How I was introduced to the Korean beauty ritual

More than two decades ago, before the K-beauty boon in the U.S., I met a woman who introduced me to Korean skin care rituals. She was a saleswoman at a cosmetics counter in a department store and I listened to and followed her advice, not because she was beautiful (which she was) but because she took such great pride in taking care of her skin. Unlike the sales people in the other cosmetics counters who only wanted to make a sale and kept shoving products at me without explaining what the products did and how to use them, she seemed to be tuned in to how her skin reflected her body’s response to the environment. Because of her, listening to my body and using products to address my skin needs on a daily basis became my philosophy on skin care, which is really what I believe is at the core of K-beauty.

A couple of years before I met her, I was living in Manila, Philippines. After my mom passed away, I moved to the U.S. during my sophomore year to finish high school and lived with my aunt. When I came to the U.S., I was a shy, nerdy kid with a thick Filipino accent and really bad skin. I mean, my face was covered in layers of acne and rashes. My aunt was a doctor who never had any kids to raise before me and was very busy with her career so she never bothered me about my skin and I certainly didn’t want to talk about it. I was using shampoo and hand soap to wash my face. And the only real skin care product I had was Eskinol from the Philippines, an alcohol based astringent. Eskinol was great for skin in the Philippines where it was hot, humid and the air was full of bacteria from the uncontrolled air pollution but was not suitable for skin living in dry, cold and less polluted midwestern United States.

Then, a year after I moved to the U.S., I ended up qualifying for my school’s high school scholars’ program, which meant I could start attending college part time during my junior and senior years of high school. As if being a foreign transport to a U.S. high school wasn’t hard enough to adjust to, I now had the extra challenge of adapting to attending school with a bunch of college students when I was only 15 years old.

While attending orientation, I noticed that college students paid more attention to me than the high school kids I had somewhat gotten used to. Instead of just leaving me alone so I could study, these college students wanted to talk to me and invite me to parties, which made me feel like I was under the spotlight more than I was used to. They weren’t mean, just persistent about getting to know me and including me in their activities. They even encouraged me to talk to….😱…BOYS! This meant that I couldn’t hide behind my books and immediately shocked me into paying more attention to my appearance. As a result, I started to look more into improving my skin (and going to the gym).

When I started, I had no idea what I was looking for so I just aimlessly roamed the local mall reading product descriptions. Each brand had a super model’s picture on their counters and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what that was meant to say to me. None of the models representing brands like Estee Lauder or Clinique were Asian so I couldn’t relate to any of the products and none of the sales people at these counters explained anything to me, they just wanted me to tell them what to ring up as a sale.

Then one day, as luck would have it, I saw an Asian lady working at the Shiseido counter. She had a nice face and seemed to be friendly to the people checking out her counter. Like me, she also had a thick accent but she wasn’t bothered by it at all and spoke to anyone and everyone without being self conscious. So, I immediately went up to her and asked her to recommend some products for me. Sure enough, in true Asian style, she came up with some products and started applying them on my face, kind of like a mom or an aunt would do to their daughter or niece (except I just met her). Without any hesitation, she patted, layered and massaged products onto my face instead of just spraying it on to tissue and telling me to put it on. I mean, my skin was gross, I didn’t even want to touch it but she did without any care in the world. With each product she applied, she explained what it did and how to put it on properly and why. She even talked about other products and when I would need to use them and what struck me the most is that she didn’t act like this was an annoying chore rather, an honor to be able to pass down this knowledge. When I asked her why so many steps, she told me that this is how they did it in Korea, where she was from. Soon after, her and I became friends because she made skin care fun (not to mention she made my skin stop itching and sometimes even bleeding). And apparently, this was also part of the culture – Korean women often became close friends with their skin care advisers because skin care was such an important part of their daily lives.

After a few months of going to her for skin care advice, I learned that her son was actually one of my high school classmates. By that time, I was spending more time in college and had completely lost contact with my high school classmates (even though I was still technically supposed to take at least one class there per semester). I looked nothing like the pimply kid with out of control eyebrows and facial hair from the year before because she had not only taught me skin care but also about waxing and even how to dress! She worked at the mall so when I’d stop by to see her, she’d tell me about sales events in other departments and would take her breaks to suggest outfits or have it set aside for me when she’d see something she thought I’d like (which was definitely more than what the other salespeople at the other cosmetics counter were doing). She didn’t even earn a commission on any of the clothes I bought. After I had been telling her that I didn’t really get to hang out with kids my own age, she started inviting me to her house to hang out with her family and eat Korean food. Oftentimes, she would tell me about how certain foods would affect my skin too. She didn’t have any daughters and told me that she wished she had one to do these rituals with so we did them together.

As I spent more time with her, I also got to know her son better, who had actually been my high school crush the year before. He was a handsome jock and one of the most popular kids at school and while he never paid attention to me when I was an acne-ridden kid, he certainly paid attention after his mom helped clear up my face, tame my unruly facial hair and dress like a teenager instead of a fresh-off-the-boat Pinay. 🤣 Him and I actually became good friends too even though he absolutely had no interest in skin care.

In the years that I’ve been applying the 10-step Korean skin care process, I’ve used a variety of brand name products, most of which were not from Korea because K-beauty brands weren’t available. Instead, I’ve used Japanese skin care lines like Shiseido or other Japanese derived brands like SK-II. Nevertheless, the practice of ensuring that my skin is clean, occasionally exfoliated or peeled, patted and massaged in toner, essences and serums, masked, moisturized and protected by sunscreen, which are all part of the Korean skin care method, has kept my skin in tip top condition for all these years. The 10 steps are explained in detail here:

Given that I learned these steps as a teen-ager, I had no idea what any of the chemicals in each step did at the time. I just knew that if I did them, my acne and skin rashes stayed away and I also got to spend 20-30 minutes taking care of myself. Although I know more about the chemicals now than I did then, learning the ritual all those years ago helped me understand what I needed to accomplish out of each step in my skin care regimen. Knowing the goal of each step has also helped me make better product purchasing decisions, which I discussed in my previous post. Based on my experience, I believe the method and goal of each step is actually what makes the Korean beauty method effective and not the individual products, which is particularly important given that there are so many K-beauty products now out there.

What I learned from her, however, wasn’t how important it is to have glass like skin. Instead, I learned that being disciplined and discerning about how I take care of myself is what real beauty is about. Now that I’m a mom myself, I see it as an honor to pass this ritual down to my daughters just like she did for me all those years ago. And by doing this, it is my hope that I not only teach them good skin hygiene but to take pride in caring for themselves and understanding that that is what real beauty is about and not just piling on a bunch of “stuff.”

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