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Beauty Innovation in Asia

Sarah Chung
  • With growing frequency, innovative beauty products are originating in Asia and making their way to Western markets. For example, BB creams, brightening products, skin care masks and skin care oils can all trace their popularity back to Asian origins.
  • Innovative ingredients such as starfish extract and product applicators such as vibrating puffs are being developed in Asia—and South Korea, in particular—before exploding in popularity around the world.
  • South Korea is a hotbed of beauty, as well as cultural, innovation, particularly for other Asian countries. Everything from pop stars to food trends are translating across Asian countries’ borders.

Much has been said about Asia being at the forefront of beauty in terms of both consumer discernment and product innovation. The Asian beauty regimen has long been recognized and praised, and for years, Western companies have been looking East for product innovation idea.

However, it seems that now more than ever, the influence of Asian beauty innovation can be seen in the U.S. market, and the implications are being felt directly by North American and European brands looking to expand internationally.

Making the Jump

Asian women are avid beauty enthusiasts. Proper skin care routines and maintenance are of utmost importance to them, and practices such as double cleansing and a regular regimen of facials, weekly treatments and hydrating masks, and topical vitamin treatments are all commonplace in the overall beauty regimen for Asian women of all ages and income levels. Compared to the average American woman, who uses about 12 personal care and beauty products, Asian women use an average of 18 products.

And now, there are many common Asian beauty products filtering into the U.S. market. In fact, several of the emerging products in the U.S. have their origins in Asia—including BB creams, brightening products, skin care oils and facial masks, resulting in retail sales in excess of $400 million in 2012.

While BB creams make up 13% of the beauty market in South Korea ($8.7 billion in 2012), they were largely unknown in the U.S. until 2011, when sales reached $2 million in prestige channels. By 2012, BB creams grossed nearly $37 million in prestige channels alone. Since 2011, major Western beauty companies have begun launching a host of BB cream products—with Clinique, Dior, Estée Lauder, Garnier, Maybelline, Revlon and Smashbox making notable launches.

More importantly, American consumers have embraced BB creams as an ongoing part of their beauty regimen, and are finding satisfaction in doing so. The majority of BB cream consumers have reported being extremely or very satisfied with their last BB cream purchase, and 77% express positive repurchase intent. And almost seven in 10 BB cream consumers have replaced either a makeup or skin care product with a BB cream.

Brightening products—which are typically known as whitening products in Asia—asre another category that has seen tremendous growth in the U.S. in the past several years. In the West, moisture levels in the skin have been targeted as the primary anti-aging measure. However, dullness and discolorations are also key signs of aging, which brightening products are designed to address. In addition to brightening skin tone, these products promise to fade away discolorations, diffuse freckles and create youthful, radiant skin.

Brightening/whitening products have always been wildly popular in Asia as anti-aging care; however, it wasn’t until the February 2010 launch of Clinique’s Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector that a craze was sparked in the U.S. The category’s sales have catapulted from $190 million in 2009 to an expected $350 million last year, according to The NPD Group. This number is expected to grow exponentially for 2013 thanks to a slew of launches in both the mass and prestige markets. And in 2012, The NPD Group also noted that products with both anti-aging and brightening benefits almost doubled in share in the past four years.

Another staple of the Asian skin care regime, skin care oils for cleansing and moisturizing only recently became popular among U.S. consumers. U.S. prestige department store sales of face, body and hair oils rose nearly 41% to almost $31 million for the 12 months ended in June 2013, according to The NPD Group, and in prestige skin care alone, sales of facial skin care oils grew 30% in 2012, becoming a $14.9 million business—more than doubling since 2008. Dior recently debuted its first cleansing oil, while Shu Uemura celebrated the 30th anniversary of its cleansing oil, one of the first in the beauty market.

Lastly, the use of skin care masks may be the biggest difference in the Western and Eastern skin care regime. Skin care masks with collagen, brightening, acne treatment, anti-inflammatory and a slew of other benefits are a regular part of the Asian beauty regimen. In Asia, women can find masks targeting under the eyes, mouth, neck, décolletage, spot masks for blemishes, and on and on and on. Brian Park, CEO of O.R.G Skincare, a U.S. skin care line based on Asian ingredients and technologies, noted that skin care masks are a great supplement to skin care regimens, as they help provide immediate results at an affordable price. Park noted that beauty bloggers and enthusiasts have been buying up masks in South Korean stores and online retailers carrying the masks, helping to spur their popularity.

