SEOUL —When it comes to taking care of his skin, Lee Woo-jung just does the basics: toner, essence, moisturizer and “BB cream,” the tinted sun cream that covers up flaws without being too makeuppy.
This kind of beauty routine is standard among image-conscious South Korean men in their 20s — which is to say, most South Korean men in their 20s.
“People look at me differently when I take care of my skin,” said Lee, 27, a gym owner who was walking through the trendy Seoul district of Hongdae with his girlfriend recently. “It helps me when I’m working because I have a good image. When I approach other people, they are more open to me.”
Tall, with perfect hair and chiseled cheekbones, Lee turned heads as he indulged an impertinent reporter’s questions. His looks may have been exceptional, but his skin-care routine was not.
South Korea has become famous in recent years for skin-care products for women, which incorporate everything from regenerating snail mucus to animal placenta. Now young — and some not so young — men are also buying into the beauty obsession that has swept this land, boosting the nation’s already booming cheap cosmetics business.
“In South Korea, being young and active are considered very attractive qualities. Youth equals ability,” said Eric Min, deputy editor in chief at Luel, a glossy men’s magazine with a whole section devoted to grooming. Min, 41, has bright, flawless skin with not even the faintest wrinkle. “So you get plus points here if you look younger.”
The South Korean beauty-product industry boasts about $10 billion in sales annually through stores such as Nature Republic, Etude House, Missha and Tony Moly. Exports to China and Southeast Asia have been growing at a rapid pace, and many tourists here head straight for these shops.
South Korean beauty routines for women involve a confounding array of steps, involving multiple cleansers, potions and creams. Does the essence go on after the serum but before the emulsion?
As the women’s market has become saturated, beauty companies have been stepping up their marketing to men.
It’s a huge prospect in South Korea — and increasingly in other parts of Asia, thanks to the phenomenal popularity of Korean dramas and music — where the masculine ideal of beauty might be described as “metrosexual” in the West.
More than 10 percent — or $1.5 billion — of domestic beauty-product sales are now coming from products for men. The men’s market has been growing at about 9 percent each year for the past four years, said Kang Jae-joon, head of equity research in Korea at the investment manager Franklin Templeton.
The most popular products for men include skin-care preparations — toners, essences and lotions — and pencil kits for filling in the eyebrows. BB cream is also popular — it can be passed off as sunblock — although the Iope brand makes a version of its famous cushion foundation compact for men.
Innisfree, another popular brand, even puts out a line of brown, green and black face paint for army conscripts called “extreme power camo cream, with tea leaf extract for soldier” that is gentler on the skin than the standard-issue stuff.
While face products for men are not an entirely foreign concept in the United States — brands such as Lab Series and Clinique, both owned by Estee Lauder, offer lines for men — it’s nowhere near the scale seen here.
In South Korea, getting ahead is not just about having a good résumé but a good complexion to go with it.
“Korean society is very competitive, and for young men to improve their career chances and while looking for a girlfriend, looking good helps their competitiveness,” said Kang, 48, who says he uses mask packs to care for his skin after doing outdoor sports.
Kang’s colleague Oh Se-bom, 32, has a much more complicated skin-care regimen involving anti-aging products such as eye cream. He said Korean cosmetics companies realized they had left half the domestic market untapped.
“For Korean companies, the men’s cosmetics market is like a blue ocean,” Oh said. “So they’re all strengthening their lines.”
Representatives of Innisfree, part of Amore Pacific, one of South Korea’s largest beauty companies, were scouting for new customers at a baseball game on a recent sunny Sunday.
As the Doosan Bears played the Kia Tigers, Innisfree was holding a promotional event in the stands. Women in white Innisfree uniforms handed out samples of sea salt cleanser and a seven-day trial-size toner from the new Forest line for men.
“There are a lot of people in our target demographic here,” said Lim Chae-dok, a marketing executive at Innisfree who was overseeing the baseball promotion, referring to men in their 20s and 30s. “The Forest brand isn’t well-known yet, so while they’re enjoying the baseball game, they can also absorb our message.”
For men, cosmetic sampling is really important, Lim said. “A lot of men don’t choose their own products, they just take what their girlfriend gives them,” he said.
Innisfree would not provide details of its sales but said it offers 30 products for men. Since strengthening brand communication for the men’s line, it has seen 13 percent growth in new customers, the company said.
A 37-year-old office worker named Choe Yong-son was watching the game with his family.
“During my military service, my skin got really ruined, so I started using my mom’s products, her special moisturizers,” said Choe. He now uses his own toner and moisturizer, as well as sunblock “because my wife tells me to.”
But it’s really just the minimum, he said. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but after they get married, Korean men don’t really care that much about their skin. Only before.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.