Every morning Chung Yong-Hyen, 35, goes through a daily ritual of applying five skin care products. "I wash with face cleanser, serum booster, toner, moisturizer, and sun screen," he says while being pampered at Amorepacific Spa in downtown Seoul.
The lean 6-foot tall marketer in public relations visits the spa once or twice a month and spends about $500 every season on various products "to maintain and take care of" himself. Chung's lifestyle may seem at odds with conservative Korean culture in which macho men tend to have dominated the social scene.
But the latest numbers show a surprising trend of Korean men striving to look beautiful. Nearly 21 percent of global sales of men's cosmetics, a total of $495.5 million, have been sold here last year, according to Euromonitor International, a global market research firm.
That makes Korea the largest market and by far the largest in terms of per capita – only 19 million men - as well. Marketers make a point that the new consumers of cosmetics are straight men who are embracing a new version of handsome.
The whopping sales figures are expected to increase by 79 percent this year, reaching $885 million, according to South Korea's largest cosmetics company, Amorepacific.
The market has been so vibrant that SKII, an upscale luxury Japanese cosmetics brand, launched its global men's line of products for the first time in Korea. SKII's best selling facial treatment essence is priced at $140 a bottle. Their boutique spa, like many other spas in Seoul have seen the number of male clients increase at a fast pace in recent years who pay $224 for facial and $453 for facial and body treatment.
In the affluent district of Gangnam in Seoul where plastic surgery and dermatology clinics have opened shop in almost every street block, Korean men are going further than simply maintenance.
"Most popular is nose surgery. Men consider their noses as symbol of sexuality. So they like higher nose bones to look more attractive like Westerners," said Dr. Byung-Gun Kim, director of BK Plastic Surgery Hospital.
The standard of beauty has evolved from strong masculine to a softer look with small and slender face features. "They're called 'flower men' referring to good looking guys in Korean dramas or movies with feminine features," Kim said.
These flower men are certainly trending. In the bustling shopping district of Myungdong, its main street nicknamed "cosme road" referring to a dozen local and foreign cosmetics brand shops lined up, advertisements are filled with handsome male celebrities posing as models with phrases like "Bright skin completes a man!"
"Men who don't care about their appearance are actually deemed as being lazy," said Jaejin Lee, producer of a cable television show for men called "Get it beauty HOMME." The show launched this week offers everyday tips on men's skin care, hairstyling, and even mustache grooming.
"Many younger men participating on my show don't feel embarrassed at all about shaping themselves up," Lee said. In the coming weeks, the show plans to teach men how to wear eyeliners and smoky eye makeup for a night out at the club.
For many followers trying to keep up with the trend, grooming comes from peer social pressure and the reality of having to compete with powerful women in the job market.
"As more women took leadership roles in the society, we started to feel the need to groom ourselves, a necessary tool for men to gain competitive edge here," said Hankyun Kim, 28, a popular blogger of how-to advices on men's skin care. "It boosts self-confidence. My looks affect my voice and tone greatly, so even if I am simply talking on the phone I make sure to have makeup on." Kim is an author of "Hankyun's Grooming Book" and has launched his own cosmetics brand for men, WHAN.
The competitive edge on appearance does affect getting jobs in Korea, experts say. All applications require self photos and some owners are even known to have a professional face reader join the interview process. They are to make sure the company does not hire unlucky or unsuitable candidates based on physiognomy which assesses a person's character from outer looks.
"Looking younger is strength in social life," said Dr. Park Byung-Soon, at CELLPARK. At his clinic in Gangnam district, 90 percent of his clients used to be women, but now half are men who come for special skin treatments using high-tech gear like Fraxel Dual or Thermage CPT that costs up to $5,000.
"So when I interview future employees, yes of course, I do keep in mind looks. And from my experience, they turn out to be an active member of my organization. So qualifications is basic and plus the real competitiveness is how you manage to be presentable."