Cosmetics in the ASEAN Countries


Not being in the news is usually a sign that things are going okay,  and the ASEAN group of countries are rarely on the front pages.   I wonder sometimes how many people in the EU even realise that there is a comparable organisation in South East Asia. If they aren’t it is because the ASEANs have been quietly getting on with developing their international group without making too much fuss about it.

They comprise at the core, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.  Like the EU they also have some prospective members lined up.  ASEAN has consciously modelled itself on the EU in some areas and the two groupings have a lot of similarities.  They are both very diverse groups of countries who nonetheless have some things in common.  The population in total of the ASEAN countries is not far off twice that of the EU, so we really ought to hear a lot more about it than we do.

One of the things that they have borrowed from the EU is their approach to cosmetic regulations.  They have more or less taken the same wording with a few minor differences of the EU’s regulations, or at least the version that was in force up until last summer.  I don’t know if they plan to adopt the latest additional features.  But how different are the products that people use over there?

I think the ASEAN countries are more diverse than European ones in this respect.  There is the simple fact of geography for a start – they stretch over a wider climatic range.  But they don’t include much temperate zone, and very little desert.  So they tend to be high humidity regions.  This means that they don’t have quite the same need for moisturisers as Europeans do.  There are also cultural differences so a lot of people in the ASEAN countries are more interested in making their skins look paler rather than more tanned, so skin lighteners are big and fake tans are not.

One category that is huge in ASEAN and tiny in Europe are fabric face masks.  These do exist in Europe so you may well have seen them.  They are fabrics, often cotton or synthetic fibre, which are impregnated with a liquid that you apply to your face and leave them for ten to fifteen minutes.  Your face feels nicer when the treatment has finished, and it is an alternative way of getting cosmetic actives into the skin.

In principle these ought to work just as well in Europe, but there is an extra problem in dry atmospheres.  If you leave some liquid on the face afterwards it will evapourate quickly and this can have a drying effect on the skin.  I wonder if the atmosphere was a bit more humid in Europe if they would be more popular here?

A similar product type are facial hydrogels.  Again, you can get these in Europe if you look hard enough but they aren’t popular enough to get very wide distribution.  If you are wondering what a hydrogel is, basically it is just a gel.  They are formulated gels that are coated onto a backing film.   You apply them to your skin – sometimes removing the backing film and sometimes leaving it in place.  And again you remove them after the specified time.  They come in various shapes, from whole face ones with eye and mouth holes through to ones for across the nose or under the eyes.  They are designed to deliver  a variety of benefits.

Another product line that is not at all well represented in the West are very light emulsions and micro-emulsions that go under the name lotions but would probably be called milks in Europe.  They don’t actually have to look milky though.  If you play around with the refractive indexes of the oils you can make a light lotion that is almost transparent. The most famous of these is Hada Labo’s hyaluronic lotion.  The trouble with these kinds of products in a dry environment is much like that of the fabric face masks.   Their high water content means that they tend to leave so much water on the surface of the skin that it evapourates leaving the skin cold and sometimes actually drying it out.  In high humidity this is not a problem.

International brands often project very different images in different markets.  For example you see Sebamed in the beauty category in the Philippines, whereas in Europe it is a sort of sport/treatment/medical brand.  (Or at least that is how I see it.)

Singapore is probably the ASEAN country where the European skincare consumer would feel most at home, with a lot of European brands selling very well there.  But the other countries all have their homegrown offerings.  Being situated where it is Singapore was early in with the BB cream craze directly from Korea, and then got it again when Western brands jumped on board.

I asked leading Singapore beauty blogger Musical Houses to help me with this blog post.  I’ll simply quote her directly on what she had to say about colour cosmetics.

The emphasis is generally on looking young and fresh, so a deep smokey eye look with a nude lip (usually popular in the west) is less popular here than it is in Asia. A typical desirable look usually involved pale fair blemish free skin, bright big eyes (achieved with light shades of eyeshadow and false lashes or mascara and eyeliner), and some colour on the lips and cheeks, usually not too dark. The lips in particular cam vary by trend, one season the trend can call for brighter lip colour, another season can call for pastels, and yet another can call for an ombre-like colour gradation, with the colour fading towards the outward boundaries of the lip. The cheeks tend to be more consistent, usually light pastel shades (eg pastel pink) are best sellers. Highlighters are also popular to give skin a dewy glow.

I think the ASEAN market is an interesting one.  It is big.  It is diverse.  And it is open to influences from lots of other parts of the world.  It will be interesting to see how it develops.  It wouldn’t surprise me if some time in the next couple of years something emerges from the region that will take the world by storm in the way BB creams have.


(Thanks again to Muscial Houses for her for help.)

3 thoughts on “Cosmetics in the ASEAN Countries”

  1. Well, the cosmetic market (and marketing) in Asia – specially in South Korea and Japan – is so complex, big, sophisticated and creative that now there are even a lot of Western blogs just about Asian cosmetics – like mine. Even Estée Lauder said they are “using” South Korea as a source of inspiration…

    Most Western consumers don’t know, but many products from Western brands now are inspired in products from Asian brands. An example: MAC has launched the makeup brushes called Masterclass. Western consumers may think they are innovative. In fact, they seem to be just almost a copy of some brushes from a South Korean brand called Mule (LG). (On the other hand, the style of the word “Mule” was clearly inspired in MAC).

    Regarding the masks and lotions, I agree with you that theoretically they can dry out the skin under some conditions. But in a typical Eastern skincare routine a lotion or a mask is just one step of many – and I mean many – steps. Japanese and South Korean women (several men as well, even straight ones) usually apply a lot of cosmetics daily. For instance: at night they do the “double cleansing” (a make up remover oil + a highly foaming cleanser). Then they use a lotion (they say the lotion can disrupt a bit the skin barrier’s function due the high amount of glycols, so the serum used after the lotion could penetrate better), a mask or/and a serum, an emulsion (rich in oil – will “lock” the water of the previous products). After the emulsion they still apply a very thick, very occlusive cream. In the day they don’t use the cream. Instead of the cream they apply a sunscreen + a primer + foundation (almost everyone use foundations daily in Japan)…

    1. Hi Pedro – I was expecting you would have something to say on the subject, and you didn’t disappoint. I read of course. The innovations coming from Asia can’t be ignored – you are quite right. I think the ASEAN countries are a bit different to Korea and Japan and don’t get as much attention, which was why I wanted to highlight them.

  2. That’s cool! Must be difficult read in Portuguese… TKS. Ah, yes, you’re right Colin, I didn’t realize your text is just about ASEAN countries. Sorry.

    Singapore makes very good cosmetics, but they are too similar to American cosmetics (even the preservatives often used are similar), so they are boring to the Western consumers, since they don’t have points of differentiation like the SK and JP ones. They simply look like too common. But they have a lot of money and resources to put very strong brands in the market, maybe in the future they will be more famous.

    Vietnam cosmetic brands unfortunately can’t compete with brands of rich countries from Asia or the Western. And Asian consumers have resistance to cosmetics produced there even by big multinationals. That’s pure prejudice, since there are a lot of very good facilities in Vietnam with a many ISO’s etc.

    I believe Thailand has a good future. People there are passionate by cosmetics. I saw even relatively poor teenagers paying USD200 for a moisturizer from La Mer or Sulwhasoo. Also their economy is getting better (yes, they have a lot of serious problems, but are making progress).

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