What My Korean BFF Taught Me About Beauty

korean bff

We all get by with a little help from our friends, and no beauty tip should ever go unappreciated — especially when they’re from a Korean BFF who just happens to be a makeup guru.



It’s been said that there is nothing better than a friend — unless it’s a friend with chocolate, of course. But perhaps the one thing better than even that is a friend with chocolate and makeup know-how.


Enter my Korean BFF and all-around makeup whiz, Kelly Cho. If we hadn’t met a couple of years ago, I probably wouldn’t know how important toner is, my pores would still be primer-less and visible, and I’d be subjecting my poor skin to all sorts of aging UV rays.


Korean women are renowned for their flawless complexions and their 10-step beauty regimen that’s often so far out of reach for us mere mortals. Often starting out young in the jjimjilbang with their mothers or grandmothers, scrubbing and scrubbing their first layers of skin off, Korean girls get a taste for just how much work goes into having skin that’s worth bragging about. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have learned skincare basics from such a young age and am therefore lucky that I’ve had Kelly to show me the ropes. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.


Tone until you can tone no more

“Getting the right toner for your skin type is a must,” says Kelly. She reveals that she has tried the 7-layer toner approach before. I’ve never heard of anything so labor intensive in my life, but she says that she does it once in a while if her skin feels extra parched. “It’s just a K-beauty trend,” she admits.


I’ve been hooked on Mamonde’s Rose Water Toner, which is light and fresh and is made from Damask roses grown in the world-famous rose growing area of Bulgaria. It’s vital that you apply your toner in the right way, after thoroughly cleansing and making sure to tap it in. Kelly reminds me that “everything should be tapped and not rubbed in, especially toner.”


Adding a quick blast of toner to my regimen twice a day has left my skin feeling plumper and smoother, and I’ve found that my moisturizer is absorbed better and more thoroughly. Without toner, my moisturizer would feel like a layer stuck on top of my skin instead of a well-absorbed product. The Rose Water Toner has been my go-to for the last few months, and I am constantly impressed at its lightness and how fresh and supple it leaves my face feeling. I’ve been using it on my neck and bust area, too, as I figured it could only benefit my skin to share some Rose Water love over a larger area.


A tip for the approaching summer heat: Decant your toner into a spray bottle, and use it as a mist any time your skin is feeling a little dry. This quick fix will keep your skin feeling hydrated and soft.


korean bff


Prime your face

A life without primer is a life of patchy foundation, and I am now wiser and better prepared. Primer is so important because it provides a smooth canvas for your foundation, ensuring that pores are blurred and foundation applies evenly. When I asked Kelly which brand or type she preferred, she said, “There are a lot of different primers, and they all do different things, so it’s really case by case.”


Kelly faced a bout of acne a few years ago and as a result has large pores. So she uses a pore minimizing primer to help make her pores look smaller, and when it’s extra humid outside she sticks with a mattifying primer to help with oiliness.


“If you have patchy skin, you might want to use color correcting primer,” she adds. “I’m a huge fan of Etude House’s Fix and Fix Pore Primer.”


If you’re looking to spend a fraction of the price of a Benefit primer, look no further than Aritaum’s Pore Master Sebum Control Primer. “It costs under $10, compared to Benefit’s $31, and I swear it’s a complete dupe,” she tells me. (Aritaum translates roughly to “beauty space,” and it’s been said to be Korea’s version of Sephora. For alternatives, try this one by The Saem or Aritaum’s pact version.)


I’ve been hooked on Innisfree’s No-Sebum Blur Primer, which is cheap and does wonders for smoothing my pores. I love how this primer provides a smooth, silky canvas for my foundation, and ensures that it’s consistently applied across my face. Primer also means that my foundation stays on a little longer.


Sunscreen is your (other) BFF

“I wear sunblock daily, which means indoors, too,” says Kelly. This is something I’ve personally neglected, particularly during the freezing winter months you endure in Korea. What she says is valid, as UVA rays, the ones that cause aging, can penetrate windows. Now that the cherry blossoms have bloomed and the days are getting warmer, I’ve chosen Innisfree’s Daily UV Protection Cream to help ward off those harmful UV rays. With an SPF of 35, it’s sufficient for daily use and lightweight enough not to weigh you down. It’s never too late to start wearing sunscreen; after all, it’s all about preserving your skin and ensuring that you have a sufficient barrier against the environment.


These three beauty basics are something that I have made a part of my daily routine, and they all work together to maintain my skin’s elasticity and radiance. All I can say is, I owe it all to my Korean BFF — my skin thanks you, Kelly!


What’s the best beauty lesson you’ve ever gotten from a bestie?


How I Became a K-Beauty Convert

k-beauty convert resized banner

Can a girl from the South African countryside, who grew up using rooibos and baobab on her skin, find (skincare) love in the urban sprawl that is Seoul? Her journey to becoming a K-beauty convert.



