Every year there seems to be a craze over the next new hot-spot for beauty products. And the last couple of years, South Korean beauty brands have definitely been thrown into the spotlight.

I’ve lived in Korea for the past ten years and it wasn’t really until the last couple of years that I’ve even taken notice of Korean beauty brands myself. If you go to any major global online retailer now, you can see that they are carrying and promoting products from South Korea – ASOS, Urban Outfitters, Sephora, and Cult Beauty are just a few that sell Korean lines now.

In this post I’m going to break down the major Korean beauty players and what they sell. But first I want to tear down a few stereotypes about Korean women, their skin and the products they use.

Myth 1: Korean women have flawless skin.

This is absolutely untrue! I’ve been walking the streets of Korea for a long time and the only ones who have flawless skin are children under the age of 12. Korean women have skin troubles just like you and I do – acne, uneven skin tone, dark spots are all concerns for Korean women. Why do you think BB cream became such a big sensation in South Korea? The one thing I CAN say is that Korean women take a greater INTEREST in skin care than their western counterparts.

Myth 2: Korean women have great skin because they use Korean products

False. Koreans love western brands. They are a status symbol here. Most women are walking around with a Gucci or Prada bag on their arms. It’s no different with skincare. Go into any department store and you’ll see the major players front and center – Clarins, Clinique, Mac, SK II, Chanel, Shiseido, Biotherm, Elizabeth Arden. Koreans have a large disposable income and if they can, they want to use the best.
Secondly, Korean women avoid the sun at ALL COSTS. Have you ever been to a beach in Korea? People wear THEIR CLOTHES in the water. Women are under parasols, wearing hats. On the street on a sunny day, you will NEVER see Korean women expose their faces to the sun. Also, smoking for women is very taboo. So, the two causes of premature aging in most women are not applicable to most Korean women.

Myth 3: Korean beauty products are superior to western beauty products

That’s what they want you to think, but again NOT TRUE. Yes, there are some EXCELLENT Korean products, but they don’t have any secret knowledge that other beauty companies don’t know about. It’s all about what’s new and exciting: Repairing the skin with snail secretions, regenerating the skin with starfish essences, – it sounds like they have a leg up on the competition doesn’t it?
You decide for yourself. Every person has different skin and only you can try different products that work for you. Don’t get sucked into the latest and greatest hype.

High-end Korean Brands

First we’ll take a look at the luxury beauty brands found in South Korea. Most of these brands will be found on the first floor of Korean department stores such as Lotte, Hyundai, and ShinSaeGae (as opposed to a free-standing shop on the street). Now, most high-end products can be purchased online as well.

Most of the high-end brands market their skincare products as exceptionally unusual concoctions which incorporate the secrets of traditional oriental medicine using highly prized ingredients that can only be found in the mountains and fields of Korea. If you were picturing ginseng and green tea, you’re on the right track. The packaging and design are usually exquisite and the customer service you’ll receive while making your purchase will be top-notch. Not to mention you’ll walk away with lots of extra goodies with your purchase.

Amore Pacific

This is a behemoth of a cosmetics company. Operating for over 65 years, Amore Pacific holds many smaller brands under its umbrella. However, its main brand is also a luxury brand and carries the same name.

It’s skincare line uses “Asian botanicals” including the prized Jeju Island green tea.  Amore Pacific owns its own protected gardens from which they handpick and harvest the world’s most potent green tea leaves. They also use bamboo sap and red ginseng to form their patented skincare lines.

TIME RESPONSE Skin Renewal Set
TIME RESPONSE Skin Renewal Set

The full-size Skin Renewal Serum (30ml) will set you back a pretty penny – 525 USD on their US website here.


IOPE is a brand belonging to Amore Pacific (are you starting to get the picture?), which entered the Korean cosmetics market in 1996. IOPE is best known for introducing Retinol to Korea in the late 1990’s.

IOPE’s has three main skincare lines: Moistgen (for dry and tight skin), Super Vital (for anti-aging) and Brightgen (for brightening dull skin and diminishing dark spots).

In addition to their skincare line, IOPE also has a successful  makeup line. One product they are best known for is their Air Cushion Compact. The bb cream-soaked sponge provides many benefits: an all-in-one moisturizer, anti-aging, SPF 50 PA+++, and skin-evening color. 

Two of IOPE's bestselling products
Two of IOPE’s bestselling products

For more information about IOPE in English click here.


This premium brand is owned and managed by Korean giant LG. su:m37° is  best known for its fermented skin care lines which are artificial color and scent free as well as free from preservatives. 숨 or “sum” means “breathe” in Korean and the 37 represents the optimal temperature for fermentation.

