A COLLEAGUE OF MINE visited a week ago and reported that the tiny district of southern Seoul has been struck by horsey-dance flash mobs of Koreans and foreigners alike. Thanks to recent attention from PSY’s internationally viral “Gangnam Style,” the neighbourhood is drawing more tourists and day-trippers than just six weeks ago. What these visitors witness in Gangnam is Seoul refinery bordering on ostentatiousness — a district of beautiful people, luxury brand shops, posh cafes, and a wealth of plastic surgery clinics.
The ladies of PSY’s video fit the bill for Gangnam style — slim and stylish, with glossy hair and poreless, ageless skin.
Beauty is a $7.9 billion business in Korea. Lucky for curious expats like myself, Korean products can be purchased and played with at a relatively low cost. The innovative, the brilliant, the bizarre, I’ve tried ‘em all. In the name of research, of course.
Below, a roundup of Korean products for that “heyyyy sexy lady” look.
1. BB cream
A BB wave hit Western beauty counters this past year. Truth is, BB creams were huge in Korea well before the likes of Garnier and Clinique got on the bandwagon. Local brands market their BB creams with touchy-feely ad copy: soothing, moisturizing, healing, protecting. What the product boils down to is a tinted moisturizer. To be fair, it’s a damn good one.
BB cream was, according to beauty legend, developed by a German doctor to help patients cover and protect skin after cosmetic surgery or lasering. These multitasking creams give coverage, moisture, and protection from the mucky Seoul smog. They usually have one or more additional properties, like SPF, oil control, or the ever-popular whitening agents.
Personally, I’m partial to Face Shop Oilcut BB Emulsion (SPF 25), and Innisfree Mineral Sun Waterproof BB Cream (SPF 50), which doesn’t melt in sticky Korean summers. Curious consumers can check YouTube, where dozens of Filipina and Singaporean beauty bloggers post amateur-but-helpful product review videos.
2. Eyelid tape
I had never heard of a double eyelid before coming to Korea, but I’ve been told I have a nice set. The term refers to the crease between the brow bone and eye. Picture The Simpsons’ bulbous eyeballs and you’ll know what I mean. It’s a rare facial trait among Koreans, who are usually born single-lidded.
Many Gangnam folk “fix” their single eyelids with a visit to the plastic surgeon. It’s one of the most popular procedures in the nation’s booming cosmetic surgery biz, where an estimated 40% of Seoul women have had work done. For other Koreans, eyelid tape is a cheap, temporary, and slightly less scary option. Slightly.
Packets of eyelid glue or tape are sold with plastic two-pronged forks. The thin strip of double-sided eyelid tape is placed in the middle of the eyelid. Once the tape is set, the fork is used to poke around the eyelid skin so the eyelid fat is folded in place like handmade tortellini. A handful of instructional videos out there can demonstrate the application. They’re not for the squeamish.
In Western countries, there has been controversy about this “Westernizing” eyelid alteration, and the standard of beauty that it propagates. In Korea, where I see teenage girls applying eyelid tape in public bathrooms, that outcry is far, far quieter.
3. Sheet masks
My boyfriend makes Hannibal Lecter jokes. When I brought a box to Canada for a cottage weekend with friends, the phrase “gimp mask” was tossed around. And I really, really don’t recommend wearing one while watching The Skin I Live In, unless resembling a creepy movie poster is your thing. If you can handle the freaky appearance, though, these masks are wonderful.
Any Korean beauty store, drug store, even dollar store will sell racks and racks of sheet masks. They come in every fruit, vegetable, and plant “essence” imaginable, but these masks all work the same way. A round gauze sheet comes soaked in cool and slippery plant-based moisturizers. Just unfold, line up the eye holes with your face, lie back, and feel soothed. They can be refrigerated in summer to calm a burn, or heated up gently for dry winter skin.
For true Gangnam style, a department store beauty counter could sell you the posher masks from luxe Japanese skin brands like SK-II or Shiseido. Most beauty stores, though, sell masks for under $1USD, and often give them away for free in promotions. Is it top-quality moisturizing? For that price, it’s close enough.
These little bits of medicated hydrocolloid tape work like teeny tiny band-aids to heal your pimples while keeping them germ-free. The flesh-colored product should, in theory, make your pimples discreet as well. They do not.
My first encounter with these stickies happened a year ago in Korea, when I met a colleague’s new TA. She had great English, lots of energy, and, at first glance, leprosy of the face. The poor acne-burdened girl had stuck at least 15 trouble patches all over her forehead, cheeks and chin. The patches were all two shades too light and peeling at the edges like bits of sunburnt skin flaking off. I was shocked that nobody batted an eyelash, not one of the dozens and dozens of middle school students flitting around the corridors. It looked like her skin was abandoning her face.
Different brands have different tones and textures, from transparent little discs to the opaque patches the colour of lobster bisque. I’ve tried Skin Food’s version once or twice overnight, and can attest that they work. Still, I’m not sure if it’s worth leaving one’s house looking like a child’s drawing of a wart-faced Halloween witch.
5. Man makeup
Last year, Korean men spent almost half a billion dollars on skincare products, and it ain’t just sunscreen they’re buying. In addition to cleansers, masks, emulsions, and whitening creams, male makeup is gaining popularity.
Foundation and BB breams are becoming a common male purchase, with major Korean beauty labels like Etude House and Innisfree selling a male-specific product. I’ve even seen a sweat-resistant version for athletes, hawked by Manchester United’s Park Ji Sung. Male consumers have also been buying up eyebrow pencils, eyeliners, and tinted lip balms.
One could watch any boyband K-pop video, where the makeup is heavy and proud, and assume that Korean men are dancing their way around Seoul in campy Jack Sparrow eyeliner. The truth is most males are simply trying to be polished and presentable, especially the young graduates who are entering Korea’s competitive job market. Just watch the “Gangnam Style” video again (we know you were going to, anyway) and check out PSY’s clean, even skin.
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Anne Merritt has lived in Canada, Europe, and Asia. She teaches ESL, writes, haggles, hikes, and wears sunscreen fanatically. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, GoOverseas.com, and The Compass. Check out her blog.
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