It’s hard to imagine a time when Korean beauty inventions like essences, sheet masks, and cushion compacts weren’t a standard part of our beauty vocabulary. Those were dark times (literally—as in our faces weren’t nearly as bright and glass-like as they are now). The American beauty industry got the shock of its life when innovative and technologically advanced products like BB creams and snail serums from Korea swept through like a revolution and made us realize just how far ahead of us our poreless sisters across Korea are when it comes to skincare—and frankly, we all have better complexions now because of it.
As a beauty editor who is never not testing products, I’m fascinated by Korean beauty products and rituals in a way that’s probably borderline unhealthy. No other products I try consistently surprise and delight me with their formulation, ingredients, price point, and packaging. (Why have a lip balm in a tube when you can have a lip balm shaped like a bunny?) Korean women know their beauty stuff, and are discerning when it comes to quality and ingredients. Thus, brands in Korea are forced to do better—and they do. An oil-in-serum? Yes. A fizzing powder you mix with water and dunk your head into? Gimme. A rubber mask that you literally spread on your face like cake batter then peel off in one big chunk? Yes, yes, YES. I want it all.
So when Charlotte Cho, co-founder of one of my favorite online K-beauty e-tailers, Soko Glam, invited me to go to Seoul with her on a trip organized by the Korea Tourism Organization, I screamed loudly and ran home to pack my bags (sparingly—I left plenty of room for the K-beauty loot I planned on bringing back). To put it shortly: Seoul did not disappoint. The vibrant, Technicolor city is a treasure trove of secret beauty gems, ancient history, and, of course, really good Korean barbecue. Ahead, you’ll find some of the favorite beauty destinations I discovered during my trip. Be warned: This will cause a strong urge to book the next flight to Seoul.
For traditional Korean beauty health and beauty treatments: Kwangdong Hospital of Traditional Korean Medicine
Don't let the "hospital" in the name fool you—this clinic is surprisingly cozy. A favorite of Korean celebrities, you’ll be able to partake in a number of traditional beauty and wellness treatments—from acupuncture to herbal detox treatments.
I was led to a private room and got an acupuncture treatment on my neck to relieve back pain (my first time and I didn’t pass out!), followed by a stomach massage to help with bloating. To finish, a large bag of warm, potent-smelling herbs was placed on my stomach, and I was instructed to try and relax—not your average medi-spa treatment, that’s for sure.
The sensation was strange and I’m not sure if it really detoxed like my body like it promised, but it certainly made me feel lighter.
For spending your entire paycheck on beauty products: Myeongdong
Myeongdong is one of the main shopping districts in Seoul, and I easily could have spent an entire day there wandering the stores. For beauty, you'll find stores like Etude House Color Factory (where you can meet with a specialist to create your own customized lipstick shade and even choose the bullet design), Innisfree (one of Korea's most popular skincare brands, which also just arrived stateside), MISSHA, Skinfood and more.
Two stores I fell in love with in particular were Moonshot and Stylenanda. Moonshot is playful and chic, featuring a wide range of colors and texture—like a mix of MAC and Glossier. Stylenanda has a larger selection and it's hard not to spend hours inside. I discovered the world's most incredible highlighter here—it deposits just the right amount of dewy glow with a holographic glimmer. It was so good I bought extras to bring home to share with the Byrdie team because I needed them to experience the glory of it.
For a Korean-style makeover and haircut/blowout: Jakeun Chai Salon
Something really crazy happened at this salon—I somehow transformed into a young, sweet-looking Korean girl, and to this day I still don't really understand how they did it. We all got Korean-style makeovers, and my "style" was supposed to be "sweet and cute" with loose waves and minimal makeup.
First of all, the blowout I got here was actually phenomenal. The waves weren't too perfect or done-up and they had just the right amount of body and bounce (the salon also very kindly gave me a keratin treatment, which made my strands feel slippery-soft).
The truly astounding part of the experience was the makeup artist, who barely seemed to apply any makeup whatsoever but magically transformed my entire face. I watched her work the entire time, and she didn't use any crazy colors or shading techniques yet somehow, my eyes looked wider and skin looked five years younger after she finished.
My skin was as smooth as an egg, with no wrinkles, blemishes, or dark spots in sight. It was incredible. Everyone at this salon was so incredibly friendly and did such an amazing job. Definitely stop by if you want your makeup or hair done for a night out in Seoul (but maybe bring a Korean-speaking friend to help with translating).
For a traditional Korean spa experience: Sparex
Be warned: there's nothing fancy about this traditional Korean spa. But if you're looking for an authentic Korean spa experience, you'll find it here. Store your clothes in a locker and then lounge in one of the heated whirlpools or saunas; make sure to get the traditional Korean body scrub. A lady will take a gritty (but clean) mitt and scrub your entire body from head to toe. You'll feel slightly like a slab of meat getting thrown around and salted, but your skin will feel baby-soft afterward.
I also got a V-steam here because Gwyneth does it (though her experience was probably much more luxurious than mine). It was… interesting. I think I would have preferred to spend more time lying down in the giant room downstairs. Yes, there is an entire room that's just dedicated to allowing people to lie down on the floor and relax. You can get snacks or just take a long, lovely nap. It's amazing.
For tea aficionados and people tired of walking: Tea Therapy
This cozy little restaurant serves up fresh, healthy fare like salmon or salmon roe over rice and salad, but it also features aromatherapy foot baths in a separate section in the back for the weary. We received a mini tea lesson when we stopped here, smelling and learning about the many herbs the staff use in their teas and the ailments they treat (stress and sleep deprivation were mine). Afterward, you can create your own tea sachet to take home. It's a hidden gem for sure and a special experience you'll remember if you're looking for something a little different.
For a luxurious, relaxing facial or massage: Sulwhasoo Spa
Sulwhasoo is one of Korea's most esteemed and iconic skincare brands, and its flagship is worth checking out if you're interested in the brand's history, looking for great Instagram fodder, or want a luxe, relaxing facial or massage. The estheticians put an incredible amount of care into the facials here, from having you fill out a skincare questionnaire to giving you a sweet snack with their signature beauty tea afterward. Make sure to check out the roof, where you can lounge, bask in the sun (after applying SPF), and take lots of great selfies against the gilded gold wall décor.