In Seoul, the many skin-care op­tions are worth por­ing over

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY DINA MISHEV

Check­ing in for a fa­cial at the flag­ship store of the South Korean beauty brand Sul­wah­soo, 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 Sul­wah­soo’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 “KBeauty.” 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 Sul­wah­soo and Kwang­dong Tra­di­tional Korean Medicine Hos­pi­tal 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 KBeauty. 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 In­nesFree, 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 In­nesFree 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, black­head­out 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 In­nesFree, 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 In­nesFree 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 Sul­wah­soo — 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 Tra­di­tional Korean Medicine Hos­pi­tal, 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 Sul­wah­soo 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 Sul­wah­soo’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.

PHO­TOS BY DINA MISHEV

Olive Young — its main floor at top and its men’s depart­ment above, is meant to be South Korea’s an­swer to Sephora, but the brands are less ex­pen­sive than those avail­able in the United States. Also, they of­ten uti­lize snails as in­gre­di­ents.

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