A stroll through the makeup section of a department store can feel like a mini trip around the world. It’s obvious that products with foreign-sounding names take up plenty of counter and shelf space. There’s France’s Chanel, Israel’s Ahava, England’s Burberry, Italy’s Dolce & Gabbana — you get the idea — all enticingly packaged with promises of transformation. And maybe transportation, too.
“We consume more information on a daily basis than ever before, in turn exposing us to new and different beauty trends, which has helped drive increased interest in international products as well as a curiosity to learn about new cultures,” said Marla Malcolm Beck, co-founder of Bluemercury, a fast-growing luxury beauty product and spa retail chain with 13 local locations. “In addition, there’s a mystery to foreign-made products that trigger our desire to travel to faraway lands and see how beauty translates to new cultures.”
In her own travels, Malcolm Beck has discovered products such as Sleep Mask Tan by James Read ($43), which she found in London and now sells in her stores. “I love that it’s multifunctional: It gives you a glow and deeply hydrates your skin — and best of all, it smells great,” she said.
Raen Round Soaps ($7) is another of her must-have products. “I love exploring how local ingredients are used in beauty products, and a good example is these beautiful soaps I discovered in Istanbul,” Malcolm Beck said. “They’re available in 33 scents, based on ingredients you’d find at the local bazaar, like clove, rose and amber.”
But consumers don’t have to travel to experience the beauty (products) of another country, thanks to the internet, she said. “We are increasingly influenced and inspired by beauty trends and routines across the globe and have a common ground to connect, no matter what pocket of the world you’re from,” she said. “We’re seeing it every day on social media platforms.”
American beauty and fashion magazines tout the benefits of globally produced products. Marie Claire, for example, runs a Foreign Beauty Report and last year published a list of the 10 best beauty products in the world. It included a skincare product from Shiseido, which began producing cosmetics in Japan in 1897. Also last year, Allure magazine ran a piece on the “19 Australian Beauty Products We’re Currently Obsessed With” (paraben- and sulfate-free Mr. Smith Shampoo and Conditioner topped the list, by the way, with the writer citing their smell and packing among the reasons for the obsession).
In September, New York Magazine reported that beauty products are becoming one of South Korea’s biggest exports, and that the government is helping the growth along. America is one of the biggest markets for so-called K-beauty.
The reason for this, skincare magnate Peter Thomas Roth told the magazine, is “Korean products, especially skin care, are seen as the most high-tech out there by pretty much every cosmetics expert — Lancôme even credited the country’s advancements in featherweight foundation when it launched its own Miracle Cushion foundation.”
Malcolm Beck named a Korean product — Caolion Blackhead Steam Pore Pack ($23) — as one of her favorite foreign-made products. “Korean women have flawless complexions, so you know their skin-care products are going to be spot-on,” she said. “I recently got hooked on this charcoal mud mask, which exfoliates and hydrates skin while clearing out your pores. I use it once or twice a month or when I get a pimple.”
South Korea exported more than $2.64 billion worth of K-beauty in 2015, according to the Korea Customs Service. France is the largest exporter of beauty products, bringing in $7.46 billion, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, which creates visualizations out of international trade data. For context, the second-biggest exporter is the United States, with $4.28 billion.
“We’re captivated by beauty in countries like South Korea and France because of the influence from their deeply rooted history and heritage,” Malcolm Beck told us. “For example, French women have perfected the ‘effortless’ look and see their skincare routine as a way of life — which is different from the U.S., where we’re all about maximum results in minimal time. South Korea is also very different. Engrained in their culture is a fascinating commitment to a highly disciplined beauty routine, where their daily regimen may use as many as 10 different products. For Koreans, achieving healthy skin is an ancient tradition, dating back to centuries ago where the noble class never went outside in the sun and had porcelain-like complexions.”
At Aura Spa, which has four D.C. locations, aestheticians use G.M. Collin skincare, founded in France in 1957 and now based in Canada.
“It is very results-driven,” Elaine Perhach, director of Aura, said of the line. “Especially with the clinical facials, once you get off of the table, you will see immediate results.”
“Most customers’ experience with European lines is that they do tend to be results-driven, so I think that is also part of the appeal,” added Carol Davidson, senior business development manager. “Most of our ingredients are from Europe.” Ingredients include ceramides, or waxy lipid molecules, and plant stem cells, which come from Switzerland.
The G.M. Collin products found stateside may differ slightly from the ones found in Europe, however, Davidson said. That’s because of different preferences in different cultures.
“The Europeans still like heavier, perfumed products. They like thicker, heavier textured products. So when we brought the product line to North America, we did make adjustments,” she explained. “We may have a moisturizer, for example, for dry skin or for dehydrated skin, but we have it in different textures.”
Regardless of the subtleties, a simple association with a given country may be enough to garner interest.
As a 2013 Glamour magazine piece stated, sometimes the allure of the exotic is all it takes: “There’s the kitschy cuteness of mistranslated product descriptions, the adorable packaging and the fact that if you can’t read the ingredients, it must be a really advanced, breakthrough formula that isn’t even legal in America yet … or something.”
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.