I’m somewhere above the Pacific Ocean, locked in the bathroom of a 787 jetliner, covering my face with wet tinfoil. The writing on the package is all in Korean, but from what I can discern, I’ll need to wear its goop-coated contents for at least 10 minutes after application. I look in the mirror and a DIY luchador stares coldly back through his foil mask. Being in my mid-30s and never having paid any attention whatsoever to my skin, I decided this business trip to Korea would be a good opportunity to start. If the things I’d heard were true, I could expect nothing less than life-changing results.
A few days earlier, I’d been wandering Garosu-gil, a trendy neighbourhood in Gangnam, which before it became an international dance craze was an upscale part of Seoul, South Korea. Sometime between Psy’s horse-trotting antics and scoring a starring role in Donald Trump’s latest international shitshow, this country became known for something completely different: skincare products.
“Korean skincare is light-years ahead of any other country,” says David Yi, who writes about such things on his blog Very Good Light. “I think it has to do with how Korea is a homogeneous society,” he explains. “So, to get ahead in life, they’re pressured to work on their appearance.” Indeed, Korea is one of the most beauty-obsessed countries on the planet and a global leader in plastic surgery. Companies ask job applicants to submit headshots with their CVs. As a result, far more effort goes into developing products to help Koreans look dewy-faced and youthful. Korean men lead the world in their consumption of skincare products and cosmetics, far outspending their European and North American counterparts.
Much of that spending happens in Garosu-gil, the skincare epicentre of Seoul, where Yi had sent me to begin my journey in K-Beauty, as it’s called. On both sides of the street, for blocks in either direction, were countless places hawking solutions to every grooming quandary imaginable. Miles of scrubs, toners and moisturizers lined these stores’ shelves, along with DIY facial peel kits, LED light masks and myriad blackhead removal strips. The men’s section in one store boasted several kinds of leg-hair trimmers, eyebrow tinting gel and multi-packs of nipple protectors—stickers designed to keep your nipples from poking through your T-shirt.
Among the most bountiful items were sheet masks—pieces of fabric or foil with eyeholes punched in them, impregnated with all kinds of high-tech skin-improving goo. As terrifying as they look, these masks are said to be the gateway drug of K-Beauty products, and there were hundreds to choose from, boasting various tightening, brightening, soothing and rejuvenating qualities. The word “dewiness” appeared frequently. Some featured an active ingredient made from snail mucus, while others touted a cornucopia of vegetable extracts and botanicals. One was called simply Goat Milk Placenta.
I stepped into at least a dozen stores, lathering my hands with samples of cleansers, creams and tinted moisturizers. Given my non-existent proficiency in Korean and the limited English spoken by most of the sales staff, I did my best to evaluate the products based on recognizable ingredients, smell and whatever snippets of information I could glean via pantomime. I settled on a line called Manology 101 from a shop called Belif, chosen mostly because I liked the font on its packaging. I left the store with a tube of Facial Cleansing Foam, a pump of Smart Moisture Extreme, a travel-sized Smart Daily Defense Moisturizer with SPF and a handful of snail-mucus sheet masks for good measure. My flight home from Seoul would be my first opportunity to test my K-Beauty haul.
Standing in front of the airplane bathroom mirror, staring at my masked face, I try to imagine the billions of tiny molecules working their way into my skin, battling the wrinkles around my eyes, repairing sun damage and infusing my visage with life-giving moisture. When the alarm on my phone vibrates, I peel the foil from my face like the cellophane from a steaming TV dinner. I inspect my reflection. The face that stares back, glistening under a sticky layer of snail mucus, is not quite the face of a new man (although I do look weirdly newborn). It is, however, noticeably tighter and undeniably dewier. Millions of Korean men can’t be wrong, can they?
You don’t have to go to Korea to start a K-Beauty regimen. Toronto-based online retailer Take Good Care suggests these essentials to get you all tight and dewy.
COSRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser ($14)
Thank You Farmer True Water Deep Toner ($32)
COSRX One Step Moisture UP Pad ($26)
Innisfree Jeju Lava Seawater Lotion ($32)
Cremorlab Sheet Mask Set ($26)