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Why Is Korean Face Cream Illegal?

Jason Park
Published by: Jason Park
Published on:

Are you wondering why Korean face cream is illegal in some countries?

It’s because the ingredients in these creams are incredibly effective and can cause serious damage if used incorrectly.

In this blog post, we will take a look at some of the harmful ingredients found in Korean face cream and explain why they are so dangerous. 

In short: Korean face creams aren’t illegal per se, but there are several aspects that make certain things about specific formulations illegal. These mainly encompass ingredients but, there’s also the problem of “gray market” sales. 

Sometimes, the two problems overlap. This extends to other K-beauty products too.

Let’s dive deeper into the world of Korean face cream.

Where Is Korean Face Cream Illegal?

The issue around Korean face cream being illegal centers around three main regions: United States, Canada and the European Union. Their regulatory bodies determine what levels are safe enough for over-the-counter consumption and which others require a prescription. Yet, they also decipher that some ingredients are dangerous all the way around.

Which Ingredients in Korean Face Cream Make It Illegal?

Because Korean face creams contain different ingredients combined in a completely different formulation, they are sometimes illegal. While this isn’t true for every type of K-beauty face cream, there are some that contain questionable ingredients.

Some creams have toxic heavy metals that bring on a host of health issues, especially after prolonged use. Others will contain acceptable ingredients, but the levels of these are so high that it requires having a doctor’s prescription. Yet in a few situations, they have the potential to become dangerous.


Antimony is a heavy metal that does occur naturally but it is a toxic substance. However, it’s very efficacious against parasitic infections. But people who come into contact with antimony too much run the risk of contracting several difficult health condtions.

Relatively high exposure has the potential to create severe irritations to skin, eyes and lungs. Prolonged exposure can worsen conditions into things like heart problems, severe vomiting, lung diseases, diarrhea and stomach ulcers.


Lead is also a toxic heavy metal and many studies have long established its danger in skincare. It’s a neurotoxin linked to problems with speaking, learning and behavior. It also reduces fertility in both women and men along with hormonal changes and menstrual irregularities.

Also, pregnant women are particularly vulnerable because lead is notorious for causing miscarriages and fetal brain defects. Both sexes of preadolescents may experience a delay in the onset of puberty


Hydroquinone is a common whitening agent found in various Korean beauty, skincare and makeup products. While applications in small amounts aren’t harmful, massive exposure can present certain problems. In regards to Korean skincare products, they include far more than the allowable amount for over-the-counter consumption. This is what makes the ingredient illegal to a degree. [1]

On the one hand, people use it to whiten skin, but depending on the skin tone, it can lead to paradoxical darkening. Many studies suggest it works excellently to brighten lighter skin tones. But, darker skin tones have mixed results, especially if they use too much or apply a product with high concentrations of hydroquinone.

Plus, those with sensitive skin may see an increase in irritation and redness. Usually this will calm down on its own once the skin accustoms itself to the product. However, in rare cases, it can cause ochronosis. This occurs after longtime daily use that presents a blackish blue pigmentation to the skin. Therefore, it’s highly recommended not to use hydroquinone for more than five months. 


Retinol has the ability to decrease the signs of aging by promoting collagen production. It helps seal in moisture, improves elasticity and creates a protective barrier. Indeed, many people swear by the results and it’s a staple in the Korean skincare industry.

Therefore, K-beauty face creams often contain exorbitant amounts of retinol. In the US and Canada, the amounts it contains are at a level that requires a prescription. Overexposure to retinol can severely dry out the skin and worsen pigmentation problems.

When someone overdoses their skin with retinol, they experience “retinol burn.” This incredibly painful condition causes excessive dryness and flaking of the skin. It also accompanies redness, heat emanation and sensitivity. [2]

What Does the “Gray Market” Have to Do with Korean Skincare?

Because there are certain K-beauty skincare products deemed illegal due to their components, this creates a “gray market.” Koreans will travel to places like Canada or the United States with top-of-the-line cosmetics. They don’t have to pay duty fees or taxes as long as they don’t have an entire stock intended for sale.

This behavior increases the illegality of Korean skincare products. There’s a double whammy with it. On the one hand, the product may contain dangerous levels of ingredients that usually require a prescription. This compounds when products come over from South Korea by underhanded means.

How Do You Know the Ingredients in K-Beauty Face Creams Are Safe?

As with any kind of product intended for your skin, always check the ingredients. Since Korean formulations are very different from what you’ll find in North America or Europe, it’s important to do your due diligence. Of course, no brand regardless of where they are in the world, will outright label their products as having “lead” or “antimony.”

They will use either industry-standard names or scientific ones. Therefore, you have to be aware of ingredient euphemisms. For instance, if you want to know if there’s lead in your facial cream, look for terms like “hydrogenated cottonseed oil,” “lead acetate,” “chromium,”” sodium hexametaphosphate” and/or “thimerosal.

Since each product is different, you will have to see all the ingredients and do an independent online search for each one. You will be able to locate Material Data Safety Sheets along with cosmetic ingredient libraries that tell you about specific ingredients and the potential harm they can do. [3]

Which K-Beauty Products Have the US & Canada Banned?

While there is no comprehensive blacklist for specific K-beauty products, the FDA has been able to locate some brands. The following products contain outrageous amounts of antimony and/or expired far longer than the allowable shelf life.

  • 3CE: Slim Eyebrow Pencil in Chestnut Brown
  • Aritaum: Full Cover Cream Concealer #1 (Light Beige and Natural Beige)
  • Aritaum: Full Cover Cream Concealer #2 (Olive Green and Pink)
  • Aritaum: Full Cover Stick Concealer #1 and #2 (Light Beige and Natural Beige)
  • Black Monster: Homme Black Erasing Pen
  • Etude House: AC Clean Up Mild Concealer
  • Etude House: Drawing Eyebrow Duo #3 (Gray Brown)
  • Makeheal: Naked Slim Brown Pencil (Br0203)
  • Makeheal: Naked Slim Brown Pencil (Yl0801)
  • Skeda: Homme Spot Concealer 
  • Skinfood: Cherry Full Lip Liner (Rose Cherry)
  • XTM Style: Homme for Men Easy Stick Concealer

How Can You Ensure Your Korean Face Cream Is Legal?

The best way to ensure your Korean face cream is legal (and safe) is by purchasing from a reputable retailer in your country. If you want to buy directly from Korea, then you will have to inspect all the ingredients to ensure its contents won’t create a legal issue for you or a problem for your skin.

The good news is that the US, Canada and Europe have plentitudes of Korean skincare stores that carry only the best products they can find. The list below indicates some of the best K-beauty suppliers in the US, Canada and Europe. Each one follows regulatory standards and lists all the ingredients in their products.


  • Peach & Lily
  • SoKo Glam


  • TheKShop
  • Mikaela Beauty
  • Korean Skincare Canada


  • Little Wonderland
  • Dot Dot Skin
  • Shopchigo
  • Haru Haru
  • Coos Cosmetics

Final Thoughts

After all, Korean face cream is illegal because of its ingredients. Therefore it’s always important to know what you’re using and what the dangers could be.

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    About The Author

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    Jason Park

    Jason has been living in Seoul for over 4 years, and during that time, he has experienced many of the city's hidden stores. He loves to write about his experiences and share them with others. Jason has been quoted and referenced by different major media companies like Mashed, Distractify, ThePrint and TastingTable. In his free time, he likes to watch Korean dramas and learn more about Korean culture.

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