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Why Is Korean Skin So White, Shiny, and Clear?

Jason Park
Published by: Jason Park
Published on:

Have you ever wondered why Korean skin is so white, shiny and clear?

Koreans have other beauty standards than Western countries.

Most of the reason why Korean skin is so white goes back to the history of Korea and its class system. 

But it also has to do with modern peer pressure, a huge beauty industry and media outlets like movies and TV. 

Contrary to what some in the West may think, it has NOTHING to do with racism (as much as some would like it to be).

Let’s dive deeper into Korean history and why they prefer white skin.

What Is the Korean History around White Skin?

According to South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration, the Korean preference for white skin is thousands of years old. The earliest known documentation starts in 37 AD. Mural paintings found in tombs, ancient folktales and other literature detail, show and illustrate the value of a glassy, porcelain-like appearance. [1]

They Never Considered Westerners to Be “White”

This bright, vibrant complexion is what they call “white” and predates any known contact with the Western world. They, in fact, never considered Westerners “white.” The word they use to describe these people translates to “assorted categories,” “people of colored eyes” or even “iron face,” referring to their reddish, rusty skin tone.

Nobility & Wealth

Another aspect to Korean history in association with white skin has everything to do with class and status. This revolves around their agrarian society and economy. Noblemen, royalty and wealthy people didn’t have to labor in the hot, blazing sun every day. Therefore, pale and white skin was a symbol of nobility.

From History to Today

Even today girls and women will avoid tanning at all costs. They make SPF a daily part of their skincare regimen. Also, it’s not uncommon to see them wearing visors, hats, umbrellas, sunglasses and long-sleeve shirts to protect and prevent tanning.

How Does the Media Play into White and Clear Skin?

Because of the Korean desire for white skin being centuries old, the country’s media keeps it alive and well through TV, movies and pop culture. One of the most coveted aspects of famous people in South Korea is having a milky-white complexion. Such a trait plays into the Korean public’s love and adoration for celebrities.

There are even rumors that record labels and artist management organizations forbid their stars from tanning altogether. So, young girls and teens see these famous people and internalize the desire for pale, white skin. But, today, there’s an added message that those with this appearance are more intelligent or tidier individuals.

Koreans Idolize Their Favorite Stars

As such, chemical treatments, bleaching and surgeries are big business to keep their skin as light as possible while also attempting to emulate their favorite stars. Many Korean doctors attest to how girls come to their office with pictures requesting to look just like them.

There have been some instances where K-pop idols got hate because they didn’t have clear skin.

The Desire for Koreans to Have White and Clear Skin?

As in Western countries, teenagers easily succumb to peer pressure. Since pale skin is all over the place, younger girls are subject to comply with beauty norms. Their peer group may not accept them and, in some cases, some will experience severe bullying over it.

There have been cases where K-pop stars will tease darker members of their audience outright and openly. Although harmless, it does reinforce the desire for white skin within the mind of younger Koreans.

How Does the Korean Cosmetic Industry Push White and Clear Skin?

In the last decade, Korean skincare and cosmetics have taken the world by storm. One of the biggest selling points to people is the promotion of bright, white skin and their products’ ability to deliver a glassy, porcelain appearance.

From sheet masks to sleeping masks and eye treatments to essences, Korean skincare offers a different option to treating and clearing up skin. Koreans use these things every day without fail, all of which the beauty industry heavily promotes.

Do All Koreans Have White and Clear Skin?

While the cultural norm is to achieve glowing glassy skin, not all Koreans have white skin. Actually, they have just as large a range in skin tones as you’ll find in the West. They can be pale, but they can also have olive, light brown or chocolate tones.

Things Are Beginning to Change

However, many people in Korea recognize the over-obsession with white skin and some of the standards are changing in this regard. Part of this has to do with Western influence since a lack of understanding about Korea’s past and beauty standards are cause for great offense at their white skin.

Therefore, some pop stars and other famous personalities are promoting a bronzer complexion as being beautiful. But, it’s not gaining steam quickly.

What Do Koreans Consider to be Dark Skin?

Anything darker than pale white is dark skin to Koreans. Current beauty standards do not allow for any amount of bronzing, tanning or signs of pigmentation. You will never find cheek contour, bronzers or tanning lotions in their skincare lines.

Koreans even consider fair skinned individuals from places like Singapore, China, Bangladesh or India as being dark skinned compared to them. This is how coveted having a porcelain appearance is.

What Beauty Secrets Do Koreans Have for Whiter Skin?

The key to Koreans’ white skin is lack of exposure to sunshine. They use a high SPF sunscreen every day, even indoors. The following list contains other traditional remedies and ingredients Koreans use to achieve white skin. They do this at home and you can find them in many skincare products:

  • Fermented Rice Water – The fermentation activity of rice in water creates a beautiful, glowing complexion because of its high concentrations of Resveratrol. It reduces pigmentation and increases fairness. You can use leftover rice water and allow it to ferment, then put it into a mask or facial toner.
  • Yuzu Lemon Extract – A citrus fruit from Japan, yuzu is popular throughout South Korea. It’s high in citric acid, which is a gentle bleaching agent. Many toners, cleansers, mists and creams incorporate it. But any kind of lemon will do for at-home DIY formulations.
  • Green Tea – Packed with antioxidants and epigallocatechin gallate, green tea is a popular ingredient in cleansers, masks and toners. The best kind of green tea comes from Jeju Island, off the coast of Korea. Women have used this for centuries as a basic toner since it helps reduce skin pigmentation. [2]

Why Do Westerners Get Offended at Koreans’ Desire for White Skin?

Since K-dramas and other pop culture elements from Korea have seeped into Western cultures, there are people who get offended at the Korean obsession with white skin. Some shows or advertisements discuss “beautiful white skin” and many people in places, such as the United States, automatically associate it with racism and slavery.

Lack of Understanding

As discussed in the history at the beginning of this article, it has more to do with classism and wealth. Also, “white” is a mistranslation of the complexion Koreans so desire. It’s having a youthful, innocent look that projects a bright, clear, glowing and flawless visage.

Unfortunately, Americans are woefully ignorant about Korean history, beauty standards and social norms. However, it also illustrates how such people in the West are subject to vicious propaganda. So much so, anything they see related to white skin immediately must mean race.

Wrapping Up

After all, Koreans have white, clear, and shiny skin because of their history. It has always been this way, and it’ll likely be like this for many years to come.

About The Author

Photo of author

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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