Updated June 10, 2021

Traditional Korean Makeup: The Secret Behind Korean Beauty

Traditional Korean Makeup
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Have you ever envied the soft, dewy, and blemish-free skin that all Korean women seem to have?

Now, before you blame your genetics and diet, you should know IT’S NOT JUST because of all the kimchi they eat in Seoul.

It’s because almost everyone in Korea subscribes to a strong skincare and makeup culture, even at a young age!

Why? Well, to explain the complexity of Korean beauty, we have to start at the very beginning, with the history of cosmetics. And yes, women wore makeup even then!

Table of Contents

History of Korean Cosmetics

History

The Three Kingdoms

Did you know that Korean makeup history goes back all the way to 57 B.C. when the Silla, Baekje, and Goryeo kingdom reigned? 

That’s more than 2,000 years ago! Women wore makeup and have been wearing makeup for so long.

During The Three Kingdoms period, Koreans of all ages, genders, and walks of life HIGHLY PRIORITIZED aesthetics.

This wasn’t merely for vanity, though; these people believed that outer appearances reflected who they were on the inside too.

Makeup Composition

Naturally, the makeup materials in those times were very different from what we’re used to today as well.

Back then, ONLY natural oils and ingredients were used to create traditional cosmetics, beauty lotions, and other beauty products. Here are some of them:

  • Safflower oil – Natural moisturizer, ‘Yeonji’/rouge
  • Ground rice and millet – Face powder/foundation
  • Plant ash and charcoal – Dye for eyebrows
  • Ground mung beans – Facial scrubs /cleansing soap
  • Apricot and peach oilsTreatment for hyperpigmentation, freckles, liver spots
  • Clove buds – Perfume/deodorant
  • Plant seed extracts – Hair oil
  • Saffron flowers – Rouge

Thinking about it now, those early manufacturing techniques definitely took a lot of creativity.

Did you ever imagine eyebrow ink made of ash, hair oil extracted from seeds, and face powder made from ground rice?

Because these makeup and skincare products were composed of naturally occurring ingredients, they were considered gentle and nourishing for the skin too!

Safflower oil, in particular, is rich in Vitamin E, which promotes skin moisture and clarity—basically the key to achieving the ‘glass skin’ of the Goryeo dynasty.

Chosun/Joseon Dynasty

Chosun-Joseon Dynasty

Beauty and make-up peaked during The Three Kingdoms’ Goryeo dynasty, but it didn’t stop there. In fact, the Goryeo dynasty just represented the early beginnings of the Korean cosmetics industry.

Emphasis on Simplicity

Unlike other cultures that were starting to experiment with chemical ingredients, Koreans and upper class women tended to stick to simple and natural materials.

In fact, women ONLY used light makeup (usually just some powder, dye on eyebrows, and a little rouge) on their faces. The idea of concealer was still non-existent.

Why? Well, during the Joseon Dynasty, the Confucian ideals of dignity, simplicity, and humility were given much importance, so this carried over mainly to cosmetics and makeup culture.

In response to this, however, people produced more ornamented cosmetics containers, mirrors, and other accessories during the Goryeo and Joseon dynasty.

Simple earthenware containers evolved into delicate, glazed pots due to the rise of celadon culture in Korea.

Gyuhap Chongseo

Another development in cosmetics cultures was the “Gyuhap Chongseo“, a women’s encyclopedia detailing beauty practices and makeup styles, among others.

Interestingly enough, it discusses 10 popular designs for eyebrows, which shows that perfectly groomed arches were equally trendy for women back in the 1800s.

The only difference between then and now?

In those times, slender, willow leaf shapes were in. (You won’t see any full and fluffy brows here!)

Also, people didn’t really pay much attention to eyelashes yet so there wasn’t an early form of mascara.

20th Century

20th Century

The early 20th century marked another big change in the history of Korean cosmetics. Western culture spread all over the world, influencing countries, and cultures with things like technology, mass production, and capitalism.

In 1916, ‘Bakgabun’ or ‘Pak Powder’ was mass-produced for the first time in the history of Korea, indicating a shift in the Korean cosmetics industry.

Now, makeup tools and products could be quickly manufactured and sold to thousands of people, making Korean beauty ideals so much more accessible to women everywhere.

These developments would slow down for a while due to Japanese colonization and other external factors, but they never came to a complete stop.

It’s human nature to bounce back, after all, and that’s exactly what the people in the Korean beauty and cosmetics industry did!

READ MORE: How are Japanese and Korean Skincare Alike?

Present

Present

Fast forward to today, and Korea is now known to have one of the best makeup and beauty selections worldwide.

It’s one of the MOST ADVANCED in cosmetics production technology, developing things like a 3D printing face mask and an LED beauty mask to address different skin types.

