Main The Little Book of Skin Care: Korean Beauty Secrets for Healthy, Glowing Skin

The Little Book of Skin Care: Korean Beauty Secrets for Healthy, Glowing Skin

The secrets behind the world's most beautiful skin!

In Korea, healthy, glowing skin is the ideal form of beauty. It's considered achievable by all, men and women, young and old—and it begins with adopting a skin-first mentality. Now, this Korean beauty philosophy has taken the world by storm!

As the founder of Soko Glam, a leading Korean beauty and lifestyle website, esthetician and beauty expert Charlotte Cho guides you through the world-renowned Korean ten-step skin-care routine—and far beyond—to help you achieve the clearest and most radiant skin of your life With Charlotte's step-by-step tutorials, skin-care tips, and advice on what to look for in products at all price levels, you'll learn how to pamper and care for your skin at home with Korean-approved techniques and pull off the "no makeup" makeup look we've seen and admired on women in the streets of Seoul. And you'll get access to beauty secrets from Charlotte's favorite beauty gurus from around the world, including supermodels, YouTube sensations, top makeup artists, magazine editors, actresses, and leading Korean skincare researchers.

With the knowledge of an expert and voice of a trusted friend, Charlotte's personal tour through Korean beauty culture will help you find joy in the everyday beauty routines that will transform your skin.

William Morrow
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Chok Chok:

Moisturizing and the Art of Dewy Skin

Koreans love the dewy look so much that there’s a phrase for it: chok chok. Chok chok doesn’t just pertain to skin, but is used to describe something that is literally moist. While it’s much desired in Korea, it’s something that Western beauty has historically tried to cover up with mattifying primers, foundations, and powders—whatever kept the skin as matte as possible. But once you experience skin that is chok chok, you’ll decide that it not only feels better; it looks better, too.

Glowy vs. an Oil Slick

In Seoul, I frequently met my friends for brunch in Garosu-gil, a popular treelined street with endless cafés, restaurants, and boutiques. Over a table covered with warm lattes and pastries, our conversations were the usual chitter-chatter: about the couple who broke off their engagement because of a bad reading from a fortune teller, the latest mat-jib (“delicious house,” or highly praised restaurant), and, of course, our favorite topic, beauty. We swapped product recommendations as if we were Wall Streeters with stock tips, and sprinkled through our conversations were declarations of the next big thing: “I swear by this new cushion compact—it’s so inexpensive and was sold out for weeks!” Also, talking about someone’s pibu (the Korean word for “skin”) was a crucial part of sizing them up: “He’s dating this new girl. Have you seen her amazing pibu?”

Inevitably, someone would bring out a phone to illustrate her point, and at first I couldn’t really wrap my head around what was causing so much talk and envy. Sure, so-and-so’s ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s skin looked amazing, but wasn’t it just a tad too shiny? Last I’d checked, greasy was not in. Isn’t that what they make oil-blotting papers for?

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But the more time I spent in Korea, and the more women I observed, the more I realized that their foreheads weren’t oil slicks, just glowingly moist. It was the opposite of matte—healthy, baby smooth, and radiant. For someone who sp; ent the greater part of her life with a powder puff to her face, desperately blotting, I was now questioning everything I knew (about skin, at least).

I didn’t want to jump on any bandwagon, but when I thought about chok chok, I could see why it would be the permanent future of skin and not just a passing fad. I’d been used to mattifying my face to the point of cracking, but when I started to pay attention and began using hydrating skin products, I couldn’t just see the difference—I could feel it. My face felt fresh, and I no longer had to worry that the lower half would fall off if I laughed too hard at a joke.

At this point, you’re familiar with cleansing, toning, and exfoliating, all of which are important pieces in the skin-care game. But the real game changer? Hydrating and moisturizing. Pretty much everything you’ve learned up to this phase is just a prelude, and those products were just the opening act. The headliners on your beauty counter are the ones that hydrate your skin and help it retain moisture.

If you’re part of the YouTube generation like me (and even if you’re not), it’ll probably help to get a visual. So here it is: Think of your skin as your favorite leather shoe (I know, I know, but bear with me . . .). Without properly maintaining the leather with a polish, the leather will eventually start to crack or even start peeling. The shoe’s texture will be rough and its color will be lackluster. No one—I repeat, no one—wants her face to look like an old leather shoe.

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But your skin is actually similar to this leather in some ways: If you take care of it and keep it moist and supple, you’ll see a difference over time. Without a seal to keep the moisture in and protect your skin, you’ll really see life’s wear and tear right there on your face.

Adding hydration to your skin plumps it up and fills in the gaps, which helps reduce the visibility of fine lines. No, this doesn’t mean that you can slap on some lotion and see all your lines and wrinkles magically disappear, but lines will be more apparent on skin that is consistently dehydrated.

But let’s set vanity aside for a moment and pretend you don’t care about wrinkles: Moisturizing is still important because it helps keep your skin healthy. Without extra hydration, daily environmental exposures (especially those you’re exposed to after you’ve stripped away your natural oils by washing twice a day) can cause tiny fissures in the outermost layer of the epidermis (the part of your skin called the stratum corneum) that make it more susceptible to bacteria and skin disorders. Your skin can become itchy, flaky, and irritated, and you might even see more acne crop up. Think of your stratum corneum as a tiny Fabergé egg (or brand-new iPhone): It’s very thin and delicate, and you must protect it!

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Day and Night Moisturizing: This Is How You Do It

Unfortunately, you can’t just splash your face with water and call it a day, as this can actually have the opposite of the desired effect and dry your skin out even more. Water molecules are too large to penetrate your skin, but are great at drawing water out of it. If our skin could really absorb water that easily, every time we took a shower we’d puff up like a blowfish—and let’s all be thankful that doesn’t happen.

Formulated moisturizers work because they hydrate the skin with ingredients that have smaller molecules to draw moisture to the skin and then retain it once it’s there. And while dousing your face with water won’t actually moisturize it, products are actually absorbed better when applied on a damp face.

Just as I explained in chapter three about the dry sponge vs. the damp sponge, it’s beneficial to start with damp skin. I’ve gotten in the habit of applying my skin-care products right when I step out of the shower (before I even blow-dry my hair), and that really enhances the absorption of everything, from my toner to my night cream.

There is also an order in which you should apply your skin-care products, starting with the lightest consistency (such as liquid toners) and then moving toward the heaviest (like a rich cream). Applying the heaviest cream first would almost create an oily barrier that would make it harder for the others to penetrate. This is why most toners are formulated to be very watery, since they’re one of the first products you apply.

Your Skin Deserves a Treat(ment)

But wait! Before you start tapping in that moisturizer, you might want to use a treatment product that’s formulated to specifically target skin issues such as dullness, brown spots, redness, or fine lines.

Before you throw your hands up in the air and curse the beauty gods for sending you yet another step in your regimen, keep in mind that treatments are entirely up to you and what your skin needs. If your skin is in tip-top shape and you don’t have any of the above concerns, bravo to you, and you can make the seamless move from toner to moisturizer. Even if you do decide to add a treatment to your morning or night routine, you don’t have to use it every day.

In defense of yet another product, I do have to say that treatments are a huge part of the Korean skin-care routine, and most are used not just to treat, but to prevent. These skin-care products are the heart of the Korean skin-care routine, because they utilize the most powerful ingredients and are specifically designed to combat and lessen the signs of aging. Most of these products will be labeled as an essence, ampoule, serum, or booster. Let me break it down for you—it can be tricky to keep track!


Essences are a popular skin care category in Korea—many Korean people believe it is the heart of their regimen! Generally, essences have a thinner and more watery consistency than serums and ampoules, but most of them contain active ingredients to help hydrate, brighten, even out skin tone, firm skin, and reduce the visibility of wrinkles. You’ll use these after toning and before moisturizing, and you’ll pat them over your entire face.

Ampoules, Serums, and Boosters

Though products may be labeled as ampoules, serums, or boosters, all are generally used the same way and for the same range of purposes. They have a thicker consistency with a more potent concentration of ingredients (think of them as an essence reduction) and are frequently used as spot treatments, such as to target brown spots on your cheeks or fine lines around your mouth. They frequently come in glass bottles with droppers, so you can squeeze out only as much as you need. If you’re adding one of these to your routine, you’ll use it after your toner or essence, wait a few minutes for it to absorb, and then follow with your moisturizers. If you’re using a treatment that increases sun sensitivity (like something with retinol), you might want to use it only as part of your nighttime routine to avoid UV exposure.

Treatments are one of the most personalized parts of a skin-care routine, so you might want to try a few different things, or get a consultation from a knowledgeable friend or esthetician, to find a product that is right for your specific needs and your skin type.

#sokosecret: Beauty companies are constantly blurring the lines between all four treatment products (essences, ampoules, serums, and boosters) making it increasingly difficult to define them. It’s up to you to read the major ingredients to see what the product will do for you.

Your Personal Hydration Station

There are a plethora of moisturizers at your disposal to increase hydration and get you that much-desired chok chok. Deciphering what a moisturizer does for you, and which is right for you, often comes down to texture and function. Moisturizers usually contain humectants, which both prevent the loss of moisture and attract it to the skin, and/or lipids, which improve hydration and make skin smooth. Algae, hyaluronic acid, glycerin, sodium PCA, sorbitol, and propylene glycol are common humectants. As their names would imply, phospholipids and glycosphingolipids are lipids.

A moisturizer by any other name is still a moisturizer, but different types and formulations do different things and target different skin concerns. And while moisturizing should always be a part of your routine, you might want to use different products in the morning from those at night.


This term is used to describe a mixture of two or more liquids that are not entirely mixable—think oil and vinegar for salad dressing, or, in this case, oil and water for your skin. Most beauty lines in Korea include an emulsion, which is typically a light moisturizer formulated with tiny droplets of oil suspended in a water base. Since emulsions are so light, they are recommended for oily and combination skin types.


An in-between moisturizer, a lotion is heavier than an emulsion and lighter than a cream. Most lotions are suitable for all skin types.


A cream is usually more oil than water, which means it is very rich and emollient. Many creams are formulated with skin-repairing ingredients to lock in moisture and nourish the skin while you sleep, which is why so many creams are marketed for use at night. Creams are good for dry and aging skin types.

Gel Creams

Gel creams absorb quickly and are lightweight because they are water based, which helps minimize clogged pores. These creams are great for hydrating oilier skin that is prone to breakouts and acne.

