Inspired by Elizabeth and Christina's post, Clean Version of the 10 Step Korean Skincare Routine (thank you to everyone who shared this with me!), and readers Rachel, Ji, and Susanna, here is a zero waste approximation of the Korean skincare routine. I only spoke to a limited sample of Korean women- most of whom are family- so this definitely isn't representative of everyone, but they didn't really know what I was talking about when I said "10 step routine." It's just something they've always done, and the number of steps vary by person. There's a strong history of DIY and zero waste beauty treatments in Korean culture, dating back to at least the Goryeo Dynasty. You can read some traditional recipes, with ingredients like sulfur and human milk, in the Joseon-era Dongui Bogam. I also recommend watching the K-drama Horse Doctor for historical depictions of Korean beauty :)
My sister and I could tell countless stories about exacting Korean standards of beauty. Our flaws were discussed regularly, openly. In particular, acne was seen as a reflection of poor character. "Last year, I told your grandma, Ariana looks terrible," my friend said recently. "You finally look normal again." After an American friend visited the Philippines for a weekend, Korean colleagues touched her bronzed, glowing skin with tears in their eyes. "Don't worry," they whispered. "We can whiten this for you." I get the impression, however wrongly, that French women feel pressure to maintain a certain weight. In Korea, excess pounds have actually been referred to as a shame upon my family, along with dark circles, freckles, curly hair, and even being too thin. There was a period of time when I was a little skinny because of complications from celiac disease. When I recovered, a longtime family friend said verbatim: "Good. I'm glad you're so much fatter now. You were starting to be embarrassing."
I actually never thought this was a bad thing. Perhaps I'd feel differently if I actually lived there, but I always sensed an undercurrent of healthfulness in Korean standards of beauty. Friends and relatives were genuinely concerned that my external flaws reflected internal medical issues, and for the most part, they were right. To me, the Korean ideal was attainable, wholesome even. It was the pressure to conform to American standards- tanned, big boobs, plump lips, and a contoured face, like Barbie- that really messed with my self-image. Again, I'd probably feel different if I lived there, or if mixed heritage hadn't given me eyelids that rendered blepharoplasty unnecessary (not pointing fingers or anything, but the national obsession with plastic surgery arguably began with American occupational forces, not K-pop superstars).
Despite their admitted devotion to products, whenever I tell a Korean I'm doing water only, they know what's up. And even though my own routine couldn't be more different, I respect the methodical, individualized approach to beauty my friends and family members take. So, here is the 10 step Korean skincare routine with their plastic free, zero waste counterparts. While I can't comment on the effectiveness of this anecdotally-derived routine compared to modern Korean products today, the women I consulted always had perfect skin. They all look half their age! Remember, Koreans believe beauty starts from the inside, so eat lots of kimchi, miyeok guk, and good fats for a healthy glow.
10 Step Zero Waste, KOREAN Skincare Routine
Floral oils like camellia or peony are really traditional, but my grandma pointed out they are better for hair than skin. Pre-Occupation, she and her friends used sunflower, pumpkin, castor, apricot kernel, or even cabbage oil, depending on skin type. Castor oil was also applied directly to eyelashes and eyebrows in the hopes of making them fuller, pre-Latisse. Now, my grandma uses olive oil, but other Koreans I asked use rice bran, rosehip, or grapeseed oil, since they're less comedogenic. Check out this post about higher linoleic acid oils to minimize breakouts.
Ground mung beans were the original HG cleanser. I tried it once- they actually foam like soap. Grind raw beans or use mung bean powder mixed with water, milk, or yogurt to treat acne and fade scars. Can't find mung beans? Gram flour is a great substitute. You could also just try plain soap. The unpackaged soap my grandma uses was once milled from flowers that grew in the DPRK.
Ginseng root, red beans, sponge gourds, and rice bran were the most common exfoliators- gentler than sugar or sea salt and oil. You basically chop the raw roots and beans really finely or grind them in a coffee grinder and apply to wet skin. Mix with oil, if desired. My grandma said facial exfoliation didn't happen often- less than once a week- because they thought too much caused wrinkles. This is opposed to body scrubs, which frequently pushed pain thresholds to the brink.
Cucumber slices or homemade rice toner removed the last traces of cleanser, gently softening skin. Oily skin types used hamamelis (witch hazel) in water.
Pinning down the essence- now considered the most important step in the Korean skincare routine- was the hardest part. Older Korean women didn't know what I was talking about, even if they were addicted to SK-II's version. My grandma says she and her sisters applied watermelon juice (diluted with water) or homemade floral water after toning, so I'm guessing this may be the precursor to the Korean essence. Oily skin was treated with lemon juice in water. Some people used pomegranate, which my grandma called extravagant, lol.
Well, by the sea, they really did use snail mucin, or bee jelly. And in ancient Korean texts, they mixed pearl powder with breast milk, which is unfortunate. Others used- still use- ginseng oil or skullcap (Chinese herb) tea instead of serum. Infuse your own ginseng oil by leaving a piece of the root in the oil of your choice. Let it sit in a tightly sealed bottle in a cool, dark place, 1-2 weeks. Some people said just boil ginseng three times, let the water cool, and apply that instead. My grandma's friend recommended mixing it with lotus starch to make a cream. Others remembered using fermented tea mixed with one drop of fragrant oil.
Elizabeth and Christina made their own beautiful, zero waste muslin sheet masks out of fabric scraps, so they could wash and reuse them indefinitely. I don't think my grandma did these, but one of her older friends said she made one from rags back in the day. Use 1-2 times per week.
Most of the women I talked to remember cucumber, pumpkin, or watermelon lotions, but they were apparently more like milk than cream. To make it, they extracted juice from the gourd plant and mixed it with distilled fruit essence. Others just used rice water instead of lotion, which really works! One halmeoni recommended mixing rosewater with rice powder and safflower oil. I tried that once, and it didn't end up lotion-y, so you may wish to use one of the recipes here, perhaps substituting candelilla for beeswax and rice powder for cornstarch. Or just use plain oil, purchased in bulk.
Some Korean people said they used milk- again, the Dongui Bogam recommends human milk- tea, honey, or eggs for the occasional nighttime mask. The water that floats over millet porridge, or fermented millet water, purportedly whitens skin and remove freckles. Chinese motherwort, roasted and ground into powder, then mixed with drops of water to form a paste, was used to remove acne. Turmeric bug is another traditional recipe that's easy to make today.
BB / SPF
During the Occupation, in country towns where they couldn't get Japanese products, people used mibun or baekbun (millet or rice powder) mixed with water or oil to form a paste. This whitened, concealed imperfections, and shielded the face from the sun, so I guess it was the original BB cream? Then they used plant ash or indigo soot to draw on eyebrows and define the eyes. Obviously, sun protection is not something to be messed with today. There are plastic free and homemade sunscreen options, but they're not for everybody, and as with conventional sunscreens, they're not always effective. So choose at your own risk! Personally, I've mixed arrowroot with cornstarch to make zero waste foundation, and it provided effective coverage- but I wouldn't try making a cream with it.