From snail mucin sheet masks to snake venom serum, we just can’t get enough of South Korea’s innovative beauty products. Next time you head to Seoul for a quick shopping trip, take along our guide to the current best brands to buy and places to shop.

Although the ingredients list for Korean beauty products can often read like something out of a witch’s spellbook, the focus on natural extracts, fermentation and traditional recipes are the keys to success. The only downside of getting into K-Beauty? You might find that your simple cleanse-tone-moisturize regimen ends up feeling pretty meager in comparison to the common Korean 10-step beauty routine.

The K-Beauty Mecca

For the sheer convenience of everything in one place, you must brave the tourists and head to Myeong-dong, the K-beauty mecca where all the mainstream beauty brands have multiple stores on neighboring streets. Nature Republic, Holika Holika, Tony Moly and The Face Shop offer a huge selection of own brand products at very reasonable prices. The sales assistants can be somewhat aggressive in their tactics, but stand your ground and you will be rewarded with an abundance of personal recommendations, special offers and free samples. Many of the stores in this area have bilingual staff and offer tax-free shopping.

As you steer yourself past mountains of sheet mask multipacks, keep an eye out for the “1+1” (“buy one get one free”) bargains. Don’t underestimate the cheap and cheerful gimmick items like macaron-shaped lip balms, eyeliners that look like school pencils, or panda-themed eye care – the quality is surprisingly high and, besides, these will make an adorable addition to your make-up bag.

Many of the Myeongdong stores are such staples that you will find them all over the city, in train stations and underground shopping malls, even at the airport gate for your last-minute shopping needs. It’s also worth venturing into Olive Young (with over 500 locations across the country) and LOHB’s, both of which could be considered the Sephora of Korea, and are bursting with concessions of many of the smaller, harder-to-find, mid-range brands.

seoul beauty haul

The K-Pop Factor

Korean beauty trends continue to be led by idols and celebrities, and as K-pop has expanded, embracing a myriad of Western influences, make-up styles have followed suit. For many years, the “no make-up” natural look was the aspirational default but recently strong colors and experimental tools are hitting the cosmetics counters. Two of the hottest lines right now are Pony Effect, created by a former celebrity make-up artist, and K-pop powerhouse YG Entertainment’s very own Moonshot.

Beautiful Inside and Out

If you want to invest more in your skin care, you should consider the higher-end brands – as the old adage goes “you get what you pay for,” and the enduring popularity of Amore Pacific, SU:M37, History of Whoo and Sulwhasoo must be proof of this. While many can be found in Lotte Department Store, you can also shop Gangnam-style at Garosu-gil Road in Sinsa-dong.

Many cosmetics companies have opened concept stores in this area, alongside the stylish boutiques and cafés that line the streets. Innisfree Jeju House combines both with an organic café on its second floor. These stores, much like their products, are beautiful both inside and out, offering sleek, stylish and functional packaging that is strides ahead in design.

If you still find yourself mystified by the veritable apothecary of choice, don’t be afraid to ask the staff for help, or do some further research online to find the best solutions to your own personal aesthetic issues.

Eight Must-Have Korean Beauty Buys

seoul beauty haul

Top row, from left:

1. Wine Lip Tint by Labiotte

2. Ginseng Royal Silk Watery Cream, and Ginseng Royal Silk Essence by Nature Republic

3. Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Wine by Neogen

4. Moisture Sauna Mask, and Firming Sauna Mask by Make P:rem

Bottom row, from left:

5. Skin Veil Base Cushion (#40), and Two Tone Tint Lip Bar (#06) by Laneige

6. Perfume de Muse Body Essence (Sparkling Juice) and Inked Cushion Gel Liner by Tony Moly

7. Flawless Regenerating Eye Cream by Su:m37

8. Matte Master Eye Palette, and Mini Magnetic Brush Set by Pony Effect

Illustrations by Bunny Bissoux

This feature appears in the March 2017 issue of Tokyo Weekender magazine