Facial Oils

Facial oils are used after toning or exfoliating and are applied directly on the skin. You can also add a few drops to your regular face lotion to up its powers when your skin is feeling especially dry or flaky. In general, facial oils aren’t recommended for oily skin types.

Sleeping Packs

A sleeping pack, sometimes called a sleeping mask, is not a cloth mask that you use to cover your eyes while you get some beauty sleep. In the Korean beauty world, it’s a product you use once or twice a week in the evenings (in place of your night cream) to give your skin a spa day’s worth of hydration. Depending on the product, a sleeping pack can also help make skin brighter or firmer. You put it on like lotion, spreading a thin layer across your entire face, but unlike a night cream, you won’t pat it in. Your skin will slowly absorb its hydration while you sleep, and then you wash it off in the morning. Sleeping packs are usually formulated with a gel-like consistency and go on clear, so don’t worry—it won’t look like you’re sleeping with frosting on your face. You will want to try to fall asleep on your back, but most sleeping packs aren’t really as messy as they might sound, so it’s NBD if you toss and turn a bit during the night.

In Korea, “sleeping beauty” is a huge product category. During the day, your skin is working to protect the rest of your body, and then it repairs itself at night. It does most of its restoration between 10 P.M. and 4 A.M., so you’ll see maximum benefit from any hydrating products you use during these hours.

#sokosecret: Still dry and tight even with the right moisturizer? Like most Korean households, invest in a humidifier that will add moisture to the air.

Sheet Masks

Sheet masks are one of the most popular and well-known beauty products to come out of Korea, and I’ve separated sheet masks from the essences and sleeping masks because they’re a stand-alone beauty innovation.

Everyone and their mom are using sheet masks in Korea. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a household without a sheet mask handy, and they’ve quickly become one of my favorite ways to pamper myself. These face masks are not to be confused with the paper nose and mouth coverings doctors wear when seeing a patient, or that people use on days when dust levels are high. Those are precautionary hardware. Sheet masks are beauty superstars.

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Sheet masks are shaped to fit your face, with eyes, nose, and mouth cutouts, and they’re drenched in the kind of active ingredients you would find in a bottle of essence. Most make you look like Jason from Friday the 13th (and provide infinite selfie opportunities), but you can also find them in colors, patterns, or even a pig or dragon face.

The two most popular kinds of sheet masks are made out of a cotton-type material (microfiber) or gel (hydrogel). Most hydrogel sheet masks are 100 percent water soluble, making it extra hydrating for your skin.

When it comes to getting that dewy glow, I find sheet masks to be the most effective. They work so well because while the sheet rests on your face, it acts like an icebreaker at an awkward party and forces the antioxidants and vitamins to mingle with your skin. With a lot of the skin-care products you put on your face, some of the ingredients will evaporate before they even have the chance to penetrate your epidermis, but a sheet mask helps lock the nutrients in. Peeling it off is somewhat of an unveiling, and you’ll see your face brighter, softer, and hydrated to perfection.

Sheet masks are relatively inexpensive, and the fun is in the variety. Think about winter, when cold winds and your heater on full blast severely dehydrate your skin. That’s when you reach for a sheet mask with hyaluronic acid to bind moisture to the skin and antioxidants, such as vitamin C, to fight free radical damage and provide cell-communicating ingredients that help diminish the appearance of fine lines. In the middle of the summer, you can grab one to nourish the skin or to help treat breakouts. Sheet masks can be labeled by their specific ingredients (everything from blueberries and vitamin C to collagen and snail mucin) or by the skin conditions that they target. Whatever it is you’re looking for, though, you’ll find it, and it’s unlikely that you’ll leave the store with just one.

Snail Mucin

Snail mucin is not the oozy, gooey slime that you may think it is. It’s an extract packed with nutrients such as hyaluronic acid, glycoprotein enzymes, antimicrobial and copper peptides, and proteoglycans—all ingredients commonly used in beauty products and proven to be beneficial to the skin. These ingredients have been known to stimulate the formation of collagen and elastin (that is, they’re antiaging), repair damaged skin, and restore hydration, which has made snail mucin skin-care products very popular in Korea. (Snails are not harmed in this process!)

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Companies are now making sheet masks for all sorts of body parts. You can find ones that treat ashy elbows or firm your boobs and butt (I’d say no selfies on these kinds of sheet masks, but maybe that’s just me).

#sokosecret: In Korea, they take “selcas,” which is a portmanteau of the English words “self” and “camera.” Common selca poses:

1.   Hand on cheek to make face look slightly smaller

2.   Puffing out cheeks to look endearing or cute

3.   Selfie with stickers

Now share or post!

When I lived in Korea, I had the luxury of cheap weekly facials, but if you keep up with your skin-care routine at home by using sheet masks and other effective products, then you can frequently forgo the facials, which are definitely not cheap here in the United States. It’s entirely up to you how often you use sheet masks—they’re great for when you have twenty minutes to spare. Use them in lieu of your regular treatment, after cleansing and before moisturizing, once or twice a week, and in winter, when my skin feels extra tight and dry, I up that to about two to three times.

When it’s hot or humid out, you can pop a sheet mask in the fridge so that when you’re ready to use it, it’s instantly cooling. Traveling? Bring one on an overnight flight so that your skin is charged up when you land. Big event where you have to look glowing? No need to rush off to an expensive facial to get a hydration boost—a sheet mask can let you do it in the comfort of your own home, and from anywhere between $1 to $10. Once you start, you’ll find yourself a big believer in the sheet mask lifestyle, extolling the virtues of sheet masks to anyone who’ll listen.

Since sheet masks are fun and relatively cheap, they’re a great gateway into the world of skin care. So if you have a boyfriend who washes his face with the dish soap or a best friend who thinks SPF is NBD, slip them a sheet mask. You could be introducing them to a whole new world.


After double cleansing and toning (see chapter three):

1.   Tear open the pouch at the top and pull out the mask. The mask will be dripping wet—have a towel handy to wipe up the drips.

2.   Sometimes masks will come with a plastic backing; don’t forget to remove it. Unless the brand specifically mentions what side of the mask you should place on your face, it shouldn’t matter what side you use. Unfold the mask and place it on your face, aligning the holes with your eyes, nose, and mouth.

3.   Apply the excess essence in the pouch and the mask to your neck, shoulders, and hands. Those essences are good for your skin, so don’t let any go to waste!

4.   Take a power nap, read a book, swipe left or right, or simply zone out for about twenty to thirty minutes.

5.   When you’re ready, just peel off the mask and discard it. There’s no reason for you to wash off the essence that is left behind, because it is good for your skin! When you look at your skin in the mirror, it should look brighter and slightly plumper from the moisture it just absorbed. Also, touch it. Touch it! It should feel velvety smooth and, dare I say, chok chok?

6.   Finish off the routine with a moisturizer (and SPF if you’re heading out).



Sheet masks started becoming popular in Korea about a decade ago. Now they’re a standard product offering for every skin-care brand in Korea and even the rest of Asia. There are more than eight hundred varieties of sheet masks on the market now. The most common types are hydrogel—which are 100 percent soluble, so that they slightly melt from the heat of your skin when they’re on your face—and microfiber.

Sheet masks became such an important part of skin care because there was a desire for a product that would effectively hydrate and moisturize, but in a convenient way so that anyone could do it at home.

Your skin’s barrier is made out of natural lipids, and one of the most important functions of skin care is to protect it. When the barrier is damaged, moisture can escape through tiny fissures in the skin, and this can cause flakiness and irritation. Sheet masks are one way to deliver intensive hydrating ingredients to the skin. If you use them consistently two or three times per week, you’ll notice a difference in elasticity and a reduction in fine lines.

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Cover lettering and illustrations by Gemma Correll


The Magic of Exfoliation

(and How to Be K-Spa Savvy)

When I was a kid, my mom would make it a point to use a rough cloth to scrub my entire body, but once my mosquito-bite boobs started to sprout, those weekly scrub downs were not welcome anymore. It was up to me to continue that tradition in the bathtub, but instead, I used what all my friends used, which was a nice, soft loofah and a big bottle of fruity body wash.

But after I started making trips to the sauna as an adult, a wimpy loofah wasn’t enough. Now I use a washcloth to scrub from head to toe in the shower and have learned that exfoliating doesn’t just feel good, but that it’s actually good for you.

Let’s get technical for a second. Your skin naturally sheds billions of skin cells a day, which actually contributes to dust. Gross, right? But if it doesn’t shed properly, or if the shedding slows down, your skin can become dry and dull, and you may suffer from clogged pores and develop whiteheads, blemishes, and an uneven skin tone. This buildup of skin cells can even be the cause of those flaky skin flare-ups that are responsible for your makeup looking patchy and that can’t even be tamed with moisturizer. Exfoliation gives your body’s natural skin-cell shedding a boost and encourages cell regeneration, which results in a brighter and more even skin tone and smoother skin texture. You can exfoliate daily, weekly, or even just once a month, as it really depends on the condition of your skin.

Removing excess skin cells also helps your moisturizers and other products absorb more easily. Not having to fight through a layer of dead cells, your products can go straight to the epidermis, which ultimately means your skin will retain more moisture. The act of exfoliating can also help stimulate collagen production (to keep skin firm), improve circulation, and diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. If you’ve got oily or acne-prone skin, exfoliating helps clear away the dead skin cells that can get trapped in pores and cause blackheads and congestion.

Chemical or Mechanical: The Right Exfoliator for Your Skin

As we discussed before when talking about cleansers, the skin on your body is thicker than the skin on your face, so you don’t want to go to town on your elbows and cheeks with the same vigor, or tools. Exfoliators mostly fall into two categories: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical exfoliation uses products such as sugar scrubs or brush bristles (such as a Clarisonic) for the face, or Korean moms armed with Italy towels for the body, to physically slough off dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. Mechanical exfoliation is good for normal to combination skin, but be cautious of using these methods if you have active breakouts or dry or sensitive skin.

#sokosecret: Skin that’s frequently red, swollen, or itchy could have eczema. If you’re experiencing eczema, stay away from both mechanical and chemical exfoliators and instead focus on moisturizing to protect the skin’s barrier.

The downside here is that the physical nature of the mechanical exfoliation process can irritate skin, causing it to produce more oil and leading to more acne. If you have active pimples (such as those with a white tip), avoid mechanical exfoliators, as you don’t want pimples to burst and spread bacteria to the surrounding skin.

