Figure 1: The Visor. These women are determined to have nothing stand between them and an ageless complexion.

Figure 1: The Visor. These women are determined to have nothing stand between them and an ageless complexion.

Note that this post is not titled “How to Have Skin Like A Korean.” Misplaced modifiers and ambiguous grammar notwithstanding (news flash: Koreans have skin, and so can you!), I avoided this phrasing because I am a purveyor of information, not a false guarantor of results.

Also note that while the original title of this post was “How to Care for Your Skin Like a Korean Girl,” all gendered references have been omitted for reasons clarified later.

It is a widely believed (known) that Korea is a very competitive society [1], and this race for the top also very much applies to external beauty. We might condemn an annual plastic surgery rate higher than that of any other country [2] (though might I remind the Americans that the nation with the most plastic surgeries performed within its borders is ours [3]) or chuckle at the world’s largest market for male beauty products [4], but, the fact is, Korean people tend to (at least appear to) have beautiful skin. For all they might vaunt of their own women’s beauty [5], Chinese people don’t seem to compare (makeup-less Chinese sisters-in-arms, this is not necessarily something of which to be ashamed), and Americans… well, we have our good points as any population does, but flawless skin doesn’t to seem to be one of them. I have comparatively little experience with other cultures, so I don’t have much basis for serious comment, but suffice to say that in my experience, the Koreans are definitely doing something worth learning from. So what can others do to emulate it?


1. Get sleep.

Upon finding out before lecture one day that one of my classmates was a doctor of traditional Korean medicine who specializes in skin care (피부 관리 or “skin management” in Korean), I asked him about how much he knew about what kinds of foods one should eat or avoid to ensure a healthy dermis. His long and thoughtful answer surprised me—he said that while eating foods that are obviously healthy for you in other ways also tends to confer numerous benefits on the skin, far and away the most important factor in skin health is sleep quality. Not only does the lack of sleep result in differential expression of many proteins responsible for DNA repair, cellular stress responses, and immune responses [6], all of which might affect the quality of our skin, but glucocorticoids released during sleep deprivation might also induce the breakdown of collagen [7], the triple-helical protein that keeps our dermis springy and toned. Indeed, the hypothesis that healthy sleep is a contributing factor in good skin [8] may be well founded.

Of course, this is not at all to say that Koreans actually get more or better sleep than people from other countries; in fact, the reality seems to be quite the opposite [9]. But they do seem to hold its value in mind quite explicitly, perhaps for this very reason.


2. Avoid the sun.

Avoid the sun. Avoid that brilliant yellow hotbed of DNA-crosslinking [10], skin-puckering carcinogenic UV rays like a vampire. But how, one might ask, does one avoid the sun without becoming a hikikomori who leaves the house but once a week for a midnight ramen and chocopie run?

Luckily, generations of sun-fearing Korean ajummas [11] have already developed the answer. Even if you can’t keep out of the sun, you can keep the sun out of you with some thoughtful wardrobing and a few special tools. The cardinal rule of sun avoidance is to leave no skin exposed when you are outside. This means long-sleeved shirts and pants (preferably loud floral-patterned cotton ones). It means socks even when you’re wearing sandals or slip-on dress shoes. Ultimately, it means turning down your internal thermostat so that such sartorial habits do not cause you to  melt like the Wicked Witch of the West. Put down that hamburger and stop going to the gym. We want your metabolism to die.

Of course, long sleeves and pants only get you so far. For the face and hands, you need to pull out the big guns: Gloves, scarf or veil, and, of course, The Visor, a gargantuan portable awning made of reflective plastics or just thick fabric, as shown in Figure 1.

If your efforts fail and you stumble into some unwanted contacts with the dreaded 300-nm enemy, you can always attempt to paper over your mistake with some aloe-based moisturizer or, for those of us with light skin, post-tan whitening Korean sun cream, though I imagine that the “whitening” components aren’t very good at masking first-degree lobster face.


3. Drink ample fluids.

This is actually more of a graft from my experiences in Beijing, where it seems that everyone’s right arm is permanently glued to a flask of hot tea as their left elbows aside unsuspecting travelers in public transit lines. Even though the jury’s still out on whether oral ingestion of water does much for hydrating the skin [12], it can’t hurt much, except maybe your bladder.

Jokes aside, our friend H2O is an integral factor in innumerable metabolic processes, including those that keep the cells composing our epidermis and associated connective tissues in working order, so even if the water you drink doesn’t always reach the places you want, you’re going to need it somewhere.

And a placebo-controlled double-blind study conducted in 2005 showed that oral and topical administration of green tea polyphenols resulted in significantly increased elastic tissue content in skin biopsies relative to control (though it’s admittedly unclear which route(s) contributed to this effect) [13]. So there.


4. Wear masks.

I don’t mean cover your dried-out visage with something more palatable like a rubber werewolf head or Deku face (though shooting bubbles through your nose is great skin hydrating technique*). I mean help lock in moisture, provide nutrients, stimulate rejuvenating signal cascades (we can hope, right?), and just feel plain good for ten to twenty minutes with a mask facial.

I have no idea about the prices and availability of these things overseas, but masks are cheap and plentiful in nearly every bath/beauty supply store in Seoul (which, next to coffee shops, seem to be the use of choice for most commercial real estate). They can be purchased for less than a dollar each during sales, and they come in varieties ranging from the minimalist “natural” type (honey, aloe, mugwort, cucumber, red ginseng) to the generally more expensive “high technology” type (synthesized and extracted chemicals ahoy). I tend to go for the ones with the fewest ingredients and highest concentration of supposedly active component, though I often wonder whether I should just be soaking my face in avocado mush and tea leaf mud instead.

Some research does suggest that the efficacy of masks is not all just hearsay and placebo, but not all products are, of course, created equal. For example, aloe vera extract (my personal favorite), a favorite in mask compositions, has demonstrated moisturizing effects on dry skin, healing effects on radiation burns, upregulating effects on collagen levels, anti-inflammatory properties in a number of assays, and a slew of other useful activities in various bodily processes [14]. On the other hand, our connective tissue protein friend collagen, another popular mask ingredient, is obviously a key factor in young-looking skin. However, the molecule itself is far too large to be absorbed through topical administration, so its presence in masks may have little use beyond shiny marketing strategy [15].


5. Ditch the feminism.

Or your tired standards of masculinity, for that matter. Some women might be averse to spending extra time or energy worrying about skin care because conforming to higher aesthetic standards than those applied to males is mysogynistic and unfair. Similarly, some men might be reluctant to even wear sunscreen because apparently caring about one’s appearance adds a few extra tails to that Y-chromosome.

Korea features an easy escape from such a dynamic: Men worry about their skin too. As mentioned above, Korea has the largest male cosmetics market in the world and, accordingly, several makeup brands marketed exclusively to men, including SKEDA, Skin Zio, Amore Pacific, 等等. So women need not worry that devoting just a bit of brainspace to skin care is capitulating to a societal norm that is arbitrarily and exclusively imposed on them, and men need not worry that, you know, washing your face makes you a woman. As if that’s so bad.**


*Provided you have paid a visit to the Great Fairy.

**Who’s a woman.


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