Written by Nita Xiong @nitaxnails
Korean beauty trends and K-pop have made a significant impact worldwide and have also seamlessly integrated their influence into American mainstream culture. This is evident as Korean skincare and makeup products are included on the shelves of major U.S. beauty retailers and are becoming more widely available online in North America. On social media, American beauty influencers share their experience on achieving the coveted “Korean glass skin” and implementing the “Korean 10-Step Skincare” routine. As shoppers browse through their local department stores, every now and then, a K-pop song is heard playing on the speaker system. Amidst this cultural fusion, another facet of the Korean Wave is making its mark in the U.S. market and online trending searches: Korean nails.
As Korean nails closely intersect with K-beauty and K-pop, it’s unlikely for them to go unnoticed while admiring our favorite female (and sometimes male) K-pop artists' stylish appearances which often include wearing cutting-edge works of art on their nails created by renowned Korean nail artists (referred to as "nailist" in Korean). The inclusion of nail art as a part of these influential figures' appearance and style reflect the care that is put into every detail as their hair, makeup, fashion, accessories and nails are all meticulously done and curated.
(Blackpink member, Lisa, wearing nails by Eunkyung Park,
a trailblazer and renowned nail artist in the Korean nail industry,
known for creating nail designs for many popular K-pop idols.)
In a homogenous country with high beauty standards, South Koreans place great importance on the upkeep of overall appearance. The stylish appearance of Korean celebrities and idols are often followed and emulated, setting off trends and booming domestic sales of beauty and fashion products that create the stunning results of these public figures. Nail care and nail art have also risen to the limelight, becoming an increasingly important criteria for many's style statement as Koreans, predominantly Korean women, invest in the upkeep of their nails almost as much as they invest in other aspects of their appearance. In a March 2023 UNN Korean news article, it was reported that the Korean nail market is estimated to revenue about 300 billion won (~$256 million U.S. dollars) annually and is expected to reach 500 billion won (~$427 million U.S. dollars) in the next year. That's a growth rate of about 67% compared to the U.S.'s estimated nail market growth rate of 3.5%, underlining the rapidly increasing growth of nail care and nail art in South Korea.
Nail art, varying in complexity and diversity, is a small detail with an impactful effect on one's style and appearance. While much of K-pop nails entail edgy and fresh designs, the nails of many Millennial and Gen-Z women walking the streets of South Korea's bustling metropolitan cities are often just as compelling.
What Are Korean Nails?
Korean nails often have a minimal, feminine, cute, playful, pretty, or elegant aesthetic and commonly consist of sets with various accent or “point” nails (as termed in Korean). These nail looks are often done on natural nails or short length nails, although long nails are also becoming popular.
(Cute and playful nails created by Judy of Gomgomnail,
a nail shop located in Hapjeong, Seoul, South Korea.)
(A set that exudes elegance by nail artist of Gangnam Nail Malgeum,
a nail shop located in Gangnam, Seoul, South Korea.)
The manicure process of Korean nails emphasizes thorough cuticle care and attention to detail to create a pristine canvas for color and art. Korean nail art designs often consist of soft shapes in the form of hand-painted or crafted 3D designs, sparkling glitter effects, and/or nail embellishments such as rhinestones, charms, pearls, chains, and anything one can imagine to attach to the nails. All are then topped with a glossy finish that preserves color and nail art for a result that is resistant to daily wear and tear. Alternatively, a matte finish can be chosen for a softened overall look. These unique designs reflect the wearer’s personality and style, elevate one's appearance, and make Korean nail aesthetics visually fascinating.
A few examples of U.S. nail trends that reflect Korean nail aesthetics, but are named differently, include “velvet nails”, “blush nails”, “lip gloss nails” or “barely-there nails”. It’s no wonder why these nail looks have become highly desired, searched for, and derivatively replicated. They offer a minimal yet delicately alluring manicure that can be worn with an everyday look or for special occasions. These nail trends, along with other Korean style nail aesthetics, can be best achieved using Korean gel products.
(A green velvet nail look by Amy Le of amylenails
that catapulted the velvet nails trend in the U.S. back in 2020.)