Even without acne, you should still handle mechanical exfoliators with care. For example, if you’re using an electric rotating brush, limit the amount of time and pressure you press the rotating brush on your skin. Also, be careful of what mechanical exfoliants are used, because if the material used to make the scrub isn’t high quality, the rough, sharp edges of the granules can actually cause micro-tears in your skin.

In general, look for ingredients such as sugar, jojoba beads, or oatmeal, as all are fairly gentle on skin. Walnut and apricot scrubs, while popular, have uneven and odd-shaped granules that can have sharp edges and spell bad news for your skin.

If you’re using a rotating brush or exfoliating cloth for your face, you can use it during the second step of your double cleanse with your water-based cleanser. If you’re using a separate exfoliating scrub, do your double cleanse, then use the scrub on wet skin, wash it off, and follow with your toner.

On the flip side, chemical exfoliation uses acids or enzymes to remove dead skin cells. Acids and enzymes break down and dissolve the lipids that act like glue and hold the dead skin cells together. Some acids can even work deep into pores to remove sebum, which is an extra bonus, because dead skin cells aren’t just on the surface—they can settle deep into pores.

Acids used in chemical exfoliators are categorized as alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta hydroxy acids (BHA). Some common AHAs include glycolic acid and lactic acid, and both can be found in skin-care products in concentrations from 5 to 15 percent. Starting at 12 percent, it’s considered a chemical peel.

#sokosecret: If you want something even gentler, enzymes (like bromelain and papain, which come from fruit) are an alternative to acids and digest the proteins between skin cells to help loosen up and sweep away dead ones.

Glycolic acid is a smaller molecule than lactic acid, so it penetrates into your pores very quickly, which can lead to irritation. Lactic acid is a larger molecule, penetrating more slowly, and is thus gentler than glycolic.

A popular BHA is salicylic acid, which is great for acne-prone and oily skin types because it breaks down oil and clogged pores and is anti-inflammatory and antibacterial. Most salicylic acid skin-care products can be applied and left on throughout the day if they have concentrations of 1 to 2 percent; anything higher than that should be rinsed off. Once again, moderation is key, as overusing salicylic acid can dry out your skin.

For chemical exfoliants, you’ll want to apply them after washing your face and using your toner. Be careful to avoid the eye area, since this is extra-sensitive skin, and then follow with the rest of your skin-care routine in order. If you’re using any retinols or prescribed products, double-check with your doctor to make sure that these products can be used together safely.

#sokosecret: Both glycolic and lactic acid have hydrating properties, which means you get to fight signs of aging and hyperpigmentation and plump up your skin while exfoliating. Bonus points.

Dead Skin: Your Body’s Natural SPF

After you use chemical or mechanical exfoliators, you mustn’t forget to moisturize! Exfoliation weakens your skin’s barrier, and you want to rehydrate and protect with a good moisturizer.

As important as it is to exfoliate, dead skin cells do act as your body’s natural defense against the sun, and banishing them makes you extra sensitive to UV rays. You’re more susceptible now to hyperpigmentation and sun damage, so it’s incredibly important to regularly use at least an SPF 30 after you exfoliate. But let’s be honest, you should be using an SPF every day regardless of whether you’ve exfoliated (more on that in chapter six).

Serious Exfoliation: Welcome to the World of Korean Spas

The spa is the cornerstone of Korean beauty culture. There are Korean spas (also known as K-spas) all over the world in major cities and suburbs with large Korean populations, and you can find them the same way you would a Western spa: get recommendations from friends and magazines, and read online customer reviews. However, the similarities might end there.

Even if you’ve never been to a spa, you’ve probably seen the experience portrayed in movies or on TV—you know, rich, snooty ladies sipping antioxidant beverages in near-total silence with cucumber slices over their eyes.

Now, to prepare yourself for a jimjilbang—the Korean word for spa, which roughly translates to “heated room”—throw all those ideas out the window. First off, a jimjilbang is very much a family and group affair, so you won’t be wrapping yourself in a luxurious robe and retreating into solitude to the ambient noises of a birdsong CD. Instead, jimjilbangs are often multigenerational gathering spots where people go to get clean and chill out with their mothers, daughters, sisters, fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, friends, and even significant others. You’re as likely to see a four-year-old at a Korean spa as you are a seventy-four-year-old.

Korean spas are also all-day affairs. Instead of booking a treatment and then leaving as soon as it’s over, you can eat, read, and snooze at the K-spa. And most are open twenty-four hours, so you can stay until the next morning.

If you’re a total newbie and don’t know what to expect, the K-spa can be a little jarring your first time (there’s a lot of nudity involved, so you’ll have to check your modesty at the door), but once you know what to expect, you’ll likely become addicted.

Here, let me walk you through a day at the K-spa:

Checking In

Korean spas have separate areas for men and women, but also areas where everyone can hang out together. When you check in at one of these spas, you’ll likely be given a key with a number that corresponds to the locker where you’ll store your clothes and personal belongings, as well as a color-coded outfit to wear in coed areas. Men get one color and women get another, and these shorts and T-shirt combos fall someplace between pajamas and the gym clothes you wore in junior high. They’re not cute, but they’re comfortable, and that’s the whole point.

The Shower

Once you’re in the locker room, you’ll change out of your street clothes, but don’t put your spa clothes on yet. This is where the nakedness comes in. As soon as you’re au naturel, you’ll head to the showers, where you’ll wash off before getting into any of the hot tubs or saunas. This helps ensure that the spa doesn’t have hundreds of people a day bringing grime from the streets into the pools. You’ll wash your hair, your face, and your body, and all thoroughly.

#sokosecret: Some spas provide shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. You can call ahead to see if you need to bring your own, or if you’re particularly picky about products, you might want to do so anyway.

This is probably the part where you’ll start to notice that nakedness is treated a little different from how it is in your gym locker room, where people try to change and shower as quickly as possible to minimize their time sans clothes. At the Korean spa, ladies will be walking around naked, having conversations naked, and even helping each other get clean—it’s not uncommon to see friends or relatives standing butt naked and scrubbing each other’s backs with exfoliating cloths.

Your first time, you’ll probably feel a little shy, but hopefully this will fade as you see how comfortable everyone else is and as you settle into the fact that everyone is so into scrubbing their own limbs that they aren’t paying you or your bits any attention.

The Wet Room

Tucked inside the locker room and still single-sex, the wet room will have tons of different pools and hot tubs. The hot tubs will likely have several different temperatures ranging from just lukewarm to piping hot, and some might have strategically placed jets for aqua-acupressure, to help relieve joint pain and enhance circulation. Some of the pools may even be filled with mineral or herbal treatments. A common one is the mugwort tea pool, which is said to help increase circulation and decrease inflammation.

The wet room will also probably have traditional dry saunas and steam rooms, as well as a cold plunge, which is a shock to the system that’s supposed to get your blood flowing and help with lymphatic drainage.

Treatments and Body Scrubs

Most K-spas also offer treatments, ranging from massages to facials to classic body scrubs. The body scrub is one of my favorite things about Korean spa culture (it’s the most hard-core exfoliation around), but again, it might be a bit of a shock if you hear the word “treatment” and think private room with scented candles.

If you’ve signed up for a treatment at a K-spa, you’ll likely be asked to stay in the wet room until it’s your time, and then someone will call your number or come find you.

The ladies (or men, for the guys) who perform the treatments are no-nonsense and usually dressed in uniform black underwear (nothing sexy: think maximum-coverage granny panties). Once they call your number, you’ll proceed to the treatment area and lie down on a plastic-covered massage table.

As soon as you’re lying down, they’ll dump a bucket of warm water on you to start, then begin scrubbing you from head to toe. These scrubs are done with force and conviction and cover almost every inch. They will have you cock your knees open so that they can scrub your inner thighs, and while your modesty might cringe here, just remind yourself that they do this dozens of times a day and have seen it all before.

You’ll be surprised to learn that you can actually see the dead skin cells being sloughed off, which roll off your back in gross little gray balls. It’s disgusting, yes, but also highly satisfying. There’s a sternness to a Korean body scrub as well, and to me, it always feels as if an aunt who has known me my entire life is simply scrubbing me down.

Most scrubs will conclude with a quick head and neck massage and a shampoo, and then you get up from the table feeling ten pounds lighter and with a shiny glow all over your body.

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In case I haven’t already made it clear, let me repeat myself: These scrubs are intense. I have a high threshold for pain, so they’re not painful for me in the slightest, but every person is different. I’ve had friends with much more sensitive skin emerge bright red and on the verge of tears. The key here is to know what’s right for you and communicate that to the lady in black undies. If something hurts, or she’s scrubbing too hard, she won’t know unless you tell her. Again, an important rule about the K-spa: Don’t be shy!

#sokosecret: Most K-spas use Italy towels for these body scrubs. They’re basically large mittens made of 100 percent viscose, and they come in bright colors. These towels are a Korean invention, but the fabric was first imported from Italy in the 1960s—hence the name. You can also buy your own Italy towels to use at home. They can be purchased for as little as a dollar each from Amazon or eBay.

The Family Room

After you’re supersmooth from your intense body scrub, you’ll put on your spa pajamas and head up to the communal coed rooms. Here, you’ll see entire families, single people, and couples doing some serious lounging. They’ll read comic books, watch dramas, gossip, or nap. One awesome thing about this room is that the floor is heated, so dozing off on a hard surface has never been so comfortable. It’s not uncommon to see people snoring away, surrounded by chaos, directly on the floor, on a mat resting on a brick-shaped pillow, or in a reclining chair.

Many Korean spas have snack bars or full-on restaurants, so you can munch on everything from baked eggs to cold bowls of naengmyun (long, thin noodles in chilled broth) complete with banchan, an assortment of small, complimentary side dishes to sweet desserts like patbingsoo (red beans with shaved ice and condensed milk). At a lot of these places, your final bill is attached to your locker number, so you don’t have to take cash or cards with you—you can just use your number and pay for everything at the end.

Here, there’s no such thing as overstaying your welcome. In Korea, twenty-four-hour jimjilbangs are often a safe haven for salarymen and -women who stumble in too drunk to make the trek home before work the next morning, and these spas are especially popular in the winter, when people want to take maximum advantage of the heated floors.

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The Dry Saunas

Around the heated floor, you’ll see several doors that lead to different saunas. These range anywhere from 60˚F to 200˚F, and all promote resting, healing, and rejuvenation.

