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How Asian Beauty Replaced French Beauty for American Aesthetes

The crossover of Asian skincare and beauty aesthetics into American culture is more than a passing trend — it’s a sign of how impactful an ever-growing immigrant economy has become.


(Photo: Gary Bembridge/Flickr)

I am in constant pursuit of beautiful skin. I want skin that looks like velvet, that glows as if lit from within. Chasing the dragon of beautiful skin that looks effortless is an odyssey that leaves endless products and processes in its wake. European cleansers, with their elegant packaging, intrigued me for a spell; a brief dive into MakeupAlley reviews of Noxzema, that skin cleanser with a tingle that was a staple of my teenage years, led me to rub the cream into my face every night as a mask, convincing myself that the tingle meant that it was working.

Recently, though, I’ve become enamored with the products I find in my Taiwanese mother’s bathroom when I visit her at home: tubes and jars of serums and creams and bouncy cool water gels, picked up from her travels to Taiwan or brought back and gifted to her by friends. Every other night, I drape a mask seeped in part in snail mucin on my face and lay back while it does its magic. I can’t tell if it works or not, but my skin feels soft and smooth afterwards and, for me, that is almost enough.

I’m not alone in my preference. Multiple conversations with friends reveal that Asian beauty products are having a moment; my late-night perusal of beauty blogs and lifestyle websites corroborates that fact. Sheet masks — thin cloth masks soaked in a serum and placed on the face so the wearer resembles a very damp and elegant ghost — are excellent selfie-bait; cleansing one’s face with oil, and following that up with a serum feels virtuous and right. A trend piece in Vogue about jamsu make-up or “diving” — covering one’s face in baby powder and dunking it into a bowl of cold water to “set” your face — has already spawned one explainer; more will surely follow, as it makes its way across the beautynet and to the mainstream. Make no mistake: Asian beauty products, rituals, and treatments are trending massively upward. But what does this mean for Asian Americans as influencers in the culture?

The rise in popularity for Asian beauty is, in part, because of the massive—and rapidly increasing—spending power of Asian Americans. According to a Nielsen report from 2015, Asian Americans are the fastest growing group in the country, jumping 46 percent from 2002 to 2014. As a demographic, Asian Americans have massive purchasing power. They’re more willing to spend money and do the legwork it takes to find and buy products that fit in with a holistic lifestyle. They’re 31 percent more likely to buy organic foods and 24 percent more likely to consider of the nutrition of the products. Yet while these Asian-American immigrants and their children may be drastically different from other waves of immigrants in America’s past, these first-generation Millennials also have strong ties to their heritage, meaning that these Asian beauty “trends” aren’t trends at all — they’re a way of life.

As a collective group, Asian Americans possess a mind-boggling amount of buying power — $770 billion according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth. That number is expected to increase to an astonishing $1 trillion by 2018. And, a large bulk of this money is being spent on beauty products. Asian-American women spend 70 percent more, on average, than the total population on skin-care preparation products. The surge in popularity of sheet masks and snail mucin gel and 10-step skincare routines in correlation to this fact is more than just a passing trend. It’s a fact.

While French girl beauty will probably never, ever go away, we are moving slowly but steadily toward a paradigm shift in beauty.

What the study leaves out, however, is specifics. To be a part of a demographic with a buying power that is larger than the gross domestic product of both Saudi Arabia and Switzerland is to possess a tremendous amount of power. But, is there any truth to the statement that Asian Americans are spending their money on Asian beauty products?

A friend and I speak regularly about our beauty routines, debating the merits of sheet masks and extolling the virtues of serums and ampoules — both essential parts of the very popular 10-step beauty routine that Korean beauty bloggers have brought stateside. When I do spend money on beauty products, it is on sheet masks, purchased in bulk, from Amazon, though I’m not entirely convinced of their efficacy. As a freelance writer working from the relative comfort of my own home, I have a lot of alone time and do a lot of sheet masks. Nothing really seems to have improved, but I remain undeterred. Scrolling through Instagram and seeing the luminous skin of beauty bloggers who tout pore packs and sleeping masks is all the inspiration I need.

Asian beauty products and their regimens hit a sweet spot in the public interest, promising better skin through a heady combination of natural ingredients and science. For years, European beauty products have dominated the market. French imports like Homeoplasine, a homeopathic, calendula-based balm with the thick consistency of Vaseline, have been stuffed into suitcases and brought home from abroad for years. French skincare feels glamorous more than anything else and pared-down to the point of minimalism. “French beauty” — a catch-all phrase whose definition is so murky that the Internet is littered with attempts to explain it — is an easy-going, natural sort of glamour, almost fetishistic in how its simplicity. Exerting any sort of visible effort toward skincare and beauty is antithetical to the “French girl” standard that we’ve glamorized in America. European beauty products were marketed as beautifying multi-taskers, appealing to Americans’ inherent desire to do everything as quickly as possible. Multitasking beauty products are better than their lesser cohorts because they promise the potential of saved time. Ten fewer seconds spent in the bathroom dabbing sunscreen onto your forehead is 10 seconds gained during your morning commute, putting you 10 seconds closer to world domination.