What Are Korean Gels?
Korean gels are gel polishes and other gel-based nail products produced in South Korea by Korean cosmetic brands that are dedicated to high-standard quality, innovation, researched-based formulation and product development, consumer safety, and highly attuned to seasonal trends. Korean gels offer versatility for a wide range of nail art styles, but they excel particularly in helping craft the like aesthetics of Korean nails and come in a variety of color options and effects for captivating results.
Solid color gels come in highly pigmented opaque colors that require only one to two coats. Their consistency is slightly thicker than traditional gel polishes and allow for a smooth and easy application.
Syrup gels come in translucent colors that offer a softened and glassy look such as “lip gloss nails” or “milky nails”. Although sheer in appearance, opacity can be built by adding multiple layers to amplify color. Syrup gels can also be used to create a soft gradation or ombre effect.
Glitter gels come with fine or large glitters for a sparkling effect. However, they also include gels with other particles for fun and interesting effects.
Magnetic glitter gels are translucent gels with tiny reflective particles that can be directed using a magnet to create gleam that dynamically reflect lighting from different angles. These gel types are what is used to create various “velvet nail” looks.
Texture gels are thicker colored gels with a granular texture often used to create tweed patterns, painted canvas-like designs, and other texture nail art.
(Texture gel used to create tweed nails by Sun Nail,
a nail service provider in Hwajeong, Gwangju, South Korea)
Other Korean gel polishes include glow-in-the-dark gels, temperature-sensitive gels, and much more!
Korean gel polishes often come in bottled containers that are not only uniquely packaged and designed to be aesthetically pleasing for display, but also for ease of identifying color and for comfortable handling during application.
Signature premium solid color gels by DGEL Korea come in colored square shaped bottles for
ease of identifying color and with long brush handles for comfortable hold and ease of application via NILLIFUL.
In addition to gel polishes, Korean gels include other types of gels used for different purposes:
Base gels come in a variety of options for creating a strong and adhesive foundation for color and some even provide certain nutrients to the natural nails.
Top gels can vary in viscosity for light encapsulation and preservation of color and designs, high shine (or matted finish), and structured protection for long-lasting wear.
Clear gels come in a variety of viscosities and can be used for crafting nail structure before color or for building nail extensions. Other uses include creating 3D or textured art, encapsulation, or adding dimension to designs.
3D gels are often thick in consistency, non-flowing, and can come in a variety of colors and effects used to craft 3D shapes or characters.
These other-purpose gels can come in bottled form or in jars and offer versatility in crafting and finishing nail designs.
In recent years, Korean gels have become widely available and accessible in the U.S. through U.S.-based distributors that focus on supplying Korean nail products, such as Zillabeau and Hae Nails. Other North American distributors include Sweetie Nail Supply, Kioko Nail Supply, and Nailpedia Supply & Co–all based in Canada, but also ship to the U.S. and other outlying countries. The list of Korean nail product distributors and suppliers continue to expand as many Korean cosmetic brands are seeking to extend their reach to other countries, further establishing their brand and making their nail products more accessible to the global market.
What Makes Korean Gels Different?
In a country with a crowded beauty market, Korean cosmetic brands face high competition as many strive to secure their spot at the top. Therefore, simply offering appealing nail products is not enough. Other important attributes are what set Korean brands apart and are key to establishing the quality of their nail products.
Innovation & Research-based Development
To maintain their relevance and prestige, well-established Korean cosmetic brands consistently introduce new and improved formulations of nail products to the market. Extensive research integrating product testing and consumer feedback is often done to create innovative products as well as refine their current product formulas. The results are often used to compare their own products to other products in the market and establish their superiority or distinct qualities. Insight on usability, effectiveness, and safety gathered from professional nail technicians, DIYers, and nail salons are often taken into high account to improve upon and develop products that have strong appeal and deliver optimal results. Formulations of existing products, such as base gels, top gels, and builder gels are periodically updated for better performance and container packaging. Notably, some reputable brands like I'ZEMI, have their own in-house production line and research and development lab to create original and distinguished nail products.
