Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Book Review: Korean Beauty Secrets by Kerry Thompson & Coco Park

I think it's safe to say that Korean beauty trends have taken our Western market by the storm. Just look at the number of Korean brands now available at Sephora, and we now even have cushion foundations sprouting at the drugstore - say whaaat? I've first become interested in Korean and Japanese beauty products in 2013, which is evidenced by a whole skew of reviews under my Asian Beauty label (you can browse them all here); and to this day, I remain convinced that there are some absolute gems among Asian brands.

So when I spotted the 'Korean Beauty Secrets: A Practical Guide to Cutting-Edge Skincare & Make-up' by Kerry Thompson & Coco Park at my local library, I immediately put it in my bag (well, okay - I checked it out first. No need to report theft, people). I have seen it featured on Instagram by some bloggers I follow, and I was really curious to see if there would be anything new or surprising to me in the book.

When I was first getting into Korean beauty, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of the previously unknown brands and rather confused by the names and terminology of the products. Treatment Essence? Bee Venom? Ampoule? Bird's Nest? Sleeping pack?! By doing some research on my own and leaning heavily on the knowledge and experience of my blogging pal Kar Yi, I was able to slowly but surely familiarize myself with the peculiarities of the Korean beauty market.

But even to this day, there are products and steps I'm not at all confident about, and with the fast pace of new products being constantly released on the market, there are always new things to learn about K-beauty. I can absolutely see how the idea for this book came about, and I applaud the authors - both beauty bloggers and Korean beauty fanatics - for identifying the niche and bringing out a guide to explain those new trends to us on the Western part of the hemisphere.

The book is divided into two parts: one focusing on skincare (which I believe may have been primarily written by Kerry) and the other on make-up (probably penned by Coco). Let's start with the skincare portion, which I'll admit was the one I was itching the most to read - and I'll say right off the bat that I was not disappointed.

The skincare chapters contain some important but basic topics like determining your skin type and concerns and provide a glossary and explanation of key skincare ingredients. While as a beauty fiend, I didn't find much new information in these pages, I thought they were well written and very helpful - I especially liked the explanation of humectants, occlusives and emollients (p. 29-31). But what I enjoyed the most in the skincare part of the book was the information provided on skincare routines, particularly the practical examples of Korean skincare routines from 9 beauty bloggers, all with different skin concerns and goals. To me, the different steps in Korean skincare routines and the order of layering products are probably the most confusing out of all the aspects of K-beauty, so it was fascinating to take a peek into what everyone was using and why.

I did struggle with some of the information provided and at times I wished that I could just email one of the writers or contributing bloggers and ask them questions about the reasoning behind certain skincare choices. For example, the 'Morning Routine Layering Examples' chart (p. 76) states that in an Advanced routine for Oily/ Combo skin, you could be using a BHA serum as your third step, then followed by Vitamin C as your fourth step. These suggestions bear a footnote detailing that there's an optional wait time for these pH-dependent products to maximize their efficacy, but if using both a BHA and Vit C products, both can be applied at the same time and then followed by a break. There's no additional information anywhere else in the book about pH-dependent products and how they work, nor do the authors explain why an acid and a Vitamin C product can be layered one after another. I realize that there is some more advanced chemistry know-how required to understand exactly how that works, but I wish that the authors elaborated on that at least a little bit more!

There were more examples of confusing information in the section dedicated to the specific beauty bloggers' routines - probably due more to the unclear nature of the information provided by said bloggers than the authors' own fault, but puzzling nonetheless. Why does Kerry follow what she dubbs as an acid toner (COSRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner) by another BHA treatment - isn't that overexfoliating the skin? (Not really - the COSRX Toner is more of a balancing toner and contains only about 0.1% acids - but that information is missing from the book). Why does Elisa from Memorable Days apply a Vitamin C serum first and then follow it by a toner - isn't she just wiping off the serum? (Nope - the toner she uses is really an essence, used without a cotton pad and patted into the skin instead). And so the list goes on. I also wish that the product categories section explained the difference between essences, serums and ampoules a little better, and gave more examples of specific products for all categories - like maybe the authors' recommendations for the best picks from both lower and higher ends of the price spectrum.

I have to say that I didn't really learn anything new from the make-up part of the book. The first section here describes all the different make-up product categories and gives recommendations for specific products with short-ish reviews. I found this part to be quite boring - the products are just listed one after the other - and I mostly browsed through this part.

The second part is a lot more interesting and features photos of Korean-inspired make-up looks created by Coco, with a short description of steps and products used. But even this more practical section failed to completely wow me - personally, I didn't like most of the looks, but aesthetics aside, I found them very simple and not all that different from the 'Western' looks I'm used to. I understand that the authors' intention may have been to present easy to achieve looks for beauty beginners, but even so, the section lacked close-up photographs of the eyes or step by step tutorial photos that would be the most helpful (I think). I would also have liked to see the inspiration behind these looks, like some photos of K-pop stars sporting the make-up or examples of street style. Maybe I'm nit-picking here; I guess I just wish there was more 'meat' to the make-up portion of the book.

All in all, I very much enjoyed 'Korean Beauty Secrets', and I would recommend it both to beauty fanatics new to Korean trends as well as those already familiar. I'm giving it 4 out of 5 stars (but mostly for the skincare half). It definitely inspired me to jot down some ideas for future skincare purchases as well as to tweak my own skincare routine a bit. It actually couldn't have come at a better time - my skin has been misbehaving lately, giving me both dehydrated flakey skin AND spots - so I'm curious to see if the Korean-inspired changes I've incorporated change it for the better. One last criticism: the book was not proofread very carefully, resulting in abundant spelling and grammar mistakes. I know it may seem a minor downfall to some, but as a linguist, I was quite annoyed. Quite annoyed.

