"Ninety percent of the skincare products I use are imported from South Korea. They're about 12 years ahead of the States in terms of technology," says Mary Schook, the beauty guru and New York-based owner of M.S. Apothecary. In the skincare world, South Korea has become the new France. It's outpacing other countries in beauty innovation faster than you can say "glycolic peel" (which in Asia is totally démodé, by the way).
"Koreans aren't about stripping the skin until it looks like something you want to ice skate on. They're into nurturing it," says Schook, who also introduced eyelash extensions (yup, a South Korean invention) to New York almost a decade ago. She's like our Christopher Columbus to Korea's New World.
For the past decade, South Korea has been a buzzed-about secret among beauty diehards. "It's so funny that Americans are only now getting wind of it," says Sang A Im-Propp, a Seoul-born, Manhattan-based handbag designer who has modeled in ad campaigns for AmorePacific, a popular Korean cosmetics brand. (She swears by the Time Response Skin Renewal Crème.) But the secret's out.
Korea's skincare boom goes back to its famous beauty regimens, which, for the average Korean woman, includes roughly 18 products per day. Dr. Seung Yoon Celine Lee, a dermatologist based in Seoul, attributes the obsession with flawless skin to royal aspirations. "Bright skin meant that you came from a noble family. The concept carries on," she explains.
"The demand for whitening helped create new technology treatments, such as lasers and photo facials," adds Dr. Susanne Bennett, a Korean-American holistic doctor who lives in California and specializes in antiaging skincare. (Lee points out that laser treatments in Korea are so omnipresent, they now cost 80 percent less than they do in the U.S.)
You can also walk into a Korean drugstore and find at least 15 versions of an over-the-counter cream just as potent as a pro-grade treatment in the U.S. One such product is Blemish Balm cream, better known as "B.B. magic cream." Originally formulated in Germany as a healing ointment for patients' post-laser treatments, the Koreans took the idea and turned it into a unique, more sophisticated version that acts as a tinted moisturizer, zit zapper, sun protectant, and antiaging treatment all in one. Korean women have been using it for the past four years, and it's just starting to crop up on sites catering to Americans.
Then there's the miraculously skin-plumping mask and serum that Schook calls one of the industry's greatest breakthroughs. Bennett discovered the highly soluble formula — first engineered for bone and tissue regeneration — being sold cosmetically in Korea, and quickly snapped up the rights to distribute it stateside under the name Purigenex. It's the only topical medical-grade collagen sold in the U.S., and it's flown here straight from a Korean lab.
But the innovation that Schook considers the holy grail is stem cell media skincare — Koreans have taken it to radical levels by using actual media, or extract, of stem cells from adult bone marrow and excess body fat tissue, rather than the synthetic stuff you see in most Western products. Schook just began selling a regimen called Beaucell that she swears takes years off and "basically makes your face look like it's had fat injections."
But it doesn't come cheap. A six-week supply of Beaucell costs $2,000. Korean women, who typically spend about $130 a month on skincare, aren't fazed. "It's hot right now," enthuses Lee.
How do you say "Let's go shopping!" in Korean?