Decoding India’s Rising Obsession With Korean Beauty Brands

Before the age of Instagram, K-beauty was fairly out of reach for the Indian consumer. Since then, vloggers and bloggers have documented their experiences with the 10-step Korean skin care regime that goes seven steps beyond the simple ‘Cleanse, Tone and Moisturise’ that I still skimp on. Sheet masks replaced social media filters, as hundreds and thousands of Indian women opened up to the world of The Face Shop (a side note–I couldn’t resist them and have about 20, all bought on Nykaa). For Rs. 100 per single-use face mask, you can treat your skin to the goodness of ingredients like aloe, red ginseng, white tea, mung beans or potatoes, and save on a pricey facial. These get the job done and, as I pat down the remnants of the clear, gooey mush on my face, I wonder what other secrets the world of South Korean beauty has to offer. An equally intensive seven-step hair care treatment, the dermatological wonders of snake slime, ice water facials, and the deceptively happy-sounding surgical treatment called ‘Eye smiles’–K-beauty, intrinsically viral material, is exploding on the internet and India is watching closely.

Only manifesting on social media now, at the heart of this new beauty obsession are trade deals, acquisitions and business partnerships. In 2015, five Korean beauty companies signed a deal with Rajshree Empires (a New Delhi-based distribution company) through their arm PLK International to sell their products online and offline. This was off the back of the signing of the CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) between India and Korea, rendering the import of Korean cosmetics free. Looking to cash in on the growth of the Indian cosmetic and wellness market, projected to grow to US $4.6 billion by 2020, Korean beauty brands have found an attractive opportunity in India. The addition of The Face Shop to Nykaa’s beauty portfolio was not just significant for the Korean brand but also for the Indian beauty giant. “The launch of these brands (The Face Shop and Innisfree, another well-known Korean skincare and makeup company) has resulted in a 15% increase in skin care sales on Nykaa,” Nihir Parikh, Chief Business Officer at Nykaa told ET Brand Equity in 2017. And Nykaa’s betting on digital content to push sales. Last year, in December, Amazon India joined hands with KOTRA (Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency) Bengaluru to bring Korean beauty to Indian customers. ‘Brands like FaceShop, Dermal, The Beauty Co Seoul, It’S SKIN, Coony, Mirabelle and Swanicoco, targeted at the 16-35 age group, will be exclusively available at an average price of ₹400-700’, as reported by The Hindu Business Line.

The appeal of K-beauty is universal, if sometimes problematic. Fresh, bare-faced beauty, referred to as ‘Sseng-Eol’ in South Korea, heroes skincare. The origins of the ‘no-makeup’ makeup look can perhaps be traced back to South Korea, where women went from wanting a full face of heavy makeup to a more natural, less-is-more look. Ironically, achieving this is cumbersome and can be quite expensive. Women in South Korea spend twice as much of their income on beauty and makeup as their closest counterparts in America. South Korea is also the eighth largest cosmetics market in the world, making up nearly 3.0% of the global market. However, as a result, brands find themselves constantly experimenting and innovating to create products made from natural ingredients, develop attractive and informative packaging, and market them as the holy-grail of skincare even capable of reversing aging. The appearance of crow’s feet causes panic as women get older so the promise of youthful, radiant skin will definitely have takers. That’s primarily why K-beauty is on the rise, in addition to being relatively more affordable, supposedly better for the skin and always ahead of the curve. While the rest of the world was grappling with foundation and concealer, the first Korean beauty import, the BB cream, had already replaced its heavier predecessor. Slowly, it made its way across the globe, and before we were done ‘oo’ing and ‘aah’ing all over this lightweight formula perfect for daywear, Korea had moved onto the CC cream. Since then, we’ve just been playing catch up. At lightning speed, however, courtesy the Indians bring K-beauty home.

To circumvent the problem of hefty shipping charges, Indian websites started selling Korean beauty products exclusively probably in recognition of the growing demand. One of the most popular stockists of these revolutionary products is Daisy, that also educates the newbie K-beauty enthusiast. ‘5 Things KBeauty Has Taught Me’ keeps flashing on the site’s homepage and it all adds up. Lesser-known brands find their place on this website, including Klairs, Leejiham, J.One and Mizon and you can score everything from snail sheet masks, lip tints, blackhead power liquid and serums. Other Indian websites that are making this brand of beauty accessible to India include Strawberrynet, Skinnmore, Coral-Beauty and BeautyBarn. As far as identifying its largest proponents, the North-east comes out on top and that’s no real surprise. ‘Northeast Is The Heart Of The Korean Wave In India’ and K-Pop and Korean drama, they’re more than open to experimenting with the latest K-beauty fad as well.

I call it India’s rising beauty obsession but sincerely hope it doesn’t actually turn into one. Even while actively pushing the importance of a natural skincare routine, there’s an ugly side to all this beauty and it presents itself as a desperate need for perfection driving the plastic surgery madness in South Korea. ‘The Plastic Surgery Capital of the World’, it’s almost a rite of passage where “parents often ‘gift’ their children some form of surgery after they finish their national college entrance exams or when they become legal adults.” Plastic surgery advertisements entice metro commuters in Seoul, an illegal market thrives in Gangnam-sa, and the idea of beauty is sold freely as a commodity with no means deemed too drastic or extreme. Lip fixes, nose jobs and, the most popular, eyelid procedures, promise to deliver on this pre-conceived notion of ‘beautiful’ and the market was available and waiting. So, even while the import of K-beauty heralds a new chapter for India’s cosmetic market, I hope the guarantees are taken with a pinch of reality and lots of irreverence. Cleanse, tone, scrub, moisture and exfoliate to your heart’s content but do it for the love of makeup, to feel good and as a happy experiment.

Most importantly, recognise that beauty, no matter what South Korea tells you, is not skin deep.