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Natural skincare in South Korea vs China: Navigating two markets with totally different “clean beauty” concepts

Natural skincare is defined by products with ingredients that are all naturally derived, such as plant extracts or water-soluble chemicals from a mineral ore. The global natural skincare product market in 2021 was estimated at USD 6.7 billion (44.5 billion RMB) and is expected to reach USD 7.3 billion in 2022. A brand’s strategy to target South Korea’s natural skincare market might look very different from targeting China’s and vice versa. However, both cultures demonstrate openness and willingness to learn more about natural skincare.

What motivates South Korean and Chinese consumers to purchase natural skincare

Consumers in both China and Korea had much more time to spend on skincare compared to pre-COVID-19. In particular, sales of face masks saw a huge increase. Since time spent on skincare increased, consumers have become more conscious about the specifics of what they are applying on their skin.

Chinese skincare consumers are focused on ingredients

Chinese consumers now care less about brand image and more about the ingredients inside skincare products. In fact, after the pandemic, 90% of Chinese believe it is important to buy clean or healthy beauty products- the highest percentage in the world. These attitudes are reflected in the success of brands like Herborist and Inoherb, domestic natural skincare brands based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) ingredients. Foreign brands like LVMH have also hopped onto the TCM trend by launching the natural skincare brand Cha Ling in 2016, which sources TCM ingredients from Yunnan province – a mountainous region relatively untouched by pollution with huge biodiversity.

LVMH, “Cha Ling products”, a foreign natural skincare brand leveraging TCM ingredients
Source: LVMH, “Cha Ling products”, a foreign natural skincare brand leveraging TCM ingredients

Korean skincare consumers prefer gentle yet effective

Korean skincare consumers care less about ingredients and more about effectiveness. Although results are more important to Korean consumers than ingredients, 60% of Korean women report they have sensitive skin. Therefore, Korean consumers prefer gentle, minimalistic formulas which usually equates to formulas with natural and plant-based ingredients. One of the most popular moisturizers in Korea belongs to Belif, a natural skincare brand. In addition, the international community demands natural skincare products, thus the K-beauty industry to keep up with consumer demands and trends by producing more natural skincare products if it wants to remain as a leader in the skincare industry.

Chinese and Korean consumers favorite natural skincare ingredients

Unsurprisingly, the local geography and available ingredients shape natural skincare preferences. While Chinese like traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) ingredients, ingredients sourced from Jeju and fermented ingredients are popular among South Korean skincare consumers. While skincare consumers from both countries appreciate clean ingredients sourced from their local environment, they have different definitions of what makes a product clean. For Chinese, it is all about ingredients, but for South Koreans, plant-based and undiluted products are best.

Chinese skincare consumers like traditional Chinese medicine ingredients

Apart from use of TCM in products like Herborist’s Chinese Yam, Bamboo Orchid, and Goji Berries, Chinese consumers are interested in natural ingredients from all over the world. In China, Baidu search volumes are increasing for specific ingredients like Manuka Honey from New Zealand, Edelweiss from Switzerland, and desert clay from Death Valley, USA.

The Chinese app Beauty Evolution (美丽修行 ) analyses ingredients of products, how safe each ingredient is, precautions to keep in mind, and the purpose of each ingredient. The app rates products according to a point system and user reviews. Furthermore, there is a skin diagnosis feature which matches users with the best products for their skin condition. As of August 2019, there are more than 10 million users on this app. These searches and the rise of such apps reflect a shift in the attitudes of Chinese consumers; they are not passive nor are they easily impressed by advertisements but active, demanding knowledge about what’s inside their products.

Herborist natural skincare products”, Chinese natural skincare brand
Source: Herborist Global, “Herborist natural skincare products”, Chinese natural skincare brand

Korean skincare consumers prefer vegan ingredients

In contrast to China which does not prioritize vegan products, in South Korea, Vegan skincare products are trending. Korean consumers believe that vegan products are safe for their skin and for the environment. This firm trust in vegan products also led to non-vegan skincare companies to release vegan products. Contrary to many Western countries, where the concept of veganism begins with food and extends to other things like skincare, in Korea, veganism in terms of food is not common but buying vegan cosmetics is popular.

Korean clean skincare products are often labeled as “Zero water”, meaning that they are not diluted and contain a high percentage of natural ingredients. “Zero water” may, in some cases, roughly equate to “natural” in K-beauty natural skincare products. Even though water is natural, when lots of water is added to products, there are usually preservatives added to reduce bacterial growth. In addition, more oil means more hydration for the skin and the stronger the active ingredients in the product will be.

Another popular skincare formulation of natural K-beauty products is fermentation, which is also popular in traditional Korean dishes. One of Korea’s most well-known natural skincare brands, Innisfree, which sources its ingredients from Jeju Island, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site which hosts a variety of climates allowing subtropical, tropical, and polar plants to thrive. Some of Innisfree’s best-selling products include the Jeju Volcanic Clay mask, the Green Tea Seed Serum, and the Orchid Enriched Cream. Similar to the Chinese app Beauty Evolution, South Korea also has an app called Hwahae; which rates products and their ingredients.

korean natural skincare brand innis free
Source: Creatrip, “InnisFree line of Jeju Volcanic clay masks”

Certifications and players in the natural skincare market

Certifications ensure that a product truly is natural. However the certification infrastructure in both countries differ, and this impacts the avenues for foreign brands into the each market.

