One of the many floor-to-ceiling ads that plasters the walls of Sinsa Station.
Caption reads: “Perfect! Looking beautiful.”

Often lauded as the “Plastic Surgery Capital of the World,” South Korea has become notorious for its obsession with picking out and correcting flaws–especially in women.  The country controls a whopping 16 trillion of the world’s 21 trillion market share–that’s 76% of the industry on a global scale!  South Korea doesn’t have the highest number of people getting plastic surgery (they’re still topped by the USA and Brazil [PDF]), but they do have the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita.  It is often the expertise and wide variety of cosmetic surgeons and dermatologists that draws thousands of foreigners to South Korea, expressly for their services, each year.  In 2014 alone, 336,224 foreigners visited cosmetic clinics in Korea. While there are plenty of plastic surgery options for foreigners in South Korea, over 70% of the foreigners from the 2014 statistic were from China.

Yes, this is the same woman.
Some Chinese tourists have been held up by airport security for not resembling their passports
after having plastic surgery in Korea!

South Korea, being an Asian country with a predominantly Asian population, is specifically known for its technical expertise in operations and procedures for classically Asian features.  While there are many English articles that suggest traveling to South Korea for cosmetic work, I think this is an incredibly important distinction for anyone with non-Asian features interested in getting work done here.  It’s imperative that if you are planning on having an invasive (re: surgical) procedure that you find a doctor that has extensive experience working with features similar to yours.

This warning should also extend to anyone with fair hair or darker skin who is interested in laser skin and hair treatments, as many South Korean doctors have worked almost exclusively with patients who have fair skin and dark hair.  The other day a blonde-haired girl in a women’s expat group said she had been contacting Korean doctors about electrolysis, and couldn’t find anyone who offered services.  Common laser hair removal methods aren’t effective on light hair, but because the doctors here rarely work with blonde clients for laser hair removal, they typically don’t see a high demand for alternative methods.

Alright, so let’s say you’re interested in non-invasive cosmetic procedures (non-Asian features won’t be a factor), you have fair skin and dark hair (unique treatment methods won’t be a factor) and you’ve traveled to or live in South Korea.  Hello, you are me.

Actually, this is me.  Like, straight up; without makeup or editing.  Hello, internet!

Your next step is to begin researching doctors and clinics in the area–especially ones that speak your language.  The most popular area for cosmetic clinics is Sinsa (신사동), in Gangnam (강남구).  As soon as you step off of the subway, you are bombarded with advertisements featuring images of beautiful women, many standing near their “unsightly” before pictures  They promise you V-lines and S-lines!  Bigger eyes and prettier lips!  And more delicate, “high” noses.  

As you exit the subway and emerge onto the street, you’ll notice an unusual number of women (and even men) with battered looking faces–bandages wrapped around noses and chins.  The last time I went to Sinsa to shop on Garosugil (가로수길), I ran into three Chinese girls (possibly sisters, cousins, or friends) who had come to Korea together on a plastic surgery package from China.  Despite having bruises under their eyes and bandages around their jaws and noses, these three girls happily shopped in public!  Talk about culture shock, coming from a western country where people vehemently deny having work done and celebrities hide away for months at a time to keep up the illusion of perfection.

Wary of the language barrier and horror stories in both Korea and in my home country, I began to conduct my own research.  In the end, I came up with four clinics that seem to be the most popular among English-speaking foreigners:

I contacted the first two clinics, setting up appointments with Dr. Julius Jon at TengTeng and Dr. Lee Geun-Soo at Woo & Han’s.  I approached both of these clinics with the same list of issues:

  1. Treatment of facial milia
  2. Treatment of broken blood vessels
  3. Treatment of uneven skin tone
  4. Treatment of forehead lines
  5. Removal of body hair
  6. Removal of moles

Many of these clinics know that foreigners may struggle to speak Korean or find phone conversations awkward and/or intimidating.  As a result, many of them offer email addresses or systems that allow you to book appointments and consult with the doctors online beforehand.  I had incredibly prompt email responses from both TengTeng and Woo & Han’s, which made setting up my appointments incredibly easy.  I visited both clinics in the month of October, and here is what my experience was like:

TengTeng Skin Clinic with Dr. Julius Jon
(Consultation cost: 10,000)
Overall impression: Quiet.  Intimate.  Professional.

