Saturday, April 13, 2024

The 7 Biggest K-Beauty Trends of 2023

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You can’t fully understand just how different K-beauty hits until you find yourself at a major beauty retailer like Olive Young in the heart of Seoul on the last day of a week-long 70-percent-off sale — and I recently did. Despite sweltering summer weather, people packed themselves like sardines from wall to wall with open hands excitedly reaching for discounted toners with ingredients I’ve never heard of, moisturizers with more plus signs in their names than an algebra exam, and high-octane sunscreens that melt into skin like nothing I’ve ever bought in America. Or Australia. Or France. Or Greece.

Shiny pop stars on promotional posters displayed various jars and bottles while smirking down at the customers, all of whom had comparably clear, plump, dewy skin. I realized in that moment that America isn’t just losing the skin-care competition — we’re not even in the qualifying tournament.

That’s because K-beauty trends aren’t so much trends as they are technological innovations that tend to stick around until they slowly trickle into international markets, by which time Korean developers have usually come up with something even more efficacious. 2023 has been cranking out new innovations left and right, so I asked a handful of Korean beauty experts to tell me what the biggest K-beauty trends of 2023 are. Spoiler alert: it’s time to give your dermatologist a call.


Meet the experts:

Dr. Eunice Park, MD, a New York City-based board-certified facial plastic surgeon

Dr. Yunyoung Claire Chang, MD, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist.

Charlotte Cho, esthetician and curator of K-Beauty retailer SokoGlam

Jinseob Shin, director of Amorepacific’s New York Research & Innovations Center

Mark Chandler, cosmetic chemist

Art Georgalas, cosmetic chemist


Exosomes Transition From Injectable Treatment to Skin-Care Ingredient

As explained by Dr. Eunice Park, MD, a New York City-based board-certified facial plastic surgeon, “Exosomes… play a crucial role in cell communication and the transfer of biological molecules between cells.” As Allure previously reported, these nanoparticles are naturally released by all cells in the human body, but skin cells have their own special version that contain lipids, proteins, and amino acids, among other stuff that keeps skin looking renewed. In short, they communicate signals to unhealthy cells in order to start the regeneration process. The human body produces increasingly fewer exosomes over time as humans age, hence natural signs of aging such as loss of volume and fine lines.

Historically, exosomes have been offered as an in-office treatment in the form of an injection performed by a doctor. Now, however, exosomes are making their way into topical skin-care products. In the case of both the injectable exosome treatment and exosome skin-care, the exosomes themselves are derived directly from human stem cells.

Currently, exosome skin-care products are primarily offered in-office as a soothing follow-up to irritation-causing treatments such as resurfacing lasers or microneedling (ASCEplus Exobalm is a prime example). And there’s a reason why that is, at least for the time being. Cosmetic chemist Art Georgalas warns that, “Exosomes, similar to liposomes, are a delivery system, and their effectiveness depends on what’s in them,” he says. “Simple application to the skin will have limited effect since the skin — unless damaged — prevents most materials from penetrating.” So it makes sense that exosomes would be more helpful to someone whose skin is damaged from something like a laser treatment as opposed to the average consumer who is looking for a topical means of preventing the signs of aging.

However, the technology very well could progress in the coming years to allow exosomes to be a more useful and ubiquitous skin-care ingredient in Korea. “Research is being done by large Korean companies on using exosomes in skin-care products to help with hydration, and skin regeneration,” says Dr. Yunyoung Claire Chang, MD, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist.

But here’s the rub for those of us living in the United States: Though you might be able to find exosome skin-care and treatments in select doctors’ offices, the FDA has yet to approve any products that contain exosomes for any purpose pending more clinical research. That said, you won’t be finding any American-made products of this nature, nor will you find any in major American retailers, for the foreseeable future — but one can dream, right?

Multi-Lamellar Emulsion Technology Paves the Way for Barrier Repair Products

We all have our favorite skin barrier creams — you know the ones: they protect skin against the elements by providing a hearty dose of moisturization with ingredients such as ceramides and hyaluronic acid. According to Charlotte Cho, an esthetician who curates K-Beauty retailer SokoGlam, Korean barrier creams have been further advanced by something called Multi-Lamellar Emulsion (MLE) technology.