They claim to allow over 80 ingredients to ferment in optimal conditions for over 365 days to produce beautiful essences that improve the skin’s condition in 10 seconds.

This is a rather new brand in Korea but is receiving a lot of attention and acclaim. They have a men’s line and a baby’s line in addition to their women’s skincare line.

sum37 products
Two of su:m37’s bestsellers


Visit su:m37° here in English.

Sulwhasoo (under Amore Pacific)

One of the oldest beauty brands to come out of South Korea, Sulwhasoo was founded in 1967 by its company’s head, Sung Whan Suh. The skincare system he developed is based on Korean herbal medicines – it blends oriental medicinal herbs drawn from ancient wisdom of the “Sang-seng” philosophy which is based on balancing the inner energies of the skin to produce a nourished healthy complexion.
Sulwhasoo has branched out internationally. In 2004 they advanced into Hong Kong and then in 2010 began selling their products at Bergdorf Goodman in New York.
They claim to use ingredients native to Korea, including ginseng, solomonseal, rehmannia, white lily, Chinese peony and East Indian lotus.

Products from Sulwhasoo
Products from Sulwhasoo

Visit Sulwhasoo here in English (US online shop)

The History of Whoo

The name “whoo” comes from the Chinese character that stands for “empress” and also represents the simplicity of beauty. The brand (established in 2003) claims that the products contain the secret beauty formula of past empresses and are made in the same fashion as oriental herbal medicine.

There are 5 basic lines
Gongjinhyang: a basic skin care line that contains wild ginseng / a secret royal court beauty formula
Bichup: this line is two essences which rejuvenate the skin using “Chojahabidan”
Hwanyu: true immortality / contains wild ginseng cordyceps, deer antlers and snow lotus herb
Jinyulhyang: resolves the skin problems of years and older caused by dryness / uses life force resin
Cheongidan: De-aging formula which slows time for the skin / uses ginseng, jade, deer antler, gold and tree extract.

The History of Whoo information in English here.

Higher end and bestseller
Higher end and bestseller


In my next post, I’ll be taking a closer look at some of Korea’s mid-priced lines (which most of us can afford!)

If you like what you are reading follow me here…..
Follow my blog with Bloglovin

4 Comments on Korean Beauty Brands 101 Part 1: The High-Enders (AMORE PACIFIC, IOPE, SU:M37, SULWHASOO, AND THE HISTORY OF WHOO)

  1. Elena
    September 26, 2014 at 8:10 pm (3 years ago)

    Hello, Cassandra,

    Loved reading this post. Both the myth breaking part and the high-end introductory one. I recently came across another article on the Korean skincare hype on Paula Begoun’s site – paulaschoice.com – voicing a similar attitude to the world-is-raving-about-Korean-cosmetics trend 🙂
    I can see how one can get carried away by the fancy ingredients and promises of some brands. As with all things it’s best to find your own way in picking what suits your skin needs best. For instance I’ve found the concept of the Korean first treatment toners and essences really great. These type of products are a newly added step in my skincare routine. They give my skin that extra helping of moisture which it needs so much.
    I loved trying su:m37’s Secret Programming Essence as well as a lower-end essence that uses the fermentation method – Tony Moly’s Galactomyces Lite Essence.

    • Cassandra
      September 27, 2014 at 4:48 pm (3 years ago)

      Hi Elena, your feedback has been amazing. Thanks so much!
      In the last few years, I have always toned (I like Clarin’s toners) and then used a serum (or ampoule) in the morning before my moisturizer. Then I use Jouer tinted moisturizers or a BB cream. I’m hesitant to add the essence step in the morning as I already have so many layers, but I would love to try Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence, as so many people are raving about it. I’ve also heard good things about su:m 37’s essences as well.

      • HM
        December 20, 2016 at 4:33 am (7 months ago)

        I loved reading this post! Very well written and was so interesting!
        I just want to add that as far as I know the missha first treatment essence isn’t an “essence”. There could be some confusing names but first treatment means you need to use it first after cleansing, which I guess it means it’s a toner. I didn’t know that myself at first, until I ran into a YouTube channel (that now it is my favorite) I recommend it. There’s a video there that talk about toners, essences and lotions. You should check it out. Channel name is Gothamista.

  2. Carla
    November 24, 2015 at 2:04 am (2 years ago)

    Hi 🙂
    Great reviews! It really helps when your reader want to travel to South Korea
    Just want you to know that BB cream isnt invented in Korea, its actually from Germany, But it was popular from South Korea 🙂


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment *