When I visited Seoul, South Korea, I was shocked by how many cosmetic stores there were, particularly in the shopping district Myeong-dong. Dozens upon dozens of brightly lit and irresistible cosmetic stories lined the streets packed with young Korean teenagers and young adults.
The stores are like Sephora on steroids. The store clerks are extremely attentive (literally following you around but patiently rather than aggressively, holding your basket and waiting for questions). Best of all, the free samples and sales are out of this world! Store clerks handed out sheet masks to everyone like there was no tomorrow. You can easily find packs of high-quality sheet masks under $1 USD per unit, and freebies of all kinds flow plentifully.
Needless to say, I was hooked. The best thing about Korean cosmetics (aside from some truly lovely packaging) is that a lot of the products I encountered were high quality and very affordable. I found this to be opposite my experience in the U.S., where you usually have to spend quite a lot to get a decent product. In addition, Korean cosmetic companies are very willing to focus on unusual ingredients and have been leaders in this area--from snail slime to animal fat, you can find many interesting combinations of products you may not have ever thought to try on your skin.
Below is a breakdown of the most common affordable Korean cosmetic stores I ran into, many of which have their products available for shipping to the US or show up in places like Urban Outfitters, Sephora, Ulta, CVS, Target and even their own dedicated storefronts (hello L.A.!). The ones listed below are all fairly cheap, though it’s important to note that there are many, many more Korean brands than this, as well as a whole slew of more expensive lines aimed at adult women (these pricy brands, like many women's products, function as a status symbol). However it's my philosophy that skincare and cosmetics shouldn't break the bank.
All of these brands carry a wide variety of cosmetics and many are under the largest skincare and cosmetics company in South Korea, AmorePacific (including Etude House and Innisfree). Even better, many of these brands have begun to open U.S. locations, primarily in New York or Los Angeles, so keep your eyes peeled! Unfortunately the U.S. stores have a higher markup on products compared to Korean-based ones, but they still are well within the range of reasonable prices.
This is probably the most recognizable Korean brand, as they’ve made a lot of headway into American markets. You can easily spot TonyMoly products by their irresistibly fun packaging—everything from Pokemon to panda bears is on display here, which makes great gifts for others and leaves quite a few adult women (myself included) swooning.
Products are hit or miss. Some of the cuter packaged items are of average quality (for example, banana-shaped and banana-flavored lip balm), making them fun gifts but not necessarily items you’d want to incorporate into your daily skincare routine.
But TonyMoly gets an A+ for packaging and fun concepts, as well as having several outstandingly long-lasting lip products and sheet masks (including snail-based products) that are out of this world.
-Pureness 100 Snail Mask Sheet - Skin Damage Care (review)
-Liptone Get It Tint #5 All-Night (review)
-I'm Real Facemasks (you may have seen these in U.S. stores)
-Cucumber Water Gel (great for sunburns)
Best packaged products:
-Mango hand cream
-Banana lip balm
-Panda eye brightener (review)
Skinfood offers a high-quality lineup of products based on food: royal honey, lettuce, egg white, avocado, peach sake, tomatoes, apple, yuja, caviar and other greens. This store is on the higher end of what I consider the affordable range but ships to U.S. customers as well.
Favorite products so far:
-Rice Brightening Facial Cleansing Tissue (review)
-Tomato Cool Jelly Tint for lips (review)
-Real Tea Gel Mask (review)
-Any of their black sugar products
This brand is geared more toward natural products, such as volcanic rock, green tea and other plants. Of special interest are their items from the volcanic Jeju Island, an isle off the coast of South Korea. InnisFree offers a huge range of face masks with ingredients spanning from rice to blueberry to pretty much every fruit flavor you could think of.
I found a lot of really great products here, particularly non-greasy and effective sunscreens (which are incredibly important for skincare).
-Jeju volcanic melting clay mask
-Green tea seed cream and green tea seed eye cream
-Smoothie booties (for your feet!)
-Face masks in the It's Free and Skin Clinic series
Bonus: InnisFree has a product website that ships to the U.S.!
Missha features a good range of affordable as well as higher priced cosmetics. Their BB creams (cover up and healing face products) are of particular note, as well as their wide range of sheet masks, sunscreens and cushion foundations. You can find their products on a variety of websites.
-Mild Essence Sun Milk SPF 50
-Any of their BB creams (very affordable!)
5. Nature Republic
Similar in pricing to the Face Shop (see below), Nature Republic covers a wide range of needs. I have to give them call out here for having the single best snail mucus face mask I have tried. Part of what makes this product so notable is its high percentage of snail filtrate. They also have a particular focus on aloe vera as an ingredient in many of their products.
Favorite product (and hands down my favorite snail-based sheet mask):
-Snail Solution Mask Sheet (review)
6. IT'S SKIN (잇츠스킨)
In a nutshell: It's Skin has amazing sheet masks, including a very respectable snail moisture mask. I've found their products to be consistently high quality with a good price. And yes, they ship to U.S. customers!
-Snail Moisture Mask Sheet (review)
-Nutrition Daily Sheet Mask (review)
Best packaged product:
-Macaron Lip Balms
7. Too Cool for School
This fun and trendy brand is well known for their egg white line of products. They have some amazing face masks and under eye serums as well. They are also known for their dinosaur theme and other innovative packaging, which is a step up in both price and sophistication from Tony Moly.
-Any of the egg white masks
Bonus: Too Cool for School recently opened up an online store for U.S. customers and is carried in stores like Sephora, Ulta and Nordstrom.
8. Etude House
This store, with its distinct pink-and-white decor, is a fun environment and probably the cheapest of the bunch. It caters more to make-up than skincare, but I would be remiss not to mention it on this list. In particular, it has a wide range of lip tints, stains and eye products that are worth perusing.
-Dear Darling Water Gel Tint
-Water Tint Ice Cream
9. The Face Shop
The Face Shop has a lot of offerings in both skincare and cosmetics. Aside from an extremely diverse range of face masks, they also have foot and hand masks (which are essentially bags of moisturizing ingredients you wrap around your appendages for absorption). They also excel in BB cushions, a popular product for cover up and facial healing.
-Mascream Face Sheets
10. Banila Co
This brand is noted for its products that help both prep the skin for make-up and remove make-up. Its make-up primers and very effective oil-based cleansers are now available through Amazon. If you haven't explored oil-based cleansers, the Banila Co line is the one to start with--it gently and effective cleans skin without drying out.
-Clean It Zero sherbet (review)
Other Korean cosmetic brands to check out
By no means an exhaustive list, but here are a few additional brands (both cheap and expensive) worth noting:
Any favorite Korean brands that I missed? Let me know in the comments!
I use my background in molecular biology and science journalism to dive into what makes certain Korean skincare and cosmetic products so effective. Then, I share my findings with you all!