However, even after over 2,000 years, the core of the makeup and cosmetics culture in Korea remains the same: Light, natural, and skin-pampering products are always preferred over the showy, dramatic makeup commonly associated with the West.

More Information on Cosmetics in Korea

More Information

Beauty really is in the center of Korean culture—did you know that the Coreana Cosmetics Museum in Seoul, South Korea showcases these beauty developments from ancient Korean history until now?

For museum curator Lee Ji Sun, the Coreana Cosmetics Museum helps visitors see how cosmetics products from different eras have stayed relatively constant.

Although they’re made and packaged differently now, the concepts behind them are pretty much the same. Sounds like the women back then knew what they were doing!

They were even able to think up AFFORDABLE SUBSTITUTIONS for different types of makeup, such as charcoal instead of plant ash for eyebrow dye and dried red peppers instead of saffron for rouge.

In the Coreana Cosmetics Museum, you’ll also find evidence of Korean cosmetics culture and history through paintings, writings, and other artifacts. A popular art piece by Shin Yun Bok even showcases Confucian beauty standards during the Joseon dynasty.

If you’re interested in Korean makeup history, and you happen to be in Seoul, South Korea, we think this cool museum is definitely worth a visit!

Typical Korean Makeup and Skincare Routine

Typical Routine

Women in Korea (Seoul, especially) are very meticulous with their makeup and skincare routines. We mean, how else will they look perfect and glowing all the time?

Much like their ancestors, they generally gravitate towards cosmetics/beauty products with gentle and natural ingredients. That’s why organic Korean skincare exists.

Although a typical routine is quite long, each part of this 10-step process presents specific benefits for your skin.

Some of these steps DON’T have to be done every day, such as exfoliating and applying a face mask. 

They can be done ONCE OR TWICE a week, depending on your needs and preferences. Ideally, though, the rest of the routine should be performed regularly for optimal results.

Important Reminder:

When applying products onto your face, make sure to be very gentle.

Aggressively rubbing your face can lead to the formation of wrinkles, so it’s best to pat on the treatments and creams instead.

Not sure which products to use? Fortunately, there are a lot of great beauty brands in Korea to choose from nowadays, so it won’t be hard to find makeup or skincare items that’ll best suit your needs.

Experiment and have fun with the process to find out which ones you like most!

FAQs

#1 What is the best Korean cosmetics brand?

#1

Top cosmetics brands in Seoul, Korea include:

Besides having a wide variety of products available, these brands are also pretty affordable too! They’re most famous for their BB creams and CC creams.

You can easily purchase their products in-store, on their official websites, or through online retailers such as Amazon.

#2 What does the Korean phrase 'Chok Chok' mean?

In Korea, ‘chok chok’ refers to a dewy, glowing complexion. The key to achieving this is adding and locking in moisture through the 10-step skincare routine.

The first few steps will cleanse and prime your face for the treatments.

  • Essences, emulsions, and serums offer hydration and address specific problems such as acne, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation
  • Creams and masks lock in much-needed moisture
  • Sunscreen protects you from harmful UV rays

All of these work together to give you great results!

#3 What is the secret to Korean skin?

Although quality cosmetics and skincare products play a huge role, your lifestyle is equally as important.

Korean culture prioritizes self-care in all aspects, not just beauty. Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting at least 8 hours of sleep are all ways to nourish your body from the inside out.

You should also form healthy habits and integrate these into your regular routine.

For example, skincare isn’t an instant solution to a problem; it’s a preventative measure that you should be performing for life.

Conclusion

Conclusion

Since The Three Kingdoms, cosmetics in Korea have come a long way in terms of packaging, manufacturing, and formulation, but they’ve remained true to the heart of Korean beauty and culture.

Perhaps the newest and trendiest makeup product that Korea has come up with today is the BB Cushion. It’s a BB cream AND a foundation in one that’s easy to apply because it comes with a puff.

As for skincare, relaxing sheet masks and nourishing serums might be modern-day inventions, but these essentials are proof that the influences and beauty standards of early-day women reign supreme.

At the end of the day, simplicity and natural beauty are what we strive for.

Interested in starting your own skincare routine? Check out our article on the 10-Step Korean Skincare routine to learn all about the best products to use.

Paola Diaz
Paola Diaz

Hi, I'm Paola! A skin care enthusiast and nature lover. Creating content that promotes proper skin treatment and keeping a healthy glow is my way of sharing with the world how healthy skin can go a long way. I’m a firm believer of natural beauty that radiates inside all of us. All we need is the right kind of nourishment that inspires our wellness from inside out. So it’s really not about physical beauty alone – it’s the beautiful life we can create for ourselves when we connect with our own nature and see there is beauty that shines from every one of us.