Despite being only a few steps from Sinsa Station’s Exit 3 (신사역), TengTeng Skin Clinic is discreetly tucked away on the 10th floor of a large office building.  There is also a pharmacy conveniently located on the 1st floor, should Dr. Jon give you any prescriptions that need filling post-treatment.  I was one of the first appointments for the day (I only saw one other guy coming in as I was going out) and was able to meet with Dr. Jon immediately.  He had my emails in front of him, and got straight to the point in terms of what my issues were and how he recommended addressing them:

  1. Milia: Physical extraction, which is how I had it treated in the USA.  I was annoyed to find that getting a facial in Korea typically means getting a bunch of relaxing muds and creams slathered on your face with little to no exfoliation, so hearing that they did actual extraction here was great!
    Cost: ₩70,000 per facial.
  2. Broken blood vessels: Dr. Jon told me that, because I am so fair-skinned, it’s natural for redness from blood vessels and skin flaws show.  He also said I may have a mild case of rosacea across my cheeks, which could all be treated with his photo-facial laser, the Ellipse.
    ₩120,000 per session, 3-4 sessions recommended.
  3. Uneven skin tone: This would also be treatable with the same Ellipse photo-facial session. 
  4. Forehead lines: Aaaah yes, Botox.  Are people in west still anti-Botox these days?  Dr. Jon said my forehead lines were most easily treated with it, and results would be immediate.
    Cost: ₩200,000 for one treatment, or ₩300,000 for two treatments.  Second can be purchased additionally for the same rate after seeing the results of the first treatment.
  5. Body hair removal: Dr. Jon also uses the Ellipse laser for hair removal, and made sure to point out that the laser works best on dark hair and fair skin–which I have in the areas that I wanted to treat.  For treatments in the bikini area, there is no difference in price for anything from a bikini to a full Brazilian.
    Cost: ₩300,000 per session for the bikini area, ₩160,000 per session for underarms.
  6. Mole removal: I found Dr. Jon’s response to this request honest, interesting, and very informative, and it led to me scratching it off my list.  He told me that he does not perform mole removals, and that I shouldn’t seek out a cosmetic clinic that does.  His reasoning is that any cosmetic clinic, after removing your mole, will need to send it off to the pathology division of a hospital to have it properly analyzed and screened for cancer.  However, in Korea, the hospitals actually have cosmetic surgery centers (for removal with minimal scarring), dermatology clinics, and a pathology center all often within the same building, so there’s no reason to have them removed at a cosmetic clinic.  He also recommended removing moles only for medical, not cosmetic, reasons.

Overall, Dr. Jon seemed very honest.  He is a very well-educated man (a graduate of Korea’s prestigious Yonsei University as well as the U.S.’s Johns Hopkins University), and speaks English fluently, At times he seemed a bit blunt or curt–no time for chit-chat!–but I think this is because he is a very direct, no-nonsense, and honest person.  He is the sole doctor at TengTeng, he will be the one performing your services.

Dr. Woo & Hann’s Skin Clinic with Dr. Lee Geun-Soo
(Consultation cost: ₩30,000 or free if you bring a Korean friend to translate for you!)
Overall Impression: Busy.  Popular.  A well-oiled machine.

2nd Floor: Aesthetic services (and pharmacy)
3rd Floor: General check-in, basic health services, and clinical pathology
4th Floor: Laser center and beauty clinic

Walk straight out of Sookmyung University Station’s Exit 1 (숙대입구역), and Dr. Woo & Hann’s Skin Clinic will be the second building on your left.  I actually stayed at the Kimchee Seoul Station Guesthouse when I had my consultation and subsequent treatments here, because it’s located down the first alley right behind the building.  Talk about convenient!  The skin clinic consists of multiple floors, and the primary check-in is on the 3rd floor.  When I walked in, I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place: it was packed with people, sitting in DMV-esque seating, often with a number in hand as they waited to be called by the service counter.  I awkwardly went over to the front desk to tell the girl I had an appointment, and she gave me a form to fill out.  It was in English though, and after I completed it they directed me upstairs.

