Tasha James discovered Korean skincare in 2016 after stumbling across r/AsianBeauty, a Reddit forum about cosmetics and skincare from Asia. Back then, the only products she had in her rotation were drugstore finds that left her skin irritated – she was intrigued by the rise of sheet masks, snail mucin serums, and skin-enriching BB creams, totally foreign concepts at the time. After scrolling through the Subreddit for hours, James found a community of similarly curious skincare enthusiasts. “I felt like a kid in the candy store,” the 36-year-old lifestyle creator tells Highsnobiety. “In my teenage years, I never really had a routine down. If something didn’t come in a prepackaged three-step kit, I most likely didn’t know about it.”
Seven years after James’ introduction to r/AsianBeauty, Korean skincare is a staple of many people’s daily routines — and it’s guaranteed to stay in the beauty zeitgeist for good. Much like the rise of K-pop in America, K-beauty has gone from niche to mainstream: According to Google Trends, interest in Korean beauty began to rise in 2014 and has increased over 1,370 percent in the last decade. In the United States alone, Google searches for “Korean beauty” have doubled over the past five years and are currently at an all-time high. On TikTok, the hashtag #KoreanSkincare boasts over 3 billion views. As appetite for the category continues to grow, there’s one demographic in particular leading the charge: More and more, Black women are turning to K-beauty as a solution for their unique skincare concerns.
Western skincare tends to emphasize retinols, skin-tearing scrubs, and acidic toners. These harsh products can exacerbate skin conditions like hyperpigmentation and eczema, common concerns among Black people. Korean beauty, on the other hand, prioritizes ingredients like rice, snail mucin, and ginseng, known for their moisturizing and calming properties.
Sabrina Farmer, a 26-year-old audio producer, adopted Korean skincare into her everyday routine after struggling to find products suitable for her hyperhidrosis and oily, melanin-rich skin. During her time as a Japanese studies minor at Howard University, she joined Asian culture clubs that led her to eventually purchase her first K-beauty product: Cosrx’s Snail Mucin Essence, a moisturizing toner that left her hungry for more.
Farmer began following the skincare advice of Charlotte Cho, founder of Soko Glam and the author of The Little Book of Skincare. Eventually, Farmer’s skin improved — and along the way, she learned more about the importance of skin health and skincare fundamentals. “I learned how to be more mindful of the things I was putting on my skin and in turn, my skin didn’t hurt every time I put something on it,” she says. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like I was suffering to do skincare, if that makes sense.”
For many, K-beauty is a gateway to greater skin care consciousness. “The notion of washing our faces and applying skincare [is] as natural as brushing our teeth,” esthetician and Superegg founder Erica Choi says of Korean culture. “Korean skincare is renowned for its versatility and suitability for a wide range of skin types and tones, but it stands out for its emphasis on gradual skin nourishment rather than offering overnight fixes,” she adds. K-beauty prioritizes consistency over miracle products, an ethos that has helped people like Farmer improve their skin health and maintain their results.
Black consumers are also opting for Korea’s melanin-friendly sunscreen. On TikTok, Black creators sing the praises of Beauty of Joseon, Innisfree, and Neogen, beloved for their sunscreens that don’t leave a white cast on darker skin tones. These Korean brands are making sun protection more accessible for Black people and in turn, helping tackle the myth that Black people don’t need sunscreen. This misconception can be deadly: According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, Black patients are more than three times as likely to be diagnosed with late-stage melanoma than white patients.
Beyond the health and aesthetic benefits of K-beauty products, James theorizes that Korean skincare can be emotionally rewarding, too. “Black women specifically work really hard, and we tend to neglect ourselves. To me, there’s something very luxurious about having 10 steps and it taking half an hour to do my skincare, even if it’s 4 a.m.,” she says. The “Black beauty” market is filled with damaging products like skin-bleaching soaps and hair relaxers. Indulging in K-beauty’s dewy serums and rich masks is a form of self-care that can function as an emotional respite from the bevy of chemical-filled products thrown at Black women.
But not all Black customers are sold on the virtues of K-beauty. The vast majority of Korean beauty brands exclusively use fair-skinned models to advertise their products, a marketing strategy that strikes some as colorist (understandably so). Some brands also employ the term “whitening,” suggesting that a product contains skin-lightening agents.
Esthetician and Glowdega founder Hadiyah Daché explains that, in a K-beauty context, “whitening” is often intended to mean “brightening,” denoting a product’s ability to fade dark spots rather than alter the color of the skin. Still, the implications of both terms are difficult to shake, especially considering the fact that Korean beauty standards tout fair skin as superior, a belief that dates back to the Koryo dynasty.
“I have customers coming in saying Korea’s science is of superior quality than everywhere else. Then there’s this other bucket of consumers who don’t trust it because of the way they market certain products, especially the ones that quite literally use the word ‘whitening.’ That’s something that Black customers don’t feel comfortable with,” Daché explains.
As Korean beauty continues to expand into global markets, it’s crucial for brands to consider the sensitivity surrounding “brightening” and “whitening.” Farmer believes brands and consumers should confront these potentially touchy subjects head-on. “We all should be having larger discussions about beauty, and we shouldn’t feel divisive,” she says. “Using Asian beauty, Korean products, in particular, makes me feel like I am bridging gaps if nothing else.”
Despite beauty’s increasing awareness of inclusion and diversity, the industry still has a long way to go. Black Americans spent $6.6 billion on beauty in 2021 – approximately 11 percent of the total U.S. beauty market – yet Black-owned brands account for only 2.5 percent of total beauty industry revenue. It’s no wonder that Black women, frustrated with the lack of melanin-suitable skincare in America, are finding their holy grails through Korean beauty. “We’re aware that these products aren’t necessarily made for us, but they’re good and we love them,” Farmer says. “It’s surreal that we live in such a globalized world. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to bond over and feel good about something like Korean beauty.”