A Beginner’s Guide to Korean Makeup

Tony Moly's Cat Chu Wink & Etude House Cherry Tint
LG Korea Eun Kang Go Bamboo Salt Toothpaste

You know when you catch yourself not listening to the last 12 words out of somebody's mouth because you're wondering what the hell they're using on their face—that you don't—to get such perfectly even skin? That's kind of what it was like meeting Charlotte Cho at an ITG event in New York a couple of months ago. She's the type of chick that could be either 18 or 30—skin too good to have spent three whole decades under our depleting ozone layer, but she's suspiciously too put-together to be flipping a penny for the top bunk at the dorm. Actually, we're still not entirely sure of the Cali native's age, but we do know that her great skin is in no small part thanks to a five-year stint in Seoul, Korea, where she developed an obsession with the nation's ever-advancing beauty industry. So, we asked Chowho also runs the e-commerce site Soko Glamto give us a rundown of  her current favorite overseas products and a few predictions for the "next BB cream."  You heard it here first, people. 

I thought I was beauty-obsessed, and then I experienced Seoul. I was a 20-something, recent UC Irvine graduate when I took a job working as a publicist for Samsunghalfway around the world at their headquarters in South Korea. It was in that magical mecca of flawless, dewy skin that I found my true calling in beauty retail. This is a citynay, a culturethat believes in a million-step skincare regimen and very minimal makeup. They’ve dominated the skincare game for, like, centuries, but it wasn't until Koreans incepted, perfected, and popularized BB cream that cosmetics companies throughout the world have been hawk-eyeing their makeup innovations, too. Which is to say, if it’s big in Korea, you can bet that it’s going to be the next billion-dollar global product. Here’s what every girl in Seoul has in her makeup bag right now:

The Liner

Nary an eye goes unlined in Korea, so our liner formulas need to pass the test of both the dreaded monsoon season and sub-zero Seoul winters. Clio Waterproof Pen Liner in Kill Black is one of the most popular liquid liners in the city. It's the deepest, darkest, blackest black I’ve ever used—hence the lurid name—and its tapered felt tip allows you to easily produce razor-thin lines or thick, Dita-Von-Teese-ian flicks. It’s a total game changer, because at $15, it’s half the price of YSL’s version (but just as smooth and long-lasting), and is so easy to apply that you'll be pushing your gel pots and pencils to the dustier corners of your vanity.

The Eyebrow Pencil

Korean women don’t leave the house without defining their brows—always thick, straight-across lines completely lacking arches. I prefer the sheer brown color and angled application of Design My Eyebrow Pencil from The Faceshop, that twists up so you never have to sharpen it. Equally important is its sturdy spoolie on the opposite end, to brush away any obvious pencil lines. The goal here is to soften the arch of your brows to get a youthful look that screams, "I am a prepubescent girl that has never used tweezers!"

The Lip Tint

A makeup artist in Seoul once told me to stay away from perfectly-manicured lips because they can make you look older. And if you take stock of the mouths of K-Pop starlets, along with pretty much every girl in the South Korean capital, it seems they’ve all ditched the liner + lip brush combo in favor of creating an advanced gradient lip with a creamy pink tint, as if they’ve just sucked on strawberry lollipops. To recreate the allusion, you can dab Etude House Cherry Tint [ed note: discontinued] or, for an orange-y red, Tony Moly Cat Chu Wink [ed note: discontinued] at the center of your lips. Like all Korean lip tints, both products are adorably packaged (did you miss the cat ears on Tony's?) and smell and taste like jellybeans.

Oral Hygiene

Koreans are BIG on oral hygiene. It’s totally normal to catch people brushing their teeth in a public restroom at school, at the office, and in subway stations—we eat a lot of kimchi and garlic, so brushing three times a day is kind of a must. If a toothbrush-and-toothpaste set isn’t in a person’s makeup bag, you will be more than likely find the duo stuck into their pencil holder at their desk—and the paste will probably be of the bamboo salt variety. A thousands-year-old Korean cure-all, bamboo salt does a hell of a job preventing gum and tooth decay (even in comparison to its minty American competitors), but the funky herbal taste takes some getting used to.