Each Korean spa will be different, but the sauna arrangement will likely be something like this: the salt sauna, full of said minerals to help with skin conditions; the jade sauna, supposedly good for reducing stress; the clay sauna, full of thousands of tiny clay balls that you can bury yourself in to be warmed from all sides; and the bulgama, which is like baking yourself in a clay pizza oven heated to more than 200˚F. For all of these, you’ll wear your spa pajamas, and you can stay as long as you want, though the recommended use is ten to twenty minutes. If you’re new to saunas, start small and work up to a longer period of time. Also, keep in mind that heat affects everyone differently. If it makes you feel light-headed or dizzy, the bulgama might not be for you, even if there’s an old lady happily snoozing away just a few feet from you. You can close your round of sauna-going with a stop in the ice igloo, which is a cold room said to firm the skin. It will also jolt you out of your overall Korean drama–naengmyun-sauna jimjilbang stupor and prepare you for your harsh return to the real world.

Korea’s Communal Culture

When I first planned to move to Korea, my parents and friends at home worried that I’d be lonely. It turned out that they weren’t right, but they weren’t entirely wrong either.

In the beginning, I spent a lot of time alone in my little studio (also known as an “officetel,” a portmanteau of “office” and “hotel” that refers to a residence in a multiuse building) near the company. I had plunked down quite a bit of cash (my meager life savings) to rent it, so I was forced to snag most of my furniture from expats who were selling it at majorly discounted rates when it was time for them to leave the country and return home.

My setup included a small, collapsible picnic table and bench that I used as my dining table and seating. One foot away from the dining table was my mattress, and right next to that was the kitchen. Let’s just say that it wasn’t in my best interest to cook anything that was particularly odorous, or else I’d run the high chance that my pajamas, hair, and socks would smell like last night’s fried fish.

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I quickly learned to avoid cooking fragrant dishes in the apartment, but it turned out to be not a huge deal at all. Korea’s takeout options are on par with, if not exceed, Manhattan’s. I could just order delivery, and in minutes, someone would bring fresh black bean noodles with all the side dishes in real dishware. After I was finished, I would leave the dirty dishes in a baggie outside my door, and the delivery guy would pick them up on his next round. It was hangover heaven.

Also similar to Manhattan, Seoul is so dense that stepping outside of my apartment meant I was seconds away from yummy bakeries, coffee shops, and convenience stores filled with snacks. Mom-and-pop restaurants that served home-style comfort foods were plentiful and inexpensive. Aside from a few fast-food dishes (such as In-N-Out, which I crave even now, since I live on the East Coast), I typically didn’t hunger for anything non-Korean, because it was easy to find international food options: pizza, pasta, pad thai, and tacos that were, honest to God, just as yummy as they were stateside.

As I had expected, the Korean food was mouthwatering. Steamy and spicy stews, chewy rice cakes, and fresh veggie dishes were at my disposal—except for one thing: many of my favorite dishes were designed to be shared. Korean BBQ platters and spicy stews like budae jjigae could only be served if you were ordering family-style servings. Now, I could eat a lot, but BBQ for two was beyond my capacity.

I soon learned that food in Korea isn’t the only thing meant to be shared, and there’s a lot of value placed on spending quality time with your friends and family. It’s why spas are designed to be all-ages affairs—why would you want to go somewhere if you couldn’t take your daughter and your grandma with you?

Although I never cared about eating alone at a restaurant in the past, I suddenly felt awkward sitting by myself inside a bustling restaurant while groups around me shared drinks and platters of meat and pots of soup. This newfound awkwardness made me inhale my meals. I also became much more vigilant about planning meals with friends, so that I could work in some family-style dishes whenever I could.

My colleagues at work were always curious about how I was faring, because typically Koreans don’t live in their own apartments until they go off and get married to start their own families. My early-twenties self, eating ramen alone in front of the TV, was actually totally fine with me—I’d been living independently since I was eighteen back home—but for many Koreans who learned of my plight, it seemed incredibly lonely.

Korea had always seemed very lovey-dovey to me, as it was not uncommon to see couples spooning as they slept in the jimjilbang, or cuddled up in a café corner and watching dramas on a shared iPad. But as I started to understand that most relationships had no privacy until the couple was married, this made total sense to me. It beats the hell out of hanging out with friends or your boyfriend at home, with your parents an earshot away from your high school angst.

I was also used to the get in, get out café culture in the United States, where asking for the Wi-Fi password is a shameful admission. However, Korean cafés didn’t care if you lingered and actually encouraged it. Soon, the cafés were like my second living room and my preferred space to work, read, or catch up on e-mails.

Looking back, it was this communal side of Korean culture that I ended up embracing the most. My immediate family was not with me in Seoul, but my relatives and the new people I met made me feel as if I had always been part of their lives. It was clear to me that after about a year my work colleagues and I had jeong, which roughly means “playful affection,” for each other. So when someone I worked with asked, “Why is your Korean still horrible?” or would tease me by saying, “Honestly, your date is too good-looking for you,” I didn’t get offended—they were treating me as if they were cousins I’d known my whole life.

Fortunately, whenever I get nostalgic for this cozy feeling, I can just make the trek to one of New York City’s many Korean spas. Sure, there’s probably no one there who will insult me because they like me so much, but I can still put on strange pajamas and nap on a heated jimjilbang floor, dreaming of budae jjigae and hotteok (sweet pancakes) in Seoul.

SKIN STORIES: India-Jewel Jackson


An afternoon at a Western spa is usually all about pampering and de-stressing, while an afternoon at a Korean spa is more about socializing. You go to lounge in the bath, catch up with your friends, and get a thorough cleansing simultaneously. I first discovered the Korean spa because I was searching for a twenty-four-hour spa in New York—I wanted to schedule a midnight massage for my mom to start her birthday off right. The only place I could find that offered this was a spot in Koreatown. After looking through the vast menu, I decided to go to the spa with her and have been hooked ever since!

My skin feels freakishly soft after a body scrub, and I love how squeaky clean I feel when they’re done. Ironically, I hate how naked I have to be to experience it. I’ll never feel comfortable walking around stark-naked in front of fifty strangers no matter how many times I go.

One thing: Whether you’re visiting a Korean spa in New York City, Los Angeles, or Seoul, be prepared for the possibility of a language barrier, but it’s unlikely to be an actual problem. Thanks to service menus and animated hand gestures, beauty is its own universal language. And it always works out in the end!

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About Me:

Korean Face, California Attitude

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For the first twenty-one years of my life, I was the quintessential L.A. girl. I had a year-round tan and blond highlights and lived in flip-flops. I wore cutoff shorts from Abercrombie & Fitch and sipped on vanilla milkshakes with my burger and fries, and naturally, I worshipped the beach. As soon as I could drive, I was cruising my parents’ sedan to the mall, where I went shopping with the extra cash I made working as a cashier at a sushi restaurant.

When it came to beauty, I was self-taught, influenced by magazines and what I saw on the people around me. In high school, I cut asymmetrical layers in my hair and leaned over the bathroom sink to paint on chunky blond streaks with boxed drugstore dye kits. At one point, I may or may not have had a bad perm (I definitely had a perm, though how bad it was depended on whom you asked). When it came to makeup, I was definitely not going for the natural look. Instead, I opted for exaggerated heavy black eyeliner and overly tweezed eyebrows in an attempt to get that thin, Angelina Jolie–esque arch.

With my part-time job, I had the luxury to splurge on what I considered my beauty essentials: eye shadow palettes, liquid liners, juicy lip glosses, and bronzer to make my sun-kissed glow shimmer. My mom nagged me to put on sunscreen, but alas, I didn’t listen. Tan was in, so instead of SPF, I’d slather on coconut-scented accelerator to make sure I got the most out of all the hours I spent at the beach.

Spaghetti with a Side of Kimchi

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As a second-generation Korean kid (born and raised in California by Korean parents), I grew up straddling both worlds. Spaghetti nights had kimchi on the side. We celebrated New Year’s on January 1 and then again for Lunar New Year. I spoke English at school but Korean at home. During my weekly ballet class, I wore the classic pink tutu, but come Saturday at Korean school, I ran around in circles waving colorful traditional buchaes with all the other second-gen kids who were just like me.

On occasion, and usually on Saturdays after Korean school, my mom would drag me to the local Korean-style spa, where we stood around naked with a bunch of strangers. My older sister, Michelle, relished the whole bathhouse experience, but I was not having it. The communal nudity just made me self-conscious—my barely there boobs were just starting to blossom, so the last thing I wanted to do was put them on display for the world to see.

My mom frequently lectured Michelle and me about the importance of staying out of the sun, moisturizing, and properly cleansing our faces. My older sister was much more into Korean culture than I was (she loved her Kpop boy bands) and followed dutifully, but as the middle child, I went to great lengths to do the opposite. I was determined to blaze my own trail, and going to sleep without moisturizing my face—or even (gasp!) washing it—was my forte.

My no-care skin-care regimen wasn’t worth much—no surprise there—and I was a sophomore in high school when I started to get acne. There’s a Korean saying that an onset of acne is a clear indication that someone has a crush, so when my dad would see my pimple-populated forehead, he would tease, “So . . . what boy were you thinking of today?”

I did have a boyfriend (shh!), so I became superstitious that my face was betraying me in some way and decided it was time to invest in some “skin care.” At the local drugstore, I grabbed a bottle of the bright orange acne wash that all my friends used. We knew it was good stuff because it left your skin so tight and dry that smiling was almost painful. After a few weeks, when things weren’t improving, I bought Oxy Pads, which left behind a strong burning sensation when you swiped them across your skin. As my friends said: If it stung, it was clearly working.

Needless to say, my segue into skin care abruptly stalled here. It was more trouble than it was worth, and if I had to sting and burn to fight my acne into submission, I was willing to declare defeat. Skin care was just too complicated—no one I knew seemed to know anything about it, nor did they really care to find out. My mother possessed near-perfect skin even in middle age, but I didn’t think to ask her because, as all teenage girls know, moms don’t know anything!

Laziness also played a huge factor in my nonchalance. Why would I obsess over perfecting my skin if I could just use concealer, foundation, and a compact for a quick fix? It was far easier to spackle makeup over my blemishes than it was to make them go away. I also had the mentality that skin care was for old people, and I still had decades before I had to worry about wrinkles.

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With time on my side, I put my money toward the latest “it” perfume instead, and all my friends were on the same page. With all the lip gloss and fragrance we were buying, skin care simply didn’t fit into our budget, but man, did we smell good.

