K-Beauty: How did Korea establish itself in the world of cosmetics?


With double-digit growth in cosmetics exports in 2020 compared to the previous year (+ 15% according to data from the Korean Customs Service and the Korean Cosmetics Association [1]), South Korea is today one of the world’s leading cosmetics exporters. In absolute terms, Korean exports amounted, according to the same sources, to 6.12 billion US dollars in 2020, while imports fell 0.7% to 1.07 billion US dollars.

With a different basis of calculation, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety estimates the increase in beauty products exported to + 16.1% in 2020 vs 2019, or 7.57 billion US dollars in value.

The world’s third largest exporter

These figures have enabled the Korean authorities to assert 3rd place among the world cosmetics exporting countries in 2020, after France and the United States, two countries which over the same period saw their exports altered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

If Korean exports were able to maintain their momentum in 2020, it is because they are still mainly intended for the Chinese market (50.3% of total exports), despite the country’s efforts to diversify its markets. However, the country was not completely spared by the crisis, since according to the Ministry of Food and Pharmaceutical Safety, the production of cosmetics decreased by 6.8% in 2020 to reach about 13.4 billion dollars.

After China, the United States is the largest importer of South Korean cosmetics. In Europe, “France is the leading importer of Korean cosmetics with 35%, followed by the United Kingdom (16%) and Germany (9%),“explains Zoé Maillet, marketing specialist at KOTRA (Korea’s Trade and Investment Promotion Agency).

An ultra-competitive and innovative market

The craze for K-Beauty actually took shape in the wake of what the Chinese media in the 1990s called the Hallyu, literally the “Korean wave”: that is, the growing popularity of the South Korean entertainment industry (mainly TV and Pop series, but also cinema and literature).

Korean beauty was first illustrated by the worldwide success of some of its iconic products, in particular BB creams and compact cushions, also adopted by European and American brands, anxious to seduce Asian consumers. At the same time, the big Korean brands have capitalized on the success of these products to make a name for themselves, while skillfully relying on the development of travel retail to gain notoriety among the foreign public.

But above all, Korean brands draw their strength from a particularly dynamic local market, where fierce competition calls for a capacity for innovation and a speed to market that Western brands are not used to. In this country where skincare is a real concern for both women and men, large conglomerates like AmorePacific or LG rub shoulders with ultra-dynamic independent brands like Look at Me, When, Let Me Skin. Brands that have also built a reputation for naturalness, in line with consumer demand, in particular thanks to plant ingredients such as green tea, ginseng or Centella Asiatica.

On the industrial side, a rich network of suppliers and subcontractors first established itself at the service of Japanese brands, before becoming a world reference for its exceptional manufacturing methods and speed of production: important advantages in cosmetics where products and trends change rapidly.

What are the trends for the next few years?

The Korean beauty routine particularly appeals to Asian consumers because of its consistency. On the other hand, it is often considered too complicated in Europe and North America. “It’s all in the layering method, which starts with a double skin cleansing with oil, then a mousse, an exfoliant, an essence, a serum, a mask, an eye cream, a face cream and then a sunscreen. ,“explains Zoé Maillet.

Will this very comprehensive beauty routine suffer from the desire of consumers to reduce their consumption and rationalize their routines? Nothing is less sure ! In Asia, consumers are much less concerned with the pursuit of a minimalist routine and with the naked beauty trend. In addition, the search for more natural products and healthy skin should be in favor of facial cleansers, a strong asset of Korean brands.

According to Zoé Maillet, “the demand for cleansers, such as facial oils, cleansing balms or cleansing foams, will explode in the years to come.

The recent success of Cyca, a plant-based ingredient found in many Korean skincare products, including those of Dr Jart +, demonstrates the ability of brands from the Land of the Morning Calm to continuously innovate and gain worldwide recognition, probably for many. years to come. !

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