An NYC K-Beauty Odyssey

We don’t advocate joining cults…unless it involves Korean beauty products.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The South Korean beauty industry—known by the umbrella nickname K-beauty—has been the source of pretty much every recent skincare and cosmetics trend. BB cream started in Korea; so did the sheet-mask craze. K-beauty products are clever and fun, combining high-tech packaging (cushion compacts, another Korean breakthrough) with out-there ingredients (snail slime, bamboo sap, birch juice) and formulations that can sometimes feel like an interactive science experiment. Beyond the gimmickry, though, many of these products are supereffective.

It used to be that you could only find cult K-beauty items in Asia, but recently they’ve become a bit more available in the U.S. Sephora sells Belif The True Cream Moisturizing Bomb, a rich but lightweight face cream said to be the bestselling beauty product in Korea. Urban Outfitters has its own beauty section filled with Korean goodies, and Glow Studio inside the Wellery at Saks Fifth Avenue sells a curated selection of natural, harsh-free K-beauty brands.

But for a real-deal adventure, head to the authentic Asian beauty boutiques in Chinatown; Flushing, Queens; and Koreatown—this is New York City, after all. Let us know if you go; we can help you find the best nearby Korean double-fried wings and seafood pancakes (getting beautiful works up an appetite). Get in touch with an experience adviser here.

TonyMoly Floria Brightening Peeling Gel

Rub this cooling pearlescent exfoliating gel into your skin, and then keep rubbing until globs of gunk—dead skin and impurities, according to the manufacturer—begin to ball up on the surface. The big mystery here is whether these balls are actually just clumps of the product’s gel ingredients, a burning question that intrepid beauty bloggers have attempted to answer in a variety of unique ways; some even go as far as testing it on inanimate objects like oranges and plates. Their verdict: Yes, the gunk really does seem to be dead skin and dirt, as the company claims. The gel is gentle and moisturizing enough to use on your face, but it’s also good for elbows, knees, and heels.

Where to get it: TonyMoly, 35 West 32nd Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues), Koreatown

Smile Foot Mask

No Asian beauty breakthrough is more bizarrely satisfying than the foot peel. You sit with your feet in disposable, goo-filled booties for about an hour, rinse off the product, and go about your business. A few days later, the skin on your feet starts to peel off painlessly in huge sheets, leaving behind soft, smooth, callus-free soles. It is disgusting, it is freaky, and it totally works. If you do it once or twice a year, you may be able to forgo pedicures.

Where to get it: The Face Shop, 136-53 Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing


Laneige Special Care Lip Sleeping Mask

This insanely moisturizing overnight treatment comes in an itty-bitty pot with an itty-bitty wand you use to apply it to dry, flaky lips before drifting off to dreamland. By the time you rise, it’s as if the Lip Fairy has come, leaving your lips so soft and smooth you might even be able to throw out your stash of glosses. The balm is enriched with vitamin C and something its manufacturer calls Berry Mix Complex, a quintuple blend of antioxidant-filled raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, goji berries, and blueberries. But the real magic most likely comes from hyaluronic acid, a powerhouse ingredient that attracts and holds moisture.

Find it at: oo35mm, 81 Mott Street (between Canal and Bayard Streets), 2nd floor, Chinatown

Skinfood Black Sugar Mask  

What’s weird about this product is how comparatively normal it is. Korean beauty brands don’t usually sell physical exfoliators (that is, products with scrubbing granules), preferring chemical ingredients that exfoliate at the cellular level. But this sugar scrub from a 60-year-old company that calls itself “the first cosmetic brand to root itself in food” is a perennial bestseller. Yes, it is made with actual sugar, but please do not eat it. Its legions of fans promise you will have a fresh, glowing complexion.

Where to get it: Skinfood, 136-89 Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing

Elizavecca Milky Piggy Hell-Pore Clean Up Mask

This one is worth buying for the name, cute graphics, and wacky, lost-in-translation instructions. (“A person is weak or sensitive skin, please use only nose!”) But users say this peel-off exfoliating treatment, which contains oil-absorbing charcoal powder, really does suck the blackheads out of clogged pores like a vacuum cleaner. Paint it on your face, avoiding eyes and eyebrows; let it dry for 15 to 20 minutes; then “gingerly peel off!” to reveal smoother, cleaner skin.

Where to get it: Besfren Beauty, 315 Fifth Avenue (at West 32nd Street), Koreatown