I’ve long wanted to do a blog post on Korean beauty products, and the role of beauty in Korea. My first encounter with Korean beauty was during my first trip to Seoul last winter. I knew before going that Korea was famous for its beauty industry, and that cosmetics certainly played an important role in the globally running show called “The Korean Wave” or just Hallyu. With good reason, because whenever I see Korean women, and men too for that matter, I’m always amazed at their stunning complexion. Somehow it seems that the Korean Peninsula has pretty watertight gates when it comes to acne, large pores, shiny foreheads and other unsightly skin conditions. And strangely enough, this does not only hold for actors and actresses in dramas and movies. Having walked a modest portion of the endless Seoul sidewalks I’m convinced that whatever they are doing is indeed working. When I first stepped out of my hotel on the first day of my first visit in Seoul, I was instantly struck by how pretty and posh everybody looked. The women wore elegant skirts, heels, and gorgeous hairdos with not one strand of hair out of place. (In Korean, hair sticking out, when it’s not supposed to is referred to as 머리가 뻗치다 – a regularly occuring phenomenon for a natural curlyhead like me, hence a quite useful expression.~) The men were primarily wearing suits (oftentimes with vests, thank you) and they too looked impeccable. And all of them had flawless, bright skin! In general “외부적인 아름다움” (outer beauty) seems a very important concept in Korea, and all subway stations had several full-figure mirrors where busy Koreans would hurriedly check their appearance before entering or exiting the train. I even saw people doing this after having spent half of their subway ride staring into their huge handheld mirror.
All of this naturally spurred my curiosity, so I soon headed straight to Seoul’s beauty mecca Myeongdong (명동) to find the supplies that would make me look just as pretty. For those who are not familiar with Myeongdong, it is one of the most international parts of Seoul. The entire area primarily consists of Korean cosmetics stores, and most big chains have their flagship stores here. Usually, the whole place is crowded with tourists from all of Asia wanting to try the magic of Korean skincare. Interestingly enough, the best English I heard in Seoul was spoken by the multilingual sales clerks trained to explain the functions of the products to customers in Chinese, Japanese, and English. They even handed me a shopping basket the moment I stepped over the threshold and followed me around the entire store, suggesting a variety of products for me to try. Usually I find such behavior from sales people too pushy, but this I quite enjoyed. Among the many shops you may find in Myeongdong are Nature Republic, Etude House, Innisfree, Skin79, TonyMoly, Too Cool for School, Aritaum, The Face Shop, Skin Food, and lots more. Obviously these stores are all over Seoul, even on the subway stations underground, but you don’t find them more densely concentrated anywhere else than here.
I obviously hoarded a lot of Korean cosmetics, which along with a lot of other shopping resulted in me having to buy an extra suitcase on the last day and pay 100 dollars in extra baggage fee. Anyway, it was worth it, and having used these products for several months now I feel I should review my absolute favorites. Before introducing them all I should mention that I have pretty sensitive skin which is prone to breakouts, so I’m happy to say that I find these products to be very gentle and safe. Since I started using these products regularly I really feel that the overall condition of my skin has improved significantly.
My favorite BB cream – 제가 제일 종아하는 비비크림
Considered the staple of Korean cosmetics, BB cream has seen a dramatic growth overseas where it is sadly reformulated into a tinted moisturizer. Original Korean BB cream, however, is a a magical essence, which moisturizes your skin while at the same time protecting it from the sun and giving it a beautiful evenly toned glow. I tried a BB cream once, and I was hooked! My all-time favorite, which really suits my fair nordic skintone is the pink bottle from Skin79.
Having worked through two entire bottles of this wonderful product, I cannot praise it enough. When first applyed it goes on grayish, which is never flattering. However, after letting it set for about 5-7 minutes it magically adjusts to my skintone and I can continue with my makeup routine. I used to set it with a bit of mineral powder at first, but I’ve actually found that it looks more natural just on its own. In Korean, applying BB cream is called 비비크림 바르다. In general, the verb 바르다 is used for anything you apply to your face, body, and hair.
My favorite moisturizer – 제가 제일 종아하는 모이스춰라이저
My all-time favorite moisturizer is from Etude House. They are (in)famous for their pink-pink-pink “Princess Bubblegum” theme, and when entering a store I was even greeted “아 공주님 오셨어요!” One of their awesome moisturizers is called Collagen Moistfull. It is so light and subtly scented and simply feels so wonderful on your skin. I use this every night before going to bed. Although Koreans often use the word “moisturizer” I actually love the real Korean term 촉촉하게 주는 크림.
My favorite scrub – 제가 제일 종아하는 스크럽
Korean skincare is very focused on cleansing. “A picture looks prettier when painted on a smooth canvas” appears to be the golden rule. Not surprisingly, there are tons of cleansing oils, foams, scrubs, and toners out there to meet the demand. Personally, I absolutely love the “Jeju foaming scrub” from Innisfree.
I use this product maybe once or twice a week, and I absolutely love the way my face feels afterwards.
My favorite sheet masks – 제가 제일 종아하는 마스크
You cannot say Korean skincare without mentioning sheet masks. There are tons of different types, brands, and price ranges. I have yet to try the real high-end masks at 10-20 dollars a piece, but among the more reasonably priced masks, I really like the ones from Skin79.
The cotton sheet used for these masks is thicker than others I have tried and they just smell and feel fantastic. My current favorite is the pink one.
My favorite all-round product
Nature Republic has launched a wonderful product: The 92% Soothing Aloe Vera Gel. This product is so versatile. I use it as a moisturizer, a makeup primer, and as a sleeping pack. If you keep it in the fridge it feels extra cooling on a hot day.
Learning Korean through my beauty routine
Like I’ve often stressed on my blog, exposure is crucial when learning a language. By using Korean skincare products, where the instructions are written in very poor English if at all, I have learned a lot of Korean beauty vocab. Interestingly, the majority of such words appear to be “Konglish” such as 스킨 (skin – otherwise 피부), 클렌징 (cleansing) 오일 (oil), 선블록 (sunblock) ,워터프루프 (waterproof). Bonus tip, a quick search for “뷰티” (beauty) on Naver blogs provides lots of beauty related reading material in Korean.