Beauty and fashion are highlights on many traveller’s lists, but nowhere is it so prominent as South Korea.

Fashion vloggers praise their Korean skincare hauls. Makeup junkies get their fix with a limitless assortment of products. And approximately 38,000 travellers journey to South Korea for plastic surgery every year, the majority of them coming from China.

Since moving to South Korea I've been overwhelmed by a ceaseless stream of beauty and product advertising. I sat down with two Korean women, Jihyun, 22, and Yeeun, 24, to discuss the prevalence of beauty in their culture. Their answers shed some light on why Korea is the best destination for travellers who are serious about their skin.

interview two korean girls peace signInterviewees Jihyun and Yeeun | Photo by Alison Karlene Hodgins 

The Importance of Being Pretty

Ever since she was 14 years old, Yeeun has been meticulously moisturizing her face every morning and evening. Her mother taught her the beauty routine she still follows today, although it is constantly being tweaked with the emergence of new products.

“Appearance is the first thing people notice,” Jihyun tells me. “We want to look better than our neighbour. In order to get a partner or a job, we have to look beautiful. And more people will want to be friends with us, if we look good.”

Historically, Korea’s beauty obsession can be traced back 60-some years to the cooling off of the Korean war, when South Korea welcomed democracy—and societal beauty standards along with it.

two traditional korean korea women womanAlison Karlene Hodgins

Since then, South Korea’s beauty industry has exploded.

Shops like Skinfood, Innisfree, Olive Young and the Face Shop dominate nearly every corner in Seoul. Thin, pale women wearing sequinned high-heels strut through the subway. Wide eyes, a narrow jaw, pore-less white skin and a pronounced nose are considered beautiful here, and while diversity may be expressed in blue or pink bleached hair, the majority of Koreans dress and look astonishingly alike.

As a solo female backpacker, my “beauty routine” usually consists of a shower when I’m obviously sweaty; a clean shirt about once a week; and a good face scrub when I can find running water. Living in Seoul has changed all of that. The floor-length mirrors in the subway, endless advertisements featuring adorable Korean girls and callous stares from those around me have made me assiduously aware of my appearance. I’ve started wearing high-collared shirts, using face masks at night and wearing SPF 50 every day. I treat my skin much better, at the expense of my innocence.

Now that I’ve been exposed to Korea’s quirky beauty products, I can't claim ignorant backpacker status any longer.


The Female Skincare Regimen

beauty advertisements korea streetsAlison Karlene Hodgins

From snail extract to bamboo and lily water, the diversity of Korean beauty products is mind-boggling. Yeeun broke down her morning beauty routine into 12 steps:

  1. Wash with cleanser
  2. Face mask (once or twice a week)
  3. Toner
  4. Eye cream
  5. Serum or essence
  6. Hydrating lotion
  7. Face cream
  8. Sunblock
  9. Foundation
  10. Eye makeup
  11. Lipstick
  12. Concealer

“Wow,” I said appreciatively, reviewing the list. "That a lot of steps."

“This is just for a normal girl,” Jihyun told me. “This isn’t even that complex.”

Things got really interesting when the girls opened their purses.

Jihyun pulled out her TonyMoly eye shadow palette and Yeeun showed me her trendy Nicholas Kirkwood “cushion,” basically a compact containing a sponge and foundation. Sprays, eyebrow colour and mascara came next.

I have to admit, all of this was rather overwhelming for me. There are so many products, sometimes I struggle to decipher what they are for. Spot patches, essence, serum, sheet masks and sleeping masks are revolutionary beauty products that take some getting used to.

But now that I'm used to them, I’m addicted.

If you decide to stock up on Korean beauty products, keep your receipt on purchases over 30,000 won for a tax rebate at the airport. You will receive fistfuls of free samples, which just happen to be perfectly travel-sized. Be aware that most foundations only come in very light tones and many products contain whitening agents.


