This article originally appeared on i-D Magazine.
From the time of its inception, people, mostly men, have been comparing wearing makeup to wearing a mask. In 2015, 20-year-old college student Ashley VanPevenage witnessed her photograph go viral after it was turned into a cruel makeup-shaming meme. "The reason why you gotta take a bitch swimming on the first date," read the caption on a composite photo of VanPevenage before and after makeup, originally taken to demonstrate the transformative power of makeup on chronic acne.
The idea of makeup as a mask is sometimes more empowering. In 2017, when male politicians are rolling back reproductive rights and bragging about sexual assault, some of us see high wattage highlight as defiant, feminine armor. Artists like Petra Collins, meanwhile, are ripping off the mask and pushing the internet aesthetic towards pores-and-all empowerment.
The latest Korean beauty trend is less about protection and more about looking like you could shatter at any second. "Glass skin" looks like it has been created with an Instagram face filter, but actually takes weeks, or even months, to achieve. Koreans are divided on the extent to which the term is actually used in East Asia, but it's definitely a thing on the K-beauty internet. The Instagram tag #GlassSkin so far turns up around 500 photos of products and selfies (plus one of Samoan-style chicken.) It's a slow beauty approach to product layering that leaves skin blemishless, translucent, supple, aqueous, and ageless — the ultimate five finger K-beauty death punch to grouchy NYC subway skin. The effect is indulgent and satisfying, like holding a brand new glass-plated iPhone before you apply the screen protector and inevitably get a hair trapped inside.
"It's a sign of youthfulness and it's one of the most strived-for qualities in Korea," Alicia Yoon, founder of Korean beauty site Peach & Lily, recently told Refinery 29. "However, this combination of ultra-smooth texture and super translucency can be hard to achieve with products alone."
Like most Korean approaches to beauty, glass skin requires a painstaking skincare lifestyle. Yoon calls bullshit on the 10-step K-beauty routine you've probably heard is all the rage out East, along with snail slime facials and peel-off red wine gauze masks. There is no concealer or foundation involved. But glass skin does require a more complicated routine than CVS face wipes. "Getting this fresh-faced texture comes two-fold," Yoon explains. "First, you'll need an exfoliator to buff skin so it has that very smooth texture. Secondly, a hydrating serum to help give that glass-like appearance."
Slather, don't rinse, and repeat. Then add SPF. Some glass skin seekers use the viral "7 Skin Method," which actually translates to the "7 Toner Method," which is pretty self-explanatory. "By layering your toner multiple times, your skin gets to absorb more of the hydrating ingredients, ultimately giving you hydrated and healthy skin," instructs Young-Ji Park, founder of a Korean beauty brand called Purpletale. Purpletale is known for its comparatively succinct "5 Steps to Lovely Skin" method. But more steps doesn't necessarily mean more moisture. It's not basting a turkey, so don't go slathering cheesecloth in melted butter and draping it over your face. Glass skin is more about the essence of moisture than super-saturation.
Glass skin isn't unique in its championing of breakable doll beauty. Instagram sensations like Lil Miquela and Koti Rose spark heated debates about surgery and Photoshop in their comment sections for appearing unattainably flawless. Miquela, a CGI Instagram model from California, was recently dubbed "Instagram's biggest mystery" by the Washington Post.
"In Western culture, we harbor a persistent anxiety about realness — particularly on social media, which often seems less about documenting one's life as it is crafting your own self-myth," wrote the Post's Caitlyn Dewey. "It's astounding how many new apps and social networks launch in opposition to that premise, that they are finally the place where you can truly 'be yourself,' where no one performs or idealizes, where everything is 'authentic.'" Glass skin isn't in opposition to this premise — and the demand for authenticity — but it is in tension with it. It's natural beauty designed to look fake.
"Porcelain" has long been the golden standard of gorgeous skin in Korea, as Scaachi Koul recently pointed out in a Buzzfeed article about the coded racist language of skincare ads. But this is often less about colonialism and more about class snobbery. Working class people were tanned because they had to work outdoors in the sun. But the quest for glass skin, if you don't get too obsessive, can be seen as a pretty innocuous form of indulgence. "Other than accutane, switching to a K-beauty routine is the only thing that has ever helped my acne," wrote one commenter. "My skin is transformed and it's such a nice little self-care routine everyday." Plus a bitch can go swimming in it.