Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the names of K-Beauty brands InnisFree and Sulwhasoo. This version has been updated.
Checking in for a facial at the flagship store of the South Korean beauty brand Sulwhasoo, I am surprised to see that the intake form asks if I’m claustrophobic. I mentally note that I’ve never seen that particular question from a spa before, check “no” and then move on to more expected pre-facial questions, such as what kind of skin-care routine I use at home.
I’m not easily intimidated, but I was nervous walking into Sulwhasoo’s spa precisely because I knew it would ask about my at-home skin care. Full disclosure: I wash my face with soap I buy at the grocery store and apply the same SPF15 moisturizer I use elsewhere on my body. I’m even worse with makeup. I don’t buy that at the supermarket, but I have, several times, applied eyeliner to my lips and lip liner to my eyes. I am able to poke myself in the eye using both. I supplement my supermarket soap with an occasional spa facial.
Mine is the antithesis of South Korean skin care, which is generally taken very seriously.
It is estimated that the country has nearly 2,000 skin care brands, collectively called “K-Beauty.” I know this because it’s impossible to flip through any fashion or tabloid magazine — my guilty pleasure during pedicures — without seeing a story with a celebrity raving about some K-Beauty product. I didn’t pay these stories much attention until I noticed that my own skin looked unhealthy; it was dull and uneven in tone. Having come through some serious illnesses over the past decade, at age 41 I am finally interested in and also have the energy to think about making my skin healthy.
My curiosity is piqued further when I notice that many of the K-Beauty products favored by celebrities include snail mucus as an ingredient.
I arrive in Seoul with appointments lined up for treatments at Sulwhasoo and Kwangdong Hospital of Traditional Korean Medicine and a shopping date with Joan Kim, a Korean American YouTube beauty and fashion vlogger.
The deal I make with myself is that I will try anything that isn’t permanent or surgery, even if it involves snail excretions. I will be a blank slate.
It’s Kim who draws the initial broad brushstrokes on my slate. She grew up in Southern California and has lived in Seoul since 2014. Her skin is a great advertisement for the benefits of K-Beauty. I emailed her before I arrived with general K-Beauty questions and eventually asked if she’d meet with me while I was in Seoul. Kim doesn’t normally do personal skin-care shopping, but figured she could turn our time together into something for her YouTube channel ; as of the time I’m writing this, nothing has been posted.
Kim walks with authority into a boutique run by InnisFree, a mid-level skin-care brand founded in 2000 that now has about 200 stores throughout the country. I, however, get sidetracked by the shop’s exterior — one of the most lush living walls I’ve ever seen. It’s a tangle of vibrant green vines.
The entire interior of the first floor, about 1,500 square feet, is a happily crowded mix of products and shoppers. There are several dozen of the latter, men and women ranging in age from 20s to 60s.
None of the products bears any resemblance to my supermarket soap and moisturizer.
There are product lines made with extracts from orchids, green tea and volcanic soil from the slopes of South Korea’s tallest mountain, Hallasan, on the island of Jeju in the Korea Strait.
Everything Joan identifies as one of her favorites goes into my basket and, because I’ve always been bothered by the large pores on my nose, I buy about half of the products in the Jeju volcanic line, which purports to minimize pore size.
Joan disappears to do some shopping of her own and I find myself drawn to the wall of products made from orchid essence, if only because I like the purple color of their various containers.
Before I even pick something off the shelf to read about it — everything is labeled in Korean and English — a dimpled, English-speaking InnisFree staff member is at my side. (I learn that it’s normal for skin-care shops to have staffers specifically on the lookout for Western shoppers who might need help.) I ask if it’s okay to mix volcanic clay products with orchid essence products. I really like the smell of the orchid eye cream. (Not that I’ve ever smelled, or looked at, any other eye cream in my entire life.) With the verdict that it’s fine to mix lines — beneficial even, so your skin doesn’t get habituated to any specific product — the eye cream is the last thing I toss into my basket.
