Asian beauty influence is everywhere. The hyaluronic acid sheet masks in your local CVS, your favorite cleansing balm at Target, and the gua sha tool you spotted on Instagram—it’s all based in Asian beauty.
I knew I was different as a kid, but it was never something I felt ashamed of; I loved to share my culture with my non-Asian peers. At the same time, it also brought a lot of frustration, especially when Asian practices were attributed as non-Asian inventions by popular content creators, bloggers, and YouTubers. In reality, Asian beauty trends aren’t just exports of culture, but techniques with a long history that should be honored and respected.
Gua sha was first recorded in the Chinese medical text Shang Han Lun in 220 CE, to detoxify the body and to encourage oxygenated blood to better circulate. Chinese women in the 17th century used warm rice water to wash their skin and hair, according to the Chinese text Liji. The Compendium Materia Medica was full of floral-based formulas to even the skin. Ancient Chinese empresses and imperial consorts used a variety of floral essences and nourishing masks to keep their skin youthful.
While China was experimenting with early essences and serums, 14th century gisaeng and geishas in Korea and Japan invented double cleansing. It started with rich camellia oil to help break down makeup, followed by jodu (ground mung beans containing naturally-occurring saponins), mixed with water. Geishas were also said to have dipped scraps of silk in flower water and would cover their faces with them, like the sheet masks we know today.
As Asia began to adopt more of Western culture and fashion, Japanese cosmetics were the first to hit the global beauty market. Shiseido released the first essence in 1897. Shu Uemura created the first cleansing oil, the Shu Uemura Cleansing Beauty Oil Unmask, in 1967, followed by DHC’s famous Deep Cleansing Oil in 1995. SK-II was founded in 1980, with its famous Facial Treatment Essence. K-beauty conglomerate, Amorepacific, released the ABC Ginseng Cream in 1966, which served as the origin of it’s 1997 brand Sulwhasoo. From 1990 to 2000, Amorepacific also released the brands Mamonde, Laneige, Etude House, and Innisfree. Still, these now-popular products flew under the US radar for quite some time. Unless you had proximity to these Asian beauty niches, access to these products were limited. And even if you had the proximity, it wasn’t easy to get your hands on them—I can personally attest to that as a Chinese-American.
My mother is a Chinese immigrant and a child of the cultural revolution. This was a time when anything having to do with capitalism or traditional Chinese culture (like cosmetics) was to be purged. As a result, she kept a very ascetic beauty routine. She instructed me to cleanse with a washcloth and apply moisturizer—that’s it.
But when I was in elementary school, my older sister returned from New York with lightweight Japanese sunmilks, Majolica Majorca mascara, and My Beauty Diary sheet masks drenched in sweet-scented essence. My parents disapproved of these cosmetics, but I was enchanted. Everything was so pretty. I still remember the sheet masks my sister bought in a Chinatown grocery store. I saved those masks for special occasions, never sure when I was going to be able to find them again. I refused to share my masks with my non-Asian friends. Those masks were little treasures for me; made for people like me, by people like me. It was a feeling I had never experienced before: the feeling of being seen.
Interest in Asian beauty was slowly starting to build throughout the early aughts, and hit the mainstream by 2010. K-beauty retailers (like Peach & Lily, Glow Recipe, and Soko Glam) started popping up online, promising to curate the best of Korean beauty products. Asian beauty community forums, like Reddit, gave K-beauty bloggers and influencers the opportunity to talk about skincare basics and cosmetic chemistry. Jude Chao of Fifty Shade of Snail and Michelle Wong of Lab Muffin Beauty Chemistry were all powerhouse K-beauty influencers who could be found on the Asian Beauty subreddit, posting reviews, ingredient analysis, and explaining basic skin biology.
By 2016, I started to curate my own routine of products. Videos and articles about trying, reviewing, and reacting to “12-step skincare routines” were all over the internet. K-pop and K-dramas started to grow massive fanbases in the U.S.—and with it, their dewy makeup routines gained popularity. Slowly but surely, Asian culture wasn’t just some weird niche. It was cool.
Those masks were little treasures for me; made for people like me, by people like me. It was a feeling I had never experienced before: the feeling of being seen.
It was a strange phenomena to experience at the time—non-Asian peers who thought my snail serums and cleansing oils were slimy in 2015, were asking about hydrocolloid patches and rice sleeping masks in 2017. Everyone began preaching the virtues of extensive, multi-step skincare routines. And it wasn’t just small corners of the industry; mass retailers began stocking Asian beauty products on their shelves.
It was a shock and delight to start seeing Missha and makep:rem at Target. The K-Beauty and J-Beauty sections of Sephora filled me with a strange sense of pride whenever I saw non-Asians cluster curiously around sheet masks and essences. I remember the first time I saw a cushion-compact foundation at CVS. Asian beauty culture was changing the U.S. beauty landscape. These visible changes made me feel like a child again, clutching my first box of sheet masks with pride and excitement. But as Asian beauty became more popularized and the influence of Asian culture began to expand, the silent co-opting within the beauty space began to make me feel uncomfortable.
Sharing culture is beautiful, but it’s also a deeply unsettling task for Asian Americans. So many elements of our culture are dismissed as “disgusting” and “weird”—my childhood peers were reviled by the idea of eating chicken’s feet, gagged at candied hawthorn flakes, and sneered mercilessly at my mother’s homemade tea eggs. They all had a very distinct look on their face—a shared glance with one another, mouths pursed somewhere between amusement and disgust, and a strange self-assuredness in their shoulders. “Can you even imagine eating that?” they all seemed to say to each other, as though I was some kind of feral dog. At the same time, their eyes lit up at the sight of chocolate Pocky and milk candies. Same thing with Asian music, cartoons, and media. My classmates saw me as a weirdo for listening to TVXQ and watching Naruto. Now, everyone listens to BTS and streams Demon Slayer on Netflix. To see the explosive popularity of Asian beauty reminded me vividly of this—sheet masks were slimy and unpleasant, until they weren’t. Snail slime was gross and weird, until it wasn’t. Asian beauty, like most other exports of Asian culture, was weird and gimmicky, until mainstream non-Asian media started singing its praises.
So, the next time you reach for the sheet mask and jade roller in your skincare fridge, or you massage cleansing balm into your skin, think about the culture that brought these products to you. Think about the history behind that culture and experiences people of that culture face today. Because I do. Whenever I wash my face and pat essence into my skin, I think about my culture. I think about how we have been diminished and othered for so long, until we served a purpose. I think to myself about how proud and lucky I am to be alive today, with the power and privilege to write about the AAPI experience. And while we still have so much work to do, Asian Americans aren’t just abstract theories that can be dismissed. We are people, we are alive, and we are finally taking up space—right on people’s vanities.