Pearl of the East: Skincare & Beauty in East Asia

The Asian beauty industry has long fascinated the West. From Japanese charcoal to highly ritualized skincare practices, the continent, particularly China, Japan, and Korea, have been at the forefront of cosmetic innovation for milennia. 

After centuries at the vanguard, modern Asian beauty companies are set to continue their craft well into the future. The region's recent economic boom, coupled with the subsequent rise in consumer purchasing power has led to a present Golden Age for Asian cosmetics. While Chinese luxury cosmetic development has lagged behind its neighbors somewhat, the country's huge consumer base has fueled high interest in imports from Korea and Japan, the continent's beauty industry powerhouses.

But that's all marketing, to a certain degree. Other than their ancient pedigree, what truly sets Asian cosmetic products apart from their American and European contemporaries? Before we get into the details, I have to make one very general comment: Asian cosmetics are adorable. Like, really, really adorable.

Mother of pearl compacts, Cinderella-themed lipsticks, Panda face masks, gold-hued "escargot" products in garbled French...the packaging alone is enough to induce a sucker such as your dear writer to buy them. Korean product design in particular is nearly impossible to resit due to its endless cute-ness. 

Fortunately, most of these products don't just look good--they are good for you. The omnipresent societal obsession with skincare - it is sometimes hard to get through a casual meal without someone telling you to eat something because "it's good for your skin"- has fueled tons of research into the latest chemicals, enzymes, berries, and even snail excretions that can benefit your skin. 

This means that moisturizers and cleansers are excellent, leaving your skin baby soft but never greasy. BBs are also much better formulated than anything you'd find in the United States. The endless variety of face masks (many stores offer hundreds of colorful iterations) offer relief for every possible skin concern, from dry skin to wrinkles to redness and inflammation. To counteract blemishes, Korean beauty stores often offer an "anti-trouble" line of products - not the most direct translation, perhaps, but a poetic one nonetheless. Your face doesn't want any trouble. Your face deserves to be above it all: preened and pampered with pearl essence and snail goo. 

There are, however, a few caveats to this Asian cosmetic miracle. For all their perfect formulations, adorable packaging, and cutting edge innovations, these products are directed at a market that shares, but also diverges from many common American skincare concerns. Whitening is less a trend in Asia than it is a centuries-old cultural belief that probably isn't going away anytime soon. Chinese superstar Fan Bing Bing, renowned for her glistening, blindingly white skin, purportedly puts on SPF 50 before viewing the light of a computer screen. It's not at all uncommon to see women in Asia strolling on a summer day accompanied by a sun parasol the West hasn't seen since Victorian times. 

This means that Asian products are directed towards this goal. Many products come with "whitening" properties whether you want it or not. And some products are considered strange and unnecessary by Western standards, from tape for monolids to "facelift" products that yank your skin backwards to create the illusion of smooth, unwrinkled skin.

Asian beauty may be an entirely different animal from the industry in the West. But in a century that will likely be dominated by the growth and development of Asian markets, it isn't going anywhere. If the mask fits, wear it. And if not...just smush it around your too-Western face until it works for you.