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A Dermatologist in Korea Shares His Country's Secrets to Perfect Skin

And some of it sounds extremely painful.

If the recent abundance of retail options is any indication, American women are interested — nay, fascinated — by the intricacies of Korean skin care. I count myself in this category because I saw good things happen on my face after I tried a rather elaborate 12-step Korean regimen, and I definitely wanted to go deeper. So when Alicia Yoon, the co-founder of Asian beauty e-tailer Peach and Lily, mentioned that she was meeting with Korea’s top dermatologist on her next buying trip, I sent her with some questions to ask him, which can basically be summed up as follows: “Can you please tell me all the secrets?”

Yoon sat down with Dr. Wonwoo Choi at his state-of-the-art Wells Spa in Seoul. In addition to at-home regimens, many Korean women visit estheticians, spas, and dermatology clinics frequently — the home skin care regimen acts as an adjunct to the maintenance they do at these locations. Dr. Choi conceptualized Wells Spa as a hybrid of a luxe spa and a serious medical clinic, a concept not seen in Korea much before now. And women are flocking to it. (Obviously, South Korea has also received a lot of media attention lately for the increasing popularity of extreme plastic surgery in the country. That’s beyond the scope of this piece — Dr. Choi is a dermatologist, not a plastic surgeon, so we’re keeping it skin-deep only here.)

He chatted with Yoon about how Korean women view skin care differently from women in the U.S., the most popular procedures in his office and the skin care ingredients he recommends.

The biggest skin care concerns in Korea:

According to Dr. Choi, his patients want to decrease hyperpigmentation and increase skin “translucency.” Skin tightening and reducing acne scarring are close seconds, and women are downright nitpicky about it. “Women here demand 100% absolutely flawless and pristine skin,” Dr. Choi told Yoon. “Women put a lot of effort into maintaining perfect skin.” Doctors end up performing and recommending many more treatments than here in the U.S., because women want these interventions. Because it’s so competitive for services, prices stay relatively low.

Going to the doctor isn’t a chore:

Dr. Choi said that women sometimes come to Wells Spa every two weeks for treatments. After-care is an important concept in Korea; here in the U.S., if a woman goes to her dermatologist for a laser treatment or Botox, generally there’s no reason to go back unless there’s a complication or when it’s time to do another treatment. In Korea, women will come back daily after getting an injectable like Sculptra for facial massage to prevent lumpiness and nodules, which are potential side effects. Botox is generally given in micro-dosages over a period of time, rather than all at once, so women are required to go in regularly for tweaks. “The larger dosages [used] in the U.S. could be too extreme for some skin types, with the inability to control results along the way,” Dr. Choi said.

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No pain, no gain:

Korean doctors and scientists innovate a lot on what already exists and use it off-label, which is more difficult to do in the U.S., and unlike in our country, only medical doctors in Korea can administer injections and other technologies such as lasers. Dr. Choi helped to develop a system called the Da Vinci device, which is sort of like Thermage: a radio frequency treatment used to treat wrinkles, skin laxity and a host of other issues. Yoon got the treatment on the lowest setting at Dr. Choi’s office, and she reported that it was still pretty painful. “Women here would not make a peep about this,” Dr. Choi told Yoon.

It starts getting weirder when you talk about injections. Dr. Choi said that he “dilutes” Botox to use in smaller doses, and that he injects it in such a way so that it strategically causes a lift in the face. (Doctors in the U.S. are just starting to experiment with this technique.) He also administers something called “radiance injections,” which are a series of micro-injections of hyaluronic acid that go under the skin to increase, well, facial radiance. It sounds a lot like mesotherapy here in the U.S., which is definitely a niche procedure, but it’s pretty common in Korea, despite the fact that results only last about two weeks and it hurts like hell. Women use it for special occasions, and it’s apparently really popular with celebrities.

Then there are the nose injections. Yoon said that Korean women sometimes want to add height to the bridge of their noses, so they accomplish this with injectable fillers instead of going under the knife. These so-called "liquid nose jobs" are not permanent and there is a risk for side effects, but doctors in Korea use a special cannula instead of a needle and have perfected the procedure.

Ingredient recommendations:

Dr. Choi doesn’t have his own line of products, but he had some general recommendations about the types of products he suggests to patients. He believes that hydration is the most important part of any skin care regimen for any age. “When [hydration] falls apart, nothing else works,” he said. “A common misconception is that those with oily skin may be well hydrated. Even those with oilier skin types could be insufficiently hydrated. Beyond drinking enough water, skincare products truly go a long way.”

He recommends products containing hyaluronic acid and glycerin. Rice extract and seaweed also work well, and peptides — which nourish skin — are also “water-loving” and help to keep skin hydrated. In general, women in Korea choose very focused products, rather than multi-taskers. Ampoules (super concentrated serums) and masks, which provide more intensive treatments, are very popular.