There are few things more terrifying to a skincare devotee than running out of your tried and tested beauty products, 10,000 kilometers from home. Especially if the place you ran out of said products was South Korea, where intimidating ingredients such as been venom, snail serum and goat’s milk are part and parcel of everyday skincare — and mother dear wasn’t planning on sending you any refills.


This happened to me two years ago, and I am so glad it did. Since switching to Korean-only skincare products, I’ve maintained softer and smoother skin (although nothing quite like Kim Tae-hee, the nation’s goddess, or Jun Ji Hyun).


I’ve always maintained a very low-key approach to my beauty regime and sought out natural ingredients where possible. Growing up on a farm in South Africa, surrounded by rolling hills, meant that I spent many hours under the blazing African sun and was more concerned about building treehouses than protecting my skin from damaging UV rays.


My skin type tends to swing between oily and dry and is very sensitive to seasonal changes. Since South Africa’s seasons are quite mild, I relied on a moisturizer from a local skincare company called African Extracts. Their range uses an advanced bioactive rooibos plant extract from fresh green rooibos plants harvested just outside of Cape Town. Rooibos, which means “red bush,” is packed with antioxidants and rich in the enzyme superoxide dismutase. Terminology aside, it is an excellent anti-aging substance and fights wrinkles by neutralizing the free radicals that cause them. I love the fresh, earthy smell of this moisturizer, and the baobab extracts help ease any dryness or tightness. The salicylic acid helps with problem skin, keeping me pimple-free. It’s not oily at all and has the added benefits of an SPF 15. It’s super hydrating, and the texture is light and applies smoothly, making it even possible to use as a primer before foundation.


skinfood royal honey k-beauty convert


When there was no more rooibos left to squeeze, I gave Skinfood’s Royal Honey Essential Queen’s Cream a go, because what better way to fight the extreme Korean temperatures than with soothing, moisturizing honey. I liked that my previous moisturizer has a promise of “skincare inspired by nature,” and my new choice ticked that box, too. Skinfood’s motto of “food for the skin to eat” made it even more appealing.


The cream comes in a nifty 62 ml tub, and its golden lid makes it seem pretty luxurious for its affordable price of under $30. The consistency is very gel-like, but the smell is wonderful and sweet, and it’s quickly absorbed. This moisturizer is perfect for winter, and provides double the hydration due to honey being a natural humectant. Humectants help bind moisture to the skin, locking in moisture all day.


Skinfood Royal Honey isn’t just a fancy marketing name for that golden nectar — it goes through a 60-day fermentation process in the beehive, resulting in less water as a filler and richer, more concentrated honey. I use this product as both a day and night cream and at night supplement it with Scinic’s Honey All In One Ampoule for even more moisture.


Side-by-side, my new moisturizer is perfect for my new location and has left me with supple, glowing skin.


mamonde rose water toner k-beauty convert


Another beauty basic I’ve come to rely on is Mamonde Rose Water Toner. I hate to admit it, but I used to skip the essential middle step of toning in my skincare regime because I didn’t realize just how important it was. I now restore my skin’s surface and balance my pH levels with a hydrating toner, ensuring that my face is ready for the next layer.


The Mamonde Rose Water Toner comes in a gorgeous, transparent light pink 250 ml bottle and contains 90.89% rose water instead of regular water. The Damask roses used for this toner are grown in the world-famous rose-growing area of Bulgaria and are extracted at low temperatures, meaning more effective ingredients. It’s light and absorbs quickly and doesn’t leave my skin feeling dry at all. It claims to have a soothing effect, and this is why I love it. I’ve used this toner after cleansing with cotton pads, straight onto my face for a refresher, and as a mist to hydrate midday. I highly recommend it for anyone with skin that needs a bit of a boost.


park shin hye roses k-beauty convert
Celebrating all things floral, the gorgeous Park Shin Hye. Instagram @ssinz7


Another reason why I love this toner is because the gorgeous actress Park Shin Hye is the brand ambassador for Mamonde. If her glowing skin is anything to go by, then I’m sticking with this rose water toner for life! 


k-beauty convert


As I’ve become more comfortable with Korean products, I’ve incorporated more of them into my regimen. One is Innisfree’s No-Sebum Blur Primer, which I’ve been using solidly for nearly two years. In a nutshell, it removes shine, smooths out skin, and blurs pores. (I found this blurring to be quite minimal as my pores remained the same size, but this primer provides a smooth canvas for applying foundation, helping it stay on longer.) It has a slight minty scent and comes out feeling silky; I love how smooth and velvety this feels against my skin. Its natural minerals and botanical extracts from Jeju Island check all my natural ingredient boxes. And though its light beige color may not suit all skin tones, overall, it’s a solid primer that absorbs quickly. Compared to the Woolworths Face Smoothing Primer I used in South Africa, Innisfree’s primer wins hands down, leaving my skin a lot less oily.


I’m not exaggerating when I say that Korean beauty products have changed the game for me. They’re affordable, made with the highest quality ingredients, and have left my skin feeling more supple and cared for than ever before. You can consider me a K-beauty convert.


What was the first K-beauty product that turned you into a convert? Tell us!


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