My skincare regime, both external and internal, all come from my Korean roots – more specifically, my grandmother.
My grandmother is an amazing chef - she escaped from North Korea and, to make ends meet and survive, she started her own restaurant in Seoul, where food was scarce and people had to turn to every part of the animal as well as obscure plants from both land and sea to satiate themselves. Nothing was ever thrown out (she used to tell me that people would even fight over who would eat the eyeballs of fish), so she had to get creative with using every formidable bit of an ingredient.
She also took the “overfeed your grandchildren” thing to a new level (though I’m not complaining, by any means). It was one of her biggest signs of affection when, after taking the bones out of the fish, she would chopstick over a chunk of the grilled fish, skin on, onto my bowl of piping hot rice, instead of eating it herself. In Korea, since everyone knows all of the “good stuff,” (a.k.a. the collagen ) is in the skin of the fish, it was quite the symbol of her love when she would give it away.
She is a culinary genius to this day and knows everything there is to know about nearly every fruit and vegetable. I was lucky that she raised me (in Korea, grandparents often live with their eldest child and babysit the grandchildren), as she was my first gateway to understanding nutrition. She taught me everything I know about food, its magic and how eating one thing can affect me positively, or negatively, for the rest of the day.
She inadvertently trained me to keep to this holistic, 360-degree lifestyle that all circles back to maintaining healthy, glowing skin. Whether or not I realised it when I was a child, I am so grateful that I have unknowingly been practising this Korean skincare “diet” all these years. Her ten ‘rules to live by’ are as follows...
1. Stay hydrated by drinking lots of filtered water and tea. Lots of it.
This may be my grandmother’s most important rule of all. Growing up, I drank only filtered water . It was unheard of to drink from the tap - almost every household in South Korea has the kind of water purification machine that you only see at the doctor’s or another professional medical setting. My fridge was always filled with pints and pints of the highest-quality water. For your skin to look dewy and glowing, it needs to be hydrated at a cellular level. Very often dry skin is caused by dehydration or a lack of certain fats. Remembering to drink throughout the day is really important.
2. Rest, relax and sleep as much as you can.
Give yourself breaks from difficult, strenuous environments once in a while. When we are emotionally challenged, our skin will naturally reflect that exact state. And the best way to do this? Sleep. My grandmother always had a makeshift bed in her living room for me. During the restorative stage of sleep, our blood pressure drops, breathing slows down, blood flow moves to the muscles and our tissue is repaired. Our body releases growth hormones during this stage as well and these hormones are ssential for muscle development.
3. Use botanicals and other foods to help with hydration and healing.
Koreans adhere to ancient medicine and often turn to botanicals such as roots, herbs and fruits, and often botanical-based teas, for healing. Herbal teas can help with hydration and aren’t too stimulating either.
4. Eat golgoru: don’t be picky with food and have as much kimchi, fish, and broth as possible.
We all know that feeling when we feel too bloated from eating certain foods, and how the next day, our skin seems to take a hit, but those same problems could occur if we are not eating the right foods. Which is why we should always ensure that we are eating a variety of differnt food at every meal. In Korea, this is called eating golgoru. This term was probably uttered at every meal my grandmother made me. One of her favorite things to push at me was kimchi . Kimchi is a fermented, pickled cabbage that’s iconic to our culture and it’s rich in minerals and vitamins A, B, and C, and most importantly it’s loaded with probiotics which have been shown to be beneficial for skin and gut health.
5. Choose fruit over sugary desserts.
At the end of every meal, Koreans tend to eat apples, tangerines, Korean pears, and watermelon for dessert. We rarely eat biscuits, bread or cakes. I had never tried a chocolate chip cookie or peanut butter jelly sandwich until I moved to California at the age of ten. Once in a while, Koreans eat bread, usually in the form of a small pastry, but it’s not a big part of our diet as it is in the West.
6. Try not to eat anything too salty after 8pm.
This is because our bodies will not be able to excrete a lot of salt during the eight hours or so of sleep, and it encourages water retention which leads to puffiness.
7. Never forget to seh-su (a literal definition is “washing of the face”).
Again, my grandmother didn’t ever push the 10-step Korean skincare regimen at me or any of my siblings while we were growing up but what she did strictly enforce was the seh-su. She always told me, “think of all of the dirt and residue that is sitting on your skin after a day in this polluted city. Do you want to all of that dirt in your pillowcase?” (I may never go to sleep peacefully again, but this is probably my most effective reminder).
8. Exfoliate your dead skin cells (ddeh) away.
I grew up attending communal bathhouses with my aunts and mother, where we would dedicate a whole day to receiving hammams (Turkish baths), spending hours in saunas and getting our skin exfoliated professionally with these viscose fabric mitts (the traditional, old-school version of the electronic brushes that we use today). Koreans take exfoliating to another level: we call the residual, dead skin cells ddeh, and once in a while, will scrub our skin from head to toe to make sure that we have shed our outmost layer. When I moved to Los Angeles and realised that this was not a regular activity in the States, I was so shocked.
9. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen. Or failing that, a parasol.
Koreans are probably the only human beings that wear hats, scarves, and long gloves in 35ºC heat, and not because we get cold easily, but because we are trying to protect our skin. We don’t go anywhere without applying sunscreen, even on rainy days, and we sometimes cancel plans and don’t even go outside if it’s too hot, solely for the reason that it may be too damaging for our skin. And what do we use if there is no winter apparel to prevent the UV radiation? Parasols, always the parasols.
10. Listen to your skin.
Koreans often look to a person’s complexion to deduce someone’s overall health or emotional state, and to me it makes complete sense: our skin is among the first of our organs to reflect any signs of nutritional deficiencies or imbalance. We can often tell what’s going at a cellular level when we study the condition of our skin. “Why does your skin look like that?” is a totally acceptable question to put to someone, not because we condone rude comments, but because our health can be truly reflected in our skin.