If skincare is your religion and you want to keep the faith, it’s time to plan a pilgrimage to the streets of Myeongdong in South Korea’s Seoul. With its neon lights and surging crowds, the heart of Myeongdong is sometimes compared to New York’s Time Square. But believe me, for the skincare devotee the shopping experience is far sweeter than anything a giant M&M store can deliver.
Not only are Myeongdong’s pedestrian malls teeming with stores offering all the latest in K-beauty care, they’re also home to some seriously good deals. But before I tell you how much (or rather how little) you’ll pay for some truly amazing skincare products, let me take you beneath the epidermis to find out what’s on offer.
IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @SKINFOOD_US
While Koreans’ obsession with beauty is evident throughout Seoul (every subway station has at least one skincare shop and the streets are filled with cosmetic surgery clinics), Myeongdong is the ultimate destination for product, bringing all the key skincare brands together in one heaving cauldron of competition. Look left or right in the neighbourhood’s main shopping streets and you’ll see shining multi-storey shopfronts for all the leading K-beauty brands, from Innisfree, Nature Republic, Tonymoly, The Face Shop and Laneige through to AHC, Iope, The Saem, Klavuu and W.Lab. And that’s just for starters.
IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @TONYMOLY.AU
In Myeongdong, your skincare solution is literally only ever a few steps away. And trust me, there are plenty of solutions. From sheet masks to essences and serums, K-beauty is known for its multi-step approach to perfect dewy skin and every skincare store in Myeongdong has something to offer to help you with your journey.
While the western world has been slowly catching on to the magic of masks, Koreans have been busy making them an art form. In Myeongdong, most shops have aisles or walls devoted to a huge range of sheet, gel and rubber masks designed to address issues from acne to ageing, most featuring natural ingredients like cucumber, honey and aloe vera as well as 24 carat gold, and marine extracts, and the most popular of all, (gulp), snail mucin. And these masks aren’t just for your face – there are also sheet masks specifically designed for your eyes, jaw, hands, feet, stomach and chests. Yes, that’s right, there are boob masks.
IMAGE: INSTAGRAM @INNISFREEAUSTRALIA
In every store I visited, assistants were quick to identify the fine lines around my eyes and recommend a twice-weekly sheet mask regime. When I explained my existing daily regime of cleanser, serum, moisturiser and sunscreen, without fail every assistant recommended I add a toner/water and essence to my repertoire to prepare my skin and help it better absorb other treatment products. Most smothered the backs of my hands with sublimely smooth lotions, while in Klavuu the assistant treated half my face so I could feel the difference.
But here’s the truly fun part – they didn’t just cover me with products, they also layered on the deals. Most Myeongdong outlets have staff outside, working the crowds and offering a shopping basket already containing a free sheet mask to those who enter their store. Inside, you’ll find almost all the shops have fantastic deals on their masks and other products, if you buy in multiples. Trust me, if anything’s going to get you looking up Korean Air’s flight schedule, these deals will.
Across the key brands, individual mask prices generally range between 1000 to 5000 won (roughly $1.30 to $6.50) which is amazing value to start with. But if you’re prepared to buy a pack of 10, 20 or even 30 masks, then you’ll find yourself in the wonderful world of 2 for 1 deals. Which means that you can pick up masks for as little as 70 cents each. When I visited The Saem I was told that if I bought a pack of six tubes of gold snail serum for 250,000 won (around $325) I’d get a complimentary pack of 20 sheet masks and two large bottles of foam cleanser. In Nature Republic I was offered 30 gel snail masks for 150,000 won (around $190), with an extra 30 sheet masks thrown in. In the end, I managed to add a few kilos to my luggage with a visit to a Tonymoly store which saw me buy 27 premium snail and gold snail masks for 145,000 won (about $185) only to receive another 27 gratis. Yep, do the maths – that’s just a bit more than $3 a mask.
And it didn’t stop there. As I made the purchase, the assistant gave me eight cucumber sheet masks and 10 different sample products as a gift. (Have you booked your flight yet?). In Aritaum, which represents a range of AmorePacific brands, I bought Laneige’s new Cream Skin water (stunning) and a bottle of Water Bank Essence (amazing) for 60,000 won (about $75) – and then received eight small bottles of the essence, perfect for travel, as a bonus along with several face masks.
In fact, with every purchase I made during my visit, and there were many, I was showered with extra masks and product samples, making my afternoon of skincare shopping an even better investment. (A point I made to my husband as I filled our spare suitcase with my products later that day).
Myeongdong is understandably popular, so my advice is to go early on a weekday if you can, to avoid the weekend and evening crowds, and pace yourself. In the late afternoon, carts packed with delicious street foods appear outside the shops so you won’t go hungry, but if you’re craving some peace and quiet then Innisfree’s flagship store offers a beautiful Nordic-style café where you can enjoy healthy food and explore their gorgeous skincare products from the volcanic South Korean island of Jeju (they’ve just opened a store in Sydney and are due to open another mid-year, if you want to try their wares locally).
Elated but exhausted from my shopping expedition, I decided to put Korean beauty practices to the test, leaving the bright lights of Myeongdong behind and travelling across Seoul to the flagship store of one of Korea’s leading skincare brands Sulwhasoo for an indulgent facial, which I had booked online from Sydney. Featuring a spectacular design of fine gold brass caging inside and out, the Sulwhasoo store glows like a lantern, drawing me like a moth to the flame across the quiet, tree-lined streets of Dosan-daero. Opened in early 2016, the store is the biggest of any single beauty brand in Korea and features two separate spa areas.
I’m directed to the lower level spa where I’m greeted with a small cup of traditional ginseng tea before being led to a dark stone-walled suite to prepare for my “red pine and amber renovating treatment”. If they didn’t already have me at the thought of spending 90 minutes in this tranquil space, I was theirs after the soothing gingseng herbal foot scrub which marked the start of my treatment.
And then there was the facial. As I wafted in and out of consciousness, lulled by the sounds of birds and gentle string music, my beautician cleansed my face with oil, massaged my scalp and hair with soft strokes of a wooden brush and kneaded my tired shoulders and neck. My face was treated with two masks and then gently stroked and pinched before a thick rubber mask filled with a concoction of oils, creams and ampoules was applied. My aforementioned fine eye lines were massaged with a cool gold roller that made my face feel like it was being splashed with fresh mountain water, while amber applicators were rolled across my face to help it absorb the serums.
Unlike many western brands, Sulwhasoo products don’t contain retinol or hyaluronic acid, relying instead on natural ingredients activated through its POJE Optimizing Process™. My facial included ginseng, which Sulwhasoo uses for both anti-ageing and brightening, and red amber, which it says contains a skin-fortifying age-defying ingredient. After a warming cup of jujube ginseng tea and some delicious treats, I head into the night to meet up with my family, who comment on my dewy face.
I’m not sure that I’ve defied my age, but there’s no doubting that over the following days my skin felt better prepared, and more resistant, to the heat of Seoul. Back in Sydney as we slipped into summer, and I fell into a twice-weekly sheet mask regime, as well as a daily toner and essence routine, friends remarked on my healthy glow.
Little did they know that my bank balance was looking just as healthy, thanks to my K-beauty expedition.
Story by Libby Moffet. Photography by Kyungsub Shin.