The Next Big Thing 

One Iope Air Cushion Compact sells every 30 seconds (according to Iope, at least). The formula-soaked sponge provides all of the benefits of a BB cream (all-in-one moisturizer, anti-aging, SPF 50 PA+++, and skin-evening color), but what makes it revolutionary—yes, I said revolutionary—is that it can be reapplied throughout the day via the non-absorbing puff applicator for buildable, non-cakey coverage, and it hydrates for that instant aforementioned flawless, dewy finish. There are now what seem like millions of copycat products in Korea, but Iope still does it best. This is the next BB cream.

—Charlotte Cho

Photos by Mathea Millman. 

It all starts with the Korean 10-Step Skincare Routine.

And when it's cold outside, switch to the Cold Weather Korean Skincare Routine.

Let’s Talk About It! JOIN IN
  • Megan

    I would LOVE to see a post about Korean skincare and all the 10 steps they follow. I think their make up is awesome, but I want to know how they keep their skins so great and poreless.

    • http://happybourgeoistendencies.wordpress.com/ Rozza

      I agree, since koreans tend to focus more on skincare and keep their makeup minimal.

      • Lilith_Black

        Wrong, Korean women (even university students) always wear makeup (even the restaurant ahjumma wears makeup!) .

    • Anika

      ITG, please note: a detailed explanation of the full Korean skincare routine is a MUST!
      Please, please, please have Charlotte Cho and Sheryll of The Wanderlust Project translate K-beauty for us, so I can have perfect skin this summer.
      I will be forever grateful!

  • http://www.kmakesithappen.com/ Kassandra Fairhall

    Great article, I will def be giving some of these products a go, I've been trying to find a good korean bb cream, since their the ones that invented it I figured they probably know the formula in and out and can make one mean bb cream. Really loved reading this article

    • Merrill

      Holika Holika's petite bb cream is my forever favourite- buildable coverage, never cakey, really lovely.

    • abirthdaypony

      Dr. Jart Black Label and Mizon Snail Repair are two excellent products!

  • Lagi

    Please tell me this is the first in a series

  • Kerry Lee

    so excited that korean cosmetics/skincare is gaining attention on ITG! i must say, their diet contributes A LOT (if not more) to their perfect skin besides their skincare and makeup. i went to korea recently and it seems like their meals are full of detox dishes...i also lost some weight, i know, ridiculous, but somehow processed food doesn't taste as good after eating korean dishes for 5 days. btw, banila co and 3CE are good korean cosmetic brands too.

    • Bianca

      google charlotte cho and soko glam. there are some other great articles about her on daily candy and the zoe report talking about her skin care and make up!

      • Kerry Lee

        thanks bianca! yea, I knew about them already :) just saying that besides the makeup, maybe we can focus on the Korean skincare and diet, too. :D

  • Lizzy

    Checkout YouTube.com/beautyinasnap
    Channel dedicated to Korean beauty and Skincare secrets!

  • Andrea

    Hah! This is great, I'm a fan...I am always intrigues by other cultures. Good job ITG.

    Andrea Fer, Not Quite Grown Up Guide

  • http://www.ourwonderlust.com/ Tina@OurWonderLust

    I love Asian skincare and makeup. It's so cutting edge and the packaging is always so fun! I just hope that they go more green/clean/organic in their beauty as we move forward.

  • http://thenakedcoed.blogspot.com/ Dana

    I've been considering the IOPE for a while now, does anyone know if the Sephora Amore Pacific brand's air cushion is the same/strikingly similar?

    • charlotte

      IOPE is the sister company to AmorePacific, so yes, it is similar!

    • Rosa

      I've tried both and find them comparable products. However, IOPE is a better value!

  • Sarah A

    Such an interesting article! Could you do a follow-up on Korean skincare?

  • tiana

    What a fun post! I'd love to hear more about the skin care and massages that Korean women do on their faces.

  • Zanna

    I've just got really into Korean beauty + skincare recently, with the Tony Moly Appletox (the green one - the packaging is so cute) which is cheap and really works well as a chemical exfoliator. Got some Holika Holika BB cream and Mizon snail gel (freaky but also big in Korea for skin healing) on the way, but now desperate for some IOPE - have wanted it since Mari on XOVain introduced us to it. And yes please do more posts on Korean skincare + makeup! I wanna be ahead of the curve...

  • dorothy

    This is great! Please keep doing posts on Korean/Asian beauty, and bring us more tips from abroad! You should also definitely check out a Korean spa and try the relatively aggressive but worth it body scrub.


