Monday, March 30, 2015

Korean Beauty Brands: An Overview and List

Understanding Korean beauty brands isn’t exactly simple if only due to the sheer number of brands at widely varying price points.  To further confuse things, much of the actual manufacturing of most of the products, and regardless of price, is done by two very large manufacturers.  Thus the most expensive Amore Pacific cream might be manufactured next to one by another line that retails for under five dollars.

I actually went to Korea and met with a number of brands and distributors before setting up a website ( selling high quality branded Korean beauty products.

While I personally believe that the Korean brands do an excellent job quality wise I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there is no difference between higher and lower end lines.  The obvious difference is price but the relative ratios of expensive to cheaper ingredients is noticeable.  Reading ingredients lists I personally can see wide variances in the quality and amount of ingredients.  Overall, you often, but not always, do get what you pay for.

Koreans tend to focus more on skin care than on color cosmetics and their skin care utilizes always-new cutting edge technologies with a strong focus on traditional and natural ingredients.  They include the exotic such as snail slime and donkey milk but also utilize extensive essences, oils, flowers, legumes, ash, herbs, vegetables and other such beneficial additions.  Ingredients lists can top fifty items with all or almost all being such ingredients drawn from nature.  They also mix in fermented additions, which lose potency with too many artificial additives yet power heal skin.

BB cream, bright lips, semi sheer eye shadow and lovely matte pastel blushes are currently (when I last went in early 2015) popular in Korea.  But so are sunscreen and an extensive skin care routine.  Horse Oil is the new trend.  Men’s lines make up an estimated 40 percent of the market in Korea and over 90% of men there use BB cream.

And Korean brands are very popular throughout Asia, which might be part of the reason they haven’t expanded quicker in the United States.  Tastes vary, and the brands have had such strong demand regionally they have sometimes stayed focused on what will work there.  Tourists from China in particular are known to take suitcases full of Korean beauty products home with them.

But knowing which brands to buy can be confusing, especially as many of them have only recently begun to become available in the United States and many others are hard or impossible to get.
Overall, I would say that Korean brands tend to have excellent products, are on the forefront of industry innovation and are packed with amazing ingredients.

The first place to start is with the big two, Amore Pacific and LG (a division within the same firm that does the electronics).  These two brands dominate the market and each houses a number of brands from the most to least expensive.  Some have been internally developed while others were bought after they’d reached a certain size. 

Amore is the leader, and they’ve also to date put more emphasis on international expansion.  Their flagship brand, Amore Pacific, is one of the better known Korean brands in the United States and has excellent but very expensive products.  Sulwhasoo is Amore’s premium skincare line focusing on oriental medicine.  It’s the best selling Korean brand ever.  Other high end lines include HERA (western style high end brand), Lirikos (similar to La Mer) and VB Program (dietary supplements).   In the mid-range they have IOPE (plant stem cells and botanical extracts with modern science), Hannule (mid-range oriental herbal skin care), Hyosiah (new fermented beans based line), Mirepa and Odyssey (men’s), Laneige (in Target), western perfume brands (Annick Goutal, Lolita Lempika and eSpoir), Verite and Primera (nature based), Mise En Scene (western style shampoo brand) and Ryeol (Oriental shampoo brand).

Amore’s cheaper brands include Innisfree (Jeju Island and nature based), Etude House (makeup and skin care for the younger market with shockingly good quality products), Happy Bath (body), Mamonde (younger skin care) and Aritaum (drugstore).

LG has also put major effort into building a strong stable of varied brands across all price points.  On the higher end are The History of Whoo (Oriental medicine to compete with Sulwhasoo), Su:m37 (fermented skincare), OHUI (western and advanced science based).  On the mid-range end LG has Belif (collaboration with UK Herbalist Duncan Napiers and now carried by Sephora), Beyond (naturalism), Isa Knox (cheaper OHUI), Sooryehan (cheaper History of Whoo), Mirepa and Vonin (the latter two are men’s lines).

LG’s lower end lines include The Face Shop (all over Asia with skin care and color cosmetics), Lacvert (younger), Carezone (younger skin care), Cathycat (makeup), VoV (makeup) and Re-en (Oriental medicine based skin care).

Many of these brands remain focused on the Asian market and are huge sellers in China.

But the beauty market in Asia is more complex than just a few large companies in control.  Tony Moly is the fourth largest seller and has built its business quickly with great marketing and quirky packaging, such as fruit plastic casing.  Their product quality doesn’t rival the high-end brands but is consistently strong.  And they’re one of the better-known brands in the US, being already in Sephora and Urban Outfitters.

Dr. Jart+ is a very big seller in the United States and has excellent skin care and BB creams.

Then there are the younger, aggressive brands, of which there are many.  Korea really is at the forefront of beauty innovation.   New brands are growing quickly, fueled by the demand throughout Asia.  Some  companies are completely independent while others are part of billion dollar conglomerates (chaebols).
Banila is high quality, mid to low priced brand that mixes great design with high quality skin care and makeup. Too Cool for School is similar, but with a more minimalist feel.  VDL and Moonshot also offer mid to higher range cosmetics and skin care.  Recipe makes wonderful, nature based skin care.

Mid-range brands can be excellent, given the competitive marketplace and demanding clientele.
NoTS was started by a beauty industry marketer whose son had skin issues.  Struggling to find products that worked among her contact base she, frustrated, created her own and the high-end brand took off very quickly.  Finco, with their A and J line, is another similar brand that quickly developed a celebrity and successful following, using essences and melon.  Original Raw is part of Sammi Corporation and mixes science with traditional herbs.

Missha is a very high quality brand with an excellent essence among other skin care products, though I find their color cosmetics less than exciting.

Klairs is part of a portfolio of companies and offers natural but powerful essences for perfect skin, including vegetable essences.  Label Young was able to grow its Shocking line almost exclusively using social networks and specializes in products that reduce steps in a skincare routine, but show results.

It’s on the lower price point end where I feel the number of brands gets overwhelming.  Many of them do cater to a younger audience.  Beauty is very important in Korea and it’s a leader not just in beauty products but plastic surgery as well.

SkinFood has lovely packaging but also very high performing products.  Holikka Holikka does something similar, as does Shara Shara whose packaging has a  more Asian in feel.  Privia was started by someone who had a long career working for major beauty brands who decided to start his own complete, high quality but still affordable line that has become popular in Japan.

Nature Republic is similar to Innisfree and is known for their aloe line.  Mizon, and Benton are two other less expensive lines.  Mizon has a wide range of products.  Club Clio, Goodal and PeriPera have a collective US website and freestanding stores that carry all of the brands’ products in the US and Korea.  They have some lovely makeup/color products.

Boutique brands from the Jeju (Volcanic Island similar to Hawaii) Island area offer nutrient rich and very distinctive higher quality lines, focused on skin care.

The list of brands could go on for pages and included here are only some of the better-known ones.  Later, I’ll list more of the (of which there are so many) smaller but often quickly growing brands.  And I didn’t even touch on the spa quality or boutique higher end brands.

Walking shop to shop in Seoul I was overwhelmed with the selection of both brands and products.  They vary widely in quality in price point and quality, but overall they are excellent and really do lead the beauty industry in innovation. 

            And in the United States, their products are growing quickly in popularity and demand because they work.  Unfortunately, some or most can be hard to get in outside Asia.  That’s why I started

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