The Korea Herald


Pursuing ‘permissible’ beauty in Korea

Halal beauty products appeal to both Muslim and non-Muslim customers but Korean companies are slow to adapt

By Im Eun-byel

Published : May 1, 2018 - 18:22

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Cosmetics tycoon Elizabeth Arden once said, “To be beautiful is the birthright of every woman,” rewriting the mantra of the beauty industry in the early 20th century.

Half a century later, not every woman is yet able to enjoy the right to be beautiful, restricted by personal and social boundaries. Take for example Muslim women in Korea. Their choices of cosmetics, limited by their religious faith, are further narrowed by an unchanging, conservative Korean market. 

Korean cosmetics stores line the streets of Myeongdong, central Seoul. (Im Eun-byel / The Korea Herald) Korean cosmetics stores line the streets of Myeongdong, central Seoul. (Im Eun-byel / The Korea Herald)

Halal, meaning “permissible” in Arabic, refers to what is allowed for Muslims by the teachings of the Quran. The concept, not limited to just food and beverage, applies to different aspects of life, such as pharmaceuticals, machinery, finance and even cosmetics. 

To be halal-certified, a beauty product should not contain pork-derived gelatin, keratin or collagen. Alcohol, widely used to extend the shelf-life of products, is also banned. Furthermore, animal testing and animal-derived substances are prohibited.

Any type of cosmetic products can be certified as halal, as long as they meet the requirements. The products have to be certified by trusted institutions, such as the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia or Indonesia Ulema Council.

“I would never use creams with gelatin,” Asmaa Ahmed, a Muslim resident in Seoul said. She buys products in local drugstores, checking the ingredients printed on product labels.

Around the world, global beauty brands are tapping into the halal market, noting the growth of Muslim middle class. 

French cosmetics mogul L’Oreal has a halal-certified factory in Indonesia for its Southeast Asian market, manufacturing various products from face washes to skin brightening creams.

German chemical company BASF, which produces ingredients for beauty products, says 145 of its products comply with international halal standards. 

Despite the global market’s fervent interest in halal beauty, the Korean beauty market has hesitated from getting on the bandwagon, even with the growing popularity of Korean beauty products abroad. Few companies are eager to have their products certified as halal.

"(Our customers) have more interest in brand image and product quality rather than religious standards such as halal certification,” a public relations official from Amorepacific, one of the biggest cosmetics firms in the country said. “We are conducting studies and test procedures for halal certification for future expansion.”

Seoul Central Mosque in Itaewon (Im Eun-byel / The Korea Herald) Seoul Central Mosque in Itaewon (Im Eun-byel / The Korea Herald)

In turn, it is hard to find halal-certified beauty products in Korea. Even on Usadan-gil of Itaewon district in Seoul, an area heavily populated by Muslims, there aren’t many beauty stores tailored to meet Muslim consumers’ needs.

“For Muslims, I recommend appropriate items for them after reading the ingredient label on the back of the products,” Mariem Ben Romdhane, who works at a cosmetics store on Usadan-gil said. “If some animal-related substances are written on the label, I tell them it might not be suitable.” 

Halal certification logo on display at a beauty store in Seoul (Im Eun-byel / The Korea Herald) Halal certification logo on display at a beauty store in Seoul (Im Eun-byel / The Korea Herald)

Another store on the street sells halal-certified products, but despite a halal certification on the wall, some of the store‘s color cosmetic products were not certified.

“After moving to Korea, I had to give up on using halal-certified products. It’s a price that I have to pay,” Mira Filzah from Indonesia said. “I try to be careful about the substances, but I always have my doubts.”

Though the issue has been highlighted before, not much has changed, as the Muslim population in Korea is relatively small. It is estimated that around 130,000 Muslims live in Korea, according to the Korea Muslim Federation.

As a result, many local firms deem halal certification to be far from cost-effective.

Some pioneering cosmetic brands, however, stress that halal certification can also appeal to non-Muslim customers for ethical and health-related reasons.

Korea-based beauty brand Puresh promoted itself at Malaysia International Halal Showcase in Kuala Lumpur held in April. The skin care brand that produces halal-certified products stressed its appeal for a variety of “sensitive customers.” 

Halal-certified UV protection from Puresh (Puresh) Halal-certified UV protection from Puresh (Puresh)

“What comes from nature can be halal. But as the ingredients are processed by humans, artificially, they have more chances of being ‘haram,’ or what are forbidden,” said Lee Ma-eum, a marketing manager for the brand.

“The products that are certified as halal are organic and vegan, meaning consumers who have sensitive skin or who are conscious about ethical consumption can use the products,” he said. “Being certified as halal means it’s not only religiously permitted, but also it’s safe and ethical.” 

Maya Cosmetics, a nail polish company based in Chicago, at the halal showcase offered halal-certified nail polishes. As Sharia Law, or the law of Islam, requires the face and hands to be washed before praying, including the nails, faithful Muslims should not use regular nail lacquers. 

Breathable nail polishes from Maya Cosmetics (Maya Cosmetics) Breathable nail polishes from Maya Cosmetics (Maya Cosmetics)

Therefore, companies like Maya Cosmetics have developed special nail polishes that are breathable. It promotes itself as a “guilt-free” nail polish vendor for “women from all cultures, faiths and backgrounds.”

“These nail polishes allow the water to enter underneath. The nails are washed along with the hands despite the nail lacquers,” said Bilal Saeed from Maya Cosmetics. “As halal-certified nail polishes have a high oxygen penetration rate, they offer healthier nails, appealing to even non-Muslim customers.”