Skin and hair care have been some of the most important considerations in society since the early ages of man’s existence. Today, Korea makes up one of the biggest beauty markets in the world, but adoration for a porcelain glow didn’t start after the new millennium. The Jangseogak Archives hold about 950 documents and manuscripts that give us a taste of royal Joseon court culture, including ancient Korean skincare for both men and women. I’m here today to share some ancient tips and tricks with you, and (maybe) try some of these out myself.
Self-care! The word of the decade. Naturally, the idea of looking after oneself is not a modern concept. However, ‘self-care’ in the Joseon dynasty might have taken a different approach, one ground in ancient medicinal practices.
One key belief in Joseon and even modern-day Korea is to keep the head cool while the feet stay warm. This invites a natural flow of energy that clears up any blocked areas in the body. How can we do this today? Simply wrap a warm cloth around your feet to get started. Gently massage your face with a cooling cream or place a chilled cloth over your eyes for a few minutes.
If you want to check the overall state of your body, particularly your stomach, royal physicians such as Hong Wook-ho may have observed the color of your skin and given you a direct answer. In particular, people considered wrinkles to be the result of a lack of body fluids as well as the general aging process. Nowadays, it’s often due to eating habits. Sound familiar? The skin was believed to be the passage where bad energy entered the body. While you may not be able to diagnose yourself, you could always try visiting an oriental medicine doctor, Han Ui Won (한의원), for a second opinion.
What’s the healthiest age then? If you’re 28 – congratulations! This is when Joseon scholars believed bones and muscles to be the most developed and the peak of hair growth. But those 35 and older should take precautions. This is when things start to decline, and it’s at 42 that the face “withers as their energy weakens and the hair starts to turn white”, wrote court physician Heo Jun.
As most of you likely know, acupuncture is a very common practice in East Asian countries, which is believed to help smooth wrinkles and sagging skin among other things.
Wash your face! The easiest, most tedious way to develop clear skin. So, what did they do for ancient Korean skincare? The most common face wash was called jodu (조두) and was made of grounded beans. The best choices would have been mung, adzuki or soybeans smashed up on a millstone and sifted into a fine sprinkle. This type of soap would remove dead skin and offer softness when rubbed onto a wet face. Some also claimed that it had brightening effects. However, the sour smell led to the creation of a perfumed soap, which eventually became its own luxury product for Joseon court women.
Wonderful for the wealthy ladies, but what about the hardworking laborers? The most popular choice for lower and middle classes was cereal grains such as rice and wheat bran. After wrapping these in muslin or cloth, it was scrubbed onto the skin. The milky water also acted as a face wash (waste not, want not). Many scholars believe that this shared a similar effect to jodu at a fraction of the cost.
One of the keys to healthy skin is through a good moisturizer (or so I’ve been convinced). That belief was the same in Joseon – it was a necessity in the ancient Korean skincare kit – and there were some pretty unique ways they went about creating this magical cream.
The first and foremost option was the bottle gourd. When you insert a freshly cut squash into a vase of water, you can collect the gooey juice that spills out and apply it directly to your face. Doing this adds moisture to your skin while also helping to smooth it. You can use any type of squash or a distant cousin such as cucumber or citron. Additionally, honey was a popular choice to add a bit of plumpness.
Want a particularly fragrant mixture? A Joseon health care specialist may suggest squeezing the juice from peppermint leaves into the cream, offering a cooling effect upon application.
What about dry skin? Korea’s infamous winters are notorious for it. If you’re prone to dry skin, specialists suggested to crack three eggs into liquor and seal the jar airtight. After one month, you can apply the mixture to your face to relieve skin and also to add a glow to your complexion.
There’s another thing that shouldn’t be overlooked if you’re really immersing yourself into self-care: jet-black hair. Long, luxurious hair was a key part of ancient beauty. Silky, smooth, long, raven-black was the swoon-worthy feature of a beautiful Joseon woman.
Envoys from the neighboring kingdoms of China were particularly interested in the gache (가체), a traditional hairpiece worn as a wig or ones that were braided together with real hair to add volume and offer beautiful silhouettes. Despite this popular and unique hair culture, Joseon officials wrote in Gacheshingeumsamok (가체신금사목 – A Court Order Banning the Use of Women’s Luxury Wigs) that obsession with one’s beauty created social issues and separation that was naturally anti-Confucian.
Just like skin, keeping your hair clean was a key factor in the Joseon beauty regime. For example, you could add sesame oil for extra shine (and maybe a bit of a nutty smell). Using a wide-toothed comb for detangling and a fine-toothed comb to tidy everything up was another essential part of maintaining luscious locks. Once done, women braided their hair tightly to avoid loose strands.
There are plenty of modern companies inspired by Joseon beauty in today’s society. In fact, the herbal skincare market grew from $793 million dollars in 2007 to nearly $2 billion dollars in 2012. Concurrently, it made up nearly 11% of the entire market at the time.
One reputable skincare line, Hanyul (한율), has made quite a name for itself among Koreans and foreigners alike. The company’s official spa is a top destination for Japanese tourists, located in the heart of Myeongdong (명동). Hanyul’s ingredients are native to Korea such as mugwort, rice and yuja (citrus).
For more options, Sulhwasoo, Whoo, Beauty of Joseon, and Sooryehan market similar products and even include some ancient-looking bottles. Aka, take all of my money now.
While many scientific facts have yet to be developed on the promising effects of ancient Korean skincare, it’s easy to see that it has captured the attention and hearts of natives and foreigners alike. Personally, I’ve been using Hanyul products for nearly a year now and can swear by their soothing abilities. Not only is the scent and softness of their emulsion creams wonderful, but I feel good knowing that I’m supporting a company that uses natural ingredients and is inspired by local culture.
In the meantime, why don’t you learn more about Joseon women with our recent article on the tragic life of Queen Min? Check out our top travel spots to learn more about Korea’s only empress by clicking the link above!