Checking in for a facial at the flagship store of the South Korean beauty brand Sulwahsoo, I am surprised to see that the intake form asks if I'm claustrophobic. I mentally note that I've never seen that particular question from a spa before, check "no" and then move on to more expected pre-facial questions, such as what kind of skin-care routine I use at home.
I'm not easily intimidated, but I was nervous walking into Sulwahsoo's spa precisely because I knew it would ask about my at-home skin care. Full disclosure: I wash my face with soap I buy at the grocery store and apply the same SPF15 moisturiser I use elsewhere on my body. I'm even worse with makeup. I don't buy that at the supermarket, but I have, several times, applied eyeliner to my lips and lip liner to my eyes. I am able to poke myself in the eye using both. I supplement my supermarket soap with an occasional spa facial.
Mine is the antithesis of South Korean skin care, which is generally taken very seriously.
It is estimated that the country has nearly 2000 skin care brands, collectively called "K-Beauty." I know this because it's impossible to flip through any fashion or tabloid magazine - my guilty pleasure during pedicures - without seeing a story with a celebrity raving about some K-Beauty product. I didn't pay these stories much attention until I noticed that my own skin looked unhealthy; it was dull and uneven in tone. Having come through some serious illnesses over the past decade, at age 41 I am finally interested in and also have the energy to think about making my skin healthy.
My curiosity is piqued further when I notice that many of the K-Beauty products favoured by celebrities include snail mucus as an ingredient.
I arrive in Seoul with appointments lined up for treatments at Sulwahsoo and Kwangdong Traditional Korean Medicine Hospital and a shopping date with Joan Kim, a Korean American YouTube beauty and fashion vlogger.
The deal I make with myself is that I will try anything that isn't permanent or surgery, even if it involves snail excretions. I will be a blank slate.
It's Kim who draws the initial broad brushstrokes on my slate. She grew up in Southern California and has lived in Seoul since 2014. Her skin is a great advertisement for the benefits of K-Beauty. I emailed her before I arrived with general K-Beauty questions and eventually asked if she'd meet with me while I was in Seoul. Kim doesn't normally do personal skin-care shopping, but I figured she could turn our time together into something for her YouTube channel; as of the time I'm writing this, nothing has been posted.
Kim walks with authority into a boutique run by InnesFree, a mid-level skin-care brand founded in 2000 that now has about 200 stores throughout the country. I, however, get sidetracked by the shop's exterior - one of the most lush living walls I've ever seen. It's a tangle of vibrant green vines.
The entire interior of the first floor, about 1500 square feet, is a happily crowded mix of products and shoppers. There are several dozen of the latter, men and women ranging in age from 20s to 60s.
None of the products bears any resemblance to my supermarket soap and moisturiser.
There are product lines made with extracts from orchids, green tea and volcanic soil from the slopes of South Korea's tallest mountain, Hallasan, on the island of Jeju in the Korea Strait.
Everything Joan identifies as one of her favourites goes into my basket and, because I've always been bothered by the large pores on my nose, I buy about half of the products in the Jeju volcanic line, which purports to minimise pore size.
Joan disappears to do some shopping of her own, and I find myself drawn to the wall of products made from orchid essence, if only because I like the purple colour of their various containers.
Before I even pick something off the shelf to read about it - everything is labelled in Korean and English - a dimpled, English-speaking InnesFree staff member is at my side. (I learn that it's normal for skin-care shops to have staffers specifically on the lookout for Western shoppers who might need help.) I ask if it's okay to mix volcanic clay products with orchid essence products. I really like the smell of the orchid eye cream. (Not that I've ever smelled, or looked at, any other eye cream in my entire life.) With the verdict that it's fine to mix lines - beneficial even, so your skin doesn't get habituated to any specific product - the eye cream is the last thing I toss into my basket.
Thirty minutes after walking in I'm checking out, buying more skin-care products than I've bought combined in my entire life. There's orchid eye cream, pore-cleansing foam, blackhead-out balm, both a super volcanic pore clay mask and a regular volcanic pore clay mask, and volcanic pore toner. Because a saleswoman tells me that snail mucus hydrates skin while helping reduce fine lines and the appearance of dark spots and blemishes - all things that I'm looking for - and she promises that it doesn't smell bad, I get one dozen sheet masks saturated with the miracle ingredient.
Handing over my credit card, I realise that some of my prior reluctance to pay much attention to my skin's health might have been the cost of doing so. Twelve years ago, after a facial at a spa (paid for by someone else's expense account) in Scottsdale, Arizona, left my skin glowing for a week, I plunked down close to $270 for a two-ounce jar of the mud mask used by the spa. And then, because it was so expensive, I used it only for the most special occasions. The jar is still half full.
At InnesFree, the sheet masks - thin pieces of face-shaped fabric with holes cut out for your eyes and mouth and saturated with a variety of ingredients depending on what you're trying to achieve - cost between $1.50 and $4 each. The Jeju volcanic pore clay mask costs less than $17. A six-ounce bottle of Jeju volcanic cleansing foam costs $12. These are prices I can afford on a regular basis.
Around the corner from the jungly InnesFree at the ALand boutique, which sells clothing, hipster home-and-lifestyles accessories, and a small selection of skin-care products, I get a blemish cream that Kim's brother loves, even though he only started using it under duress. "He's totally hooked on it now," Kim reports.
