The New York flagship store of South Korean cosmetics empire TonyMoly touts several products made from snail slime. There's snail-based eye cream, toner, and moisturiser, even a "premium snail" face mask. "Snail mucin is very well-known for helping with skin recovery and regeneration," says Michelle Kim, head of US market distribution for TonyMoly. "Sephora saw our snail gel mask and asked if we'd develop something for them."
TonyMoly, Amorepacific, and LG Household & Health Care are among the Korean companies behind a slew of beauty products gaining popularity in the US and globally. Promises of glowing skin combined with appealing packaging have persuaded chains such as Urban Outfitters and Target to feature the skin-care lines on their shelves. Sephora, the Paris-based cosmetics retailer, launched a "K-beauty" campaign this fall in all 380 of its North American stores, hanging signs in the windows advertising Korea's "coveted dewy look."
Overseas sales of Korean cosmetics rose 66 percent this year through August, reaching $1.5 billion, according to the Korea International Trade Association. "No one really uses horse fat in Korea, but people love it in China," says Alicia Yoon, chief executive officer of Peach & Lily, a New York-based e-retailer that sells Korean beauty products. China accounted for 12 percent of Amorepacific's sales in 2014.
In Korea, women's skin-care rituals can take up to an hour a day and consist of four to 20 steps, with a different product for each. Beyond snail mucus, several products feature unusual ingredients, including camel milk, bee venom, and starfish extract. "Korea has a culture of taking care of your skin, and it's been that way for thousands of years," says Yoon.
American fashion magazines and beauty bloggers are largely responsible for the growing demand in the US, where sales of Korean cosmetics reached $154.1 million last year, a near-fivefold increase since 2005, according to data from the U.S. Commercial Service. The obsession with Korean products picked up around 2012, after Sephora introduced beauty balms from Korea's Dr Jart+. Beauty bloggers intrigued by the so-called BB creams started demanding more products from Korea. "None of this would have happened without digital influencers," says Yoon.
Seoul-based TonyMoly began as a packaging company in 1994. It became a beauty products line in 2006 and now has more than 600 stores in Korea. "It's basically like Starbucks," says Kim. "On every corner there's TonyMoly."
In 2013, Urban Outfitters introduced TonyMoly's whimsical products in the US-lip balms in the shape of red lips ($10) and face mists in bunny doll bottles ($15). TonyMoly opened its New York flagship store in June. Fifty percent of US customers are non-Asian, says Kim.
"I found out about TonyMoly because I watch a lot of Korean dramas online," says Jocelyn Boyd, a 30-year-old English teacher. "The stars, both men and women, are so beautiful, and sometimes they tell you online what they're wearing. I do a mask every couple of days."
Kim visited a snail farm in Korea and recalls that it was "very natural, lots of plants". She adds: "There are millions of snails. I've heard that they feed the snails green tea and that, when they listen to music, they produce more slime."
Yoon founded Peach & Lily in 2012, selling Korean lines, including upscale brands Cremorlab and Shangpree. She has exclusive distribution rights to about a dozen brands and hundreds of products. The company now sells on QVC. "We were able to say that no snails are harmed and that the harvesting process for the snail enzyme is ethical," she says.
Ingredients such as snail slime aren't simply a gimmick, says New York dermatologist Whitney Bowe. "You'd actually be surprised how many products contain snail mucus," she says. The mucus is known to firm and hydrate skin and reduce fine lines, among other benefits, she says. Donkey milk is another popular ingredient in Korean skin-care products. (In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra supposedly bathed in it.)
To pack in skin nutrition, many Koreans turn to precut cotton, gel, or rubber sheet masks with holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth. They range in price from $4 to $20. "You can wear them while doing chores or watching TV," says Kim. "You become a kind of Hannibal Lecter for 30 minutes, but who cares? The next morning you're going to be very pretty."