Glow Recipe Co-Founders on the Global Rise of K-Beauty
Sarah Lee and Christine Chang share their journey as they prepare to launch the brand in Hong Kong.
Glow Recipe, the K-beauty brand that makes formulas based on foods like watermelon and avocado, is one of the few industry pioneers that have been able to make the Korean skincare regimen and philosophy become more accessible to the American market. First launched in 2014 as a website dedicated to K-beauty, the label has now become a millennial-favorite brand thanks to its innovative products and Instagrammable packaging.
Co-founders Christine Chang and Sarah Lee, who met as colleagues at L’Oréal, noticed that the beauty market lacked information and education on K-beauty despite the curiosity and buzz around it. With multicultural backgrounds, the duo was able to connect South Korea’s beauty world with America. Last year, the brand finally landed in Singapore and in 2021, the brand is set to launch in the Hong Kong market with Sephora.
Continue reading for our conversation with Sarah and Christine on Glow Recipe, K-beauty, skincare and beyond. The brand’s skincare goods will be available at Sephora’s Hong Kong website and stores starting January 28.
From wearing face masks regularly to staying home for days, our lifestyles have changed drastically over the past year. Have you personally experienced any changes to your skin?
Sarah We’ve been talking about “maskne” for a while. It’s definitely something I’ve experienced since I have oily and combination skin. Part of our skincare philosophy at Glow Recipe is to encourage everyone to truly listen to their skin and to give it what it really needs. It’s important to tailor your routine based on your skin needs and concerns. I think that approach has really helped navigate the unexpected skin concerns that I’ve been unexpectedly facing throughout this past year.
On top of acne, I’ve also dealt with inflammation, redness and irritated skin issues, so it’s been important to take more time for my skin. Actually, during this pandemic, I’ve focused more than usual on self-care in general, which has been helpful. I’ve been paying more attention to my daily skincare, thinking that the commute time was replaced for that. At-home spa rituals are also really important for me – I’ve used a lot of masks, including the Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask as a mask or a wash-off. I also love our Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser as a cleansing and an exfoliating mask. I would leave it on for five minutes and wash it off after. I always try to listen to my skin and respond accordingly.
Christine I have really dry, dehydrated skin, which is a big concern for me. Throughout the day, I’ve been trying to use more moisturizer. I’m slathering on products after lunch so that my skin stays hydrated. I’d very often be wearing the Watermelon Mask or Avocado Mask during a Zoom call because it doesn’t really show on camera. Skincare doesn’t have to be a production where you take time to sit down and do it, but it can actually happen throughout the day. In the bath, I’ll do hair and face masks at the same time. Just slipping in little moments like that have been helpful.
How have you been prepping for Zoom calls in terms of both skincare and makeup?
Christine One product both Sarah and I use every day without fail is the Watermelon Glow Toner. It’s a formula that gives the perfect balance thanks to its ingredients. It has a little watermelon extract, which is inspired by our grandmothers’ rubbing watermelon rind on our skin in the summer for a soothing effect. It also has hyaluronic acid for hydration, BHA for pore-refining and PHA for unclogging the pores, making it the “maskne” essential. Not only does it keep the pores clear, but it also helps with spot treating if you use the product with a cotton swab at the end of the day. Sometimes, I’ll put it in a mist bottle and spray my mask with it before putting it on.
Sarah I usually do not wear makeup on my face. My daily look consists of eyeliner, lip balm and the Glow Lip Pop, which helps achieve that natural pink color. We were inspired by the desire for a reflective, glass skin-like complexion to launch the Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops, which replaces products like highlighters that may potentially have skin irritators like mica or pearls.
One of the inspirations behind the Dew Drops was from Korean celebrity makeup artists, who sometimes use extra oils or Vaseline for a wet, dewy finish on set. We were thinking, “How amazing would it be if we could look like that normally without having to put so much effort but actually feel great?” Every single day, it gives that instant glow and a natural finish. It’s something that we’re excited for everyone to try, especially for a Zoom call or just going out for a walk.
Are there any other beauty routines that you’ve been enjoying lately?
Christine I’ve really been enjoying my bath routine. I think baths are when I can get everything done at once in the most efficient way. Washing my hair, conditioner, hair mask, body wash, body soap, exfoliation and in the meantime, I’ll do a double-cleanse, gua sha and mask. Outside of skincare, I’ve been enjoying the Briogeo Don’t Despair, Repair! Hair Mask. As for body products, I love using exfoliators and scrubs. I think it’s important for body products to be sensorial and enjoyable. It’s actually one of our most-requested categories, so there will be some news to come in that category down the road.
What are your thoughts on K-beauty being commonly perceived as a skincare routine with seven to 10 steps? What other aspects of K-beauty do you wish people would recognize more?
Sarah This is a topic we’re very passionate about. First, I’ll say that the 10+ step routine is really not something that we believe in or think is a reflection of reality in Korea. I think a lot of people we know personally are always looking to minimize and condense skincare routines while not compromising on the results, which is essentially the motivation behind the Glow Recipe brand.
