When Charlotte Cho stepped off her flight from Los Angeles to Seoul, South Korea, she hadn’t so much as washed her face in 13 hours. It was 2008, and she was 22 years old, on her way to start her first real job out of college. At that moment, her priorities didn’t exactly include cleanser. But in truth, they never did. The daughter of two Korean Americans, Cho grew up in the ’90s in Hacienda Heights, a neighborhood just east of L.A., where her beauty regimen consisted of lip gloss and a deep tan.
“I wanted to be like Jennifer Aniston,” she says. “Very Americanized.”
Back then, Cho’s skincare routine, like most Americans in their early 20s, was nonexistent. “I thought skincare was something you thought of when you were much older and actually saw signs of aging,” Cho explains, as we sit cross-legged in a plush booth at Zinqué, a cafe in West Hollywood. “If I had acne breakouts, I just covered them up with makeup. None of my friends really knew about skincare either.”
After college, Cho took a public relations position at Samsung, which brought her to Seoul. She didn’t speak the language, but she would learn. The next five years in Korea would end up changing not only Cho’s career path but her lifestyle and very definition of personal wellness. Her time in Seoul would inspire her to become a certified esthetician, write a book on Korean beauty, and create her own online boutique, Soko Glam, which offers the latest Korean skincare launches to American consumers. Cho says a Korean native could tell within two seconds of looking at her skin that she isn’t from Korea, but to my untrained eyes, it looks milky and flawless, like a painting.
Of course, we’ve all read time and time again about the divine mystery and superiority of Korean beauty products. We’ve welcomed BB creams and sheet masks into our everyday lives.
But this isn’t a story about products. It’s not even about women with pretty skin. This is a story about a culture where cleansing your face is as ingrained as washing your hands before you eat; where “family facialists” are as commonplace as family doctors; where men wearing makeup to the office is nothing out of the ordinary; and where having fair, supple skin has been a virtue for millennia.
If you’ve ever asked yourself what makes Korean skincare so next-level, or why Korean women have such ageless skin, we finally have your answer. To decode the fascinating cultural backstory of Korean skincare, keep scrolling!
When I ask Cho about how she was first introduced to Korea’s skincare culture, she puts it this way: “You know how Starbucks is on every street corner in Manhattan? Same with beauty shops in Seoul.” Gleaming boutiques line the subway corridors, dotting practically all four corners of every intersection. “It’s enticing,” Cho tells me, her pupils dilating. “There are so many amazing products on the displays; you can’t avoid them.” The way that Korean beauty shops are laid out is like a different world, she describes. From floor to ceiling, everything is designed with artistry and precision.
“Like Disneyland,” I offer. “Kind of like that,” Cho responds with a smile.
After starting at Samsung, Cho quickly befriended a few coworkers, and as they spent more time together, their conversations eventually turned to beauty. “They were all so savvy about skincare,” Cho says. You could tell by their clear, youthful complexions, but also by the look of their desktops, all stocked with moisturizer, sunscreen, and humidifiers. “You’d walk into the office and see an entire row of personal humidifiers at each desk, even the men,” Cho recalls.
Initially Cho’s new friends made fun of her inexperience. “They teased me,” she says. “I’d tell them that sometimes I fall asleep with my makeup on, and they’d be shocked.” (In Korea, that’s a cardinal sin and deemed totally unhygienic, like letting your teeth go unbrushed for a week or not putting on deodorant.) “They’d come over to my apartment, see my bare vanity, and they’d be like, ‘Do you even know what an essence is?’”
Essences, serums, cleansers, moisturizers—they’re all essential to the Korean daily regimen. Assembling a 10-step skincare routine in the U.S. is a pricey endeavor; but according to Cho, products across the board are more affordable in Korea. “A top-quality sheet mask will cost you $1,” she says. The Korean beauty market is hyper-competitive—much more so than the Western beauty space—and that drives prices way down. Low labor costs also contribute to the affordability. This high demand and saturated market create a feedback loop, which makes exploring products more accessible for a consumer. “You’re not spending your entire paycheck on beauty products,” says Cho. “You can get seven to 10 of them for under $50.” Apparently it’s as fun as it sounds.
But the importance of skincare doesn’t pervade the culture simply through omnipresent beauty shops and full medicine cabinets. It’s at the forefront of everyone’s minds as they go about daily life.
