America.

“We believe that K-Beauty is about the marketing. We believe Japanese products [are] about the quality, in the long term the quality will always override the surface marketing.” — Masanori Kobayashi, Managing Director of Decorté

Anna Marie Solowij, former beauty director at British Vogue and co-founder of Beauty Mart, an influential niche retailer that stocks Japanese and K-Beauty brands, says: “The South Korean government invested in their cosmetics category, encouraging growth via R&D and new business. Simultaneously, Japan had been experiencing an economic downturn, meaning consumers traded down and spent less on premium goods, so the cosmetics industry in Japan slowed while Korea’s raced ahead.”

“In recent years, Japanese beauty has been pushed out of the spotlight by the never-ending stream of new textures, formats, and packaging concepts that have come from the hyperactive Korean beauty industry,” said Vivienne Rudd, Mintel’s Director of Global Innovation and Insight, Beauty and Personal Care. “But we’re now starting to see [from Japan] a confident and expressive form of beauty that blends technical expertise and traditional ingredients.”

Millie Kendal, a brand consultant and co-founder of Beauty Mart who also worked for Shu Uemura, doesn’t agree with that blanket statement, but she does anticipate a major shift in the industry. It is one she believes will restore Japanese beauty to its rightful position as leader of the pack. “With K-Beauty, you can get good quality, great (fun) packaging and reasonable prices, which opens up a beauty trend to a younger market and is incredibly Instagrammable. My theory, however is that we will see a return to the expert; the make-up artist, the journalist, the stylist … They are all being asked once again for their expert opinion and their tastes and use of product is based on performance and not gimmick.”

For more insight into The Rise of J-Beauty, look at the BeautyMatter trend report.

Photo: Trung Thanh via Unsplash

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