My skin-care game improved when I went away to college, but it turned out that it only lasted for a hot second. I was making tips as a waitress at an upscale restaurant and decided to use my newfound cash flow to dabble in expensive skin-care products. But I wasn’t any less lazy; it was just that Bloomingdale’s was right next door and I had money to blow. I was overwhelmed with the choices at the cosmetics counter, while a well-meaning saleswoman with her own skin issues admitted that she didn’t really know what to recommend to me either. Most of her customers were women in their thirties and forties who suddenly wanted a miracle cream to get rid of crow’s-feet or lift up what gravity had brought down. But I was only twenty-two, with just the vague idea that I should be taking better care of my skin. I finally walked out with an eighty-dollar bottle of toner, because my “common sense” told me that at that price, it just had to be good for my skin, even if I didn’t know exactly what it was for.

With my new toner and moisturizer, and the occasional splurge (facials at a hotel spa), I felt as if I really knew how to take care of my skin, especially when I compared myself with other girls my age, who were spending their time in makeup aisles picking up the latest mascara or focusing on how their butts looked in the latest brand of designer jeans. But really, who could blame them? Why should we worry about our skin? We didn’t have a wrinkle in sight!

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As much as I had made the most out of living my teenage years in California, as a young adult, my beach-and-burgers existence had lost most of its charm. College felt like an extension of high school, and I started to regret sticking around my hometown. I was bored with the perfect weather, the tract housing with the same orange-yellow paint for miles, and all the strip malls. So I put my blackhead-ridden nose to the grindstone and graduated from college in just three years. I knew I had to get the hell out of there.

Skin Culture in Seoul

After I graduated, I began working at a boutique advertising agency in Orange County, but I remained on high alert for something else. An earlier trip to Seoul, the capital of South Korea and my parents’ hometown, had inspired a severe case of wanderlust, and almost as soon as I got home, I was desperate to go back. I was convinced that I could claw my way to a career in Seoul and set about networking with people who had advertising connections in Korea, because ideally I wanted to live abroad there and work on my career at the same time. On a whim, I responded to an ad in a Korean English-language news daily, and just when I had almost forgotten about it, an interview request from Samsung landed in my inbox. A few weeks later, I found myself in Samsung’s Houston, Texas, headquarters in front of three company VPs who seemed to think I was perfect for the international public relations job. I remember asking them timidly if my Korean “fluency” would be an issue. To my relief, they said that Samsung was such a global company, with many bilingual colleagues, that there wouldn’t be a problem. Since I would be handling all international PR projects, English would be the main language.

I honestly think I landed the job because they were impressed that I paid for college by myself and finished in three years, whereas in Korea it’s the custom for parents to financially care for their children until they’re married, right up to paying for the wedding. Never in a million years did I think this would lead to a job offer halfway around the world, but that’s exactly what happened: They wanted me to come work in Seoul. When I realized the opportunity I was just granted with this one-way ticket, I was ecstatic. In addition to what it could mean for my career, I saw this as a chance to explore the neighborhoods my parents grew up in and to eat delicious and cheap Korean food whenever I felt like it. Aside from the anticipation of filling my stomach with bibimbap, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

When I told my parents about my plans, it would be an understatement to say that my mom and dad were confused. They’d made a lot of sacrifices in leaving Korea, and they both spent several lonely, non-English-speaking years in the United States, all in the name of creating better opportunities for the children they didn’t even have yet. And then here I was, more than three decades later, dropping everything to go back to the country they thought they’d left behind for good.

I was warned that Seoul was fast-paced and overly competitive, which did concern me—what if I couldn’t fit in or didn’t excel at my job? Many of my friends told me I’d be homesick and predicted that I’d have a hard time meeting people. I had an aunt, uncle, and cousins (whom I hardly knew) in Korea, and when my parents let them know I was coming, they balked, saying, “Why would she come to Korea when she’s got it good in America?” But in spite of all this, I couldn’t have been more excited. I was convinced that the years I’d spend in Seoul—under the flashing karaoke lights, over the smoky haze of grilled pork, and on the trails along the Han River—would be the best of my life.

As I packed for my adventure, I daydreamed about being courted by a native Korean boy who had really good hair. I was certain our relationship would be a clandestine one, since he would undoubtedly turn out to be the son of a wealthy chairman and owner of Korea’s largest chaebol (the term for “business conglomerate”). I plotted how I would battle my evil future mother-in-law so that the love her son and I had would triumph. It would be just like the Korean TV dramas.

When I first stepped off the plane in Seoul into a sea of shiny, black-haired heads, I had never felt more at home. The Korea my parents had left behind was a country lifting itself out of poverty, but by the time I arrived, it was a ball of energy that had sprouted concrete jungles seemingly overnight. Seoul buzzed along, fueled by the big hopes and dreams of millions of people determined to achieve them. There were endless alleys to explore, an entire culture to digest, and a plethora of welcoming cafés where I could sit and people watch. I’d expected some of this, but soon realized that my hunger wasn’t just for endless Korean BBQ, but an entirely new perspective.

Then reality hit.

While I was Korean in Orange County, I was definitely American in Seoul, and I was about to experience my first bout of culture shock. I was twenty-two years old, with a beach tan, chunky highlights, and the Korean language skills of a three-year-old. I quickly found out that my semiconversational Korean was rudimentary at best.

I remember my first day at work. It was February, the dead of winter, and after navigating through the rush hour subway commute in stockings and really pinchy heels, I was pretty lost. I finally stumbled upon the correct building and was escorted by HR to meet my boss. I sat alone in a meeting room, and a man who looked a little younger than my father walked in. His name was Mr. Hong, and the respectful way to address him was Hong Boo-Jang-Nim, which meant Senior Manager Hong. In Korean, he asked, “Do you speak Korean?” I said, “A little.” Then he said to me, “Well, welcome to the hong-bo team.” “Um,” I asked meekly, “what is hong-bo?”

“Hong-bo means public relations,” he explained. The department he headed up. The department I would be working in. Aw, crap. And there went my chance of making a good impression. I could tell that Mr. Hong was concerned.

It turned out that despite what my interviewers had assured me, most of the hong-bo team did not speak English fluently, and my new colleagues were as scared about meeting me as I was about meeting them.

In California, I’d spent so much time in the sun that most people in Seoul assumed I was Southeast Asian, and at work, I was my team’s first international hire. When I arrived, I think we were all surprised by just how much I didn’t fit in: They had no idea what to do with me.

But I was determined to make the most of my time in Seoul and knew that I had to adapt to the city, since it wasn’t going to adapt to me. It wasn’t long before I was taking all the new experiences in stride. It helped that my coworkers immediately took me under their wing: My female colleagues treated me like I was their long-lost cousin—a cousin who just happened to have been raised by wolves. (Side note: Despite this rocky start, Mr. Hong and I went on to work so well together that he became a crucial partner of Soko Glam after he retired from Samsung as a sangmoonim, aka vice president.)

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The people in my office teased me because I had messy, unbrushed hair, and I was met with blank stares when I tried to explain that I’d been going for the boho, beachy waves look. They thought I was barbaric because I didn’t use essence in my skin-care regimen, and laughed with me (or at me?) when I admitted that I didn’t even know what it was. When they asked me if I had ever been to a bathhouse or exfoliated, I opted for the easy way out and just lied. I’ve been recently, I said, even though the truth was that I hadn’t stepped inside a Korean spa since puberty.

In passing, my coworkers would say, and rather bluntly, “I could see your dark circles from way over there,” or “What is growing out of your skin?” My favorite, because it seemed to come from a place of genuine anguish about my well-being: “Please brush your hair.”

Asian families tend to be very blunt and won’t think twice about telling you you’re getting fat or that you need to get a boyfriend, so rather than being offended by it, I was used to this well-intentioned rudeness, and it got me thinking about my skin. Also, since diving right into Korean culture, I’d become addicted to the soap-operatic dramas on television, and I’ll admit, I was (still am) shallow enough to be influenced by the actresses. Their faces were flawless, even when I watched them in HD!


1.   My Love from Another Star

2.   Answer Me 1997

3.   Answer Me 1994

4.   Full House

5.   Coffee Prince

As I spent more time with my coworkers outside the office, I found out many of my female colleagues looked far younger than they actually were, and even my male colleagues seemed to know more about skin care than I did. It wasn’t unusual for a super manly guy to have a bottle of SPF and some hand cream at his desk, and almost everyone had their own personal humidifier to keep the cold winter air from drying out their skin. The rows of cubicles were as dewy as the rain forest room at the zoo, and so were the faces. More than just dewy—they were glowing.

Outside the office, skin-care culture was just as prevalent. Every street corner in Seoul was lined with cosmetics shops—no, really, you can stand at an intersection in Myeong-dong and see the same stores every which way you turn. On my daily walk home from work, I’d pass dozens of windows filled with creams and treatments, and entering through the doors was like walking into a candy shop of mysteries. There were remedies for everything, from treating dark circles, to reducing breakouts along the chin, to CC creams that made you look flawless and natural while protecting your skin, to little gel caps that you could smooth out over your nose to get rid of blackheads. I pored through dozens of sheet masks made with rice, royal jelly, or even fermented yeast! These at-home spa facials in a packet were less than the cost of a subway ride, and they were made even more enticing by their cute and sophisticated packaging. There were potions and ingredients I’d never heard of before, like creams infused with snail extract to help fade acne scars, or snake venom to plump and firm the skin. Everything was inexpensive, and I’d spend hours in the shops, inspired to try different formulas and test the various concoctions. Even when I had a bagful of new products in my hand, I still had a list in my head of what I wanted to try next.

With so many brands and products offered, I zoned in on trying to find the best and pestered my Korean friends about their skin-care routines and the products that achieved the best results for them. I dug for information myself, going through Korean beauty blogs and watching my new favorite program, a beauty-dedicated cable show called Get It Beauty, which seemed to always be on in the background wherever I was. I also had teachers and allies in the shop clerks, who, despite being younger than me (or were they?), were incredibly knowledgeable about skin-care products and techniques.

The fact that skin was a priority was apparent in many day-to-day interactions. On an elevator ride up to my apartment, I eavesdropped as an older man greeted the lady standing next to me. He said to her in Korean, “Your skin looks amazing today!”

As much as I could with my peripheral vision, I examined this so-called amazing skin, which really was dewy and bright and belonged to a woman who looked to be in her late twenties, even though she could have been decades older. Her skin was so flawless and poreless, almost perfect, and her reaction showed just how much pride she took in her complexion. Her eyes widened with pleasure and she giggled at the compliment, her hand politely covering her mouth.

