As a serious skin care junkie, I’ve been hooked on Korean beauty products since I first discovered the juggernaut that is the K-beauty industry a year ago. I’ve explored the multi-step regimen, tried a lot of unusual products and devoured blogs searching for holy grail products. So when I got the opportunity to go to Seoul — the epicenter, the mecca — for three days of beauty immersion, I packed up some comfy shoes, a few sheet masks for the 14-hour plane ride and, of course, my credit card.
I stayed in the Myeong-dong neighborhood, which is very touristy and the epicenter of beauty shopping in Seoul, especially for the so-called road shop (aka mass market) brands like Missha, The Face Shop and Tony Moly. As you can see here and in my enthusiastic Instagram above, there are quite literally blocks of beauty shops, one after another, punctuated by stands with vendors selling street food. Shop girls hang out in front, enticing you in with free sheet masks and other treasures.
And speaking of masks, yes, I was there during the MERS outbreak. About a quarter of the people I saw were wearing face masks and the streets felt rather empty, but after a bit of research, I decided that I felt comfortable without wearing a mask.
While I was excited to get my hands on all the mass market brands, some of them are pretty readily available here in NYC. I really went nuts (and got my credit card shut off) after I discovered Olive Young (left) the "Sephora of Korea," which carries more indie and hard-to-find brands. I stopped in at least three different outposts of the chain during the trip. LOHB (right), which I discovered in the cute and trendy Garosugil neighborhood, was also great for brands I haven't seen before.
According to Charlotte Cho, the founder of K-beauty e-commerce site Sokoglam and my knowledgeable guide in Seoul, brands frequently tap male K-pop and K-drama stars — as seen above — to entice women into shops. Like female entertainment stars in Korea, these men are admired for their smooth, poreless skin — and perhaps the added lust factor gets shoppers to spring for the 10-pack of sheet masks rather than just one? (Pro tip: The shops will sell masks to you individually, but you have to ask them to go to the secret cabinet to get them.) Also, after touring Skinfood with a brand rep, I highly recommend you try the Rice Brightening Cleansing Water.
The now-iconic sheet masks were everywhere, and I came home with dozens, possibly hundreds. Several people, including company reps at a brand meeting I attended, noted that animal face masks are currently all the rage in sheet masks, especially amongst Chinese customers. Obviously I bought a bunch of them. Watch my Instagram. I will haunt your nightmares.
In general, salespeople at the road shop stores were aggressive. I'd often have a shopgirl following at my heels while I browsed, which probably made me buy less than I might have. On the flip side, the sample game in Seoul is next level. At checkout, sales associates put handfuls of samples into my bag, including sheet masks. Oftentimes I was handed a basket containing one or two freebie products as I walked in. Prices for products, especially because of the won/U.S. dollar exchange rate and VAT tax refund, were definitely lower than in the U.S.
While I'm all about serious skin care, a lot of K-beauty is silly and gimmicky, and I love that as well. I spent a good chunk of time ogling macaron-shaped compacts and products embellished with cupcakes in the pink palace that is Etude House, giggling at phallic cucumber cooling gel packaging, and trying to decide whether or not I needed sheet masks for my boobs. (Answer: no.) Then there was this product, which nearly made me jump out of my skin upon first squirting it (turn your volume on):
This cooling, sizzling foam (reminiscent of the lye scene in "Fight Club") turns into a clear moisturizing lotion. Fun!
But there is much more than just cutesy products in Korea, as anyone who has tried the hardcore skin care regimen knows. I had meetings with marketing and R&D reps from several brands that I wanted to get to know better, and a few that I never knew existed. The products are put through rigorous safety testing, and two of the innovative skin care brands that I visited (more on them in future posts, I promise) showed me some pretty impressive clinical studies for their products. One R&D person told me it's harder to get brands through the Korean FDA than to export them to the U.S. and go through our FDA.
