Mar 16th, 2016, 11:25 PM

For the Love of So-Ko Glam

By Elizabeth Segre-Lawrence
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One curious (and clueless) journalist's adventures in the realm of Korean cosmetics.

As a self-proclaimed beauty nerd, I am constantly on the lookout for new products to fawn over (and often never buy, but that's just the plight of the typical college student). Like fashion, beauty goes through phases of geographic obsession, looking in different areas of the world for inspiration in how other consumers go about their sartorial and cosmetic choices. For a while, the West was obsessed with American drugstore beauty products. Once that died out, an utter infatuation with French pharmacies swept over the beauty community. But most recently, it is South Korean beauty (or So-Ko beauty, as fans call it) that has exploded onto the western market, with a slew of new followers who have abandoned their old products to swear loyalty to So-Ko's latest offerings. 

Until recently, my knowledge of So-Ko beauty was rather limited. I had read up on the cosmetic trends before and had even studied the country's obsession with plastic surgery in a few classes, but other than that my only exposure to its cosmetic culture and products was through my friend (and travel partner) Sydney. I had used a few sheet masks before and I was aware of what BB cream was, but with my lack of expertise, I felt left out when I spoke to other beauty-crazed friends. So, upon booking my trip to Seoul, South Korea, for spring break, I resolved to absorb as much as I could about the beauty landscape. 

Here's what I learned:

1. You cannot, by any means, escape beauty.
South Korea is a country obsessed with beauty and appearance in ways that I couldn't have expected. If you want a visual of how pervasive the beauty market is in Seoul, first imagine your typical Parisian street: there's a pharmacy on just about every street corner. Multiply the amount of storefronts by five, double their size, lengthen your blocks a bit, and you've got any ole street in Seoul. Of course I assumed to find lots of shops in which I could browse and purchase products for whatever cosmetic or skin care needs arose. But I hardly imagined entire streets where nothing exists but droves upon droves of chain merchandisers like Etude House, Innisfree, or Nature Republic.

If you wish to avoid the lure of these shops, and even if you do so successfully, there's no escaping the perfectly-maquillaged faces you will see in public. I don't think I saw, on my metro system adventures, a single woman who did not have a trace of (very precisely applied) makeup on. Walking the streets of Seoul is being surrounded by hyper-beautiful anime characters all the time. And it's absolutely wonderful.

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2. There's no such thing as "simple" in regards to skincare.
The skin care industry is pretty pervasive globally (everybody has skin so it makes sense), but it's a whole different ballgame in South Korea. In the West, our skin care routines are rather minimal. "Less is more!" often feels like the most shouted statement by Western beauty bloggers. But in South Korea, it's to be expected that when you handle your skin, you do so in quite a few steps. As co-founder of online Korean beauty shop SoKo Glam, based in New York, Charlotte Cho said to Vogue, "Korean women take delight in their skincare routines." So a 12-step beauty routine isn't viewed as laborious.

And this isn't limited to just ladies, the gents have their routines too. One of the male friends I made in Seoul had at least ten shiny bottles of different skin care products in his bathroom. When I asked him about them he looked at me rather incredulously and retorted, "Should I not take care of my face?" Despite my curiosity, after that I didn't ask him any more questions.

3. It's an addiction.
Before I left, I told myself that I would bring back a few products to review or to share with friends and family. What I ended up doing is coming back with far too many products to fit into my tiny bathroom. What I've noticed during the time I've immersed myself into the cosmetic world is that, unlike many of the "holy grail" products that end up disappointing, So-Ko products deserve the hype they receive. You'll start small with a moisturizer, probably love it, and decide to try something else out. You're pleased with your second purchase and go for a third. And then a fourth. You get the picture. 

The bottom line is that these products, more often than not, work. I've struggled with eczema and dry skin my whole life, so going forth to do this "research" of sorts was more daunting for me. But after my trip, I'm a definite convert. Honestly, my skin has never felt so good. And with South Korea earning $1.067 billion in revenue from beauty exports alone in 2014, I think it's fair to say that I'm not the only one who thinks so.