Skin Detective #1: What I’ve Learned So Far About Korean Beauty Principles
New to skincare? Overwhelmed by all the choices? A recent convert shares what she’s learned so far about K-beauty principles and invites you to learn along with her.
New to K-beauty? Overwhelmed by all the things the gurus seem to know? Not sure whether that’s a pore on your nose or a hole in the ground? Walk with me, n00b. I’m new too, and we are going to figure this out together.
I got serious about skincare right around the 2018 holidays. (There’s nothing like being in my childhood home surrounded by warmth and lights and glitter to make me feel entitled to some luxury.) In typical Jane fashion I started in the deep end: I read all the skincare blogs. I bought all the skincare things. I found someone I think is my skin twin and read review after review of products that worked and didn’t work for her. I rubbed a whole bunch of products on my face, then found out I was supposed to be patting. Patting? Who pats? I do now, but how was I supposed to know?
Four months later I’ve learned … some. I’m beginning to understand I could dedicate myself to this for decades and still not know it all.
If you’re new, I want to invite you on this journey with me. I want to talk about what I’m learning as I learn it, and I want to hear what you’re learning, too. This stuff is complicated — let’s team up! I’m picturing a K-Beauty Clubhouse (No Haters Allowed!) where we meet up regularly to tell our stories, show our bumps, freak out, and then calm each other down. For a newbie, both K-beauty and our own skin can be a mystery; why not be Skin Detectives together?
Before diving into the specifics of my skin, though, I want to talk about why we’re here (as opposed to some other skincare website) in the first place.
I wrote a personal essay already about how K-beauty helped me learn to love my skin. What I didn’t explain there is why. Today I want to take a look at the basic principles of K-beauty as I understand them. Let me be clear from the outset: I am not an expert. I did not grow up with K-beauty or anything similar. I still have tons to learn. This is just one newbie’s best understanding of what makes K-beauty different, as of today.
What’s so great about Korean skincare? I’ve organized it into four K-beauty principles. I propose we post these on the door of our K-Beauty Clubhouse.
Principle 1: Individualize
* Be yourself
* Listen to your skin
* Choose what to prioritize based on what you value
What a fabulous beginning. One of the worst things about the beauty industry is how often the message seems to be: You’re doing it wrong. Be like her. Be skinnier, be smoother, be lighter. As I explained in my Wonder Woman piece, my skin hasn’t been like the skin of women in advertisements since puberty, and it’s not going to be any time soon. I have many excellent qualities; smooth clear skin is not among them. Thank heavens the message on the good K-beauty blogs is not about being like someone else. Over and over I saw my favorite writers say it: Be yourself. Figure out your skin. Don’t just copy someone else’s routine. Everyone’s skin is different. Your mileage may vary. If your skin is speaking, listen.
And if my skin can be different, my priorities can be different, too. It happens that I love laugh lines. I think they are beautiful. Maybe someday I’ll want to do something about mine — beyond wearing sunscreen every day, because of course I wear sunscreen — but right now I don’t care about my laugh lines. Instead I’m focused on acne, inflammation, and hydration. In the K-Beauty Clubhouse no one scolds me about my priorities. I might get a hug from someone else who feels the pain of mid-30s zits or a suggestion from someone with sensitive skin about a sheet mask that calmed their redness right down. That’s the kind of community I want to be in.
Principle 2: Be gentle
* This is about lifetime, long-term goals
* We hydrate here
* We do not scrape our skin with broken shells
I could sing for gratitude that the principle Be Gentle exists. We are not going to scrub our skin like we’re flogging them for being bad. (Broken shell exfoliation, anyone?) We are here to take tender care of our skin. And we are in it for the long haul. Work we put in today will pay off decades from now, and that is as it should be. Just like diet and exercise, skincare is about making healthy choices day after day. We are not here for a quick fix. We are here to show ourselves love the way love really works: small acts of kindness, thinking carefully of what would feel good and gifting that to ourselves, staying the course year after year with patience, forgiveness, and humor.
This mindset even affects how I think about what my skin needs. The very idea that I didn’t know about hydration literally six months ago boggles my mind. How is that possible? I am now so far down the K-beauty rabbit hole that it’s bonehead-obvious you need a balance of water and oil. But I grew up with the American lie that dry skin needs oil, period — and skin that isn’t acting right probably just needs something harsher.
My poor, poor skin.
Principle 3: Be curious
* Pursue science, woo, hanbang, peer-reviewed research, brilliant blogs, whatever you love — keep learning things, keep trying things
* Know K-beauty is always moving forward
The Asian beauty industry puts us Americans to shame. The speed at which Korean and other Asian companies discover and create new things is astonishing. Surely some of that is cultural; I grew up with the notion that one’s own skin is probably flawed and should be covered up. Korean makeup videos, on the other hand, begin with skincare. In a world where skincare is foundational, of course the skincare industry moves fast; it makes sense that the international K-beauty community would come to value constant learning and innovation. Writers are always bringing new things to our attention. Readers are always trying new things and reporting back to the group.
Combine this with Principle 1 and you get a glorious freedom. Be curious — lots is happening in skincare world! — but look into what makes you feel the love. If you get a thrill from hearing about a wacky new ingredient, go hunt those stories down. If your heart goes pitter-pat for the molecular structures of antioxidants, hey, go figure those out (and come back and tell us about them in language we can understand, K?). It doesn’t matter so much what you want to learn. It matters that you learn.
Principle 4: Celebrate
* Skincare is not inherently frivolous
* We get to love skincare
And then, of course: celebrate.
Like many pastimes enjoyed by more women than men, skincare has a reputation for being a frivolous thing to care about. The hell it is. Skincare — and makeup and romance novels and the cleanliness of a home — are all things it is completely OK to love. And it is OK to spend time and money on them, as long as we are treating them like loves rather than obsessions.
Skincare is fun. Things that smell nice and feel good are fun. Creating a routine where the entire purpose is to care for oneself is fun. Learning new things is fun, hunting down bargains is fun, experimenting is fun, sharing news with friends is fun. (OK, I don’t like all of those things. Probably most of us have favorites. But someone, somewhere, loves each one of them.) And seeing one’s own body change, in ways one hoped it would change — if that change is approached with gentleness and curiosity and a healthy understanding that one will always be oneself — is more than fun.
Some days it’s a joy.
Be yourself. Be gentle. Be curious. Celebrate. That’s what I think makes K-beauty different from the rest of the skincare world. (I would speak for the makeup world, but I know even less about makeup than I do about skin.) Since I’ve gotten into K-beauty I’ve become more gentle, more curious, more joyous, and more at peace with the skin I have.
So what do you say? Do you want to be in the club? Shall we have T-shirts? Who’s making the sign that says No Haters Allowed?
And what K-beauty principles have you learned so far?