Please note I am publishing this post now as the information is in-demand and I wanted to get it out as soon as possible – however, it doesn’t yet have the fun and flair of images and photos that help to break a post up so it’s currently a solid block of information.
The photos and flair are coming, I promise – but I know myself too well and if I waited for it to be perfect, I’d never end up publishing it at all and all the actual info I want to share IS below!
Medical tourism is a big business given how expensive healthcare can be in some parts of the world (*cough* the US *cough*) relative to others, and elective, aesthetic procedures definitely fall under the scope of things you may not be willing to shell out for at home but could be swayed to try abroad – if the price is right.
Enter Korea, the cosmetic procedure capital of the world – from a basic facial to plastic surgery, there’s no shortage of skilled and affordable services you can elect to have done when visiting the southern half of the Korean peninsula.
On a recent trip to Seoul, I indulged in several skincare services and learned a lot while doing them. From which clinics to go to, how to book services, and how to navigate and get around Seoul once you get there, here’s a comprehensive guide on getting skincare treatments done in Seoul, Korea!
Not only is Seoul a vibrant, exciting city to visit, but it’s also home to some of the world’s leading skincare clinics and services. The city is known for its cutting-edge skincare technology and innovation; many of your favorite procedures in the US that are a luxury there are far more commonplace in Korea, and there are newer treatments available in Seoul that aren’t even available in the US yet.
One of the main benefits of getting skincare treatments done in Seoul is the cost – if I had to guess, that’s probably the reason you’re here reading this! On average, skincare treatments in Seoul are much cheaper than in the United States; while seeking skincare treatments was not the main objective of my trip, the savings were so massive that they definitely helped offset some of the cost of travel. It can absolutely be a worthwhile investment for those who are serious about their skincare.
Another benefit of getting skincare treatments done in Seoul is the level of expertise and experience of the practitioners. South Korea has a long-standing tradition of prioritizing skincare – think those double-digit step K-beauty routines or the ever-elusive glass skin look – and practitioners in Seoul are highly trained in the latest skincare techniques and technologies.
For those looking for a more invasive treatment, Seoul also offers a wide range of cosmetic surgery procedures, including V-line surgery, facelifts, eyelid surgery, and nose jobs performed by highly skilled surgeons. I personally did not have any cosmetic surgery procedures done in Seoul and can’t speak to those myself.
Is it safe?
Let me put it this way – I’d feel way safer walking into any random clinic in Seoul for the skincare treatments I did than I would in the US. Because skin treatments are not considered a luxury the way they are in the US, the sheer volume of clients clinics see means a lot of experience for practitioners. The clinics and spas in Seoul adhere to strict safety standards, and the practitioners are highly trained and experienced as mentioned above. Additionally, many of the products and technologies used in Seoul are available in the United States and have been approved by the FDA.
Where to go
When searching for a skincare clinic, you’ll likely have an easier time if you go for a clinic that is known to market toward foreigners.
To get this out of the way – I found that there were a select few restaurants, businesses and taxis that were not willing to serve foreigners. That’s an entirely separate discussion I won’t get into as Seoul and Korea as a whole are truly lovely to visit and I 100% believe it’s worth navigating those relatively limited obstacles you might encounter. To avoid any surprises, though, it may be easier to seek clinics that specifically advertise as being foreigner-friendly.
I didn’t visit VS Line Clinic but it was another clinic I considered and would try out next time I go.
Booking appointments at the clinics
The easiest way I found to book appointments was by sending a direct message to each clinic’s Instagram. It’s also worth checking if the clinic has a separate English-speaking Instagram account (usually denoted by ending in “en,” “eng,” “english,” etc).
When I DMed Lienjang at @lienjang_english, they had me send a photo of my face and describe my concerns. They then suggested some options and booked me for an in-person consultation and appointment.
I found the DM conversation to be super helpful; conversely, my experience with the helpfulness of the in-person consultation was lacking until I brought up what the person I had DMed with said I should do. Your mileage may vary with the in-person consultation though, of course! For this reason, though, I’d recommend knowing ahead of time (either via your own research or from DMing them) what you are interested in doing versus exclusively relying on the in-person consultation. Note that the Lienjang website doesn’t go in-depth on treatment options and pricing so if you want to compare pricing between clinics ahead of time, ask them for an estimate.
Muse Clinic, on the other hand, has a super comprehensive website of the treatments they offer and pricing so you can reference that prior to booking. While it does seem they have the ability to book an appointment online, I just DMed them at @museclinic_gn to make my appointment.
The in-person consultation here was super helpful; I went in having no idea what services I might want and they did a great job of narrowing down the options based on the skin concerns I told them I wanted to address.
What I did and how much it cost
With both clinics I visited, something to be extremely clear about upfront is that these are not frou-frouy spa experiences. You will wash your own face (which, by the way, I’ve done at an upscale injector in Los Angeles as well when I got Dysport) before starting any treatments. If you’re used to facials being a luxury experience versus a treatment, that may catch you by surprise, but the pricing does reflect that these are viewed more as efficiently-administered treatments than spa experiences.