And the numbers support Park’s observations. U.S. consumers are increasingly looking to skin care masks as they seek ways to up the ante on their skin care routines. Skin care masks can provide an affordable alternative to frequent spa facials, and also can offer a wide range of treatment focuses. According to The NPD Group, facial masks experienced a 21% growth in 2012 in prestige channels, following double-digit growth in both 2011 and 2010.

Innovation Entries

It may be no surprise why the West is looking to Asia for product innovations. Reportedly, product innovations in the U.S. have dropped dramatically in recent years. In 2009, more than 16,000 new products were launched in the U.S. market; however, this dropped to around 7,000 new products in 2011. This may be attributed to the growing trend of skin care brands outsourcing their R&D to focus on sales and marketing. What is certain is American consumers have a growing interest in new products from Asia.

Alicia Yoon and Cindy Kim, cofounders of Peach and Lily, an online retailer dedicated to Asian products, started their e-commerce site as a result of growing interest in Asian skin care products that are not widely available in the U.S. They commented on the advancements of South Korean R&D labs, a country minted as the “new France of skin care” for formulation bases, “hero” ingredients and application technologies.

While most beauty products use distilled, pure water as a base, South Korean beauty labs have been able to use cutting-edge solutions like tree sap or thermal water as the base. In addition, some of the hero ingredients being used by Korean brands boast anti-aging, firming, hydrating or blemish-healing properties, and those ingredients include snail extract, starfish extract, herbs indigenous to the Asian region, unique floral extracts, yeast extracts and fruit stem cells.

Furthermore, Yoon and Kim also noted that South Korean beauty labs are famous for some of the most advanced beauty applicators. Notable inclusions are products that are twisted out of containers, cushion compacts that stay constantly moist and bacteria-free, ergonomic grips on eyeliners, lipsticks that apply with clean spatula-like devices, and vibrating puffs to help skin absorb makeup and skin care products.

The Influence of South Korea

As South Korean beauty labs continue to innovate, many companies also are no longer looking to the West as the promised land for expansion, primarily thanks to the booming business in other parts of Asia. China accounts for over 40% of South Korea’s cosmetics exports, while Japan is its second-largest importer. In fact, South Korea has emerged as Asia’s trendsetter in the fashion, entertainment and beauty industries, supplanting Japan as the primary source of Asian cool. South Korea’s cultural exports have struck a chord in the heart of young generations across Asia. Cultural exports—including films, comics and computer games—hit a record $4.2 billion in 2012, up from $2.6 billion in 2009. Television dramas, singers and actresses have revamped the country’s image into a glamorous destination, and the trends in Seoul inspire the purchasing of the young and newly affluent consumers in places like Bangkok, Beijing and Jakarta.

Due to South Korea’s recent cultural boom, Korean beauty brands are coveted in many parts of Asia, and are viewed at a premium in its neighboring countries, including the massive Chinese market. Last year, South Korean beauty conglomerate AmorePacific jumped 34% in its year-on-year results, outperforming market leader L’Oréal’s 13% increase, second-ranked Shiseido Co. Ltd.’s 12% rise and third-ranked P&G’s 5% growth.

Given this popularity, South Korean beauty brands such as The Face Shop, Innisfree, Etude House, Tony Moly, Missha and Banila & Co. are opening stores across Asia at a dizzying rate—with no slowdown in sight. Due to their manufacturing history, South Korean firms often are able to produce products cheaper and more quickly than their Western counterparts. For example, AmorePacific’s budget brand Innisfree launched 100 makeup and 70 skin care products in China in the first half of the year alone, according to a Reuters report.

Of course, the popularity of South Korean products in the rest of Asia has direct implications for U.S. and European brands competing in important markets such as Japan, China and the Philippines. Many of the South Korean beauty products have lower price points, Korean celebrity spokespeople popular all over Asia and are designed for Asian skin.

In the meantime, expect to see more Asian beauty brands popping up stateside. “Asia is a hot bed of product innovation,” says Ron Robinson, founder of beauty search and discovery site He noted he is seeking out more niche brands from international beauty markets like South Korea. For example, O.R.G Skincare’s Park has seen a lot of success with his Organic Mineral Peel, a nonabrasive, spray-on exfoliator—an innovation from South Korea—and plans to launch more treatment facial mask products in early 2014.

In her role as CEO of Landing International, Sarah Chung advises brands on international business development strategies and planning. Chung has advised a wide range of consumer brands in beauty and fashion to launch their products to new markets. She also is cofounder and partner of Luxe Brand Advisors, an agency that helps market and distribute consumer products in Asia. Chung has been quoted as a market expert in leading industry publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), GCI magazine, The Rose Sheet, Australian Financial Review,, Luxury Daily, Korea Times and JoongAng Ilbo.