Walk through Seoul on a bright, sunny day, and you’ll find the streets blanketed in umbrellas, just as you might see on a stormy day in New York City. (Except these parasols are pastel and meant for sun protection, not rain.) “I’d have lunch outside with co-workers, and all the girls would be huddled up by a tree,” Cho tells me. “They don’t want direct sunlight hitting their faces because it creates dark spots.” Women in Korea are so sensitive to UV light that they don’t even consider themselves safe indoors. People use gloves and visors as they’re driving to avoid sun exposure through the windshield.
These habits are formed long before you’re old enough to drive. In the U.S., we don’t start fretting about sun protection until our 20s at the earliest. Before then, we’re busy sunbathing in our backyards, like Cho, working on that Jennifer Aniston–level tan. But in Korea, preventative skincare becomes a natural part of your lifestyle before you can even talk.
Cho describes seeing mothers in Seoul dousing their kids in sunscreen. “I’d hear them talk to their little kids about the importance of moisturizing,” she says. Since long-lasting pigmentation starts when you’re very young, the Korean mindset is to prevent it early. As Cho observed these children’s skincare habits, already more developed than hers at 22, it started to make sense why her Korean friends had such glowing complexions.
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Three decades ago, one of those sunscreen-slathered children was Alicia Yoon, esthetician and founder of Asian beauty e-commerce shop, Peach & Lily.
Yoon was born in Seoul, spent a few years of her childhood in the U.S., and returned to Korea with her family before finishing elementary school. It must be stated up front: Her skin is pristine—Yoon is in her 30s and doesn’t sport a single blemish or wrinkle. It’s clear that skincare is an intrinsic part of her lifestyle. (That, or she made some devilish deal that we want in on.) “In Korea, at age 11, anti-aging is already a thing,” she tells me over the phone. “You’re already going with your mom to your family facialist every week or two.”
“Family facialist”: To me, this was a head scratcher. Yoon explains that in Korea there are many different kinds of specialists and spas that people visit for various skin concerns, and the family facialist is just one of them. There are also luxury spas, which are more like the ones we have here in the U.S. Places to have a “pamper-me moment,” Yoon explains. Then, you have what she calls “maintenance clinics,” which you belong to, sort of like a gym membership. There are dermatologists, of course, who provide specialty treatments and prescription medication for more serious conditions, like cystic acne (which Koreans aren’t immune to, as it turns out). And then there’s the family facialist, a foreign concept in the U.S., but one Yoon promises is quite common in Korea.
“We had a family facialist who I still think is the best facialist on this planet,” Yoon raves. “She’s in her 60s now, and she looks amazing.” Yoon says this woman has treated her and her mother for decades, and she considers her a part of the family. Visiting the family facialist isn’t like going to a spa, where you have to make an appointment ahead of time. You just give her a call and casually drop by whenever you want—sometimes as often as once a week. The family facialist knows every intimate detail of your skin. “It’s a deep relationship,” Yoon says.
Yoon remembers tagging along with her mother to their facialist as young as three years old. “She would give me little toddler facials,” Yoon says (without laughing at all). “Growing up like that, you learn that in the Korean beauty culture, your skin is a part of self-care.”
Just as we Americans consider fitness and nutrition important for our overall health, Koreans think the same of skincare. According to Yoon, that’s essential to remember. “In Korea, skincare is not seen as a vanity thing, it’s not seen as a high-maintenance thing. It’s seen as a way to take care of yourself.”
In the U.S., someone who stocks her bathroom with dozens of products might be considered superficial or obsessed with her looks. But in Korea, having a nonexistent skincare routine would be like eating fast food for every meal and avoiding exercise entirely. “It’s not something to be proud of,” Yoon says.
Americans are empowered by knowledge of the food we put in our bodies. It’s important to us to know if our food is genetically modified or processed. We take that education and apply it to our lifestyles. For example, I recently went vegan. I have friends who choose to be gluten-free. Neither of these choices is seen as vain or superficial. They’re seen as personal, knowledge-fueled steps we take for our health.