China lacks a certification system so look outward for certified products

In China, there is no certification for natural skincare products, thus there are no regulatory agencies to comply with. 38% of Chinese consumers state that they don’t know where to buy reliable natural cosmetics. This results in Chinese consumers looking for certified natural skincare products from foreign brands. Currently, consumers buy natural skincare products from France’s L’Occitane, America’s Origins and Kiehl’s.

However, Chinese consumers are interested in niche brands as they are always on the lookout to buy something different from their peers. Thus, Chinese natural skincare brands have emerged like Herborist, Chando, Saselomo and Franic. Saselomo has obtained the internationally recognized ECOCERT certification, while Chando’s products go through at least 60 different safety and efficacy verifications. Although there are no clear labels in the country for what is natural, Pechoin – China’s first domestic skincare brand prides itself in being natural with products based on Chinese plants.

Due to Chinese consumers’ openness in trying new brands, the Chinese natural skincare market is a friendly market for both domestic and international companies. One challenge that natural skincare companies might face in China’s animal testing requirements, which may clash with natural skincare companies’ values, discouraging entry into the Chinese market. However, as of May 2021, a possibility of imported cosmetics being exempted from mandatory animal testing has been created.

the leading natural skincare products in China
Data source: KuRunData, designed by Daxue Consulting, The leading natural skincare products in China

How to attract Chinese consumers

The 2022 Xiaohongshu Beauty Trends Report released in April, revealed once more that interest in ingredients is strong. The report revealed that in 2021, the number of searches for ingredients increased by 216% YOY. Some of these searches were “Morning C night A”- apply vitamin C in the morning and A at night, and hyaluronic acid. The high interest in ingredients is highly influenced by Chen Fen Dang (成份党) or skintellectuals; Chinese skincare enthusiasts who thoroughly explain cosmetics and their ingredients. Thus, a strategy to attract Chinese consumers could be to be transparent about product’s ingredients and emphasize the ingredients heavily in advertising. In addition, try to learn from Chinese skintellectual netizens forums, and use trending ingredients in your products.

Korea’s domestic natural skincare brands make competition tight

In Korea, opportunity for foreign brands is less since Koreans pride themselves on their domestic beauty industry and there are Korean certifications that regulate natural skincare. In addition, the effectiveness of Korean products paired with their cheap prices discourage consumers from foreign brands. Major brands like Chanel and Dior attract Korean consumers but it is difficult for independent brands to penetrate the market.

Skin health and the appearance of one’s face is significant in Korean culture, thus the Korean skincare industry is a big business. Women from a very young age are taught to care for their skin, and companies ask for photos in an applicant’s resume. Korean’s popular 10-step skincare routine has become internationally recognized. Although they are highly knowledgeable on skincare, Korean consumers are generally not in the lookout for niche brands as Chinese consumers are. Korean consumers prefer to shop from large and renowned brands or daughter companies of such brands. It is relatively challenging to reach Korean consumers as a domestic brand and even more so as a foreign brand.  Some of the most popular natural skincare brands include Innisfree, Whamisa, Aromatica, and Baesix.

The famous Korean 10 step Skinc
Source: Femina, “The famous Korean 10 step Skincare routine”, a key aspect of natural skincare in South Korea

In both China and South Korea, sustainability does not extend to packaging

In both China and Korea, over packaging of products is a major issue. As many products are, natural skincare products are being covered in multiple unnecessary layers, especially products purchased online. The COVID-19 pandemic increased the over packaging problem since things were doubly packaged for hygiene. In 2021, 24.5% of retail sales in consumer goods in China were made online and 23.7% in Korea. This data reflect an attitude of consumers; they want their products conveniently delivered and do not care if the over packaging is severely or negatively impacting the environment. Both Chinese and Korean governments have recognized this issue in 2021 and have issued stricter packaging regulations, but the takeaway is that consumers do not mind as much in comparison to Western consumers who would consider non-sustainable packaging a deal-breaker.

Key takeaways of the natural skincare markets in South Korea and China:

  • The Covid-19 pandemic has made both Chinese and Korean consumers more attentive to the ingredients of their products, increasing demand for natural skincare products
  • The Korean market is relatively difficult to penetrate by both foreign and domestic newcomer brands but there is always a market for large foreign and domestic brands
  • Although consumers are increasingly demanding natural ingredients, they have low awareness of sustainability in packaging of these products
  • To Korean consumers, “Clean beauty” equates to vegan, whereas in China, being vegan is not a concern.
  • China has no official “natural” certifications for skincare brands, as a result, Chinese consumers buy from foreign brands (both large and niche) but also support local niche brands that prove to be trustworthy

Learn more about green products in China in our Green Guilt report