A rout of giant African and garden snails glide along specially crafted mesh and glass in dark rooms, leaving a trail of mucin that will be the centrepiece in “bare beauty” products. That these molluscs are delicacies in the form of escargot, valued by French and Spanish gourmands for centuries, is well-known. That their slime would be christened the next best thing by purveyors of beauty in Seoul’s Myeong-dong district was unforeseen.

But then, few things are beyond the watchful eye of Myeong-dong: an eye that constantly scans likely breakthroughs for the global skincare market. On the anvil now is donkey milk, pig collagen, starfish extract, snake venom and aqua filling—a method of using moisture-binding products to plump up the skin to transform it into zzon zzon, or “custard-skin”.

The Korean beauty, or K-beauty, industry has captured the world’s attention, with reams dedicated to it over the past two years or so. This market, kept alive by the beating, neon heart of Myeong-dong—where you’ll find everything from pimple patches and underarm sweat pads to premium products by the likes of Sulwhasoo, Tatcha and Amore Pacific—was worth an estimated $13.1 billion (Rs 89,972 crore) in 2017.

South Korea is ground zero of functional cosmetics, which focus on perfecting your skin instead of curtaining blemishes with makeup. Think acne-prevention, anti-ageing, reversing UV damage and yes, skin-whitening.

There’s a Maslow’s hierarchy of these products, ranging from the stuff prescribed in dermatology and plastic surgery clinics (top of the pyramid) to products you’ll find at throwaway prices in Myeong-dong (basal, not as coveted). Regardless of where they fall on the pyramid, they inexplicably find their way to the hallowed 10-step skincare routine.

Oil cleanser. Foam cleanser. Exfoliation. Toner. Essence. Ampoule. Sheet mask. Eye cream. Moisturiser. Night cream. There are variations; you may use sunscreen as the last step during the day, or follow condensed five or three-step routines to avoid testing time and patience. The point is to approach skincare as you would an elaborate multi-course meal—each rung building on the last, each iota bringing you closer to Epicurean nirvana.

Indian women, with our acne-prone, hyper-pigmented skin, were bound to be suckers for a burgeoning functional cosmetics market. We also wear less makeup, or use makeup less frequently, than our western peers. This ripe context has given Korean skincare brands wide berth to make hay while the sun shines.


Roshni Nair

Roshni P. Nair joins us from Reuters, where she was an online producer. With a background in weekend features at Hindustan Times and DNA, Roshni has written on subjects ranging from India’s amateur UFO investigators to the provenance of sambhar. When not pursuing story ideas, she enjoys reading, making a great cuppa adrak chai, playing with street dogs, and avoiding large gatherings. Roshni will work out of Mumbai and can be reached at roshni at the rate the-ken.com

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