What is MLE technology? Simply put, it’s “a unique formulation that mimics the structure of the skin’s natural lipid barrier,” Cho says. That style of formulation is right there in the name; “lamella” means thin layer, meaning MLE technology creates multiple layers of skin protection. “These layers [of lipids] act as a ‘second skin’ when applied to the skin’s surface, creating a protective barrier that effectively locks in moisture and prevents water loss… promoting long-lasting hydration and a healthier complexion,” Cho continues.

Those layers create an even stronger level of moisture and protection than your average barrier repair cream, cosmetic chemist Mark Chandler confirms. MLE formulas “provide enhanced delivery to the skin of both lipid and water soluble bioactives as well as provide superior skin moisturization, elasticity, and occlusion,” he explains.

Atopalm’s MLE Cream is the leading example of this multi-layered formulation technique. As it goes for most barrier repair products, this one’s recommended for those who have extra-sensitive skin or are looking to soothe irritating skin conditions such as eczema.

Anti-inflammatory and Antioxidant Ingredients Emerge

Alongside exosomes and MLE technology, K-Beauty products are also seeing big upticks in two particular ingredients, according to Cho. The first is black fermented rice, which is exactly what it sounds like. Geogalas says it can “have some soothing properties” and maybe even lighten dark spots, however, he notes that he wasn’t able to find much reputable research on the ingredient.

Cho highlights Haruharu Wonder as one of the most notable brands highlighting fermented black rice. “Their own specialized team of fermentation cosmetic chemists…has helped products like their Black Rice Hyaluronic Toner go viral on TikTok because of its dewy and glass-like effect on skin.” You can also find this ingredient in the brand’s Black Rice Oil and Make Beauty’s Micro Ferment Rice Essence.

Haruharu Wonder Black Rice Hyaluronic Toner

Haruharu Wonder Black Rice Facial Oil

Make Beauty Micro Ferment Rice Essence

The second skin-care ingredient Cho mentions, heartleaf, “has been used in Korean herbal medicine for centuries” but is only now emerging as a popular skin-care ingredient for acne-prone skin. As Georgalas explains, “there is data showing this botanical does have some polyphenols that can have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.”

K-beauty brand Neogen has an entire heartleaf line that addresses not just acne but various other skin concerns, Cho points out. Its Real Heartleaf Fresh Foam Cleanser, for example, is designed to clear dirt and oil from pores, while its Real Heartleaf Soothing Mask and Real Heartleaf Soothing Cream offer a soothing, moisturizing effect.

Neogen Real Heartleaf Fresh Foam Cleanser

Neogen Real Heartleaf Soothing Mask

Neogen Real Heartleaf Soothing Cream

UV Protective Patches Dominate Outdoor Sports

Korean golf courses are full of people wearing giant stick-on patches under their eyes, according to Dr. Chang — but they’re not eye masks; they’re UV-protective patches. They’re so popular among golf players, in fact, that they’re sometimes referred to as “golf patches,” but of course you can wear them anywhere you might want added sun protection, like the pickleball court, the beach, or at the playground with your kids. 

Most of these UV-protective patches — made from fabric and often hydrogel, which helps the patches stick to the skin without risking damage or irritation — are designed to be worn under the eyes and on the cheeks, but some are designed to cover other parts of the face and body. They “provide a physical protective barrier on the skin for extra UV protection,” Dr. Chang explains. It’s really that simple; these patches protect your face from the sun the same way wearing clothes gives the skin of your body added protection.

You’ll find these sun patches from Korean brands such as Mediheal and Lapcos.

Mediheal UV Cut Outdoor Sun Patch

Lapcos Suntiaging Eye Zone Cooling Golf Patch

Ampoules Remain a Korean Skin-Care Staple

Anyone who’s interested in skin-care has likely heard the term ampoule, and though they’re becoming more commonplace in American skin-care retailers these days, they were first popularized and perfected by the K-beauty industry.

As Jinseob Shin, the director of Amorepacific’s New York research & innovations center, explains, one can think of ampoules “like a supercharged serum with more concentrated and stable ingredients that work their magic faster for visible skin improvements.” The idea behind ampoules may not be a new one, but as Shin points out, their encapsulated delivery system does allow new skin-care technologies to be introduced because it “allows for natural ingredients that were previously difficult to stabilize to be utilized in formulas.” That said, these high-concentration formulas aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

Shin points to Sulwhasoo’s Concentrated Ginseng Rescue Ampoule as an example. “It features a unique twist-activation packaging with two parts of the formula [one featuring ginseng berry extract and the other featuring a variety of other floral and root extracts] separated for maximum freshness and activated only right before first use.” Cosrx Full Fit Propolis Light Ampoule and the Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Ampoule 5X are two other Allure editor-favorite ampoules.

