On She Goes

Seoul Search: Shopping for Korean Beauty & Skin Care Products

Tips for getting the best K-Beauty deals.

Lilian N.
Lilian N.
April 10, 2018
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Recently, Korean beauty, or K-beauty, has taken the US by storm. From YouTube beauty gurus to your BFF, Korean beauty products are on the recommended lists of many. This trend does not come as a surprise since K-pop and K-dramas just keep getting more popular. You can’t avoid seeing K-beauty on your timeline, from suggested routines to a flawless face to the latest popular products that should be on your shelves.

Stores in the US carry whole sections for Korean skin care—even at the drugstore. But if you’re anything like me, someone who spent most of my teenage years fangirling over Korean pop culture, you want to go to the source. Last summer, I went to Seoul and here are some tips I have for shopping for K-products in Seoul.

My go-to skin care kit: egg white face mask, green apple pore serum,
royal honey mask and emulsion.
photo by Lilian N.

Don’t fall into the duty-free trap
Big brands that can afford to expand to the US are often the same companies you’ll find in an airport terminal. You might be tempted to grab a few items before leaving South Korea; who wouldn’t want a souvenir that you can pat on your face during the flight? Yes, they might be tax-free, but they ain’t never on sale. And in the city, beauty stores are on just about every corner—and they’ve always got a sale going, especially if you go in the summer.

Next train stop: shopping
It’s not a secret that public transportation in Seoul is amazing; you’ll definitely find yourself on their trains as you get around exploring the city. There are usually shopping malls and stores right outside the stations—combine that with the fact that many trains take you to universities. These are the stops where you want to browse for beauty stores. I went to Ewha Womans University, Yonsei University, and Hongdae—the cultural hub of Seoul. Beauty stores sit side by side to cater to young university students, and it’s so conveniently located off a train station.

I bought these for $15.
photo by Ly Nguyen

When in Seoul
It’s always cheaper to buy products that are made in the country that you’re in. A local friend took me to an Aritaum shop (owned by Amorepacific, the largest beauty company in Korea), and the variety of products sold me. They have a good range of products from skin care to makeup, and a lot of sales. Olive Young is another popular name, and you can get some products here in the US but, alas, nothing beats going to the main stores. It’s like Korea’s Sephora, but with health supplements. The sample game is strong, much stronger than Sephora: you don’t even have to walk in to get the samples. There are sale people handing out free tiny samples of masks, lotions, serum, and other makeup goods on the street as you walk by. Skinfood is another Korean brand you might like: they are starting to gain popularity with a consistent following of skin care lovers in the US.

The SMTOWN Building at COEX Mall in Gangnam.
photo by Lilian N.

Celebrity endorsements aren’t everything
Hallyu is the word used to describe the Korean government’s project to export Korean culture to the rest of the world, in which they use pop artists to serve as cultural ambassadors to draw in tourism and consumers. Seoul has designated hallyu districts for tourists; they are in all the brochures and travel guides. Places like Myeongdong and Dongdaemun often target tourists, and they sell at higher prices than stores elsewhere. Some very popular places for K-pop fans to visit, such as YG stores or SMTOWN, have their own brands of beauty products featuring good-looking male stars standing with their arms open and waiting for you . . .

Don’t fall for it—unless you care more about the stars than the products. The vast majority of shoppers in these areas are tourists, as local folks prefer quality over celebrity sheen. But you can still visit the area even if you won’t be shopping because you’ll literally get free samples just for walking by shopping districts like Myeongdong.

My mom’s best attempt at a photo. I asked her to
“take a cute picture of the bottle I gave to you last summer!”
photo by Lilian N.

Be adventurous and try products that you can’t get in the US
The internet gives you the opportunity to access many Korean beauty products if you’re willing to pay. I have been buying via eBay from online Korean sellers before K-products became so popular. Trendy products that drive us crazy here (like sheet masks) are just daily common things that you can buy in any convenience store. If you’re in Seoul, why not seek out more unusual products, like this hybrid of sunscreen and foundation? It also came out icy cold, like no product I’ve tried before, and was an instant hit for my dear mother who lives in a tropical country and is overexposed to sunlight.