Yet Asian beauty products and their processes fly in the face of the American desire to expedite. Consider the 10-step cleansing process, a Korean beauty standby that has recently gained traction in the United States. It’s the philosophical opposite of multi-tasking, with each product serving a very specific purpose, forcing the user to take their time, transforming the act of simply washing your face from an afterthought to a beloved ritual. Consciously slowing down and participating in the process feels strange at first, but for many of those who have adopted the process, has become second nature. Sheet masks rose from relative obscurity to ubiquity seemingly overnight, fueled in part by their efficacy, but also by how good they look on Instagram. While French girl beauty will probably never, ever go away, we are moving slowly but steadily toward a paradigm shift in beauty. It’s here to stay.

Asian beauty products also rely heavily on natural ingredients, a fact that just happens to coincide with the rising interest in wellness and living a holistic life. Pore packs and face masks from companies like Skinfood have food in their names; you can wash your face with a Pineapple Morning Peeling Gel that features the natural AHA exfoliating acids in the fruit itself and pat on a Peach Sake Pore Serum, made with rice sake and peach extract, to nip shine in the bud and minimize your pores. Similar results could be achieved with other products, but the suggestion of natural ingredients instead of harsh chemicals is enough to convince any shopper to put down the Clearasil and pick up the Black Sugar Strawberry cleanser instead.

The beauty market functions primarily on exclusivity. Cult beauty products trickle down through various influencers, be it celebrities or make-up artists, and eventually permeate the masses. Consider BB cream, a product that’s ubiquitous now, but got its start as a recovery product for plastic surgery patients in Germany, smoothing the skin, evening out its tone and providing the benefits of at least four products in one. South Koreans brought the BB cream craze stateside; by touting what functions basically as a tinted moisturizer as an all-in-one miracle product promising the efficacy of at least seven, BB creams skyrocketed to popularity in the U.S. Five years ago, consumers eager to get their hands on BB creams by companies like Dr. Jart and Missha would spend hours looking for products online, often directly ordering them from overseas. Now, anyone interested can walk into a drugstore and find endless options. The increased and ever-growing economic footprint of Asian-American Millennials is one thing, but the naturalization of BB creams — from exotic mystery product to store-brand basic — is something to consider.

Is this all just a passing fancy? Probably not. In the past year, Asian beauty stores have sprung up in cities across the country, carving a niche for themselves in an already-crowded beauty market. Stores like Tony Moly and Amorepacific, staples of immigrant neighborhoods in the far reaches of Queens in New York, now have outposts in Manhattan’s Koreatown — close enough to the tourist-heavy area near Macy’s and Herald Square to lure in other customers. Western fascination with the assumed mysticism of the far East could be at play, but facts don’t lie. The Asian-American population is one of the fastest growing in the country. Coupled with the enormous spending power this group has, we are facing what could be a mainstreaming of Asian beauty in the market — not quite enough to supplant the popularity of European beauty, but enough to make a considerable amount of splash. Much like the recent mainstreaming of natural hair products, Asian beauty products could muscle their way into the market. Soon, we could find Amorepacific and Banila Co. stocked next to Neutrogena at Target. Diversity is an elusive concept, but money never lies. If the demand is there, the supply will surely rise to meet it.

This isn’t limited to just the beauty sector. While Asian beauty is having its moment in the sun, Asian-American visibility has increased in other parts of the culture as well. The success of shows like Fresh Off the Boat and the rise of the Chinese film market all point toward a future where Asian-American faces, voices, and experiences will share equal space with the status quo or change it entirely.

After losing an afternoon on Sokoglam, a popular retailer and burgeoning beauty blog for Korean skincare enthusiasts, I found myself staring at a 10-Step Korean Skin Care routine set: a hand-picked assortment of products intended to help me jumpstart the regimen. Arranged nicely on a clean white background, the products looked full of promise, the potential for better skin, and, by extension, a better me, available for only $199. I considered myself before bed, in my bathroom, silently patting creams and rubbing exfoliant into my skin, consulting a note taped to the mirror with the regimen laid out in 10 easy steps. I added the set to my cart and closed the tab.