Growing up in Korea, I was surrounded by seas of lotions, creams and moisturizers everywhere I went; therefore, I never second-guessed the importance of skincare.
However, despite all the craze today around the ten-step Korean skincare regimen, the ubiquity of topical products after products, all of the different ingredients popping up here and there (from snail oil to placenta-infused creme), the only Korean Skincare ritual that my family has passed down to me, the only regimen my Korean matriarch, my grandmother, has strictly ingrained into my brain, is the one spoken about the least: the Korean diet.
For those who aren’t so familiar, Korean cuisine is always a balanced meal of grilled protein, rice (rarely bread), brothy soups, and lots of fermented vegetables as side dishes, such as kimchi, and miso paste.
Kimchi, a fermented, pickled cabbage iconic to our culture, is dense with minerals, vitamins A, B and C, fat-free and most importantly, loaded with probiotics, a gut-friendly bacteria that take shelter in your stomach once ingestion.
And how do these little probiotic soldiers help our skin? What probiotics do for our health and our skin, is almost immeasurable: our stomach, AKA the “second brain,” is actually the ruler of our overall health. And when our stomachs are off (think constipation, diarrhea, even just too much of the wrong food), our skin takes a beating almost immediately.
With probiotics, however, our stomach achieves that needed homeostasis much more easily: by being able to fend off a lot of what causes these problems and supporting the excretion process of pushing the radical toxins out of our system, our skin becomes stronger, happier, and healthier.
Digestion support helps your skin look and feel its best.
What’s more, Koreans consume a lot of collagen-based soups and dishes. Almost every meal is accompanied with a bowl of hot soup, using bone broth as the base (whether it’s from a chicken, a cow or fish). There’s so much collagen in these soups, that after you’re finished with a bowl, your lips get sticky.
Collagen is a type of protein that all living, breathing animals -- including humans-- produce. It makes up our bones, muscles, skin, and hair. It’s also the most abundant protein in our bodies that holds our bones, muscles, and especially skin, together (it makes up 70% of the protein found in skin).
Think of collagen as gatekeepers of moisture in our cells, integral in keeping our cells hydrated. And unfortunately, as we age, our body’s ability to produce our much needed supply of collagen diminishes at a rate of 1% a year, resulting in the depletion of collagen in our skin cells. Consequently, our skin fails to retain the moisture as it once used to, leading to less hydrated cells and looser, weaker, stretchier, and thinner skin (and of course, this is what causes wrinkles, fine lines, dry skin, cellulite, and even brittle hair.
Ingesting collagen facilitates new regeneration of skin, muscle, bones and joint cells, something my mother and grandmother never let me forget if I ever decided to be picky with my food.
Collagen is found in bone broth, and more importantly, in the skin of the fish-- which Koreans eat wholly. Almost three times a day!
Obviously, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that what we put into our body directly translates to how we look and feel. Still, I do think that most of us either like to conveniently forget, or underestimate just how much of what we ingest, translates to our skin. If we took a second to trace some of our most frustrating skin and hair problems to their roots, we would find ourselves circling back to our stomachs and liver, two of our most stressed out, hung over organs. And we would also see, that whether it’s inflammation or fatigue, something probably was a bit off at the cellular level.
Despite religiously yet unknowingly practicing this korean skincare “diet,” however -- I didn’t always put two and two together. I always ignored the immediate linkage of pizza date-nights to morning after pimples, and focused more on purchasing eye-creams here, moisturizers and toners there.
Though I admit, I was terrible at making a daily habit of those expensive products. But because I was regularly eating Korean food, my skin was more than fine -- I was still receiving undeserving compliments and questions on my Korean skincare secrets.
The crystallization of just how important nutrition was to my skin, and the role it played in its appearance however, actually only occurred to me in my early twenties, when I got severely burned from scalding hot oil. Instantly studded with blood blisters up and down both of my arms, I couldn’t leave the house in daylight for weeks. I had to turn to silicone patches, topical creams, litres of bio oil, mederma, and prescription ointments to ensure that my skin would heal without much scarring-- but saw little to no effect.
When almost nothing worked, I decided to take to the internet’s advice and started taking 20-30g of collagen daily for its regenerative and healing benefits. And despite hating the taste of it, I stuck to it daily. After about 3-4 weeks, I started noticing a dramatic change -- my blister-turned scabs were starting to disappear. But the differences I noticed were not just on my arms, but in my face and hair. My eyelashes, brows and hair got so much thicker, and my skin no longer just looked great -- it looked “photoshopped,” “glowy,” and “as soft as a baby’s bottom.” Even my number one skin curses, dry skin and enlarged pores, seemed to have disappeared without even my knowing, over the course of my collagen regimen.
And that was when it hit me. I had been falsely attributing my Korean skin to the here-and-there usage of certain products, when it had not so much to do with that. It was what I had been eating and consuming, that allowed for my skin to maintain its youthfulness and protected it from the wear and tear of life.
Our moms were right all along -- when it comes to skincare, it really is what’s underneath, and inside, that counts.
Originally published in WMag.com
Sally is the founder of an ingestible skincare brand, Crushed Tonic.
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