Sulwhasoo Concentrated Ginseng Rescue Ampoule

Cosrx Full Fit Propolis Light Ampoule

Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Ampoule 5X

Skin-Care Devices Provide In-Office Results from Home

When asked about what’s trending in Korean skin-care markets, almost every expert I asked emphasized the popularity of at-home skin-care devices — especially those that tighten, plump, and reduce visible texture.

“At-home devices have become more diverse, ranging from LED masks to microcurrent and microneedling to ultrasound,” Dr. Chang says. “The variety of devices now allows consumers to tackle more skin issues at home.” She adds that this popularity can likely be attributed to their affordability as compared to in-office treatments. Dr. Park adds that more time spent at home following the pandemic has also fueled the surge.

As Cho puts it, “These innovative devices offer convenience and effectiveness, empowering users to incorporate professional-grade skincare treatments into their daily routines from the comfort of their homes.” And when you think about it in those terms, who wouldn’t want one? The issue in the K-Beauty world isn’t about finding a high-quality device, it’s simply a matter of deciding which of the many high-quality devices out there has what your skin needs.

Devices that provide an alternative to microneedling, in particular, are ever-popular, and much like the real thing, they can “make passageways in the skin and increase skincare product absorption,” Dr. Chang says. “It is supposed to help with improving skin glow, texture and pores.”

Ultrasound or microcurrents devices are increasing in popularity, too. Some iterations “use a combination of ultrasound and red light to enhance collagen stimulation and fight skin laxity,” Dr Chang explains. Meanwhile, Dr. Park highlights devices that use something called high-intensity focused ultrasound, or HIFU. “It is used to address signs of aging such as wrinkles, fine lines, and sagging skin, she says. She adds, however, that “there is a great deal of variability in using this technology at home. It is very popular in Korea but I would recommend using with caution.”

Another popular device format you might have already seen in American retailers: LED masks. As Allure previously reported, LED light therapy can stimulate collagen, improve the appearance of acne, reduced redness, improve blood circulation, and more, depending on what type or color of light is used. Though LED light therapy offered in-office is generally more effective, LED masks can still provide results from home, hence why they’re becoming more ubiquitous in Korea. “The trend aligns with the growing demand for accessible, innovative, and self-empowering beauty tools in the ever-evolving world of Korean beauty,” Cho says.

Skin-Boosting Injections Remain Popular In-Office

As far as Korea’s most popular in-office treatments go, skin booster treatments, which encompass a plethora of in-office treatments, both topical and injectable, reign supreme.

These boosters include both topical and injectable treatments and can address skin concerns including dryness, dullness, hydration, texture, and tone, as Dr. Park explains. “They are further categorized as those that contain hyaluronic acid only versus those that contain other collagen boosting ingredients such as polydeoxyribonucleotide [or PDRN, a type of DNA extracted from salmon roe].”

Injectable skin booster treatments include the hyaluronic acid treatment Skinvive by Allergan, (which, by the way, is the only injectable skin booster approved for use in the US as well as Korea, according to Dr. Park). “Other traditional fillers with low density are used off label as a hyaluronic skin booster,” she explains. “Other injectable skin boosters like Rejuran and Juvelook are not approved in the US market.” Dr. Park adds that the NCTF skin booster, which is also nicknamed the “Chanel injection” for reasons unknown, is extremely popular in Korean doctor’s offices right now. “It is a cocktail of 56 skin nutrients to improve skin hydration and brightness,” she adds.

Topical skin boosters, on the other hand, include exosome treatment and platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy — you know, the vampire facial. “Topical skin boosters are often used after microneedling and laser treatments that ‘open’ the skin barrier,” Dr. Park explains. “It allows for deeper absorption and penetration of the skin boosters.”

Of course, Dr. Park emphasizes the importance of having an in-depth consultation with your board-certified dermatologist prior to seeking out any of these treatments, no matter where in the world you might be.


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