Make-Up Is The New Macho

Make-Up Is The New Macho

The topic of self-grooming men is no longer shocking in Korea. While it may raise some eyebrows or arouse disapproving mutters, the majority of Korean youth have embraced the male cosmetic culture. Rather than being labelled ‘male make-up’, in Korea it is considered to be ‘구루밍’/‘grooming’. The difference is this; make-up is to make oneself beautiful, but grooming is the equivalent of ‘preparation’. Korean men use cosmetics, not to look feminine, but to look clean and make a better impression.

korea-male-makeup-men-cosmeticWhile meticulously maintaining and improving looks was once only for the purpose of courting females, now the reasons have grown more complex. One’s appearance is now an extension of one’s power portfolio, as competition exists in the work place too. Use Patrick Bateman from the novel American Psycho as an example. Patrick Bateman is an extremely wired business man, who is a dangerously ambitious perfectionist. He takes great care in the details, so much so that comparing business cards sends him into a psychotic rage. One of Bateman’s qualities is that that his driven attitude in business is also evident in his obsession with his appearance. He uses dozens of products, and is conscious of his clothes, hair and skin, as he uses every part of himself to defeat opponents.

American Psycho is an extreme example, but it helps break down the psychology of cosmetic consuming men as life in Korea is a fight for survival from day one of adulthood. Youth unemployment is at its highest in Korea, and as more of the population graduates from higher education, so will new methods to finding the cream of the crop, resulting in slashing away eligible workers. If one has a better impression, and looks more professional, they are more likely to get a job over an equally qualified candidate who doesn’t look the part. Finding work is getting more cut-throat. One’s appearance is a weapon of power, which is redefining masculinity in the modern era.

These Korean men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, have opened up a new niche consumer market for South Korea’s already booming cosmetics industry. The male cosmetics industry was worth 6629 Billion Won in 2009, and inflated to a massive 1,792 Billion won in 2014. As of 2015, it is worth nearly 5 Billion dollars globally, with 65% of consumers from Korea, China and Japan.

Number of Products Used Percentage of Men
<2 12.3%
3~5 24.5%
6~9 31.9%
10~14 22.7%
15< 8.6%


What kind of products are Korean men using? Most Korean men use staple products such as moisturizers and BB cream, but there are various other popular products such as toners, essence and lotions. 31.9% of male cosmetics consumers were found to be using 6 to 9 products. Although this may sound a lot in comparison to other countries, the quantity is understandable if one takes into consideration the beauty market and female cosmetics in Korea. Afterall, Korean women use 8~12 products daily. However, one cannot be ignorant of the gray area. While male skin maintenance is embraced, most Korean women draw a line at eye and lip products. Even in Korea, men using lipstick and mascara is disapproved.


Korea’s compulsory 2 year military duty also plays a part. All men will experience this limbo period of their lives, where they grow and prepare for adulthood. Cosmetic companies have released make-up especially for soldiers, so that their skin does not get too damaged during their time of service. Men who have never self-groomed will learn in this time of hardship how to look sharp and professional. Moisturisers and sunscreen to prevent skin damage, as well as 위장크림/ camouflage cream will be more regularly used.

The standard 위장크림/ camouflage cream that is used in the military is oily and can cause skin trouble. Commercial camouflage creams which contain natural and beneficial ingredients are very popular. While many might find an odd juxtaposition between military and make-up, in Korea cosmetic products is merely an extension of personal grooming. The fact that even military men are conscious of their skin shows how far society has come, and the acceptance of using such products shows the development in defining masculinity. Even models for male make-up and skin care are athletes and actors who hold a ‘masculine’ reputation. Changing times have led to changing attitudes; while it is unclear how this milestone in the beauty industry will affect future gender norms, it is for certain that cosmetics is challenging traditional views on masculinity.

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