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Paris ain’t what it used to be. Sure, the French capital is still a sartorial mecca, but culinary thrill-seekers head to Scandinavia these days, and the avant-garde art scene absconded to Berlin long ago. As for the worlds of beauty and skincare, they’re no longer Gallic strongholds either. Attention has shifted east, to South Korea, the undisputed leader when it comes to seminal beauty products, many of which are increasingly available to Houstonians.

At first glance, Korean beauty outpost The Face Shop, in the heart of Chinatown on Bellaire Blvd., looks indistinguishable from, say, an Origins store, with its sleek white walls and signage touting natural ingredients. But Origins doesn’t have a wall full of $2 sheet masks (think goopy Bioré strips for your entire face) featuring specialized ingredients like lemon to brighten skin, green tea to hydrate and honey to infuse radiance. For $3 more, you can upgrade to a panda, tiger or dragon mask. 

Such is the Koreans’ approach to beauty: skincare is serious business, but products can still be fun and cute.

The gateway drug for Korean beauty products, at least with Americans, is BB cream. The letters stand for beauty balm, a thick ointment originally invented in 1950s Germany by a dermatologist looking for something to soothe and relieve skin irritation following chemical peels. By the 1980s, Korean companies had perfected the formula, promoting it as a kind of ultimate beauty multi-tasker: it moisturizes, evens skin tone, provides sun protection and reduces the signs of aging.  

The creams were a sensation from the moment they were introduced to the US in 2011, with sales figures growing from $2 million in the first year to $36 million in 2012, according to market research company NPD Group. Worldwide, the market is now over $1 billion, with cosmetic giant Sephora alone offering almost 80 BB and CC cream options, from longtime Korean brands like Dr. Jart to US-based lines Smashbox and Clinique.

The Face Shop is yet another measure of Korea’s growing international beauty clout, boasting outposts in 27 countries and two dedicated points of sale in Houston (the aforementioned Chinatown shop, plus a kiosk in Memorial City Mall). And that’s just one major Korean beauty line to open a dedicated location in Houston, the other being Lioele, whose princess-pink storefront inside the Hong Kong #5 shopping center near Hobby Airport is the company’s only US location. Meanwhile, luxury Korean brands like AmorePacific, Iope and Sulwhasoo have retail presences inside Asian grocery stores H-Mart and 99 Ranch, while FIT, a Japanese dollar store, carries drugstore lines like Etude and TonyMoly, the latter of which packages its popular lip balms and hand creams in lip-, peach- and panda-shaped containers. Yep, pandas again. 

Fully committing to a Korean beauty regimen, however, involves more than buying a few cute containers and a tube of BB cream, as a recent trip to 99 Ranch confirmed. The elderly woman manning the beauty counter audibly gasped upon hearing that our skincare routine consisted of a basic cleanser and moisturizer. “You need a serum!” she admonished. 

Bright, youthful looking skin is highly desired in South Korea—the country with the highest plastic surgery rate per capita in the world—with the typical Korean skincare routine involving 10 or more steps each day, not to mention all those weekly masks. Want to shrink your pores? Brighten skin tone? Erase fine lines? There’s a serum for that, just as there is for nearly every other conceivable epidermal issue. 

At 99 Ranch, the saleswoman recommended a serum from The History of Whoo packed with red ginseng, long revered in Asia for its ability to restore skin to youthful firmness, though its smell is more of an acquired taste. She also recommended a cream infused with placenta, a substance only slightly more appealing than H-Mart’s snail extract essence.

Koreans’ love of offbeat ingredients and packaging creates no small part of the excitement. Look for eye shadows in skinny lipstick tubes, blush dispensed as a liquid, and lipsticks reimagined as markers and jellies. Even the famous BB creams are subject to tinkering. Witness the latest generation of products packaged in so-called cushion compacts, with the makeup released through a sponge for light, even application. Yes, makeup can be fun—with or without a panda.

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