Here in the U.S., many people still only know Korean beauty as the newest section at Ulta or Nordstrom, packed with super cute products. But across the world in Korea, beauty cannot be relegated just to the store counter—from traditional therapies to advanced procedures and of course, new product innovations coming to market at breakneck speed, beauty isn’t just a part of life for the 25 million or so women (and many men) on the Asian peninsula—it’s a way of life.
“In the U.S., a beauty routine may consist of a morning and evening routine, with the occasional visit to the dermatologist when there’s a major skin issue, but in Korea, on top of a multistep routine for both morning and night, women visit local ‘skin maintenance shops’ biweekly or weekly to fine-tune their skin,” says Korean beauty expert Charlotte Cho, cofounder of SokoGlam and The Klog. “They consider full-body and facial massages a part of their normal routine, and visit dermatologists regularly to access their skin and for advanced procedures.”
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The Korean woman’s obsession with beauty also can’t be written off as some kind of extreme collective vanity—the hypercompetitive socity (job applicants are required to submit a photo with their resume) demands that a lot of attention be placed on an individual’s physical appearance. While that type of constant upkeep can sound a bit exhausting, it keeps the beauty industry in check, ensuring that only the best, most effective products and technologies make it in the market. In fact, there’s probably no other place in the world that places this much emphasis on beauty—providing a truly unique and fascinating look at beauty culture. So, when given the opportunity, I packed my bags and jet off to Seoul with the Korean Tourism Organization for three days of intense beauty bootcamp. Here’s what I learned:
Going to the dermatologist or plastic surgeon is just a regular part of your daily beauty maintenance.
The Gangham subway station is filled with ads promoting the hundreds of plastic surgery and dermatology clinics that densely populate a few streets in this area, commonly referred to as the “Beverly Hills of Seoul.” Out on the sunny sidewalks, it’s standard to see women of all ages walking around with masks and bandages, a pretty good sign that they just stepped out from one of them. I popped by Arumdaun Nara to check out what a clinic was like inside.
Most dermatologist offices I’ve been to in the U.S. have a few laser machines. Given that some lasers cost more than a car, doctors are choosy about which ones to invest in—making sure that there’s enough patient demand for the treatment before they drop six figures for the technology. Over at Arumdaun Nara, however, there were no less than two or three rooms, packed wall to wall with every type of laser you could think of. The reasoning? For Korean women, breezing into the dermatologist’s office for a laser treatment or facial is simply considered skin care maintenance. Outside of individual rooms, the dermatologist office also has a rather large communal treatment area, where noninvasive procedures like injectables and various facials are performed. In Korea, only doctors are allowed to administer injectables and even for treatments like an enzyme facial or blackhead vacuuming, a doctor skin consultation is first required. In the U.S., most people would be hesitant to get anything done in a space shared with other patients, but for Korean women, these types of treatments are so standard, no one is worried about getting some Botox or filler in front of their peers.
I popped in for a HydraFacial MD–like pore-cleansing treatment called an Aqua Peel, but the dermatologist on duty advised against it, noting that he saw some skin warts around my eyes that could be spread with the treatment. Instead, he recommended a CO2 laser to zap off the tiny papules and offered to perform one on the spot. With some post-laser redness, I walked out of the clinic with a mask to cover my freshly lasered skin and blend right in with the rest of the women on the street.
Chilling out at the local sauna is a legit way to spend Friday night.
Years before I first stepped foot in Korea, I started hearing about the infamous jimjilbangs, 24-hour bathhouses with people of all ages go to take long, hot soaks and get wellness treatments ranging from facials and massages to body scrubs and vaginal steams. These multilevel establishments have gender-segregated, as well as common, areas where groups of friends can go both to relax and socialize. The signature treatment at one of these establishments is the Korean body scrub, where a naked elderly woman scrubs you to within an inch of your life, and in the process, removes at least a few layers of grime, dirt and dead cells until you’re left with the softest skin you could ever remember having. The aggressive exfoliation will leave you feeling a bit exhausted, which is perfect, because you’re encouraged just to go take a nap anywhere you feel like plopping down in the various relaxation rooms. While a naked scrub (again, in a public area) followed by sleeping on the floor might sound weird to the uninitiated, both the experience and the results are so addicting that it’s common for Koreans, both young and old, to make this treatment a weekly habit.
Stop by the hospital to get everything—including aesthetics—taken care of in one go.
When I arrived at the Seoul airport, I picked up a few medical tourism brochures to get a head start on understanding what this $2 billion-plus industry was all about. While it’s common knowledge that South Korea is the plastic surgery hub of Asia, with a reported 40 percent of all patients made up from foreigners, it’s also a hot destination for other types of medical treatments. In fact, medical screenings—two-to-eight hour sessions where patients electively get everything checked (from eye exams and blood tests to mammograms and comprehensive CTs, MRIs and X-rays) are commonplace and can cost as little as $600.
Some hospitals, such as the Kwangdong Hospital of Traditional Korean Medicine, also have full practices dedicated to treating various concerns using Eastern techniques such as cupping, herbs, acupuncture and massage therapies. In addition to addressing health concerns like pain or weight management, patients are usually also given the option to undergo some beauty treatments as well, such as facial acupuncture to tighten skin and take down puffiness. Interestingly enough, traditional Eastern techniques are usually combined with Western medical treatments like injectables, lasers, threadlifts and noninvasive skin tightening such as Ultherapy. Here, I experienced my very first acupuncture and cupping treatments, and although they weren’t for improving my skin, the session ended with a 10-minute facial mask, so I walked out with a brighter complexion anyway.
But if you just want a really luxurious spa treatment, Seoul is also where it’s at.
All that intense skin work might leave you just wishing for a really pampering experience. After two days of scrubs, cupping, acupuncture, lasers and pore cleaning, I was looking forward to some good-old fashioned luxury. The spa at the Sulwhasoo flagship is the go-to destination for discerning customers who care just as much about the experience (all treatments start with a foot soak and end with tea service) as they do about having access to some of the best skin care products in the world. For many Korean women, there is no other skin care brand as luxurious and elegant and effective as Sulwhasoo—it is perhaps the most coveted beauty brand in Korea (and certainly has the sales numbers to back up that sentiment). A trip to the Sulwhasoo spa isn’t just about getting a great facial or massage; it’s an immersive experience in being treated to the best the country has to offer.