Korean Beauty Explained: Cushion Compacts

how korean cushion compacts work
Cushion compacts – that is, foundations, blush, bronzers, contours – are all the rage right now, aren’t they? Everyone, from Lancome and Dior to L’oreal and Topshop, has one on offer, and they’re creeping into the makeup bags of people everywhere. 

For some, they’re a gimmick, or handy depending on your camp. For others they’re quite baffling considering we already have so many other types of base products at our disposal. 

So what makes them different? Why did they become so popular in South Korea and why are they flooding into the Western market? 

Cushion compacts are foundations compacts – think pressed powder style – that are effectively a one stop application routine. In each compact you get the foundation – a sponge soaked in product, the ‘cushion’ – and a puff to apply the foundation with. No brushes needed. They’re usually small and light enough to pop into a bag and take with you wherever you go.

They were first launched in 2008 by IOPE, and the rest of the AmorePacific family high end lines were quick to follow as the bb cushions were instantly popular. Combining a light bb cream base, SPF, and innovative skincare ingredients with a microfibre antibacterial sponge to apply, they were easy to use with much less mess and far more convenient for daily touch-ups.

Aside from ease of use, it seems a natural transition when you think of how Koreans apply their makeup daily. From my own experiences in Seoul in the summer of 2013 to the summer of 2014, it was apparent that the West’s fascination with makeup brushes didn’t translate to Korea. They were available to buy, but the preferred methods of application for most of the make up buying population are sponges and fingers unless it’s eyebrows or eye products. With the Korean’s signature ‘dewy glow’ finish this isn’t surprising, and many base products – such as the Holika Holika aqua petit BB cream – come with application sponges in the box. As cushion compacts come with microfiber antibacterial applicators, with their own little place in the compacts that doesn’t touch the product to keep contamination at a minimum, the design of the packaging makes everything so much easier. No lost sponges.

how korean cushion compacts work

So why sponges? How do cushion compacts work??

Koreans are pretty big on ‘patting’ motions. ‘Tok tok’ (톡톡) or patting in skincare brings blood to the face, helps product to sink in, and your face to dry without using abrasive objects such as towels.

Patting in makeup means you apply the product with a little bit of air, which helps to create an ‘airbrushed’ looking finish. In most products that feature the words ‘air fit’ or ‘colour match’, the extra air incorporated by this method of application helps the oxidisation process that causes the colour change. Additionally, the patting motion also means you blend the product more effectively into the skin rather than painting it on with a brush, you can even out problem areas to create a more natural finish. It also adds luminosity and glow (광). It’s like stippling, but gentler and less streaky. Using the sponge means that you don’t contaminate the product with your fingers, and the sponges are usually designed to be less porous so they absorb less of the product during application. Science.

The consistency and formula of cushion compacts is also very important. Most of the Korean products are billed as ‘BB’ or ‘CC’ cushions, and not full-on foundations. This is because the coverage is supposed to be light but buildable. You can apply more to areas that need more coverage by building up product, and patting to diffuse. Full coverage foundations in this sort of format tend to make application patchy and less sleek looking. A few of the thicker formulas I’ve seen from Western brands look very cakey on the skin, which is not the desired look at all. The thickness of a full coverage foundation doesn’t sit as well in the cushion, it doesn’t take as well to the applicator, and although the patting motion works well to disperse, it is a little awkward. Ideally, the finished face should look ‘like skin but better’.  If you need touch-ups throughout the day, application should be quick and easy, not a concentrated effort to reapply your face.

Cushion compacts were designed for ease, since the typical working life of a Korean is quite fast paced. Or bballi-bballi (빨리빨리). They slip easily into the bag, don’t take up much room, contain all you need in one compact – mirror, foundation, applicator – and the design means absolutely no spillage at all.

What do I recommend

Korean brands offer a wide range of very decent cushion compacts at very affordable price points. Almost all are refillable, and they’re formulas include SPF coverage and ingredients that are nourishing for the skin. The downside is the lack of colour options available.

The IOPE cushion foundation, as well as Laneige and HERA are very popular in Korea, if you’re looking for more high end products. The Laneige cushion is beautiful. At the lower end, A’pieu (review: Air Fit cushion compact), Holika Holika (review: dodoCAT face2change glow cushion), Aritaum, and Mamonde are fab choices. Etude House also does one that is very popular, though I don’t use their base products as they’re not the best match for me.

How do Western brands compare

To be honest, I’m not impressed. I’ve systematically been swatching them when I come across them, since I don’t actually have the funds to be buying everything from Chanel to L’oreal. Especially when Dior are releasing theirs for £62. From the swatches, a lot seem to be full coverage and don’t sit nicely on the skin. I’d have to test them out more thoroughly though, although I’ve seen enough of the Topshop and MAC versions to know I’ll be going absolutely nowhere near them. At all. L’oreal is… OK. If you want the cushion experience though, I’d suggest the Korean products because they’re nowhere near as disappointing.

Interestingly, I find that the Western brands also have the cushion sitting too high up in the compact (especially Lancome). The plastic separator isn’t supposed to touch the cushion, yet for some it does.

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korean beauty explained cushion compacts

All in all – I’m really glad that cushion compacts are making an impact, even if the Western brands still have a long way to go to match even the lower end Korean brands.

I hope that this has been a little bit informative! If you have any corrections or additions let me know – I’m all for building on knowledge. Additionally, if you have any questions I haven’t covered here, leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them as best I can.

more on the science of korean skincare: sheetmasks

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6 responses to “Korean Beauty Explained: Cushion Compacts”

  1. Jessica Ayton says:

    Ah fii I loved this! I've seen cousin compacts mentioned somewhere and had no idea what they were. I'll Defo be checking out the Korean brands you've mentioned ?

  2. Renee says:

    This was so interesting to read! Thanks for the information! :)Renee | Life After Lux

  3. Cara E says:

    This was a great read! I'm so intrigued by Korean beauty, it's always so innovative!www.britishmermaid.com

  4. Miel and Mint says:

    This has been the most thorough review of cushion compacts I have ever read (and I have read a fair share of them). Can't believe I haven't been on your blog sooner, sweetie. Say hello to your new reader (even though we've probably been following each other on Twitter for ages) 🙂 I haven't tried any of these little guys made by Western brands, and I guess I saved myself a disappointment. Korean ones sounds much better. Thank you for this fantastic in-depth post and your recommendations <3xox Nadiawww.mielandmint.com

  5. Gemma Magpie says:

    I am loving the whole cushion makeup trends, they're so fun to use! xx Gemma ♡ Miss Makeup Magpie

  6. Alyse (J.X.L.) says:

    I appreciate how thorough and researched this post is – it's clear you put a lot of work into learning about cushion foundations. I've also observed that a lot of Western foundations look cakey on the skin which I think is due to the heavy-handedness. I would liken Western makeup to oil painting whereas Korean makeup is like watercolor, in their application. I use the L'Oreal cushion foundation compact which is pretty good. It's definitely glowey, but I haven't tried a Korean one yet for comparison. Weirdly, it doesn't contain SPF which IMHO should be pretty standard with these compacts!Alyse (J.X.L.) | Lumière & Lens

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