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  • Shree Bhattacharya

Beneath the Surface: What the United States Can Learn from Skin Care Around the World



As the world shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the realm of skin care ignited. During stay-at-home measures, increased media viewership of content pushed by creatives like SkinCare by Hyram inspired an uptick in product consumption, and skin care brands like The Ordinary, CeraVe, and PanOxyl suddenly engulfed western media. Unfortunately, a lack of research or familiarity with skin care practices left some stuck without progress and some with their skin condition worsened.


One example product was The Ordinary AHA 30% BHA 2% peeling solution. Its sales boomed at the beginning of 2020, and, with beaming reviews, it quickly sold out. Yet, meant to chemically exfoliate skin to reduce scars and hyperpigmentation, it took a menacing turn towards melanated skin. The small size of the molecule allows it to penetrate deeply into skin, and due to its high concentration, even the smallest amount can activate melanocytes in black and brown skin. This causes an overproduction of melanin that worsens hyperpigmentation and can stimulate surface burns, erratic white patches, and even slightly bubbled skin.


By exploring rich skin care cultures and dermatological systems cultivated in other regions of the world, consumers and manufacturers can adopt some working solutions to improve skin condition and prevent adverse effects.


South Korea and Next Age Procedures

Known for creative and high-tech cosmetic procedures, South Korea can be considered the leading power in skin care. Korea brings in about 117,000 foreigners for inbound medical tourism and ranks first worldwide for cosmetic procedures performed per capita. Treatments like glass skin mesobotox, Rejuran Healer, and stem cell facial therapies are only widely available in Korean clinics (located within Korea and internationally), or if they are available in the U.S., they are much more expensive. The affordability of cosmetic procedures in Korea is particularly exemplified in the pricing of fraxel lasering. Patients usually pay around $11 for a consultation, and if they choose to have the procedure, a maximum total price of about $500. Without insurance, the same American procedure would cost around $150 for a consultation and an average of more than $1,000 for treatment. Approximately halving the American price, Korean clinics make procedures more accessible to the public while they remain limited to elites in western settings.


This access is possible because unlike the United States, Korea incorporates cosmetic procedures into their healthcare, and a national insurance program covers the cost. Officials have also increased accessibility through catered solutions for both private and public clinics. However, as a homogenous nation, Korea lacks ethnically diverse treatment options. To properly accommodate the manifold skin tones in the US, traditionally ethnic remedies and natural methods should be examined and implemented.


The Passage of Tradition: Organic Skin Care

Before the introduction of medication, the most primal form of skin care depended on natural reagents. Ayurvedic skin care rooted in Ancient India showcases 5,000 years of herbal skin care practices for Indian skin, including practices of grinding Bel fruit rinds to form a lip balm paste or combining ground masur (lentil) and madhu (honey) for a face mask.


Over time, these remedies become tradition. I remember my mother preparing a besan-yogurt face mask when I would break out with blemishes or a cucumber-honey scrub for my sunburn. Many cultures, like my own, tell their skin care stories – like the origins of African black soap or the use of snail mucin, propolis, or ginseng in Korean face masks. Whether it be blending medicinal plants with fermentation practices or fruit essences with herbal teas, catering earthy materials to specific skin care needs can acquaint manufacturers with the perfect formulas for each skin type.


“Decolonizing” Skin Care

Like the AHA 30% BHA 2% peeling solution discussed at the beginning of this article, western skin care is largely based on white prototypes. Melanated skin is dismissed as an exception to theory in dermatological training, and the vital needs of Black and brown skin are too easily lost. To decolonize skincare, training and products need to extend beyond white skin types. Over the pandemic, Black small businesses were highlighted during the Black Lives Matter movement, with a spotlight on African black soap. Unlike The Ordinary peeling solution, this product helped BIPOC skin and served as a prototype for the BIPOC community. The United States should continue to learn from the inclusivity in skin care in other countries and equip consumers with the tools for their needs.


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