I think it initially was a marketing tactic when K-beauty as a category was less known. To be honest, it actually created almost a barrier to entry for anyone that was new to this space. Especially in America, where people are very practical and result-oriented, the 10 steps sound very overwhelming and sometimes complicated. When we were developing our own brand, we had a mission to break that barrier and actually make Korean skincare more approachable and accessible. This leads to the skincare philosophy where taking it day by day is really important, versus this one fixed formula of 10 to 15 products you use every time. Depending on the occasion, mood, weather and so many other external factors, you should change your skincare routine accordingly.
Where do you see K-beauty in five to 10 years? Did you expect the industry to grow this much prior to starting Glow Recipe, when the two of you were working together at L’Oréal?
Christine We always knew that there was something there. What we mean by that is, Korea has been a leader in ingredients and technology. When we were at L’Oréal, we were both heavily involved in marketing and product development, and would constantly look to Korea for inspiration. Whenever we took trips there, we would come back with suitcases full of products because every single time, we’d be blown away by the innovation. It would be the perfect trip for any beauty junkie.
It was almost meant to be for us to be part of Glow Recipe, because we both had concrete beauty experience in Korea and the U.S. We were able to be that bilingual and bicultural bridge between the two markets since K-beauty was being brought over in a way where people were interested, but there was a lot of education needed. We were in a good position to be able to communicate all of these amazing things that we knew firsthand to beauty lovers worldwide.
“We believed that K-beauty would reach a place — and we hope we contributed to getting it there — where it would infiltrate every beauty pouch.” – Christine Chang
In the very beginning, we were often asked if K-beauty is a trend and if it would go away in a few years. We would say that it’s more than a trend, because it’s more than a single ingredient, single texture or a product like sheet masks, for example. K-beauty is about a holistic approach that didn’t really happen at the time in the U.S. We knew that eventually, with the right education and content, K-beauty would get to a place where it would be part of everyone’s daily routine.
We like to use the example of French beauty. When you reach for your, let’s say, Lancôme product, you’re not consciously thinking, “Let me reach for my French serum.” It’s just part of your routine. We believed that K-beauty would reach a place — and we hope we contributed to getting it there — where it would infiltrate every beauty pouch. K-beauty has not only spawned so many brand launches but it’s also influenced every single brand in the market. You’ll see brands as big as Neutrogena developing “water burst gel” textures or sheet masks. I think another aspect that has contributed to the growth of K-beauty is the fact that it is so sensorial and so fun, which makes it socially shareable. That’s really sparked a dialogue around skincare.
In the same way, I believe it’s going to continue to lead the conversation around skincare. One of the ways to do that in the next five to 10 years is just going back to the basics in terms of reinforcing the general approach. We grew up with our mothers and grandmothers consistently teaching us about hydration and being gentle to the skin. We really want to educate our community that skincare is not about chasing the highest concentration — it’s really about finding the right cocktail and approach for you.
What are some rising K-beauty brands that you’ve noticed and loved recently?
Sarah There are a few brands that are very new and look very interesting. Rael has these little pods called the Moisture Melt Snowball, which I thought was a really cute way to showcase the story of the product. Another brand is Slurp Laboratories that is focused on hyaluronic acid. As Christine said, a lot of brands are focusing on the basics and key active ingredients like cica, ceramide, vitamin C or vitamin E. I think this is something we will be seeing more of.
Which products are you expecting to do well in Hong Kong, considering the city’s humidity and warm temperatures through most of the year?
Sarah I actually lived in Hong Kong for five and a half years and it’s surreal to see Glow Recipe launch there, since I’m familiar with the market. We actually haven’t launched in Korea yet as we want to go deep and narrow for each region. The Hong Kong launch follows our entry into the Singaporean market. Because Hong Kong is quite humid and has warm weather in general, we believe the Watermelon line will do phenomenal. We’ve actually seen similar results in Singapore. The Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask is our top product there. Some other staples we expect to do well are the Watermelon Pink Juice Oil-Free Moisturizer and the Watermelon Glow PHA +BHA Pore-Tight Toner.
Christine We also think the Avocado Melt Retinol Eye Sleeping Mask could become a super hit. We’ve always been cautious about retinol. We know that it’s a dermatologist-approved ingredient, but we also have sensitive skin and we’ve experienced first-hand the irritative effects it can have. I know that in Asia, there’s a little bit of trepidation around retinol. We can confidently say that with the eye sleeping mask, we really created a formulation where anyone can use it without concerns. We achieved that by encapsulating it in this shell that gently melts over time, so the skin will absorb tiny microdoses throughout the night. I actually lived in Hong Kong briefly too, and both Sarah and I are extremely sad that we are not able to visit for the launch at this time.
What is a type of food that you’d like to experiment with in the future for Glow Recipe?
Christine Whenever we post on our social media asking our community what fruit they want to see next, those posts get thousands of comments. There’s everything from strawberry and mango to jackfruit and even durian. I think it really depends on the need, because we choose a specific food based on its effects and what skin concerns it can tackle. For example, we launched the Plum Plump Hyaluronic Serum to solve a deep-seated need for thirsty, parched skin. We knew that plum also has a synergistic effect with hyaluronic acid, so the formulation works together to hydrate the skin even more.
Lastly, if you were to be stranded on an island, what are three beauty products you would bring with you and why?
Christine I would probably say a good moisturizing treatment like the Plum Plump, SPF for the full body and an unlimited amount of the Blueberry Cleanser.
Sarah The Blueberry Cleanser, Plum Plump (I can’t live a single day without it) and a moisturizer.