Korean Beauty Products: way more than you wanted to know

FAIR WARNING: There is a sheet-mask photo of me at the end of this. And I do indeed look like Jason from the Halloween movies. Scroll down at your own risk. (And no, I do not have any shame, apparently, by irrevocably putting this photo out into the world.)


Myeong-dong: the place to go in Seoul for world-famous Korean skincare. In this street alone: Nature Republic, The Face Shop, Tony Moly, Halika Halika, Innisfree, It’s Skin, Etude House, Banila Co., Amore Pacific, Missha, Olive Young, LOHB….the list goes on

You know how Korea is world-famous for its amazing skincare products, and the 10- or 12- or 27,678-step beauty routine Korean women allegedly undertake each night to maintain stunning skin?

Actually, DO you know about it? I didn’t. I first heard that Korea was the place to buy beauty products this spring, from the mother of one of Aardvark’s preschool buddies at some 3-year-old birthday party. And didn’t think much of it, except for, “hey, I should check that out for our trip.”

And then life and preparation for our many months abroad got crazy and I didn’t get around to looking into any of this until actually in Korea.

(And would you believe, my usually-trusty guidebook mentioned not a peep about this phenomenon? If you want to go anywhere in Seoul to get a craft beer, the guidebook is all up in details, and there is a “shopping” section for each neighborhood. But not a single description, let alone guidance on, this intense, multi-billion dollar, worldwide phenomenon/industry/what have you. Hey, Lonely Planet, if you want me to return to Korea and do some supplemental research for the next editions of your Korean guidebooks, I will be all over it. I’m just sayin’.)

But here’s what I learned from a little inter-webs research:

The phenomenon is REAL.

The skin care steps actually make good sense, more or less.

And Charlotte Cho, who is apparently nearly entirely responsible for bringing the phenomenon across the (Pacific) pond to the US, has no pores. (Seriously, this founder of SoKoGlam was mentioned in every article I read about Korean beauty products, and every article described her as “The poreless Charlotte Cho.” Which, you know, she may well be, and it’s obviously a credit in her field. But she also seems like a damn sharp marketing-and-business entrepreneur, so I feel like there might be a whole variety of adjectives that could also be applied, rather than just “poreless.”)

The REAL secret to Korean Beauty products

Once I started reading up on this stuff, I vaguely remembered hearing about the whole 10+ step routine a few years ago, and thinking, “Who has time for that?” and reading/listening no further.

But when in Korea, do as the Koreans do, right? It’s all about being a respectful tourist, really. So I read up on it.

One article I read mentioned that the real secret, the truly-most-important part of this multi-step regime, is the last one: applying lots of SPF. Apparently this is a huge deal in Korean beauty products and regimes. “Well, hey,” I thought. “SPF is a huge deal to me, too, and I am always on the lookout for better face/neck/chest sunscreens, since if I even think about the sun, I burn right up in those places. I’ll get some sunscreen products while I’m here. This makes perfect sense.”

But the next article I read claimed that the first steps, the famous double-cleanse, is what the true secret is. The double-cleanse, if you don’t already know/aren’t already a devotee, is to wash your face first with an oil-based cleanser (I’d never even heard of oil based cleansers before and without any extra knowledge probably would have steered clear, because that sounds like a combination-skin breakout nightmare) and then a water-based one. But it turns out to also make good sense: the logic is, if you cleanse your face FIRST with something oil based, it will remove makeup (OK, my makeup remover is oil-based and in a pinch I just use coconut oil, so I get that – but I also rarely, if ever, wear make-up. And when I do wear make up, it’s a swipe of eyeliner per lid and for very, very fancy outings, a little eye shadow. I end up looking like a clown if I ever try to do more than that.)

But apparently oil-based cleansers also remove any oil-based gunk that might be on your face at the end of the day: sunscreen (ok, I always have that all over my face, maybe this is necessary) plus any “pollutants,” basically environmental debris that’s in the air, etc. if you’ve been walking around, particularly in cities or other high-smog areas. Because oil attracts oil – and repels water- these oil-based cleansers perform better than water-based ones.

Makes sense to me, I thought. (And then you follow up with a water-based cleanser to get everything else off your face. And you only ever do it in that order, because reversing the order would be like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters, apparently. Or it would just push the oil-based gunk further into your pores and cause breakouts, but you know, almost the same thing.)