Male Beauty Products on the Rise

In South Korea, men aren’t off the hook for how they look, either. There’s a plethora of skincare and makeup made and marketed exclusively for males. The male beauty routine is similar to females’, albeit with less steps. The most common makeup product for men is BB cream (an essential base product in Korea) and eyebrow filler. Jihyun told me that “we like the way they look when they wear it, but the older generations do not.”

The K-Pop Influence

It took a bit of courage, but I finally popped the question.

I asked Jihyun if Koreans want to look more Western.

She brushed my question away. “Similar, but no. We want to look like Korean idols,” she said, pointing to the unearthly purple hue in her eyes. “Right now, I’m wearing Suzy Gray lenses.” Bae Suzy is a member of the South Korean-Chinese girl group miss A.

kpopBy Idol Story [CC BY 2.0 kr] via Wikimedia Commons

These K-pop idols are Korea’s biggest cultural export. The Korean wave, or Hallyu, hit the international scene with a smash (thanks to the global reach of social media), giving women the world-over new unattainable beauty standards to strain for.

That’s where plastic surgery comes in.


Plastic Surgery in South Korea

Alison Karlene Hodgins

In South Korea, plastic surgery is not only common, it is the norm. Many girls receive blepharoplasty (double eyelid surgery) for a sweet sixteenth birthday present or as a high-school graduation gift.

Known as the world’s “plastic surgery capital,” approximately one out of every four or five women in Seoul have gone under the knife. A 2015 study by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reports that while the USA hosts the most plastic surgical procedures in the world, South Korea has the most per capita. However, it is difficult to pin down an official number, because not all of the procedures are properly recorded.

While a woman may not rave to the world about her latest nose job, discussion about plastic surgery is quite open among friends.

“How honest should I be?” Jihyun laughed. “Alright, I’ll tell you.”

When she worked as a marketer for a plastic surgery company, Jihyun had injections to remove fat from the sides of her face. Koreans tend to be very self-conscious about having wide faces. She tells me she is satisfied with the results. If she hadn’t told me, I never would have been able to tell.

korea plastic surgeryFlickr/Aiena Zahira Daim (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Wearing a surgical face mask (which is much more common in other parts of Asia than it is in Korea) or sporting swollen bruises covered by bandages are tell-tale signs of recent plastic surgery. However, Jihyun told me that most changes are subtle; only close friends and family would notice something different. And, in most cases, the only comments they will receive are compliments. “You look better, or you look more beautiful, is what they will say.”

Plastic surgery in Korea is typically cheaper than it is in Western countries, which makes sense why around 8.7% of patients come from abroad.

If you’re travelling for plastic surgery, take double the precautions you would at home. While you can easily see a consultant and make an appointment for a procedure the next day, it is wise to conduct substantial research before selecting a clinic. Surgery always comes with risks—make sure you’re informed before you commit.

If you can, bring a Korean friend to the clinic to translate for you. They may even be able to haggle the price down. While plastic surgery may still carry a stigma back home, you will not be judged for your cosmetic choices here—in fact, you will probably be praised for them.


Are You Pretty Enough?

two traditional korean womenAlison Karlene Hodgins

There is a lot of pressure to be beautiful in Korea, and unfortunately, that definition of beauty is very narrow. Whitening products are everywhere. Double eyelid surgeries, shaved jaws and nose jobs can be completed in the space of a lunch break. Koreans desire wide, innocent eyes; narrow jaw lines; a raised nose; and snowy white skin—and they are willing to pay for it.

While I won’t undergo a surgical procedure here myself, I have somewhat fallen for the Korean beauty routine. I use a sheet face mask every other evening and I am addicted to the different serums and essences for sale. While Korean products are not all-encompassing miracle solutions, they are certainly fun to indulge in and fascinating to browse.

If you want the newest and best beauty products, plan a trip to Seoul. If you’re not yet captivated by beauty trends, South Korea may sway you. And even if you resist the beauty craze, this country has enough cultural intrigue to make you want to visit and stay awhile, anyway.


Are Korean beauty products a part of your beauty regime? 
Let us know: comment below or tweet us: @cantravelmag


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