While many turn to Europe for skin care trends and innovations, some of the biggest beauty and skin care developments in recent years have originated in Asia. During my trip to Tokyo, Seoul, and Shanghai earlier this year, I found myself scrutinizing numerous faces on the subway, wondering why everyone’s skin is so damn good. We’re talking supple, glowing skin that reveals little -if any- signs of aging, the kind of skin that can only be realized through skillful Photoshopping. Here are five observations I made about the role of skin care in Asia’s beauty culture.
1. Priorities: Skin care vs. Cosmetics– While cosmetics make up the majority of beauty purchases in the U.S., Asian women live by the philosophy that “bare is beautiful”. Victoria Tsai, founder of the Tatcha skin care line says, “The no-makeup trend has been a big one in Asia for a long time, and it’s very much about the skin — in Asia, they spend far more money on skin care and far less on makeup.”
2. Competition: Quality Products at Lower Price Points- If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen my video snippet of the contents of a Japanese drugstore. The market for skincare in Asia is extremely competitive, so manufacturers need to create higher quality products at lower price points in order to capture even a small fraction of the consumer base. Example? Shiseido’s cult favorite Perfect Whip cleansing foam retailed for just under $3 USD in Tokyo (it’s more expensive in Korea and in the US due to import taxes).
3. Cutting Edge Ingredients: Moisturize, Whiten, and Brighten– How do you feel about putting snail on your face? No, seriously. A number of strange- but effective- ingredients have made it to the top of Japanese and Korean skin care lines, due in part to looser restrictions on bringing new skin care ingredients to the market. Most of these ingredients are used with the intention of whitening and brightening (which are synonymous terms in Asian skincare) or locking in moisture. Just a few interesting ingredients that come to mind include snail extract, bee venom, and bird’s nest.
4. Japanese and Korean Brands Dominate, Growing Chinese Market- Korean and Japan have been the longtime leaders in skin care innovation in Asia, but don’t count out China: from 2001-2011, the Chinese skin and cosmetics market grew by 17%, and the premium skin/cosmetics market grew by an even faster rate of 22.3%. In 2012, China became the world’s third largest cosmetics market following the United States and Japan.
5. Layer, Layer, Layer– Whereas Western skin care regimens typically include 2-3 steps (cleanser, toner, lotion- and that’s on a good day for me), Asian skincare regimens can include upwards of 10-15 steps. The ‘layering’ technique involves patting or massaging the products in a specific order, usually from the lightest to heaviest consistency. While the layering technique originated in Asia, the French are also proponents of this method, otherwise known as ‘millefeuille’ –translated as ‘a thousand layers’, not to be confused with the pastry.
All of this background is intended to justify why, after picking my way across drugstores and skin care counters, I returned from Asia with an arsenal of products and a new found determination to take better care of my skin. While I haven’t made it to 10 -much less 15- products on the regular, incorporating and layering some of these new products has improved my skin. Interested? Look for more information and product recommendations in my next post.