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A dedicated group of K-beauty bloggers is tackling this herculean task, which is complicated by the sheer number of beauty companies that are in South Korea, the fact that some facilities manufacture masks for multiple brands, and a language barrier on both sides. But the effort is worth it.
"Considering I sheet mask every day and have a stash of about 200 sheet masks at all times, I felt like I was having a nightmare! Seriously. I've gone through all the stages of grief," Jude Chao, the popular blogger behind Fifty Shades of Snail, said in an email to Racked.
"To think that some sheet masks cost more than what some of these people make in an entire day of folding sheet masks is horrifying."
Chel Cortes, who blogs at Holy Snails and produces Shark Sauce serum in her spare time, agrees. "This is something straight out of a K-drama, not real life, for the country that's supposed to be 10 years ahead of the rest of the world in beauty,’" she said in an email. "To think that some sheet masks cost more than what some of these people make in an entire day of folding sheet masks is horrifying."
The tight-knit group mobilized and started asking brands for #receipts that prove the mask process is fully automated in a factory setting. "We expect brands to maintain control and ownership over the products they sell to us and allowing this part of the process to be done in workers' homes, unsupervised, seems very careless to me. If they're willing to give up that much control of the product's manufacturing, I'm not sure I trust them to maintain control over other parts of the process," Chao said. "The masks themselves may be ‘fine’ in the end, but I'm less willing to put my faith in that than I would be if the masks were folded and packed entirely on company premises."
Kim F., an infrequent blogger but frequent K-beauty user and AB Redditor, tracked down and emailed 29 brands after the news broke. She, Chel, Chao, and Cat Cactus, who blogs at Snow White and the Asian Pear, started a spreadsheet, which they made public on the Asian Beauty Reddit . "I gathered up a bunch of my sheet masks and started harvesting email contact information from brand websites as well as reaching out via official social media accounts of sheet masks I use and have used in the past," Kim said via email.
Here are some of the responses from companies thus far:
Benton: Confirmed that masks are factory-made, gave specific factory information, gave a link to view images of factory (also mentioned it’s the same factory that manufactures Missha masks)
Elizavecca: Confirmed they produce in a factory, no details or imagery
Tosowoong: Confirmed masks are produced in "certified" and "top ranking facilities with automated folding," no details or imagery
Holika Holika: Via Facebook page: "Absolutely yes" masks are folded in a factory and not people’s homes, no details or imagery
Leaders: Leaders has a big presence in the US (masks are sold at Ulta) and they tweeted the day this story hit, "All of our sheet masks are made in our machine-operated factory from start to finish & are biodegradable!" They also provided the group with a multi-page PDF with images of the facility.
Sulwhasoo: This brand, which is owned by Amore Pacific, was mentioned in the original story, and it also has an established presence in the US. The group received a vague response from the person in charge of the Korean Sulwhasoo Facebook. Racked has requested clarification from Amore Pacific and Sulwhasoo’s US-based representatives and will update when we hear back.
UPDATE: Sulwhasoo sent Racked the following statement: "At Sulwhasoo, we place the utmost priority in product quality and are dedicated to providing safe products to our customers. Sulwhasoo has no connection to the photos from 2011 or the claims made by the part-time employee. The Snowise Brightening Mask (sheet masks) are manufactured and supplied under strict quality control - our manufacturing process does not allow for such irregularities to take place."
UPDATE 9/13: Nature Republic sent the following statement via email: "All of our products are manufactured in a CGMP manufacturing plant that is regularly inspected by the KFDA. Nature Republic also has a separate internal quality control department that monitors and screens each product."
Emails were sent to many more companies and the group is awaiting responses.
The requests were likely not a surprise to many of these companies. "According to a contact in Korea, this scandal is old news, so companies have had ample time to switch to an automated system and thus should already have the receipts ready to prove it," Cat Cactus said. "Still, there's always the possibility that the proof doesn't tell the whole story, or that all factories don't have the same conditions."
So, can you believe these companies’ responses? For some people, it’s going to be an uphill battle for K-beauty companies to earn back some trust. "The more specific a company is about their practices and the more proactive they are about providing proof, the more I believe them," Chao said. Pictures and videos, along with a timely response, will go a long way towards re-establishing trust and a sense that the companies are being transparent.
For some people, it’s going to be an uphill battle for K-beauty companies to earn back some trust.
According to Christine Chang and Sarah Lee, the co-founders of the US-based K-beauty site Glow Recipe, it should be noted that quite a few brands do hand-fold their masks. But obviously this should always take place in a proper manufacturing facility. The pair have visited the facilities of all the brands they sell here in the US.
"Sheet mask production is an intricate process and even the market leaders in Korea utilize a hand-folding process for each sheet. Very few manufacturers in Korea utilize machinery due to potential issues of tearing the delicate fabric," Chang and Lee told Racked in a joint email. "Each brand that Glow Recipe works with has the entire process, from the hand-folding of the sheet, to drenching the sheet in concentrated serum, to inserting and sealing the mask inside an individual pouch, fully take place in certified manufacturing facilities with extensive sterilization and hygiene practices. All of these manufacturing facilities are regularly inspected by the KFDA." These brands include Whamisa (see their hand folding process here), Blossom Jeju, and Polatam. (Many of the brands that responded to the bloggers' inquiries here didn't clarify if their masks were hand- or machine-folded.)
In the meantime, the bloggers here all mentioned the up-and-coming Taiwanese mask industry as an alternative while waiting for information from K-beauty brands. "Taiwanese masks have been gaining ground against Korean masks for some time, particularly for their excellent fit and mask material at affordable prices, and this might just be the tipping point for them to claim the sheet mask throne," Cat Cactus says.
Chao reached out to several Taiwanese companies about their mask manufacturing process. Naruko, Maskingdom, My Beauty Diary, and L’Herboflore all confirmed that they produce in a factory. As of press time, the group was waiting for confirmatory photos, but you can watch a video of My Beauty Diary’s process here.
It’s unclear what effect, if any, this will have on the Korean beauty industry here in the US, where consumers are still learning about the products and brands. (It should also be noted that many sheet masks offered by western brands are made in Korea.) The onus is on them to be transparent with customers here and to provide as much information as possible to prove that they do not subcontract out to companies that may use illegal, unsanitary, and unethical methods to fold masks.
It’s a good reminder, though, that we live in a global society and should question the products we buy. Kim says, "As an American consumer, I cannot pretend I don't participate every day in a consumerist system that means someone somewhere far away is not being treated fairly or being abused for my commodities. It's a global problem that reaches way beyond sheet masks."
Racked has reached out to several Korean beauty companies and US-based K-beauty retailers. We’ll update this post as we get more information.