K-beauty expands to the U.S. where customers demand a broader range of skin tones

A range of K-beauty products highlight the popular design of the packaging. (Photo by Leona Vaughn)

You’ve been binge watching YouTube videos of Korean makeup product reviews and the adorable packaging has finally gotten to you. You click on just about every link that pops up in your Google search for products that promise the glowy, hydrated complexion your dry skin needs this winter. You scroll over to select your shade and and see that your only two options are labelled “fair” and “fair to light.”

Lots of consumers experience disappointment when they have a complexion much deeper than porcelain when trying to participate in the ever-growing trend of K-beauty, the popular Korean skin-care products.

In recent years, South Korea’s beauty industry has been making its presence known to eager beauty consumers in the United States.

For many, Korean beauty standards are rooted in the idea that fair skin indicates higher social class. Brands carry on this idea on when they offer foundations in only two shades or products that advertise “whitening” the skin.

“In Asia, it’s beautiful to be lighter skinned,” said Emma Cortes, a Filipino, Seattle-based fashion blogger and founder of Emma’s Edition. “There is colorism within those communities.”

K-beauty is a huge piece of Asian culture, and the fact that it’s gaining traction in the states is very exciting. But some brands selling in the United States have not met the demand of a market with a broader range of skin complexion.

A number of brands offer base products with limited shade ranges, excluding anyone with skin tones from “medium” to “deep.” This is not just in the United States, but also in South Korea, where the population does not solely consist of individuals that are one of two skin tones.

More than 20 of America’s population are people of color. The beauty industry, in general, fails to accommodate for the market it serves.

Liz Kang Yates, founder of K Ba-Nana, speaks at K Ba-Nana’s Women in Business Panel about how and why she opened up the pop-up. (Photo by Leona Vaughn)

K-Beauty in Seattle

K-Beauty products are popular in Seattle, with a growing presence in local brands. Seattle brand Julep debuted in 2007. Julep’s products are heavily inspired by founder Jane Park’s Korean heritage. The company has since become a prominent K-beauty retailer. K Ba-Nana, a pop-up shop that features Korean skincare and makeup products, opened earlier this year in University Village.

K Ba-Nana’s founder Liz Kang Yates attributes K-beauty’s growing popularity to the whole experience of using the products.

“That’s where it speaks to the Millennial and the [Generation] Z,” Yates said. “It’s not just putting something on your skin, it’s putting [on] this whole face mask and taking a funny picture and sharing it with your friends … Millennials and [Generation] Z are all about that experience and sharing that experience.”

The popularity of K-beauty is growing, turning Korean brands into staples in an international market and integrating a piece of Asian culture into American society.

“The popularization of Korean beauty is a good step in thinking that Asian-American women aren’t just exotic, they’re a normal form of beauty,” Cortes said.

Much of South Korea’s lifestyle habits are motivated by the pursuit of excellence, and their beauty routines are no exception, going above and beyond in the formulation of products, the thought behind each one, and the aesthetic of the package that catches the eye of the consumer, according to Yates.

But upon application, BB creams, cushion compacts, and other famous Korean complexion products are revealed to be unusable by darker skin tones.

This screen capture of Kennie J.D.’s video, “THERE IS NO PLACE FOR DARK SKIN IN KBEAUTY??? (RANT),” features an example of the type of shade range many Korean brands offer in their complexion products. (Screen capture from YouTube by Leona Vaughn)

In a video titled “THERE IS NO PLACE FOR DARK SKIN IN KBEAUTY??? (RANT),” Kennie J.D., a woman of color with a YouTube channel on K-Beauty, highlights the problems with some K Beauty products. Brands label foundations using a numbering system; a higher number means a deeper shade. J.D. said that many K-beauty brands offer lighter shades — around 21 to 25 — but anything darker than that is uncommon.

J.D. said when brands do expand their shade ranges to include deeper colors, they are typically well-received. Consumers on social media appreciated Etude House’s Double Lasting Foundation’s expansion in shade range. The darkest shade in the line was the first to sell out.

“These Korean brands are trying to enter an international market,” she said. “If that’s the case, then Korean brands are not only made for Koreans.”

Beautyblender’s Bounce Liquid Whip Long Wear Foundation came under fire after its launch because of the overwhelming amount of lighter shades it carries. (Photo by Leona Vaughn)

Cortes hears something different every time she is shade-matched at Sephora.

“It’s disheartening when someone tells you you’re this undertone and then another person tells you you’re that,” Cortes said.

The highly anticipated launch of Tarte’s Shape Tape Foundation sparked controversy and conversation in the beauty industry upon its release of its Shape Tape Concealer. Out of 30 shades between the foundation’s hydrating and matte range, only five colors ranging from “deep” to “mahogany” were offered initially.

Consumers questioned the products, influencers like Jackie Aina and Alyssa Ashley, also women of color, calling out the brand and refusing to support the product.

“You should look at Tarte’s board of directors,” Cortes said. “Is there one person of color out there who could’ve said, ‘Hey, by the way, this isn’t working’?”

Rihanna’s makeup line, on the other hand, Fenty Beauty, has been praised for offering its Pro Filt’r Soft Matte Longwear Foundation in 40 different shades that has an arguably more even gradient from light to dark tones.

Cortes pointed out that because Rihanna is a woman of color, she better understands the struggle of shade matching herself.

On the bright side, J.D. admits that she has seen the industry shift toward more color inclusivity. She said that the entire beauty industry, not only K-beauty, will continue to move forward that way as brands expand their lineup of products to better serve a diverse market of skin tones.