  • Amanda

    Yeeeeeeees I'm super interested in Korean skincare too. Very excited about the existence of Soko Glam!

  • murt

    Awesome post! Would love to see more information like this on ITG. I definitely want to check out the IOPE or another cushion foundation.

  • j

    Please do more on korean and japanese and chinese and so on skin care, it's so refrehsing to see tips frm the other side of the world. they are so innovative. ps. would've loved to see an inside view of the iope compact?

  • vvn

    My Korean friend's mom has the most ageless skin I've ever seen. I can't help but tell her mom that every time I see her, and I've been friends with this girl for almost 15 years! I'm a huge fan of Japanese cosmetics but haven't dabbled with Korean products since I don't know much about them. Now that there's this curated site, I will be dabbling more :) Sorry wallet :(

  • Tanja

    Great post, but I miss a photo of Charlotte Cho and her flawless skin.

  • prairie_dogs

    Same- allergic to all forms of sunscreen, even just zinc oxide or whatever. :( I can imagine that silicone would be even harder to avoid, because I just have to keep an eye out for complexion stuff.

  • Michelle K. Lee

    love cushion pacts in Korea!

  • Kelly Reid

    Just had a buying rampage. I use ITG articles like shopping lists. Dammit I love you guys.

  • Julie


  • http://brklyngirl.com/ jj

    I just got back from Korea, and being a Korean girl myself, even I was totally astounded by their beauty culture. Myeongdong is an outdoor shopping district entirely dedicated to makeup/beauty products. I would say this was about a 8-10 block radius of dense shops. The basic steps for most Korean women are:
    1. Oil or Cream Cleanser + massage 2. Refiner (which is like an exfoliant) 3. Emulsion (which is a milky thin moisturizer) 4. Serum (snail mucous is popular) 5. Moisturizer. Not to mention the cloth masks which are put on daily. That's the bare bones of it. Since I've come back with a backpack full of stuff, I would say my routine has now extended itself a full 10 - 15 minutes. It's worth it though. I've never seen my skin look better. Believe the hype! I'm going back next week! WOO HOO!! Also, if you are curious about korean skincare routines, I think a search on youtube will find some results. Please look up Pony's Beauty Diary. She's adorable!

  • Katie

    After reading this I bought the sponge SPF compact in N23 (I am fair skinned with yellow undertones and copper brown hair/freckles) and it is amazing! I never wear foundation, have never owned any BB cream, but the re-applicable spf factor sold me. It is SO GOOD. My freckles don't turn grey as with most face makeup, it's hydrating, and covers redness and unevenness. Thanks for the rec!

  • conejitoasesino

    I jumped on the BB bandwagon back in the days when you could only buy Etude House and Kanebo on suspect Ebay sites and dimly lit TCM pharmacies and I haven't looked back since.
    My faves are Kate Kanebo liquid liner, Peri Pera lip tint, Mizon snail cream (yup, snail slime), and Holika Holika BB cream. And ANYTHING from Etude House! I also dream about Sulwhasoo in my sleep but they're a little pricey for me.

  • koreancosmetic

    That's a fantatic tips,i will try it myself.I'm webmaster of korean beauty product()

  • Trey Crittenden

    You should all take a look at this amazing award winning instant eye shadow called Eye Majic. perfect eye shadow in 10 seconds.. amazing.

  • Trey Crittenden

    Or even better Esther shop is helping us distribute this amazing eye shadow. http://www.eyemajic.co.kr

  • Nikita Desiree’

    I'm curious if there are more affordable versions of these products.

  • Alice

    I think that Korean skin and hair care products might be too harsh for some: I used to be almost what you might call a Korean make-up junkie. At some point I noticed that my skin began to look dull, tired, and sort of lifeless. I also started breaking out more (the horror). Now, I'm not saying that only asian beauty products are the perpetrators: many western products caused similar effects (on a lesser scale though). I think that since Asian beauty products are mostly designed for Asian skin those of you who are not Asian or have sensitive skin must tread with caution, and use responsibly.


Clio Waterproof Pen Liner, Kill Black
Etude House
Etude House Cherry Tint
Iope Cushion Compact
Tony Moly
Tony Moly’s Cat Chu Wink
The Faceshop
The Faceshop Design My Eyebrow Pencil
Eun Kang Go
Eun Kang Go Bamboo Salt Toothpaste