And now, some exciting K-beauty news for you. The brand Too Cool for School, probably best known for its Egg Cream masks, is coming to Sephora this fall, and also launching a U.S. website around the same time. After spending 45 minutes in the store, I'm excited to be able to access this brand more easily. In addition to multiple full skin care lines (a mere portion of which can be seen above), it also has a full and varied color cosmetics range, going beyond the few sparkly eye shadows and lip tints that some other brands offer.
According to the brand rep, who gave me a tour of Too Cool for School's Garosugil store, Sephora will be carrying the full Egg line and the full Dinoplatz (above) makeup line. Speaking of the store, it struck me as a much more serious place for makeup than many of the stores I'd already been to. The brand has partnered with artists and makeup artists on some lines and packaging, and there are none of the usual K-pop stars as models — in fact, there are no models at all. The store itself is a bit darker, without any of the extreme twee cutenesss seen at other brands. And the products are good. Not only by Korean makeup standards, which historically has lagged behind skin care, but by any standards. There are great colors, a pretty amazing mascara and my favorite, a portable cushion compact that also houses a concealer, highlighter and lip balm in a little hidden drawer. Check this line out. You will not be disappointed.
I couldn't visit Korea without hitting up a clinic. The country is well-known — some would say notorious — for having, by some estimates, the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita. I visited the 4-Ever Plastic Surgery & Skin Clinic, which is a mini-medi-chain in South Korea, where I met with the head of the clinic, Dr. Jun Hae-Jin. Procedures are ridiculously cheap here. He quoted me about $30 for a medical facial and about $100 for Fraxel, a laser treatment which can cost up to $1,500 per treatment in the U.S. The law of supply and demand is clearly at work in the country. I didn't get anything done, but if I'd had more time, I would have tried a medical facial for sure.
The clinic itself was spotless and felt very high-end. A hostess dressed a little bit like a flight attendant met us and brought us water. Exam and treatment tables were covered with patterned blankets, a superficial touch that nevertheless did wonders for breaking up the clinical look that permeates so many U.S. dermatology offices. The clinic took up multiple floors and included a VIP wing, a facial area, an "obesity treatment" area, a laser wing and a lovely cafe in the waiting room. But it was definitely still a legitimate clinic. My former nurse's eye spotted emergency equipment (a must in any medical office), oxygen tanks, and scores of vials and medical supplies. I left understanding this aspect of Korean beauty culture a bit better. While the desire to completely change one's appearance via eyelid and jawline surgery still seems extreme to me, it's a very matter-of-fact thing in the country.
Korean beauty trends, as demonstrated by the everyday women I saw, are relatively homogenous. According to Cho, when a K-drama actress debuts a new look, women across the country follow suit. Trends also change quickly. This spring, it's the hair color seen above, which Cho had done in Seoul, and which her colorist described as "reddish-pink and black." Everyone had this color. Everyone. Even some guys. And speaking of guys, their hair — again, I am generalizing here — is pretty damn spectacular. The per capita use of molding mud must be very high. Learn, American men.
Son Daesik is the makeup artist who gives Korean actresses like Jun Ji Hyun, who stars in the K-drama megahit "My Love From Another Star," her glow. He talked about the archetypal glowy face and demonstrated how your face shape affects the way you apply highlighter. (Pro tip: if you have a more rounded face, apply it at a more severe angle towards the outer edges of your eye on your upper cheekbones. If you have an angular face, put it a bit more straight towards your ears.) He also demonstrated a fantastic blotted ombre lip, which involves nothing but your fingers and two lip crayons. Put a lighter color all over the whole lip, a brighter or darker color just in the center, and then smudge it all out. The result is really natural. Mr. Son is working on some exciting upcoming projects, so watch this space for more to come.
I had to take a bit of time out to absorb some of the history and culture in Seoul. While most of the city consists of modern high rises, there are gems like this that appear all over the city.
Finally, I can't finish this without mentioning the food. Beauty comes from within, after all. I didn't have a single bad meal. With that, I leave you with a picture of the freshest, most delicious bibimbap I've ever had. Over the next few weeks I'll be writing about some more specific K-beauty trends and brands from the trip. Stay tuned.
Disclosure: My trip to Seoul was sponsored by Sokoglam and the Korean Tourist Organization (KTO).