Recently, I bought my first Korean beauty products when I was in desperate need of new skincare items to help treat my very sensitive skin. After asking around for recommendations I was repeatedly guided to a popular K-Beauty website that curates and sells popular products and brands. 

After some initial hesitancy, I took a look around and found a brand that would be perfect for my skin type and solved all my concerns. Super excited, I purchased several products before doing a deeper dive into the brand, their values, or their social media. Once I checked out their “global” Instagram account, I was confused to see that there weren’t any Black models or influencers on their page. Other races and ethnicities were prominently featured throughout the brand’s feed. The lack of Black women was jarring to see for a company that considers itself global, especially on the heels of the events during summer 2020 with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, but not surprising.

The relationship between Black people and Korean beauty is very complicated. Although initially made and marketed towards Koreans and their diaspora, the K-beauty industry has taken off worldwide within the last decade. In response, brands have widened their reach to reflect a more global audience, and by global they meant pale. From BB Creams to face washes, the products were advertised to benefit paler-skinned people only. Products were labeled as “whitening” and were widely rumored to contain bleach and other skin lightening agents. 

Because of that, Black people chose to stay clear of Korean beauty products to avoid even unintentionally lightening or causing damage to our skin. As these rumors were dispelled for certain products, more and more Black beauty and skincare fanatics began to feel comfortable with integrating Korean brands into their everyday beauty routine. It became apparent that Black women across the globe spend an exorbitant amount on beauty and maintenance, which meant being inclusive and appealing to darker skin tones would be beneficial to the brands and companies involved.

Though that realization happened about half a decade ago, the majority of Korean beauty brands—especially the ones that pride themselves in being global and ‘for all’—do not have Black models advertising their products. Black women, especially those of darker skin complexions, are not seen on websites or social media pages.  

Black “skinfluencers”—a popular term coined in 2017 to describe social media influencers who specialize in skincare and beauty—have long demanded equal representation within the K-Beauty space. Even those with hundreds of thousands of followers, who have credited collaborations with other brands, are looked over by a majority of the Korean beauty companies out there.

This is not a problem exclusive to the K-Beauty industry, it took decades before top global brands were inclusive and diverse. In 2017, Fenty Beauty made international headlines for being the first brand to have 50 shades of foundation. Since then the company has been valued at 3 billion dollars, which many contribute to their inclusiveness. Other well known brands only caught on after much backlash and protests, and even now, they still don’t get it quite right. 

“Within the past four or five years there has been a shift in the global beauty industry. I’m happy to see more diversity in genders, sexuality, race, and skin tone, but there’s still such a long way to go,” said a popular beauty influencer with over 5,000 Instagram followers who wished to remain anonymous. “We have to undo hundreds of years of discrimination and stigma.”

Even in the rare cases where Black influencers are tapped to partner with a Korean beauty brand, they find they are not paid equally as white their counterparts with the same or similar contracts. Popular brands also appear to prefer white women who artificially tan their skin to appear racially ambiguous compared to Black women as promoters of their products.

To combat these practices, Black skincare lovers have taken steps to ensure they are included. They have actively called out brands to hold them accountable and even enlisted the help of white allies to be transparent about their deals and compensation. 

“We have to break the systems down and rebuild them in order to see change. We start that process by telling the ugly truth about the beauty industry,” commented the aforementioned influencer. 

Others are taking a more direct approach, like Charlo Greene, better known as KoKo, founder of KoKo Rose Beauty, “the world’s first Black K-beauty company.” A brand that is aimed at melanated men and women, but still uses the science and formulas behind Korean beauty.

While the approach may differ, the sentiment is the same. It is undeniable Korean beauty is a powerhouse, but along with the beauty industry at large, they are running behind in the journey towards total inclusion. Brands should no longer be able to market themselves as global without accurately reflecting the global population.

Check out another piece from this series about why K-pop idols and labels should speak up about Black Lives Matter here!