Dear beauty nerds, here's how to read K-beauty labels like a pro

Who doesn’t love a little K-beauty looting? Whether skincare or cosmetics, there’s always something new and cute to try from the beauty behemoth that is South Korea. The availability of K-beauty brands overseas are still somewhat limited though, so for those of us who can’t wait for shipments to find their way to our local stores, we turn to “pasabuys” (informal group purchases through an online reseller) or ask friends vacationing in Korea to buy for us.

In this case, we get the goods made for Koreans. Here’s the catch: everything of consequence will be written in Hangeul, or Korean letters. Korea is still very protective of its own culture, and unlike other countries, prioritizes Hangeul and Korean literacy over learning the Roman alphabet and English. Therefore, to better communicate with their intended audience, the Korean Cosmetics Product Act (also known as the KPCA – not a typo) requires Korean labeling on all domestically-produced cosmetics. Even imported cosmetics will have a Korean translation stuck on at least the secondary packaging, i.e. boxes. 

 This MUFE UV Bright Cushion has a Korean label stuck on the box.

This MUFE UV Bright Cushion has a Korean label stuck on the box.

Some K-beauty brands, for export or branding reasons, will also place English information on their products but most others will not. If your K-beauty haul has been sitting unused because you aren’t quite sure what to make of those cryptic labels, here’s a quick guide to help you out!

Proof of Authenticity

The first thing to check on with your new loot is its authenticity. Unfortunately, with great fame comes the higher risk of getting copied, and everyone here knows we PV girls are averse to fake cosmetics. There is rarely any counterfeiting of Korean products within Korea but just in case your loot wasn’t sourced from an authorized boutique and you want to make sure, you can use mobile apps like Brandsafer and Hiddentag to help authenticate them. The apps use the camera on your phone to scan the holographic stickers on the packaging to verify its authenticity. There are some limitations as not all K-beauty brands offer this safeguard or are affiliated with an app but a little precaution is better than none!

 Image via Brandsafer

Image via Brandsafer

Important Dates

When you’re sure that what you have is the real deal, it’s time to check if you can use it. Fortunately, cosmetics in Korea turnover pretty fast. In my one and a half years there, I’ve never purchased a product more than four months away from production!

Most products will have MFG / M, EXP / E or other variations stamped on at least the primary packaging such as bottles, compacts, and tubes. There’s no official standard but most commonly:

  • Manufacturing dates are listed as 제조
  • Expiry dates are 까지 or 사용 기한.

Koreans use the metric system and the preferred way to list dates are YYYY/MM/DD or YY/MM/DD. There will be very few instances of listing dates as DD/MM/YY (but never MM/DD/YY) so to be absolutely clear, some brands will indicate the Hangeul time markers for year, 월 for month, andfor day.

 This product shows that the expiry date   사용기한   is listed as   YYYY 년 MM월

This product shows that the expiry date 사용기한 is listed as YYYY 년 MM월

Ingredients Listing

If you know a little bit of Korean and have been unimpressed with the tips thus far, let me present you with a major stumbling block: ingredients. While one may guess some Konglish chemical names, there are plenty of original Korean chemical names which even locals may struggle with. Thankfully for us beauty geeks, there are apps such as Hwahae and All of Cosmetics that translate the whole list for you. Take note that the order in which the ingredients are listed may be different from the US FDA standard of arranging the everything from the highest to the lowest content. Korean ingredients generally still follow the descending order but when less than the component is 1% or less, it can be listed in any order (same as US FDA guidelines as it happens).

 English translations of Hwahae by lostinpretty.com

English translations of Hwahae by lostinpretty.com

Cruelty-Free Practices

In 2015, South Korea passed a bill to end animal testing by 2017. However, as pointed out by certain activist groups, there are many loopholes to this version of the bill and it is not to be considered a complete ban on animal testing. Still, such progress is much appreciated by both animal and cosmetic-lovers.

To check if a product is Leaping Bunny approved, head on over to CrueltyFreeInternational.org. Blogger Une Peach has also compiled her personal research (and a longer list) of cruelty-free beauty in Korea.

I hope this mini guide will help you feel less intimidated about trying K-beauty because there are so many great products coming from Asia’s busiest beauty capital! Got any more questions about K-beauty? Just share them in the comments below and we’ll try our best to address them!