Characterized by a relatively small land area with a densely concentrated population, South Korea places significant emphasis on ecological awareness and have implemented substantial environmental laws to ensure the sustainability of its environment and resources for both its current population and generations to come. The practice of recycling and proper waste disposal are widely practiced as a societal norm.
Eco-friendly and sustainable practices have increasingly become the standard for many new and developing Korean brands that wish to appeal to an eco-conscious market. For distinct Korean cosmetic brands, this includes, producing recyclable packaging, excluding the use of animal derived products, and using only cosmetic grade ingredients in nail product formulation that are safe for users when used properly. A number of Korean cosmetic brands ensure eco-friendly values, human-centered focus, and sustainable practices as part of their brand identity and mission.
Premium Korean gels by distinctly well-established Korean cosmetic brands undergo rigorous testing, strict safety regulations, and are formulated with with only cosmetic grade ingredients to be at least 10-free, meaning their formulas do not contain ten of controversially harmful ingredients. Some of these controversial ingredients have been known to be potentially carcinogenic (formaldehyde), neurotoxic, irritable to the respiratory system, disruptive to the reproduction system (diputyl phthalate, parabens), or associated with other symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, and headaches when inhaled (toluene). In former times, many of these controversial ingredients have been predominantly found in nail lacquers, but have significantly been phased out over the years due to nontoxic cosmetic ingredients activism and regulation laws. However, not all cosmetic products are evaluated prior to being released to the market nor undergo testing for safety. Therefore, safety responsibility and accountability highly falls on the brand, nail professionals, and consumers.
In the Korean gels market, some brands such as mithmillo and Bevlah offer HEMA-free formulated gels. HEMA or hydroxyethyl methacrylate is an ingredient used to create an adhesive bond between the product and the natural nail. However, overexposure to HEMA in nail products through improper use and frequent contact with the skin have been found to cause mild to severe skin irritation and allergic reactions. Once sensitization develops, it can often be irreversible. HEMA-free gel options significantly reduce the risk of allergic reactions and make HEMA-free gel enhancements a generally safer option for individuals with known sensitivities or allergies to HEMA. However, if known allergic reactions to HEMA exist, it is always best to first consult with a medical professional prior to receiving a HEMA-free gel service or any gel service.
Other brands, such as Bevlah and DGEL, go beyond to be more than 10-free. The list of controversial cosmetic ingredients their products exclude can sometimes be found on their website or more often, through material safety data sheets that contain a full list of product ingredients; results of safety testing; and guidance on how to properly handle, store, and use the product. Ingredients and safety transparency establishes Korean gels as reliable and appropriate for professional use.
Always In Season
In addition to important attributes such as innovation, sustainability, and safety, Korean cosmetic brands are also highly attuned to seasonal trends, often releasing new collections of gel polish colors in themed concepts and appealing packaging that align with upcoming style trends and in-season nail looks. New collections of soft pastel colors are typically released for the spring season. Collections with bright and vibrant colors that evoke fun and vivacious energy are introduced for the summer season. Moody and dark colors can be expected for the fall season while colors that mirror elements or festivities of the winter season release just in time for the colder months. Regardless of the season, new gel collection releases from Korean cosmetic brands are fun and exciting as they encompass fashion-forward qualities, visionary design, and innovative formulas, pushing the creative boundaries of nail design.
Trend or Timeless?
The availability of Korean gel polishes and nail products in the U.S. has brought about fresh and exciting possibilities in the North American nail industry for nail artists and nail wearers. Whether or not Korean nail styles have become a part of your social media algorithm, its appeal is gaining visibility and popularity in the the U.S., peaking interest and exerting influence through fascinating nail trends and online presence. The question is, will you wear Korean gels?
Nita Xiong is a licensed nail artist and creator of NILLIFUL and NILLIFUL Nail Studio. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a Bachelor's degree in English and minors in Asian American Studies and Gender and Women's Studies. Prior to doing nails professionally in the U.S., she lived in South Korea for five years. Currently, she resides in the Milwaukee area, provides nail services at NILLIFUL Nail Studio, and creates artistic and informational nail content.