Dayoung Bak, a 24-year-old, tattoo-dappled, platinum blonde makeup artist, can’t believe Tony Moly is in Sephora.
“This is the cheapest brand in Korea,” Bak tells me in a cafe near Hongdae, a hip neighborhood in Seoul. Even though Bak doesn’t like to spend too much money on her skin care, she still steers clear of Tony Moly.
Such is the sentiment of most Koreans past puberty. Tony Moly is one of the most name-dropped Korean brands on U.S. beauty magazines and blogs, but the situation is totally different in Tony Moly’s country of origin.
You would be hard-pressed to see Tony Moly on any Korean YouTube beauty channel. According to Korean online beauty community Powderroom and Korean beauty magazine Beauty Talk, the top-selling products at Korean drugstores and departments stores tend to be brands like Mamonde, CNP, and Hanyul, or Western favorites like M.A.C, Nars, or Yves Saint Laurent. In fact, Tony Moly’s popularity is so low in its home country that Euromonitor, a leading provider of market research, couldn’t quantitatively specify its share of the Korean beauty and personal care industry.
When I mention Tony Moly to my close friend, a 27-year-old Seoulite who is wont to spending her evenings watching beauty YouTube channels, she sneers: “That brand is so dorky.”
Not everyone feels that way, though: Korean-American YouTuber Joan Kim, who lives in Seoul, tells me Tony Moly is popular—but for the much younger crowd. Even her college-aged cousin wouldn’t touch it.
Coco Park, who runs The Beauty Wolf blog and lives in Montréal, was more blunt: “Their sheet masks are trash.”
It’s mysterious, then, how this brand became the first to be featured under the K-beauty trend at Sephora and Urban Outfitters and is now sold at upscale retailers across America.
K-Beauty’s Beginnings in the U.S.
Practically every retailer with a beauty section, from CVS to Bergdorf Goodman, has a K-beauty section today. The drive for that began in 2012 or 2013, according to K-beauty consultant Ju Rhyu. “K-beauty was getting a lot of media play and press airtime,” said Rhyu, who owns K-beauty consultancy Inside the Raum, in an interview.
At this time, K-beauty was totally novel. Retailers were charged with educating people on how to use sheet masks and why their beauty routine ought to be more than just wiping makeup remover pads all over their mugs. “There wasn't much awareness about Korean beauty, so it was talking about what Korean beauty was all about,” said Alicia Yoon, founder and CEO of Peach & Lily, an e-commerce website that curates Korean beauty brands.
Much of that marketing and media coverage concerning K-beauty focused on its unique design, innovative formulations, and appealing packaging. It often bordered on what Park calls “othering and mystic exoticism.” There’s frequent oohing and aahing over “weird” or “gross” ingredients, like snail mucin and donkey milk, and squeals about how it’s so darn cute! Those expectations from the American audience positioned Tony Moly as an ideal brand to feature.
But Why Tony Moly?
Tony Moly, with its banana-packaged hand cream, donkey milk face cleanser, and all-snail everything, fit what retailers were looking for. (Urban Outfitters did not respond to requests for an interview. Sephora declined to comment.)
Alice H. Hyun, vice president of operations for Tony Moly USA, didn’t address why Tony Moly targeted the U.S. market several years ago, but she said American consumers associate the brand’s unique aesthetics as being typical of a Korean beauty brand. “We believe the brand's widespread demand has been part of setting the tone to what Americans now understand as ‘K-beauty’—fun, innovative skin-care products at an affordable price point,” Hyun wrote in an email.
“Tony Moly is so unique and new and different,” Rhyu said. “It’s nothing like the other products Americans have seen before. The fact that it’s a Korean product gives it a sort of exoticism, I suppose. Cultural differences can make an unknown product big in a different country.”
There’s also the fact that Tony Moly, and the dozens of other K-beauty brands you’ve seen in the past few years, didn’t make the leap to American retailers simply because of their high quality. Jude Chao, editor of W2Beauty, explained to me that if you’re a brand who signs up to be with a certain retailer, that retailer might demand to be the only store who can sell your product. They might want to market it in a different way than you imagined. And they might want to sell your entire line, or just a few products.
Often, the Korean products that appear online or on department store counters are not necessarily there because they’re the highest quality. “It comes down to business decisions in the end,” Chao said—and friendly marketability in an ultra-crowded market.
Red Wine, Avocado, Broccoli… for Your Face
Tony Moly’s “I’m Real” masks were perhaps how most American women were introduced to sheet masks. You know them well by now—the brand’s bright packaging advertising natural products like avocado, tomato, or aloe is ubiquitous. The product debuted in 2015 on the shelves of Sephora and Urban Outfitters, and have since moved into Macy’s and Ulta. (Sephora has apparently removed them since then.) They sell for 89 cents each in Korea, according to Tony Moly’s Korean website, but Ulta sells them for $3.75.
“Nobody knows that, in Korea, Tony Moly is like CoverGirl,” Park said. “It has the reputation a low-end drugstore brand would have here in the States. It was like when a really unpopular person transfers high schools, and then they come in and can be the cool kid.”
It seems that, despite the deluge of better products that have arrived Stateside since 2015, Tony Moly is here to stay. This year, British Vogue named “I’m Real” one of Earth’s best sheet masks, and Refinery29, Popsugar, Marie Claire, InStyle, and Bustle have also recently paid their respects. There are more than 10,000 reviews of the sheet masks on English-language YouTube, compared to just 2,500 reviews for Dr. Jart’s sheet masks, 1,800 for Mizon’s, and 8,800 for Etude House’s. Hyun of Tony Moly told me that the brand is one of the top-sellers at Ulta and is “rapidly growing at Macy's as well as other retail partners.”
“There’s always a market for people’s ignorance about skin care,” Park said.
Still, Park and her fellow K-beauty adherents are overjoyed to see other long-loved products trickle into the mainstream consciousness. “If someone is super-happy with the K-beauty they get from Sephora, and those brands get to stay, that’s a good thing,” Chao said. “At the end of the day, it’s crazy to see how the beauty industry of one pretty small country has had a global effect.”