Korean Skin Care and The Insidious Quest For Pale Skin

Chances are, you’ve heard about the Korean beauty industry.

Maybe your favorite beauty vloggers tried out the infamous Korean 10 step skin care method, or perhaps you’ve noticed Sephora’s expanding Korean beauty section. Ingredients that I like to call, “So Weird They Must Work, Otherwise Why Would You Touch Them, Let Alone Slather Them On Your Face” like donkey milk, placenta, and fermented yeast are common in these products designed to reduce signs of aging, brighten complexion, and hydrate the skin.

Korean placenta sheet masks.

However, as capitalism usually goes, with great growth comes great opportunity to exclude people with darker skin. And that’s exactly what the Korean beauty industry has become given its global popularity. If Korean brands wish to expand in the American and international markets, they need to be aware that their beauty products are only available in basically two shades: pale, and slightly less pale.

Even when I, a Japanese and Korean American, tried out a Korean BB cream (think tinted moisturizer with SPF and other nourishing ingredients), I ended up looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost on his deathbed about to go for another round.

Popular BB cream brand and varieties.

Systemic colorism in Korea elevates those with pale skin. The lighter you are, the more beautiful you are perceived. In Korea, being beautiful opens doors; physically attractive employees have a higher chance of receiving promotions, and many companies require photos along with job applications. Think “Hunger Games”, but instead of murdering your competitors, you must have smaller pores and double eyelids.

Korean beauty is all about “whitening” or “brightening” the skin. When all you want to do is fade acne scars (GIRL, believe me, I know the struggle) you have to stop and consider what messages you’re internalizing when you buy  “whitening” serum, or apply sunscreen because you’re afraid of even the slightest hint of melanin.

Think about all the people that the Korean beauty industry is ignoring. If Korean skin care companies wish to expand their market, they need to make more inclusive shades of beauty products. Why keep all the donkey milk for East Asians and White folks? Why not spread the donkey milk love to everyone?!

Advertisement for a skin whitening cream.

Korea is one of the most powerful cultural influencers in Asia. Why is this important to Asian Americans? Because the most popular and global representations of Asians in mainstream media are K-pop stars and K-drama actors. When you prioritize Korean culture’s linear beauty standards of “the lighter, the better,” you perpetuate the notion that Asian beauty comes in one form, and you exclude millions of Asians who do not, and can not fit this impossible box.

Popular K-Pop boyband, EXO.

Wear sunscreen every day because it’ll slow signs of aging and protect your skin from health issues like skin cancer? Yes. Wear sunscreen every day because of an obsession to be as pale as possible? No. There’s a fine line between sun protection and a fear of becoming darker. Be scared of the sun because it’s literally an explosive ball of gas shooting death rays of radiation at our bodies, not because of the socially constructed stigma behind having dark skin.

Focus on the great things that Korean skin care can offer: moisturization and hydration, protection, and a gentle approach to taking care of your skin. Taking the time to know your skin care needs can be a form of self-care; it’s a way to become highly attuned to how your skin reacts to certain products, if you’re stressed, if you need more sleep, or if you really should stop that caffeine or alcohol drinking habit. But recognize the insidious messaging behind some products, and actively push your favorite skin care companies so that everyone — regardless of skin color — can be blessed with clear skin.

Naomi Lee is a recent graduate from Whitman College, trying to figure out what to do with her life. She lives in Seattle and spends her free time playing the ukulele and watching kids cartoons.

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