Are you into Korean beauty? Have you already read this book? I'd love to hear your opinion in the comments!


  1. Interesting!! Thanks for a thorough review. I, too, got bogged down from buying by the plethora of Korean products and steps, which I think may not be necessary. In fact, I've been tinkering with a few of Korean samples (toner, essence, moisture pack, lotion, etc. etc. even the names are mind-bending) and most of them are designed to add moisture but without anything to retain it (aka heavier product that act as a seal). I do wonder if this is because the different climate in South Korea and in the West - I know whenever I traveled to Asia, it is always hot but humid at the same time, so keeping moisture in the skin was never a big deal (as opposed to oppressing winter and 24/7 drying indoor heater in here).

    I am curious about the makeup section, though!

    And you must have been v. patient with my blog because I found it replete with grammatical error -- blog-and-go may not be my strongest suit!

    1. You know, that's one of the points that the book actually makes pretty clear: how a lot of the essence, ampoule, serum steps are all about hydrating humectants and ingredients to address specific concerns but that all of those need to be followed by a final product containing more occlusive ingredients, be it a moisturizing cream or a lighter emulsion. I think I'm pretty guilty of skimping on that last step because it's the heaviest, and with my tendency towards a very oily T-zone, I don't want to overload my skin. But because of those fears I now struggle with major dehydration. Sigh.

      That last remark was definitely NOT to say my own blog isn't full of little spelling errors, but my standards for a published book are a bit higher than a casual blog - after all, there's only one person writing and editing posts, but I believe there should be at least three different people involved in the editing process of a book. SO.

  2. Aside from being ethnically Korean, I have a passing interest to K beauty, but definitely learned a few things from it when I lived in Seoul a few years ago. Seeing the whole big trend thing lately (seeing a Lisa Eldridge video, or seeing the whole Sephora's focus on it) is a little funny to me. I struggle to describe why I think it is strange though. :) Uncomplex Belly has Uncomplex Thoughts.

    For me the skincare part of it was the biggest learning. I used to be kind of half-assed about it prior to living in Korea, but two things really motivated me to get my crap together. 1) the winter was so unbearably brutal (bitterly cold and dry as hell) that my skin went into a complete meltdown and 2) every woman I knew (casually, closely or professionally) all were obsessed with skincare. They all regularly went to clinics for treatments (be it the Botox kind, or for various acid/laser/etc type of work). And most had incredible skin. I also lived where there was a huge concentration of beauty shops (in a city already full of them), so got to try many sample of everything. Hence, the layering thing is now key part of what works and keeps my skin from getting dehydrated (and also older looking). (as an aside, I also met many men with similar focus on skincare, as well as makeup)

    One thing I wasn't as impressed by were the makeup (color) products of the less expensive brands (Etude House, Missha, etc etc). I didn't think that the quality was great, although the prices were great. I liked that Korea always seemed to get the limited edition releases last (of the western brands) so I got to pick up lots of things that were sold out everywhere. :)

    And finally, the luxury cosmetic brands were very heavily fragranced, which isn't something I prefer. And just across a small ocean in Japan, were more brands more suited to my texture/color and smell preferences.

    Thanks for letting me ramble on with my novel! Sounds like the book was a good read. Oh by the way, if you are not watching already, I recommend Jung Saem Mool on YT (her older videos, not the new ones), because you'll see this Korean makeup artist create many of the famous K-celeb looks as well as demonstrate some excellent technique.

    1. Thank you for such an awesome comment, Belly! As always, you're full of wisdom and incredible insight. In this case, it also helps you're Korean and have lived in Korea, lol.

      You know, if I were to compare the standards of beauty routines between South Korea and Poland, where I grew up, I'd say Polish women are actually a lot more focused on make-up (not really in my family though, but that's just a general observation). So I had a long way to come, and being how my skin is constantly challenged by sensitivity, breakouts, large pores AND dehydration, I've tried a lot a LOT of things. I am now coming to the realization that's so prevalent in Korean skincare that hydration and gentle actives really are key to a successful routine, no matter your skin type or concern.

      Thank you for the YT recommendation! I'll definitely have a look. I was just watching some videos from Meejmuse and she was saying how the Japenese make-up market has completely different shade preferences than Korea. I don't have a huge experience there as I mostly own Japanese brands and very few Korean, but it's interesting to hear your thoughts about it!

  3. I was curious about this book, so I'm so glad you reviewed it! Honestly, the skincare section would interest me more, so I'd probably go right for that. I wonder if reviews like yours could inspire them to do a second book for more "advanced" techniques and information; I think that would be REALLY inspiring.

    I will note, though, that as much as I love the THEORY behind Korean beauty, and as fun as some of the products are, I often turn away when I see the ingredients lists. It's a bit frustrating to me when every single product for dry skin contains niacinamide (which is great for most people, but it seems to break me out) or tons of alcohol denat (why?!). And the fragrance! Lord, the fragrance. The theory, though, that layering products with different purposes can give you some of your best skin? I'm all about that.

  4. Oh I'm so happy to read this review! I seriously could sit down and talk about this all day (whyyyyyy did you move?!)...and when I first got this book, you were about to receive a text (only for me to check and see that you were in Poland at the time). I agree with so much of what you've said...also agree with the bloggers you've noted above. And..lets see..yes, would be great to have even further discussion about the finer details. I actually found my favorite part to be the exhaustive lists of brands--kind of seeing how they add up in the bigger picture, and what they're actually most known for in Korea. Another book is the one by Charlotte Cho...which if I'm honest, paints a different sort of picture. One that just makes me want to book a ticket to SoKo, so I can sip on coffee and shop all day lol.