But then another article I read claimed the true secret to the amazing, poreless skin is that although Korean skincare regimes are possibly time-consuming, they are about pampering yourself at the end of the day, relaxing and winding down in a calming ritual before bedtime (“This STILL makes great sense to me!” I thought. “Loving this. Sign me up”).

Oh, and part of that “real secret” is that proper, careful and consistent skincare regimes are something that Korean girls (and boys/men too: check out Don below with the Star Wars line at The Face Shop!) are taught since childhood – they’re not hitting their 30s and scrambling to undo time’s inevitable ravaging after decades in the sun, as we in the US often do. Well, that also makes perfect sense.

And of course, also means I am entirely out of luck!


Someone else claimed the real success comes from layering on the moisturizing products: it’s all about moisture, moisture, moisture. Moisture puffs up your face, smoothing out wrinkles and imperfections in the process. Others claim it’s all in the technique – the ways in which you apply products. These techniques get the blood flowing, help increase cell turnover, etc. (And seriously, the directions for applying the oil-based cleanser I bought are super hard to follow: you can’t just rub it on, you have to spread it on the TOP of your hand, rub it in counter clockwise using the back of your middle and ring fingers, all while standing in front of the mirror chanting “Bloody Mary” three times. And sadly, only the last part is facetious!)

So, yes, of course I think a LOT of this is just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant marketing to people all over the world who will do anything to look a little better (and fair enough: sadly, how we look ends up counting a lot more than it should-see any study on how looks-based hiring practices – in pretty much any field – are, for instance).

But, you know, that didn’t stop me from getting some oil-cleanser and face sunscreen. And some toner. But that was it. Oh, and some face sheets. But really, that’s all. Oh wait, and some Jeju volcanic ash foaming cleanser, water-based. But THAT is all. I’m pretty sure.

Back to the 10-12-a Gazillion Step Skincare Process 

OK, so you’ve had some hints of the process from above. To spell it out (because yes, it will be on the exam):

  • Step 1: Oil-based cleansing
  • Step 2: Water-based cleansing
  • Step 3: Apply toner (to restore your skin’s PH levels after all that cleansing. Hmmm…makes sense too)
  • Steps 4-6, or maybe 8 or something: Um, this is where it gets tricky.
    • Apply Essence
    • Apply Serum
    • Apply Ampoule
      • What are those? They are, um, liquid things that can do special stuff to your face (think, anti-aging, blemish control, oil-control, moisturizing, brightening, whitening, snail slime, etc.) They get increasingly more intense as you do down the list (so, an ampoule is super concentrated serum). Although I may have mixed up the order essence and serum.
      • And of course, I got a freebie that claimed to be “essentializing tonic,” and there are “essential serums,” and so on and so forth. This is why you can have the 10 step, or 12 step, or other number, variables in the process.
  • Step 7-? Apply a mask for extra moisturizing, or wrinkle-reducing, or snail sliming or bee venoming. This can be daily, or once a week.
    • SERIOUSLY, this IS like 7-bullet-points huge. (As are the snails. I’ll get to them, don’t worry)
    • When I say “face mask” you might be thinking about, say, a thick green goo smeared all over a sitcom actor’s face while her hair is up in a towel, and oops! Her partner walks in and is horrified at how scary she looks.
      • Sheet masks are drenched in serum, or essence or slime or whatever, and then you apply them to your face. They have cut-outs for your eyes, nostrils and mouth, and there are slits so they can conform to the rest of your face. They too, like everything else, are actually entirely sensible: the point is that they keep the serum/essence/ampoule/slime in place on your face so your face absorbs it – rather than it evaporating away or drying off in the 15-20 minutes you let it sit.
      • But they are SO. SO scary looking (I’ll show you at the end. If I don’t chicken out with embarrassment.)
      • And the masks are a HUGE deal. They are EVERYWHERE. Obviously they line the shelves of every skincare or cosmetics store. Free ones wait in your shopping basket or are handed out at the door to lure you into the shop. But they are also at the grocery store. The drug store. The 7-11/Mini-mart/convenience stores. There are knock-off ones in the shady markets.
      • Some are adorned with cutesy characters and animals (The Line Friends apparently fly off the shelves so fast they can’t remain in stock). Before I read up on this, I’d see Hello Kitty, Doraemon, Pororo (I kid you not – kid cartoon characters) on face masks in random stores and wonder why anyone would want a face mask of them. They also have ones with animal faces – for instance, a bear with honey – on the package, for a honey moisturizing (or anti-wrinkle or whatever honey does. I forget) mask – but it LOOKS LIKE A BEAR FACE when you put it on. (Don warned me if I bought one and Aardvark saw me in it, it would scar her for life. And possibly our marriage if he saw me in it.)
      • img_4490
  •  Step 10? 12? 201? Apply moisturizer
  • Last step: Apply SPF. Repeatedly throughout the day (apparently, this is in the form of not just sunscreen itself, but also BB creams, CC creams, and/or face powder. Which is pretty awesome, and provides a variety of ways to make sure you are sunscreening up. But also seemed way too intimidating to me. I just got regular, high-SPF/PA rated face sunscreens, one waterproof and one long-lasting, depending on the day’s activities.
  • (There is, of course, an eye-care step – or steps – in there somewhere too. But my mom has taught me not to mess with eyes without knowing exactly what one is doing, and even though I decided to only shop at the stores known for using “natural” products and just kept my fingers crossed that “natural” means more in Korea than it does in the US, since I can’t read the Korean ingredients I skipped eye care altogether.)