The 4th floor is where the laser center is, and where my consultation was held.  This floor’s waiting room is much more intimate, and it was very quiet with only a handful of other customers.  I waited for a few minutes as they registered my paperwork, but I was soon called into Dr. Lee’s office for my consultation.  Dr. Lee spoke English comfortably and seemed equally as knowledgeable about skin and treatments.  Here’s what he recommended to me:

  1. Milia: Also physical extraction, done on the 2nd floor by their aestheticians.  Dr. Lee also pointed out that while I did have a fair bit of milia, some of my spots were in fact whiteheads.  They also use a touch of anesthetic cream when doing facials, which is a cute little luxury I didn’t ever have back in the States!
    Spring 2016 Update: There seem to be a few tiers of facial services offered, as when I visited in March my facial included far more than the basic milia extractions.  My initial facial lasted about 20-30min, whereas the second was easily over an hour and included far more services.  I would recommend meeting with a dermatologist here and discussing what your options are and what best suits your skincare needs.
    Cost: ₩60,000 per basic facial extraction, ₩88,000 per full service facial
  2. Broken blood vessels: Dr. Lee uses the Starlux laser to treat broken blood vessels directly, which was what I was originally looking for.  Starlux got the OK from my family friend in the aesthetic/cosmetic industry back home, so this was a plus for me.
    ₩50,000 per session for my particular case.
  3. Uneven skin tone: Dr. Lee said my spots of redness were mostly from the blood vessels, and my other flushing was so light and minimal that any photo-facial treatments would show minimal improvement.  He didn’t personally recommend doing any because he felt the minimal result wouldn’t be worth the cost.
  4. Forehead lines: Again, Botox.
    Cost: ₩132,000 for my particular case, though forehead treatments average 140,000.
  5. Body hair removal: Dr. Lee uses the Candela laser for hair removal, which got a huge thumbs up from my family friend.  This alone pretty much sealed the deal for me.  This clinic also does full Brazilian hair removal, should a client want it, and they use numbing cream before treating all areas.
    Cost: ₩100,000 per session for underarms, ₩220,000 per session for bikini with a 10% discount on each subsequent session as hair decreases.
  6. Mole removal: I didn’t bring this up with Dr. Lee as I had already decided to heed Dr. Jon’s advice about contacting a university hospital.

So there you have it!  At the end of the day, I decided to go with Dr. Woo & Hann’s Skin Clinic.  I chose them not only because of their prices, but more importantly because of the equipment they use and how extensive their clinic seemed.  The Ellipse laser received a lukewarm reaction from my family friend in the business, so I felt more comfortable going with the Starlux and Candela lasers at Woo and Hann’s.  Also, the majority of Woo and Hann’s clients are Korean, which (to me) is a good sign.  If locals are going there, they likely have a good reputation within the community!  Finding information on lasers can be difficult unless you actually work in the cosmetic and aesthetic industry.  Here are the ones my family friend recommended and advised I avoided:

  • The Good: Candela, Cynosure, Cutera, Sciton, and Quanta.
  • The Bad: Alma and Syneron, and Ellipse was mentioned as “cheap”. 

It should be noted that the prices at both of these clinics, specifically for laser hair removal, err on the higher end of the spectrum.  You can find more affordable laser hair removal services in Korea!  However, I had six sessions of laser hair removal at a discounted rate in the States before I moved abroad, and I was pretty unimpressed with the results.  The type of laser used can make a huge difference in both the price of a removal session and how effective hair removal is, so do your research!  I felt very comfortable with the price I paid at Woo and Hann’s knowing the Starlux laser had a solid reputation behind it and how honest I felt Dr. Lee was with me.   Take everything here with a grain of salt, and do your own research as well before choosing a clinic!


Read Part II: The Procedures!

All prices were collected between October and November of 2015.
I also intend to visit Hus-hu and Dream in the spring of 2016, and will update with additional comments and rates for those clinics and their services.