Thirty minutes after walking in I’m checking out, buying more skin-care products than I’ve bought combined in my entire life. There’s orchid eye cream, pore-cleansing foam, blackhead-out balm, both a super volcanic pore clay mask and a regular volcanic pore clay mask, and volcanic pore toner. Because a saleswoman tells me that snail mucus hydrates skin while helping reduce fine lines and the appearance of dark spots and blemishes — all things that I’m looking for — and she promises that it doesn’t smell bad, I get one dozen sheet masks saturated with the miracle ingredient.
Handing over my credit card, I realize that some of my prior reluctance to pay much attention to my skin’s health might have been the cost of doing so. Twelve years ago, after a facial at a spa (paid for by someone else’s expense account) in Scottsdale, Ariz., left my skin glowing for a week, I plunked down close to $200 for a two-ounce jar of the mud mask used by the spa. And then, because it was so expensive, I used it only for the most special occasions. The jar is still half full.
At InnisFree, the sheet masks — thin pieces of face-shaped fabric with holes cut out for your eyes and mouth and saturated with a variety of ingredients depending on what you’re trying to achieve —cost between $1 and $3 each. The Jeju volcanic pore clay mask costs less than $13. A six-ounce bottle of Jeju volcanic cleansing foam costs $9. These are prices I can afford on a regular basis.
Around the corner from the jungly InnisFree at the ALand boutique, which sells clothing, hipster home-and-lifestyles accessories, and a small selection of skin-care products, I get a blemish cream that Kim’s brother loves, even though he only started using it under duress. “He’s totally hooked on it now,” Kim reports.
While I spend most of my time shopping in stores that sell their own brands, Kim and I finally wander into Olive Young, Seoul’s version of Sephora. It’s as busy as Walmart on Black Friday, which exhilarates me. I feel like I’m a part of this skin-care thing. Here, I find the face sunscreen I’ve been looking for my entire life — silky, non-greasy, SPF50 and affordable — and sheet masks with the face of an otter printed on them. (The idea behind these is that you look like an otter when you’re wearing one.) There are also sheet masks with tiger faces, panda bear faces and Shrek. Since skin care has never before made me laugh out loud, I am compelled to buy several of each.
For skin-care devotees in South Korea, it’s often not enough to merely take care of your skin at home, no matter how fun the sheet masks are. Kim gets a weekly professional facial. These don’t usually happen in fancy spas like Sulwhasoo — facials there are on par with facials at a spa in the United States, so it would get pretty expensive pretty fast — but at no frills “medical hospitals,” which often offer services for all sorts of health-related issues.
At Kwangdong Hospital of Traditional Korean Medicine, services include everything from MRIs to neurological exams, acupuncture, massages and facials. Kwangdong has a website in five languages and offers cell-rejuvenating acupuncture in addition to more usual procedures. My appointment is for a traditional detox treatment that will clear and energize the skin on my back and legs while generally helping me relax.
I’m met by an iPad-wielding, English-speaking medical assistant who stays with me for the next 90 minutes, explaining what the doctor is doing to me: first cupping, then acupuncture and finally pouring warm sludge over my legs, which are covered in a thin plastic to allow the warmth and essences through while keeping the sludge itself off my skin. The treatment relaxes me. Sometime during the sludge part, I doze off.
And then it’s Sulwhasoo time. The place is more a shrine to skin care than a store. Products are displayed on pedestals and there is no excess inventory anywhere in sight. Never before have I been nervous about getting a facial, but it turns out my nerves are for naught. Without judgment of my skin-care regimen and with care, an aesthetician leads me into a room where I disrobe and lie down on a table and cover myself with warm blankets.
From the beginning, the facial smells better than any other I’ve ever had. (I later learn almost all of Sulwhasoo’s products contain ginseng.) Other than that, and some facial-massage techniques used by the aesthetician, there’s no difference between it and facials at home. But then comes the step that is undoubtedly why they ask about claustrophobia: a rubber mask. I love the feeling of the warm, weighted paste on my face — imagine a hug from a Play-Doh pancake — but I can see how it might freak someone out.
Even if it did freak me out, after I see how healthy and radiant my skin looks at the end of the facial, I’d make myself get over it.
A month after returning home from South Korea, comments about my new “glow” make me stick to using my new products. My favorite so far? The snail mucus sheet masks.
Mishev is the editor in chief of Jackson Hole magazine and editor of Inspirato.
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