In Korea, skincare is another one of those steps. It has been for centuries. The idea of customizing your treatments has been passed down through generations, tracing back to an era when people had to make their own products. They did so in small quantities, which allowed them to adjust the ingredients according to their skin’s needs. They might use a little more safflower oil on dry skin or tea tree oil for breakouts, just as we might add more vitamin C to our diet when we’re sick.
But skincare is just one part of a bigger wellness conversation in Korea, which has just as much to do with diet and personal hygiene as it does with weekly facials. “In the U.S., we should have personal approaches to skincare the same way that we approach nutrition or working out,” says Yoon. According to Koreans, skincare shouldn’t be seen as some sort of elective chore. Instead, it should be a natural next step in one’s journey toward self-care.
But surely these values didn’t come from thin air. Just as America’s health and beauty standards have complex origins, I had to wonder how Korea’s skincare ideology first developed.
“At the heart of Korean society is Confucianism,” explains Yoon. This refers to a philosophy founded upon a number of different virtues for men and women. These ideals are considered very noble and deeply inform the culture. For women, to be modest and unadorned has always been a strong Confucian virtue. “Think of simple elegance,” says Yoon. “A clean, soft, healthy look with very little makeup.”
During Korea’s Joseon era, which lasted from the 14th to 19th centuries, the country had its own versions of Japanese geishas, called Kisaengs. These women were the pinnacle of beauty and set all the mainstream makeup trends. Their bold, inky eyebrows and clean, radiant skin inform Korean makeup standards even now.
Today, Korean makeup remains minimalistic and demure: a little bit of eyeliner, defined brows, and maybe a pop of lip color to contrast the skin. There's never any blush or contour, as these elements interfere with the “virtuous” simplicity of a clean, clear complexion.
Though Kisaengs no longer exist in Korea, there are modern beauty icons whom the culture worships just as much. Most of these influencers come from enormously popular Korean television dramas and K-pop music.
“Korean entertainment has a huge impact on trends,” Cho explains. “Especially because Seoul is so dense, like Manhattan, so when a trend pops up, it spreads like wildfire.” Some of these women have been famous for 15 years but don’t seem to have aged a day. Fans see their flawless complexions in HD and become obsessed with finding out what skincare and makeup products they use.
Even men are influenced by these trends. According to Yoon, it’s not out of the question for Korean men to wear makeup. “They’ll wear BB cream or have their eyebrows filled in,” she says. “It’s not common, maybe a little flashy, but if a man wears BB cream to work, it’s not a big deal.”
Among these influential icons is Lee Sa-Bi, a model, actress, and the first native Korean to pose for Playboy. Sa-Bi grew up in a small town outside of Seoul, where she ate fresh vegetables from her backyard and encompassed the "well-being" movement big-city Seoulites aspire to, even at a very young age.
At 38, Sa-Bi's skincare routine is the gold standard—focused and highly customized. It involves weekly dermatologist treatments, brightening and hydrating products, ingestibles, sunscreen, and sheet masks, which she's done every night for eight years. (The sheet mask remains the epitome of Korean skincare products, and Sa-Bi says she's tried thousands.)
"But skincare isn't only about products," Sa-Bi guarantees. "Beautiful skin is an outcome of a healthy lifestyle: eating well, sleeping well, exercising enough, and of course, using products with great ingredients that are right for your skin type."
Sa-Bi says she wants to remain beautiful as long as she can, and these are simply the steps she's taking to do that. She's not trying to cheat time or look like someone else. From her organic diet to her sheet masks, she's merely doing her best to live a life of balanced wellness. So far, it seems to be working.
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In Korea, there's a popular hashtag on social media that means "one pack a day" or "one sheet mask a day," which women use to show off their best sheet mask selfies. Most women don't actually do a nightly sheet mask like Sa-Bi, but the hashtag serves to communicate something bigger: a sense of pride in their Korean self-care. "Pride in being high-maintenance," Yoon explains.
So, okay, it's true: Korean skincare isn't totally effortless. But neither is maintaining a yoga practice, or going gluten-free, or any other steps one takes toward becoming her best self. Maybe Korea's Confucian ideals and 10-step skincare rituals haven't worked their way into mainstream American culture just yet, but goodness knows we love a good hashtag. And we love a story of finding your bliss. Maybe, for us, that's where it starts.
Can't get enough Korean beauty? Check out 5 incredible skincare secrets, straight from the streets of Korea.