The Snail Slime

If you HAVE heard of Korean beauty products, you’ve probably heard of the snail slime – apparently there are scientific studies (I have in no way bothered to look into that claim myself so giant grains of salt here, of course) that demonstrate that snail excretion – I think in the form the slimy trail they leave when they move about, and not, like, poop – unless that IS poop? I don’t know enough about snails – is super, super good for your skin. So there is snail-slime stuff EVERYWHERE. Every single skincare store, from high-end to low-end, sells some form of snail face sheet and other snail products. There is one famous company with shops all over Seoul whose entire line consists of snail products. As an obvious tourist, every time I walked into a skincare store, shop assistants asked me if I was looking for snail stuff.

(I wasn’t. Even if I could get past the ick-factor – and I’m not sure I could – I don’t know how they acquire this snail slime, but whatever process they use, I can’t imagine it ends well for the snails, and it just didn’t seem right to me. The same goes for the bee venom products, which were probably the second most ubiquitous “natural” product lines I saw. Bees have had a rough go lately, between Colony Collapsing Disorder and ZIKA repellent, and I don’t need to add to it.)

Bamboo Salt Toothpaste

One more product while we’re on the topic of Korean beauty products: the guide book and map I picked up from the Seoul Tourist Board claimed, in a list of “must-buy items” in Seoul, toothpaste. Not sure I read that correctly, I pointed it out to Don, who laughed. But then we asked his aunt and uncle, and yup – totally a thing.  Apparently bamboo-salt toothpaste is a big deal, dating back to before there was toothpaste – people used salt to clean their teeth. According to Uncle, the major electronics company LG, got their start by figuring out a way to make a paste with the salt so it was transportable – so you could clean your teeth on the go. And eventually, making a paste with salt inside bamboo became popular (and is now known for helping with gums, tarter-reduction, etc.) Aunt and Uncle very generously gave us 3 tubes (of 3 different kinds of bamboo salt toothpaste!) that they had so we could try it (we’ve been using one since we arrived in Japan and really like it, actually.)


And now, the promised sheet-mask photo.


They are actually a lot of fun to use. It’s relaxing to put one on (they smell great – but then again, I’m using some lemon kind, not snail slime or anything!) and read for a bit before bed. I’m not actually buying into the hype that I will suddenly have impeccable skin or anything, but I *am* enjoying a nice, relaxing night routine on the nights I do the mask (otherwise all I’ve really added is the extra oil-face washing, so NBD. But my 3-step routine is totally do-able!) But yes, I know it looks horrifying.

And all this moisturizing seems to work, at least in the sense that it does seem to puff the face and smooth wrinkles/pores/etc. in the process. I can tell it works because in contrast to the moisturized puffiness, the circles under my eyes look even more cavernous. Maybe I should have given the eye treatments more consideration…


**OK, the former professor in me HAS to point out that I know by saying “Korean skincare regime,” “Koreans do this and that,” etc., I am reducing over 50 million people – plus untold millions of descendants over diaspora – to one stereotyped monolith. I do not of course really think any aspect of Korean culture is so simplified, and this post has a whole lot of tongue-in-cheek (soon to be poreless cheek, of course) going on. So thanks for your patience and giving me the benefit of the doubt here!



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