I Flew To Seoul To Learn About Korea's #1 Skin Care Ingredient

Senior beauty editor Erin Stovall goes behind the scenes at the House of Sulwhasoo.


I’ve been writing about the beauty industry long enough to know that when it comes to skin care, South Korea is where you can find some of the most effective, cutting-edge products in the world. The ingredients, the technology, the science that’s so advanced yet also rooted in time-honored traditions… it’s truly the mecca. So when the brains behind Sulwhasoo invited me on a trip to Seoul to learn more about the brand’s heritage and innovation, I said yes immediately.

To give you a better idea of Sulwhasoo’s Korean presence: on every car ride in Seoul, I spotted the brand’s name emblazoned on so many billboards and amber-colored shopping bags that I lost count. Though the brand officially debuted in 1997, its parent company, AmorePacific, launched the very first ginseng skin care product called the “ABC Ginseng Cream” back in 1966. Since then, Sulwhasoo has constantly evolved (quite literally; the research and development teams are never not improving upon the brand’s existing formulas) and become a household name.

After a 16-hour flight — masked up almost the entire time — my dry complexion and I were beyond grateful that our first stop on the first full day was Sulwhasoo’s spa in one of the most opulent areas of Seoul named Dosan Park. In a word, the spa itself was stunning with thin, gilded wiring everywhere I looked. As calming music played, I sipped tea and filled out a short questionnaire about my skin care concerns.

After that, the esthetician applied a series of products that allowed me to experience the skin care benefits of ginseng — the brand’s star ingredient — firsthand. First, the Gentle Cleansing Oil was used to remove any traces of makeup (and I must add that I’ve never had my eyelashes handled so gently in my life). Next, she applied the bestselling First Care Activating Serum, which is meant to be used as the first step in your skin care routine, after cleansing, to ensure complete absorption to prep skin for other skin care steps to follow. Followed by Essential Comfort Balancing Water, a series of brightening and hydrating serums, a modeling mask, the Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Cream, and finally, a layer of SPF before continuing the rest of the day’s activities. After the facial was over, I looked into the mirror and my jaw almost hit the floor. Gone were my skin’s random dry patches, and even a few of the fine lines on my forehead looked less obvious. My complexion looked smooth and glowing, and TBH, I was a bit surprised at how much more radiant it appeared considering there weren’t any intense scrubs or extractions involved. It was giving “glass skin” vibes in a way I never thought possible and it made me eager to learn more about the science behind its hero ingredient.

Glowing after a facial at the Sulwhasoo spa in Seoul.Erin Stovall

So dedicated is Sulwhasoo’s team of scientists to the power of Korean ginseng that they have poured over five decades of research into it and created “Ginsenomics™,” a name for the brand’s proprietary skin care ingredient derived from the herb. Sulwhasoo has been an industry leader in this specific area and has studies (and plenty of scientific awards, which I spotted in Sulwhasoo’s futuristic-looking Heritage & Science Center) to back its claims that the use of Ginsenomics™ can visibly firm, smooth, and revitalize the skin. The brand has extremely high standards for the Korean ginseng that is grown and harvested for its products — if a particular herb fails to meet one of 400 standards, it doesn’t get used. Since that selectivity makes it such a precious resource in the region, it’s a good thing that Sulwhasoo’s team of scientists were able to identity that the whole plant — from the roots to the fruit — has skin-boosting benefits.

House of Sulwhasoo
1 / 2

With my skin fresh from the spa, I attended a party the next night at the House of Sulwhasoo in Bukchon, a flagship store that was decked out with unique art installations and displays that illustrated the brand’s rich history from the birth of that first ginseng-based cream in the ’60s to the internationally known skin care brand it is today. Among the various pieces, a dreamy video starring Rosé — a member of K-pop mega-group BLACKPINK and Sulwhasoo’s new ambassador — was projected onto the wall as influencers sipped champagne.

Erin Stovall
1 / 2

Over the course of my stay, I kept reaching for the Sulwhasoo products that the brand so kindly kept stocked in my bathroom (and I made sure to stash one of the Concentrated Ginseng Renewing Sheet Masks for the long plane ride home to New York City). On top of the products’ ability to quickly hydrate and revive my dull skin, the herbaceous smell of the ginseng was incredibly calming — or perhaps that could have been the peace of mind I had knowing that the ingredients in the skin care products I was using were actually tried and true.