While I spend most of my time shopping in stores that sell their own brands, Kim and I finally wander into Olive Young, Seoul's version of Sephora. It's as busy as Walmart on Black Friday, which exhilarates me. I feel like I'm a part of this skin-care thing. Here, I find the face sunscreen I've been looking for my entire life - silky, non-greasy, SPF50 and affordable - and sheet masks with the face of an otter printed on them. (The idea behind these is that you look like an otter when you're wearing one.) There are also sheet masks with tiger faces, panda bear faces and Shrek. Since skin care has never before made me laugh out loud, I am compelled to buy several of each.
For skin-care devotees in South Korea, it's often not enough to merely take care of your skin at home, no matter how fun the sheet masks are. Kim gets a weekly professional facial. These don't usually happen in fancy spas like Sulwahsoo - facials there are on par with facials at a spa in the United States, so it would get pretty expensive pretty fast - but at no frills "medical hospitals," which often offer services for all sorts of health-related issues.
At Kwangdong Traditional Korean Medicine Hospital, services include everything from MRIs to neurological exams, acupuncture, massages and facials. Kwangdong has a website in five languages and offers cell-rejuvenating acupuncture in addition to more usual procedures. My appointment is for a traditional detox treatment that will clear and energise the skin on my back and legs while generally helping me relax.
I'm met by an iPad-wielding, English-speaking medical assistant who stays with me for the next 90 minutes, explaining what the doctor is doing to me: first cupping, then acupuncture and finally pouring warm sludge over my legs, which are covered in a thin plastic to allow the warmth and essences through while keeping the sludge itself off my skin. The treatment relaxes me. Sometime during the sludge part, I doze off.
And then it's Sulwahsoo time. The place is more a shrine to skin care than a store. Products are displayed on pedestals and there is no excess inventory anywhere in sight. Never before have I been nervous about getting a facial, but it turns out my nerves are for naught. Without judgment of my skin-care regimen and with care, an aesthetician leads me into a room where I disrobe and lie down on a table and cover myself with warm blankets.
From the beginning, the facial smells better than any other I've ever had. (I later learn almost all of Sulwahsoo's products contain ginseng.) Other than that, and some facial-massage techniques used by the aesthetician, there's no difference between it and facials at home. But then comes the step that is undoubtedly why they ask about claustrophobia: a rubber mask. I love the feeling of the warm, weighted paste on my face - imagine a hug from a Play-Doh pancake - but I can see how it might freak someone out.
Even if it did freak me out, after I see how healthy and radiant my skin looks at the end of the facial, I'd make myself get over it.
A month after returning home from South Korea, comments about my new "glow" make me stick to using my new products. My favorite so far? The snail mucus sheet masks.
If you go
Where to stay:
97 Saemunan-ro, Dangju-dong, Jongno-gu
This new-ish hotel in the central business district, a short walk from Gyeongbok Palace, has 317 rooms, the most gorgeous floral arrangements you've ever seen and one of the nicest Korean spas in the city (which happens to be three-stories tall). Rooms from $437.
71 Sambong-ro, Susong-dong, Jongno-gu
Rooms at this hotel brand affiliated with Samsung are small, clean and within walking distance to Myeong-dong's shopping area. Rooms from $132.
155 Bongeunsa-ro, Gangnam-gu
Use the elevator with the angel on it at this trendy-yet-whimsical hotel in the upscale Gangnam area. Fifty cents is added to your bill and donated to a nonprofit organization at the end of your stay. Rooms from $238.
Where to eat:
56 Ujeongguk-ro, Gyeonji-dong, Jongno-gu
At this Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant inside the information center for the country's Temple Stay program, the chefs are all monks in the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. From $40.
6-1 Anguk-dong, Jongno-gu
Follow a light lunch or herbal tea (blends created by the owner, a certified Oriental medicine physician) with a foot bath at this cosy cafe. Add a medicinal mixture (brewed from some of the same ingredients used in different teas) to your bath to decrease stress or improve circulation for $7. Teas from $4.
299 Samil-Daero. Jung-gu
Try everything from acorn jelly to jellyfish salad and barbecued ribs at this quiet, traditional Korean restaurant popular with locals. Tasting menu from $48.
What to do:
Sulwhasoo Flagship Store and Spa
8 Dosan-daero 45-gil, Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu
Whether booking a 40-minute guided tour of the five-floor flagship store of Korea's most famous luxury skin-care brand, or a facial at one of its two spas, advance reservations are recommended. Treatments from $150.
97 Saemunan-ro, Dangju-dong, Jongno-gu
Separate from the hot tub by the hotel's pool, the hot, warm and cold plunges in this spa-within-a-spa are separated for men and women, quiet and bathing-suit optional. There are jars of coarse salt and showers set up with stools and hoses so you can take your time self-exfoliating. Entrance fee is $75.
612, Bongeunsa-ro, Gang nam-gu
This medical spa offers everything from facial acupuncture, to menopause therapy, weight-loss programs and herbal skin detox wraps, all overseen by doctors. Treatments from $80.
121 Daesagwan-ro, Seongbuk-dong, Seongbuk-gu
Advance reservations are required to visit this museum, which is much more interesting than its name suggests. On display in 10 preserved hanok (traditional homes) are more than 2000 pieces of furniture from the Joseon Dynasty. Entrance fee is $27.