There were two takeaways from observing this interaction in the elevator. First, the fact that he even noticed her skin was mind-boggling. What American man would have? Second, her reaction was pure bliss. She might as well have won the lottery.

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After that elevator incident, I began to notice beautiful skin everywhere I turned. So many faces I saw were silky and even. I envied how fresh and dewy they looked and wondered what these women did to keep their skin from being dull or flaky.

I know what you’re thinking right now, because I thought it, too: It’s genes, dummy. They’re all born with it! But the skeptic in me was silenced every time I looked in the mirror: I was full-blooded Korean, and I was as dull and flaky as a potato. I knew I needed to start taking active steps to take care of my skin, even overhaul my regimen if needed.

Four weeks after landing in Korea, I had my own humidifier at my desk, and instead of looking forward to a glass of wine after work, I found myself genuinely excited about going home and washing my face. You know what they say: When in Seoul, do as the Koreans do.

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Korean Beauty 101:

The Mindset of a Skin-Obsessed Culture

Once I had my feet on the ground in Seoul, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was living in a place where skin care was more than skin deep: It was a part of the culture in Korea. This was a new concept, but the more I learned about it, the more excited I was to embrace it.

At the time it was the mid-2000s, and Korean beauty was just then starting to make headway in the rest of Asia, with a small yet devoted following in the United States. If you wanted Korean beauty products, you had to work for them: You could commute to stores that were overpriced and hit-or-miss, or order goods online and swallow the fact that the shipping was going to cost you more than the products themselves.

And if you didn’t have a Korean friend or someone else in the know to give you insider information, well, good luck. You’d most likely be going in blind, trying to decipher labels, not knowing what the formulas were or how products were supposed to be used. You’d have to go on price alone to try to figure out which were luxury brands and which were bottom-of-the-barrel budget ones.

On my annual trips back to Los Angeles to visit my family and catch up with friends, I’d pack my suitcase full of the latest emulsions, lip tints, and eye patches. Some were long-overdue birthday gifts, but most were specific requests from friends who would sheepishly explain, “You just can’t get the same stuff here for that price, so, um, can you bring me twelve?”

Other friends didn’t know specifics, but had just heard that things were c-u-t-e. They wanted sheet masks illustrated with candy-colored snails and would text me, “I’ll take anything that’s shaped like a panda or a piece of fruit!!!” My arrival back in the States provoked squeals of glee from my friends, but I knew it wasn’t me they were so excited about—it was that lip gloss shaped like a blueberry.

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I was having the time of my life in Korea, and I had fallen in love with the country in more ways than one. It was the place where I found a husband, whom I met on a blind date. Blind dates, called sogaetings, are super common in Korea. On Fridays, I’d ask my coworkers what they were up to, and often they had two or three dates lined up for a weekend. I tried my hand at a few sogaetings with Korean men, but when a friend in California suggested I meet a Korean American who was a West Point graduate and captain stationed in Seoul, well, that one stuck. In Seoul, Dave and I also found the mutual love of our life in Rambo, a poodle that we adopted from a friend.

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Living in Korea made me really believe in the people: I thought Korea had so much to offer the rest of the world, and I wanted to share it.

Korean skin care had become my passion. It had completely changed the way I thought about my skin and skin in general. I knew it could do the same for others, so I made it my personal mission to get that message out there. From my point of view, there was a huge gap between the United States and Korea. People were hungry for Korean products, but there was a lot of confusion and misinformation about them.

Dave and I both came from families of entrepreneurs, so we decided to take our own stab at demystifying Korean beauty: We’d open an online shop and make it easier for people in the States to find their (new) favorite products.

Rambo and I camped out on the living room floor with a pile of my all-time favorite products, the ones that I’d used for months and years, and that’s where the curating started. Rambo, though he was cute, turned out to not be much of a beauty expert, so it was all on me.

At first, I thought of Soko Glam as something of a side project. My first attempts at product shots were so bad that even Dave couldn’t lie and say they were good, so I found a bored owner of a small passport photo studio near my apartment and negotiated a sweet four-dollars-per-photo deal.

I wrote the product descriptions in the first person and talked about why I liked them so much and the results that I’d seen when I used them. Then I uploaded the photo studio’s images and clicked publish. With that, Soko Glam was officially open for business.

The first order was from my friend Jackie and then my sister. Somehow, word spread, and when we were the focus of a small online article, orders started pouring in—from strangers! And they weren’t all Korean Americans. All of a sudden, the small inventory of products that I’d stocked on the top shelf of my closet sold out completely. Whoa. It was clear that people from all backgrounds wanted Korean beauty. And they wanted it now.

In the time since we launched Soko Glam, Korean beauty had made a huge splash in the United States. Hallyu, which translates as “Korean Wave,” refers to pop culture—from music to soap-operatic dramas, YouTube videos, and even food—that’s hugely popular outside of Korea. Beauty products rode this wave like there was no tomorrow.

Korean beauty was everywhere you looked it seemed—from clickbait articles about the weirdest Korean beauty products (donkey milk for dry skin! temple viper venom for wrinkles!) to beauty blogs touting the now-famous ten-step routine (don’t worry, I’ll get to that in chapter seven, promise). As a result, Korean products were no longer niche. The rise in press stoked the general public’s interest, and my customers were sending me lots of feedback, from e-mails to tweets to comments, about how much they loved the products they were buying.

I also realized that something unexpected but wonderful was happening: Our customers saw Soko Glam not just as a place to buy products, but to learn about skin care. They had tons of respect for Korean beauty culture and wanted to learn about their skin from that perspective.

Good Skin Goes Beyond the Surface

Korean beauty is more than just ten steps and sheet masks—it’s not just what you use, but how you think. From all my experience, this is what I’ve come to observe about Korean beauty and the mindset that drives it. The way your skin feels and looks is priority number one. But in Korea, skin culture goes beyond products, and both men and women will go to great lengths to protect and nurture their skin. Whether they use sun umbrellas to shield themselves from UVA rays or drink antioxidant tea to prevent premature aging (and they probably do both), Koreans recognize that skin care is a holistic practice. There are several individual steps that contribute to the overall goal of beautiful skin.

Brand Loyalty Is Overrated

Korean consumers rarely stick with one brand, which keeps beauty companies on their toes. Shoppers are constantly in the market for the next best thing, and the Korean beauty industry has to develop products quickly to satisfy those needs. This also means the products have to deliver, because no one’s sticking around if they don’t work.

Customers also don’t automatically think Korean products are superior to all other brands. There are plenty of natives who use luxury-brand cosmetics from the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Scope out a Korean’s bathroom counter or makeup bag, and you’re likely to find a healthy and diverse mix of brands from home and abroad.

Pali Pali! Or, Innovation Is Everything

Korean companies can conceive a product and have it on the shelves within six months. They take full advantage of rapidly evolving technology and try to stay one step ahead of what consumers are going to want. It’s all about who can be the quickest to bring a new product to market.

This means you’re not going to get a plethora of products that have been around since your grandma was a girl, and there’s more emphasis on new than on classic, but this is a huge part of why Korean cosmetics are so fun. You probably don’t want to wear the same clothes for your entire life, so why would you want to use the same moisturizer?

Cute Is Not Overrated

Korean companies understand that packaging is important. We may be cautioned to not judge a book by its cover, but in this book, it’s totally okay to judge a cheek stain by its cat ears or a mascara by its dinosaur drawings.

I’m exaggerating a bit here, because you obviously wouldn’t use either of these if they were crap. But if they’re good quality, why shouldn’t they be cute, too? Well-designed products are more fun, and they reinforce the idea that skin care isn’t just a chore, but something to be enjoyed. From hand creams to oil-blotting sheets, you carry beauty products everywhere and use them often. If you’re going to have to look at something several times a day, it might as well make you smile—and if it makes you smile, you’re more likely to use it. The more likely you are to use it, the more you’ll see results. See? It’s all part of a plot to get you healthy, glowing skin!

Skin First, Makeup Second

Instead of trying to cover up flaws with makeup and spot solutions, Koreans tend to focus on skin-care products that get at the root of conditions and treat problems before they start. Relying wholly on makeup not only looks unnatural, but it’s also a temporary fix to a long-lasting issue.

This mentality is exactly why Seoul street style is filled with women who expertly pull off the “no makeup makeup” look. With their skin-care game down pat, and their basic canvas prepped and primed, they can go outside with very minimal makeup and still look flawless.

Skin Care Is Not Just for Grown-Ups

When we’re kids, we’re taught proper hygiene, from brushing our teeth before we go to bed to washing our hands after using the bathroom. In Korea, kids are taught about skin care as well. Long before they even have to think about adolescent acne, they’re taught about everything from exfoliating and moisturizing to a generous application of SPF.

There’s a pretty big difference between this and what most Western cultures consider skin care. Prevention is way more effective than treatment. Most Koreans are using SPF way before age spots start to show up and are moisturizing long before they ever have to worry about wrinkles. They’re taught that, with some time and effort, you can be in control of your skin, instead of just sitting around and waiting for the day that it decides to sabotage you.

Sadly, we don’t start taking care of our skin until pimples rear their heads right before prom, and then, at the first signs of aging, it’s a mad dash to the store to buy the most expensive cream available. When you’re young and healthy, that’s when it’s easiest and most beneficial to keep your body in a continuous healthy state, and your skin is no different. You know what they say: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks—and the same seems to apply to skin care. If you start good habits now, they’ll be second nature. Wait until you’re older, and you’ll be kicking and screaming your way into a skin-care routine.

It’s Not Just What You Do, but How You Do It

While most people will put on a moisturizer and call it a day, Korean women use anywhere from six to ten products in their daily skin-care routine. And again, they’re not just reaching for whatever’s closest and slapping it on—the order in which the products are used is important, too!

From the lightest consistency to the heaviest, there’s a time and place for each layer of product. Every step has a distinct purpose: prep, renew, treat, hydrate, or protect. It’s also important how you apply different products—tap in your essence, pat on your eye cream, dab on your cushion compact—because slathering isn’t always the best approach (we’ll discuss these in detail later on).

When It Comes to Hydration, Go Deep and Go Often

Dewy, firm skin is the most sought-after beauty trait in South Korea. While Western society may tend to focus more on achieving a matte complexion, Korean women prep and prime their skin so that they are luminous and glowing. Dewy is the opposite of oily, though—it’s a fresh look, not a greasy one.

