Not so long ago, a tan was considered the hallmark of beauty. Baby oil was slathered on to encourage that golden glow. When the sun fell out of favour, the inexorable rise of bronzers and self-tanners began. But half a world away, where celebrities prize porcelain skin, a secret weapon in cosmetic bags called BB cream was doing the opposite—making skin whiter. Legions of fans bought in.
A combination of tinted moisturizer, sunscreen, blemish healer and skin whitener, the name “BB cream” is short for blemish balm or beauty balm, depending on the marketing spin. BB cream was first brought to Asian markets in 1985, almost 20 years after German dermatologist Christine Schrammek introduced the first blemish balm, but it didn’t became a runaway bestseller until the early 2000s. A craze was born. “Imagine if you were in a country where they didn’t have a staple like, say, mascara. That’s how Asian women feel in Canada when they can’t get their BB cream. It’s crazy how devoted they are to it,” says Andrea Claire, a Canadian makeup artist and beauty blogger based in Singapore.
Shida Atri became a fan after she got hooked on Korean TV dramas and found out that the actresses attribute their flawless skin to BB cream. Atri, who was born in Iran, went door to door in Toronto’s Koreatown looking for a BB cream for her olive complexion.
“It feels like I discovered a secret,” says the 29-year-old retail clerk. Her preferred brand, Skin79, claims to moisturize and prime the skin for foundation, while controlling acne. “I stopped using it for a week and paid the price.”
Now major beauty labels like Garnier, Clinique, Estée Lauder, Maybelline and Marcelle are scrambling to launch their own BB creams in North America. Ellie Somfelean, a Montreal-based beauty blogger and naturopath, is starting to panic because her reviewer’s sample of Marcelle’s new BB cream is almost finished. “Finally, I found one that suits my skin tone,” said Somfelean, 23, who has white skin. “Marcelle’s is more neutral, not grayish. I have to make this tube last until it’s available in stores in February.”
The whitener is more important in the Asian market, where “having white skin is synonymous with beauty and success,” explains Nadine Pernodet, executive director of Estée Lauder, which launched CyberWhite Brilliant Cells Extra Intensive BB Cream there last summer. “But there isn’t a demand for whitening in other markets, so we didn’t include it in our new North American formulation, which is more about anti-aging and sunscreen.” Estée Lauder’s Daywear BB Multi-Perfecting Beauty Benefit Cream SPF 35 hits Canadian stores in January, in two shades. Montreal-based Marcelle is bringing the first Canadian-made BB cream to market in early February. Garnier’s Skin Renew Miracle Skin Perfector BB Cream SPF 15 will also be out in February, while Clinique’s Age Defense BB Cream SPF 30 launched in the U.S.A. in August and will debut three shades in Canada sometime this spring.
In Vancouver, Fiona Fong has sold BB cream from Korea for the past four years at her Shifeon boutique. To her, they are not authentic if they don’t repair skin. “BB cream was originally created in Germany to treat patients recovering from plastic surgery and laser treatments, so the original BB cream has healing properties. New ones are a gimmick if they’re just tinted sunscreen.”
Meishan Cheung, who owns Red Ginger Cosmetics, also in Vancouver, is trying to decide which BB cream she will carry, but is leaning away from those with SPF because Health Canada requires a drug identification number, which means a mound of paperwork. “Instead I’ll concentrate on BB creams for acne.”
At Gloria Fashion and Gift on Bloor Street in Toronto, where Atri buys her product, Robert Lee has been selling the cream for four years. “It’s not just Korean customers anymore,” he says. “We’ve had a few blonds, Filipinos and Indonesians—all the other Canadians—for BB cream.”
North American women will no doubt fall for its combination of moisturizer, acne control and foundation, just like Toronto-based Beauty Geeks blogger Janine Falcon. “It’s great for busy people. You can apply it in the back of a taxi.”