The big bucks in beauty
“The more you spend in Korea, the more beautiful you will be,” says Kim Hye-ra, a 28-year-old office worker from Seoul, as she peers at her perfectly manicured nails. “I haven’t had surgery, but that’s just because I haven’t had the money to do it yet. I guess I should save, but I’m always spending my money on my hair and nails and makeup.”
Kim says she’s been keeping up with Korean beauty ideals since she was a teenager. She visits the nail salon every week to get a manicure, gel color and nail art, and has her hair colored or restyled bimonthly, though declined to disclose her spending. “I do it to keep up with my friends and coworkers. … I don’t want to be the ugly duck. No one does.”
It’s no secret that beauty is big business in the country nicknamed “The Republic of Plastic Surgery.” According to the Korean Association for Plastic Surgery, 1 in every 77 people in South Korea has had plastic surgery. “I got double-eyelid surgery last year as a gift from my parents,” says Choi Min-seo, an economics student at Seoul National University. “I did it because I want to be more attractive, but also because if you are more beautiful in Korea, life is easier for you.” In the country’s intensely competitive job market, she explains, the better looking you are, the better you fare in finding employment. “Beautiful people will always be chosen first. My parents understand this, and they also think it will help me find a good husband,” she adds shyly.
Korea was ranked seventh in the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons’ global survey on the number of cosmetic procedures performed in 2011. It also comes in at seventh place in the global rankings of the number of plastic surgeons by country. When looking at both of these statistics, it’s worth noting, however, that five of the six countries ranked ahead of South Korea (U.S., Brazil, China, Japan and Mexico) all have populations well above 100 million people, as compared to the ROK’s 50 million; the number of surgeons and plastic surgeries per capita here actually places it at the top of the list. According to Korea’s Fair Trade Commission, there are 1,767 surgeons in the country with upwards of 4,000 registered and unregistered clinics performing aesthetic procedures. “Just look at Gangnam,” says Kim. “It’s like a plastic surgery department store — anything you want to change about yourself, you can change there.”
And business is booming. The Fair Trade Commission reported that plastic surgery brings in 500 billion won ($473.9 million) a year, and one-quarter of the world’s plastic surgeries take place in Korea. The country’s obsession with beauty is a huge driving force for the economy, and the figures continue to rise.
But women in Korea aren’t just digging deep to go under the knife. They are also shelling out for non-invasive procedures: cosmetics, makeup and regular beauty treatments.
Kang Chan-koo, a research fellow at the Samsung Economic Research Institute, reported that the Korean cosmetics market grew to 8.9 trillion won in 2011, from 5.6 trillion won in 2006. That’s an annual increase of 10.4 percent, which he says easily outstrips the annual average retail sales growth of 6.1 percent in the same period. But research shows that Korean women aren’t blowing their budget on imported beauty products, which are sold at upwards of 6.5 percent higher than their duty-added import prices; instead, the fastidious consumers are keeping things local.
“The Korean cosmetics market has been growing at a rate of more than 10 percent a year, even amid the global recession since 2008,” the Korean Health Industry Development Institute reported. “The main reason is mushrooming budget cosmetics shops, which have increased 37 percent a year on average.” These shops account for one-third of Korea’s total cosmetics market, which was worth 2.5 trillion won in 2010.
According to research carried out by Cos’In, a website dedicated to cosmetics insight in Korea, women are now spending less money on more products at these types of stores. “Korea has beauty shops everywhere,” says Kim, an office worker. “They always have new products and I want to try them all out. When things are cheap, it’s easy to buy a lot, and if it’s not so good, it’s okay because it wasn’t too expensive.” A steady growth of sales at single-brand beauty shops saw people spending 7,500 won per item in 2011, 7,900 won in 2012 and 8,000 won in 2013. Meanwhile, in 2011, customers would buy a single product on average 4.2 times a year, 4.4 times in 2012 and 4.8 in 2013.
And the top-selling products at these stores are skin care products and what are coined “fast beauty items” such as BB (blemish balm) creams and CC (color control) creams. The skin care segment has been a particularly strong key growth contributor in the Korean beauty market, says Kang of SERI, with consumers gravitating away from glamour makeup. “They are more youth- and health-conscious. Skin care accounts for 48 percent of Korea’s total cosmetics market and is growing much faster than other segments like makeup and perfumes.”
“If you have beautiful skin, it’s easy to be attractive because makeup can’t hide everything,” says Choi, the SNU student. “There are excellent creams and cleansers here, plus there are many small procedures like face peels and injection fillers that give a good natural beauty look.” She says she has friends in their twenties who have had filler injections to manipulate their face shape and improve the luminosity of their skin.
Known as “petite surgeries,” these procedures are rapidly gaining popularity as plastic surgery’s less invasive alternative in Korea, which ranks seventh in ISAPS’ global rankings of every nonsurgical procedure on the list. Botulinum toxin type A injectables (Botox) and hyaluronis acid fillers were the two most performed nonsurgical procedures in the world in 2010, making up 38.1 percent and 23.2 percent of all procedures, respectively, according to ISAPS. Botox likewise tops cosmetic procedures performed in Korea, with 145,688 administered in 2011, followed by hyaluronic acid fillers, autologous fat fillers and calcium hydroxyapatite, respectively.
Dr. Shin Yong-ho, a director of BK Plastic Surgery in Seoul who has been in practice for 16 years, says he has noticed a craze for “down-aging” in Korea that finds the noninvasive nature of petite surgery a popular choice. “It can be carried out regardless of time. It is good for downtown workers,” he explains. “Even a busy office worker can receive this simple procedure during lunchtime and get back to work quickly. It is possible because the procedures do not require (a) complicated anesthetic process and only need topical anesthetic cream to numb the area.”
Although much cheaper than full-on surgery, as of this year, a 10 percent value-added tax will be tacked onto these noninvasive procedures and other treatments such as body hair removal, skin care treatments, eyebrow tattooing and hair loss treatments. The Ministry of Strategy and Finance says this taxation is expected to bring in 2.49 trillion won in revenue over the next five years.
The five most common treatments in Korea — nose jobs, liposuction, wrinkle removal, breast augmentation and double-eyelid surgery — have all been subject to the value-added tax since 2011.
“No matter what the price is, people will find the money to be beautiful,” says Kim. “I sometimes think I would rather live somewhere bad or not buy a car and instead have surgery because I know it will make my life better in the end.”