In addition to their daily and nightly routines, many South Koreans hydrate with facial mists and moisturizers several times throughout the day and combat drying air with humidifiers (which are frequently well-designed and almost art objects). For more concentrated hydration as needed, sheet masks and sleeping packs are used to give skin (and the person wearing it) a little pick-me-up.

It’s About Brightening, Not Bleaching

A bright glow is the end goal in your skin-care game. A lot of Korean skin-care products are labeled “whitening,” but this actually means “brightening.” Bright skin looks like it’s lit from within, and South Koreans love to enhance brightness with a little makeup hack. In other words, highlighters are a dewy girl’s best friend.

Most Korean “whitening” products are safe for people of all skin tones to use and don’t have actual bleach in them. Most contain arbutin (an extract from bearberry or mulberry leaves) in them, which is a natural ingredient that inhibits melanin production. However, it’s always a good rule of thumb to check the labels!

Skin Care Is Not Just a Luxury

Thanks to picky consumers and widespread demand, even the most innovative Korean skin-care products are usually affordable. There are skin-care shops on every corner (and even in the subway stations), so good skin is accessible to everyone, and you don’t have to automatically assume that it comes with an out-of-your-budget price tag. You can get effective ingredients and cutting-edge formulas—all wrapped in luxurious packaging—and still pay your rent.

No Routine Is One-Size-Fits-All

You will rarely find two people with the same skin-care routine. Even the most popular, newsworthy products (the ones that show up on every blog) aren’t for everyone, and what your best friend recommends wholeheartedly still might not work for you. Never feel pressured to blindly use products based on what you’ve heard, because every person’s skin is unique and will react differently to variations in ingredients and formulas.

In Western cultures, we’re taught to buy skin-care products according to how old, or “mature,” our skin is, but that’s an oversimplification. Instead of just looking at your age, you should analyze your skin and determine what conditions need to be treated.

Unfortunately, skin care is very much a trial-and-error process, and there really isn’t a way to get it right the first time, nor can you just copy what someone else does and expect to see the same results. It’s also important to know that your skin is continuously changing—because, you know, life happens.

Korean women understand this well. They’ve learned to recognize when a product is working for them. If it’s not, they’re quick to chuck it out without a second thought, cute packaging be damned.

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Take Ownership of Your Skin—and Have Fun!

Your skin does not have to be a mystery. You can be in control of your skin, and you don’t have to wake up every morning wondering what might have appeared overnight. Yes, this is going to take a little time and effort on your part, but it doesn’t have to be drudgery. This is pampering, not cleaning the kitchen.

When I was first learning about skin care, I was lucky enough to have so many local skin-care gurus (my new Korean friends, mainly) teach me how to get started with a legit, multistep routine. While at first it seemed like a lot of products, I was surprised that my regimen didn’t take more than ten minutes in the morning and at night. A lot of the steps were just something I did once or twice a week.

I enjoyed pampering my skin on my own terms, and it felt great that I could be so knowledgeable about something that once left me clueless. When I’d travel to a new city with a different climate or get stressed over work deadlines, my skin might freak out, but I didn’t. I really got to know my skin, which was crucial to maintaining it as well. And it wasn’t a chore. My routine quickly became the highlight of my mornings and evenings, and it wasn’t long before I began to recognize what I needed to use and what products were right for me.

And who am I kidding? I was hooked when I saw the results. My dull, dry skin was starting to look brighter and more supple, and my skin tone was more even and clear. My fine lines and pores were less visible, and I felt like I was taking off all those extra years I’d added at the beach. My skin felt dewy to the touch.

Any suspicions I had about the improvements being all in my head and not on my face (aka the placebo effect) were erased when I went home for the holidays. People complimented me on how good my skin looked, which never used to happen, and I couldn’t help it—I glowed.



The Korean cosmetic industry is very competitive. Companies are always searching for ways to differentiate themselves. Packaging is one way to stand out because it makes products eye-catching and can give the user a better overall experience. The quality of the products is obviously important, and though Korean companies typically do not substitute quality for packaging, they know very well the value of good packaging and make sure it doesn’t fall to the wayside.

A product is more valuable the more unique it is, and Korean brands have to be unique to survive in the ultracompetitive market. I think Koreans are early adopters—they love trying the latest and greatest—which is why so many products are repackaged or renewed after just one or two years, or presented in limited edition sets.

With Too Cool for School, customers start to experience the brand from the moment they walk into the store. There is so much thought and effort put into the decor. It’s designed from floor to ceiling. So it’s not just the product packaging but also the shopping experience. It almost feels like you’re transported to another world. We want it to be inspiring and fun and to give our customers a whole new experience—something for everyone and something they haven’t seen before.

This doesn’t just apply to cosmetic shops, but all manner of Korean retail businesses. The visual experience is emphasized wherever you go. Step into a coffee shop, and you’ll notice the detail of the decor was painstakingly planned to provide the optimal ambiance for a good coffee shop. It’s almost as if the visual atmosphere makes the coffee taste better. There is a strong culture of visual design and branding in Korea. We’re lucky to be a part of that.

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To Umma and Appa,

who gave me Korea and America

and the best of both worlds

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I’ve been blessed with so much that I secretly worry I’ve used up all the luck and love that one can possibly be granted in a lifetime. This book was just another gift from God, and it wouldn’t have been possible had I not been surrounded by so many talented and genuine people. Words cannot express my gratitude, but I will try my best here.

First, I’d like to thank my best friend, husband, and Soko Glam cofounder, David Cho, who has supported my dream and vision since day one and has worked tirelessly to make the company what it is today. Without you, Soko Glam would have only been a “what if.” Thanks for being there to give me pep talks whenever I needed one and for driving Soko Glam forward with the leadership you were born with. I’m so glad we’re in this together.

Hong Sung-il Sangmoonim, there are few people in this world like you and I’m glad you were the one who walked into the meeting room my first day at Samsung. From the depths of my heart, thank you for your wisdom and for believing in me.

To Catherine Cho and Erin Niumata, for reading my words and seeing that I had a book in me—and then making the process so enjoyable! For all of this and more, I am eternally grateful.

Thank you to Jessamine Chen, for telling me to dream big when I needed to hear it, and to Jodi Kantor, who set me on the right path.

To Cassie Jones, my editor at HarperCollins—I knew from the moment I met you that the book would be in good hands with you. Needless to say, you exceeded my expectations a hundred times over.

To Gemma Correll, the most clever illustrator and artist around. The world needs more artists like you. Thank you for going above and beyond every time—your illustrations made the book better than I had even imagined.

To my dream editor, Kate Williams. Thank you for lending your wit, sass, and eloquence and for being by my side every step of the way. When you gave me the green light, I pinched myself because it was too good to be true. I simply couldn’t have done it without you.

To all the people who were kind enough to share their experiences through such insightful interviews: Young Ah Kim, Soo Joo Park, India-Jewel Jackson, Kim Ju Won, Yeon-seo Oh, Paul Kang, Son Dae Sik, and Jenn Im.

To the other key people who helped make this book possible: Bradley Horowitz, Brian Lee, Don Kim, Yoo Hye Yun, Janet Kim, Lee Sang-Jun, Shawn Kim, Kim Chung Kyung, Lee Jung Won, and Lee Hee-Kyeong.

It’s with a thankful heart that I mention the friends who have supported me along the way, especially when Soko Glam was just a dinky website and an apartment filled with Korean beauty products: Vickie Chang, Christine Chen, Jackie Chen, Annie Cheng, James Cho, Hellen Choo, Jeffrey Chou, Emily Cleghorn, CEO Han Ho Lee, Yun Ah Lee, Jay Koo, Angie Lee, Annie Tomlin, Slava Druker, Stephanie Sherline, David Moretti, Ryan Browne, Tiffany J. Davis, Sheryll Donerson, Bob Dorf, Anne-Marie Guarnieri, Sara Hayden, Carolyn Hsu, Tae Jo, Robert Joe, Don Kim, Tay Kim, Erika Kindsfather, Helen Koo, Alvin Lee, Teresa Lu, Coco Park, Caitlin Petrecik, Phillip Picardi, Mark and Myoung-bin Ro, Yaeri Song, Kerry Thompson, Danny Tomita, Driely Vieria, Juliana Wang, Cheryl Wischhover, Annie Won, Diana Xiao, and Kim Yoon-jin. Of course, I can’t forget my colleagues at Samsung, who made me feel right at home, and Dave and I can’t forget all our friends from Columbia Business School.

As expressed in my dedication and throughout the book, I thank my father, Lee Ki Chul, and mother, Lee Sang Ran, both of whom taught me the meaning of hard work and sacrifice. Their unconditional love granted me the freedom to pursue my dreams and experience more than I could have ever imagined in both the United States and Korea. To my mother-in-law, Nancy Cho, who taught Dave about skin care at an early age and was our biggest supporter (and customer). To my unni, Michelle Yoon, who is truly beautiful inside and out—thank you for letting me tag along to all those Kpop concerts in the 1990s. To my dongsaeng, Brian Lee, who is the most honest and considerate man I know. Special thanks to Kim Yong Bae and Lee Myung Ok and family, who showed me jeong and treated me as their own. Kim Min Young, thanks for sharing your world and always wanting the best for me.

My deepest thanks to our Soko Glam customers—for sharing our passion for Korean beauty and for making all of this possible. Lastly, to South Korea and America, for giving me the opportunity and the inspiration to build something out of nothing.

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Korean Beauty from the Inside Out:

How Your Lifestyle Affects Your Skin

In so many ways, when I moved to Seoul, I didn’t know what to expect at all. One thing I wasn’t worried about, though: stuffing my face. That was definitely going to happen, and I thoroughly looked forward to it.

Growing up in L.A., whether you wanted Korean BBQ, bibimbap, or copious amounts of kimchi, the local Korean restaurants did not disappoint. I’d always enjoyed Korean cuisine growing up, and seeking out the authentic versions of my favorite dishes was high on my Seoul bucket list.

But as much as I had a good handle on the grub and the chopsticks, there were still new culinary subtleties that I started to pick up on. For example, banchan was not just an amuse-bouche, much less decor for the table, my aunt and uncle explained. Rather, it could make or break the main dish. The banchan served was so important to the harmony of the dish as a whole, they said, that if a restaurant specializing in oxtail soup didn’t have good kimchi and kkakdugi (spicy radish) to pair with it, then that restaurant was surely not long for this world.

