I used to hate having stuff on my face. As a young dancer, I often felt like the ill-tempered baby ghost of Liberace when my mom painted lipstick and blush on my tiny features pre-recital. But even tomboys have their points of vanity: I wash my face twice most nights, and I am in possession of an ephemeral-sounding tonic called “essence.” How did I get here?
A lifelong adherent of North America’s cult of cleanse-tone-moisturize, I recently defected to the Korean school of beauty, which involves a rigorously choreographed 10-step routine — cleanse, cleanse again, exfoliate, tone; add essence, serum, a sheet mask, eye cream and lotion; and finish with an SPF-laced foundation. K-beauty is a maximalist process with a minimalist goal: The more painstakingly you tend to your skin’s needs, the less makeup you’ll need to disguise its pores and blemishes. It’s a bankable idea too: There are more than 1,800 beauty brands in South Korea — sometimes five stores to a city block.
“When you’re walking down the street in Seoul, you’ll notice women often look very youthful,” says Maria Ioannou, national training manager for The Face Shop Canada (a K-beauty outpost). “It’s not like they ask, ‘What kind of makeup can I use to fix my dry patches?’ It’s ‘What do I have in skincare to address this?’”
If this sounds like heresy to devotees of contouring and concealing, that’s just cultural differences at work. But, I ask you, which is smarter: developing a borderline-religious skin ritual at training-bra age, as many South Korean women do, or sprinting to the Botox clinic to undo your post-pubescent sun worship around menopause?
I’ll admit that snail-mucus creams (!) and cutesy sheet masks with cartoon puppy faces initially felt like overkill, but K-beauty wouldn’t be a multi-million-dollar business in the U.S. alone — with its own section at Sephora — if there weren’t some method to its multi-step madness.
Canadians are catching on too: The Face Shop now has more than 30 locations here, and K-beauty prizes like BB creams and cushion compacts continue to sell like crazy. Still, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a wholehearted embrace of Korean beauty ideals. (Under-eye bags are widely desired and given the affectionate nickname aegyosal, which translates to “cute fat.”) Personally, though, I like the ritualistic nature of K-beauty — even if some days I have only seven steps in me. I like the freedom of admitting,“No, I did not wake up like this.” And, above all, when people ask me which miracle ingredient is responsible for my dewy-ish glow, I like replying, “Snail mucus.”
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