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Since all banchan was not created equal, my palate soon developed so that I knew what was bomb banchan or just mediocre. Also, unlike spinach dip or an onion blossom, you could gorge on banchan and not feel a shred of guilt. You were just consuming lots of fresh and fermented veggies, an essential part of Korea’s health-focused culture.

#sokosecret: Many Korean people believe that fermented foods, such as kimchi, are rich in beneficial bacteria, powerful antioxidants, and enzymes that help with digestion and boost the immune system.

But the healthy effects of my new Korean lifestyle didn’t stop at side dishes. When I worked at Samsung, my colleagues would ask me to join them on a walk along a landscaped trail that meandered not far from our office building. Originally, I interpreted these requests to be romantic gestures, but then I noticed that almost everyone in the company was out in pairs or small groups, walking off their lunch.

From yoga to hikes (which were taken seriously in head-to-toe professional hiking gear, not like L.A. hikes where you stroll up a hill in flip-flops) to eating right, Koreans seemed to take their overall well-being as seriously as they took their skin care.

Obviously, while not everything about Korean culture was the healthiest (like late-night soju-drinking sessions or the heavy pork belly consumption), it was still clear to me that many people—whatever their age or gender—made a concerted effort to be knowledgeable about what was good for them and took steps to invest in and care for their bodies. This wasn’t a fad diet culture, as people seemed to understand and be okay with the fact that it might be twenty or thirty years before they reaped the benefits of what they were doing now. Instant gratification be damned—it will be worth it.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T Your Body

The basic truth: You can’t respect your skin but trash your body and still expect to look radiant. I’ve said before that skin care is more than skin deep, and I’ll say it again here. These are just a few tips for overall health that can have a major impact on your skin as well.

Drink a Lot of Water

Your body is about 60 percent water, so it makes sense that health authorities recommend drinking six to eight eight-ounce glasses a day (depending on if you exercise a lot). It keeps your immune system in tip-top shape, and it’s hard to find a healthy complexion on an unhealthy body.

Water is also connected to our blood circulation, which helps keep skin looking bright and fresh. But don’t overestimate the benefits of drinking water. I’ve heard this a million times: “I drink so much water. I don’t know why my skin is still so dehydrated all the time!” Here’s the deal: Water trickles down to your skin last. In other words, the water you drink is going to go to your kidneys, lungs, heart, and everything else first. You’re not going to suddenly achieve plump, hydrated skin by drinking a lot of water, because our bodies are just not that simple. You get the best results when you drink enough water and hydrate your skin topically with humectants that bind moisture to the skin.

Eat Well

Your skin will mirror what you eat. Eating a balanced diet is the optimal way to keep your body healthy, and it will also be reflected on the outside. So eat less of those things that end in -os (Cheetos, Doritos, Haribos) and more yogurts, greens, fish, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein.

But as with drinking water, what you eat won’t immediately improve your skin. Should you be eating an avocado or drinking green tea for the sake of your skin? Sure, the fatty acids and antioxidants are great sources of nutrition for your body as a whole. Like water, all the nutrients you get from food will be distributed to your vital organs first and then your skin. But in my book (and remember, this is my book!) this is just all the more reason to eat well, so that your mind and entire body (including your skin) are feeling nourished and in their optimal states.

Get Tons of Z’s

Go ahead, knock yourself out: Sleeping is one of the best things you can do for your skin. From running Soko Glam to writing this book to watching Running Man marathons (I can’t help it! Have you seen this show?), I’m no stranger to sleep deprivation. When I don’t get enough sleep, my body wastes no time in letting me know I’ve been very bad to it. I’m not as alert during the day and I get a lot of comments like, “Dude, you look tired.” But aside from just being groggy and not that much fun when you’re sleep deprived, the skin consequences range from puffy eyes to dark circles and even increased acne.

Why is getting seven to eight hours of deep sleep essential to your skin’s health? While you rest, your body repairs itself. During sleep, blood flows toward the skin (rather than your body’s core, as it does when you’re awake), and it brings oxygen to the skin. Also, sleep is when amino acid molecules build more collagen and fluid and toxins are drained.

Now you’re probably thinking about puffy eyes, which most of us have had to battle after pulling an all-nighter in college or a late-night job/school/boyfriend-related crying session. So what causes eyes to be puffy and, more important, how do we get rid of them?

While some of it can be hereditary (thank your parents), a lot of us do notice puffiness under the eyes after a night of tossing and turning. When we don’t get enough sleep, or enough good sleep, excess fluid near the skin isn’t transported to the bladder to be excreted; it sticks around in your face. There’s less fat in the area right under your eyes, so water retention is more apparent, and dark circles are specifically the result of lack of blood flow to the skin.

Sleep deprivation also weakens the skin barrier function (the immune system that blocks out bad bacteria and other foreign substances), which can lead to skin disorders like eczema and accelerate signs of aging.

Reduce Stress

Aw, stress. A lot of us have been here: You have a weird ailment, your doctor takes your temperature, pokes and prods you, and then says definitively, “It’s stress. You need to reduce your stress.” And then you’re just sitting there thinking, that can’t be right.

But your doctor is right; stress is something that we all have to learn to manage. It can make a significant impact on your overall health, and in your skin it shows in things like breakouts and premature aging.

How stress affects your body breaks down like this: Stress (including trauma, pain, illness, or just an everyday situation) causes your body to release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which are supposed to increase your energy and help you deal with whatever stressful situation is at hand. However, high levels of these hormones for a prolonged period of time weakens the epidermal barrier, which aggravates existing conditions or delays wound healing. When cortisol levels rise, sebaceous glands produce more oil. So this is why, when you’re already stressed about trying to look your best—right before a date with a cute boy, or when you find out it will rain on your outdoor wedding—a big fat honker of a pimple decides to land on your nose.

Want proof? Look no further than our presidential figures. I’m teased a lot by my friends (and my husband) about my crush on President Obama. But after seven years in office, President Obama looks like he’s aged twenty years—you can see gray hair, deep wrinkles, and skin that just looks less plump and more sallow. While I still think he’s the cutest out of all our presidents, it’s proof enough that stress can do a number on your skin. Obama might not get a chance to chill out anytime soon, but you should definitely do what you can.

The Surprising Upside of a Cultural Taboo

Being in a completely different country halfway across the world, you’re bound to run into different mindsets and ways of living—you know, culture shock. Like using a bidet to wash your bum. At first it’s gross if you’re a newbie, but a few warm and satisfying squirts later, you’re actually disgusted that you’ve lived your whole life without one.

In many ways, Korea is more conservative than the United States. Get addicted to a romantic Korean drama and you’re going to be waiting a loooonnnggg time before the leads even kiss. After a few episodes, you start getting excited when it seems like they might hold hands! Premarital sex and living with your boyfriend are also still major social taboos, even though it’s obviously done. With my Korean parents still in California, I figured it was safe for Dave and me to move in together in Seoul, then my dad called to announce he was coming to visit! Yay—but crap.

I went into panic mode. I leased a furnished apartment for a month, and Dave and I moved an entire carload of my stuff from the apartment that we shared to my new, pretend solo studio. Right before my dad was scheduled to arrive, he called me from LAX to let me know that he was checked in and that his flight was on time. “Oh, and Charlotte,” he said before we hung up, “your mom wants to make sure you didn’t rent a fake apartment so that we wouldn’t know you’re living with your boyfriend.”

“No, of course not,” I said, laughing. “Why would I do that?” With the month lease already signed, I had no choice but to just brazen it out and pretend that my parents didn’t know exactly what I was up to. And let me tell you, a carload of stuff doesn’t look like that much when it’s all spread out in an apartment. When my aunt came to visit my dad and me at the apartment, she took one look around and said, “Where’s all your stuff?” while my dad and I sat there, smiling and avoiding a bit of cross-continental confrontation.

While my parents were capable of surprising me, I was equally surprised by Korea as a whole. After I accepted the job at Samsung and gave my two weeks’ notice, my American boss warned me to be careful and to be prepared for my opinions to not matter just because I was female. I brushed away his comments until I received my employment contract from Samsung. The fine print said that if I ever had a kid, I would have to be back in the office in three days after giving birth!

Holy shit! I thought. They try to push you out as soon as you’re a mom! Maybe my boss was right, and I was transporting myself back to the 1950s, where I’d just serve coffee all day, no matter what my title. But I was twenty-two and felt light-years away from being affected by any pregnancy clause, so I signed.

Turns out the contract had a typo—there was a full three-month maternity leave with an option to extend if needed. Also, my opinions mattered a lot, and I was well rewarded for them. By my second year at Samsung, I was traveling on overseas business trips with Vice President Hong Sung Il and the CEO Park Ki Seok for exclusive meetings that I pitched and proposed. By twenty-four I received a special bonus from the company; by twenty-five I was making hiring decisions and managing million-dollar events; and by twenty-six I was leading the international public relations team. Shortly after I left Seoul in 2013, Korea elected its first female president.

My former boss was wrong in many ways, but there were a few lingering cultural taboos that women in Korea still had to face. One of them was smoking. Whereas no one would bat an eye if a guy were to pull out a pack, it was considered decidedly improper for a female to do so. I’d walk past cafés or drinking establishments and see huddles of Korean men drinking coffee and smoking, a large smoke cloud above them—and not a woman in sight. After a few years in Korea, even I became conditioned to do a double take if I saw a woman light up in public. Women still smoked, of course, but discreetly. In the bathroom of clubs, you’d fight your way to the mirror through groups of women chain-smoking safely out of public view.

I personally dig a sexy cigarette scene (thank you, Wong Kar Wai movies) and can see why smoking has such appeal. I’ve smoked a handful of times in my life—including a few to deliberately push the envelope with my colleagues while I was in Korea—but I never picked up the habit. And thank God.

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Now after diving deep into skin care, I’m even more grateful that my rebellious dalliances never led to a full-on habit, as it’s occurred to me that this sexist smoking taboo has unintentionally helped Korean women avoid the pitfalls of smoking, which is one of the worst things you can do for your skin.

Here, let me create a visual for you. When you take that puff, smoke enters your body and your bloodstream and affects almost every organ in your body in the process. Smoke passes through your breathing tubes, or bronchi, which causes inflammation and coughing. You subject yourself to the potential for bronchial infections, lung cancer, and emphysema in your respiratory system, and gum disease and tooth decay in your mouth. Tobacco stains your teeth—mmm, yellow—and taints your breath. Nicotine raises your blood pressure and makes your blood clot, leading to cholesterol de