For most treatments, you’ll likely be in shared spaces separated by curtains. I was put in a separate room for my facial toning laser treatment, though.
Lienjang was my first visit and you can see a TikTok I made describing that visit here. Here I opted for all of the following:
- Aqua peel facial (similar to our Hydrofacials in the US)
- Pico toning laser for hyperpigmentation
- Microneedled brightening skin booster followed by a mummy molding mask
- Cryo facial to help speed up recovery and reduce redness from the laser
- A Korean-made botox in two areas (my forehead and between my brows)
In Los Angeles, I would’ve paid $2,000-$3,000 total for all that – at Lienjang, my total was US$230, saving me around 90%! I’ll also be getting 10% of that back thanks to the tourist tax refund I describe in the next section below.
The Korean-manufactured botox alone was about US$25 per area when I’d typically pay around $600 in Los Angeles. They do have a German version of botox available for about US$50 per area but I figured Koreans know what they’re doing so I went with the local version. Note that unlike in the US, the botox is charged by area (ex forehead, elevens, crow’s feet) instead of by unit.
While I no longer (for the time being, at least!) get filler, I believe filler costs about US$50 per syringe/ml, and they do have many brands we have in the US like Juvederm and Restalyne. Compare that to US$900/ml I paid a few years ago in Los Angeles and you can quickly see how the savings can help pay for your trip!
I visited Muse Clinic the day after Lienjang and my options were more limited given I had done the pico toning laser the day before.
To that point, if you’re visiting multiple clinics, make sure to tell each what you’ve already done so they know what treatments to avoid recommending – the last thing you want to do is ruin your skin barrier or otherwise damage your skin!
At Muse Clinic, the practitioner I consulted with suggested the following and I did both:
- LDM skin regeneration with moisturizing ampoule ultrasound treatment (helps with inflammatory skin conditions like acne and rosacea and supports skin elasticity and hydration)
- Inmode Forma radiofrequency treatment for collagen stimulation and skin tightening
I also covered this visit and the layout of the clinic in a TikTok linked here. In Los Angeles, I’d pay at least $800 for these two treatments (potentially more depending on where I went). My total at Muse Clinic for both treatments was about US$110 – and I’ll also get 10% back on this purchase through the tourist tax refund described below!
Another plus to having skincare treatments done in Korea – unlike in many other countries where the VAT refund/tax-free schemes for tourists are only for goods like clothes, Korea does tax refunds for services like skin treatments too!
You can get a tourist tax refund on your treatments if the price exceeds 30,000 KRW (US$24 at the time of writing) and the clinic you visit participates and offers the right paperwork. The refund for skincare treatments should be around 10%.
Whether it’s a skincare clinic or general shopping, bring your passport anywhere you go and ask if they do tax-free. If they do, they’ll take your passport details and one of two things will happen – either they’ll give you a specific receipt that you’ll scan at an airport kiosk or submit at a tax refund desk at the airport, or they’ll be able to just deduct the tax amount from your purchase right on the spot. The two skincare clinics I visited issued me tax-free receipt paperwork for the airport whereas a store I purchased skincare from was able to give me the tax-free price on-site with my passport. It’s super easy – just make sure you have your passport with you and proactively ask if any given store/clinic you go into can do the tax-free paperwork or deduction.
My most essential tips for your visit to Seoul
Apps you need
You’re likely used to downloading a destination-specific app or two when traveling, but to make your trip to Korea as easy as possible, you’re going to want a dedicated “Korea” folder on your phone for the following apps – and all are free! Many of your go-tos – including Google Maps or Translate – don’t work nearly as well in Korea, necessitating alternatives.
Naver Map for navigation
Google Maps is pretty useless here with no walking/driving directions – and while it does help with public transportation, it’s not optimized the way local option Naver Map is.
Naver Map has all the above and extraordinarily good public transportation instructions, down to the detail of which subway cars to board for the most efficient exits/transfers.
Papago for translation
In general, English speakers have a pretty easy time traveling to many places given English is the most learned second language in the world, so if you’re used to language accessibility when you travel, Korea may be a bit tougher to navigate given the low rates of English proficiency.
Papago is reportedly better with the various Asian languages it supports than Google, but beyond that, it was a lifesaver with its “conversation mode.” In other countries I’ve been with lower rates English proficiency, I’ve typically found it’s easy to communicate back and forth with others via translation apps where both sides are using their phones to translate and communicate.
However, in Korea, I generally didn’t have that same luck. Papago came to the rescue – it allowed me to use just my phone and do two-way translation with each party speaking into the microphone, without needing a Korean keyboard on my phone. That made it super easy to be more self-reliant in communicating with others as you don’t have to rely on another person’s willingness to pull up a translation app themselves!
Kakao T for taxi rides
Kakao T is like Uber, but helps you call normal taxis since Uber doesn’t work here (a friend on our trip said she heard Uber Black works, but I never saw any availability).
As a visitor, you won’t be able to register an in-app payment method in Kakao T as that requires a Korean credit card or bank account. This limits you to ordering normal metered taxis. When booking, select “general taxi” then on the payment method, swipe left from the “enter a payment method” option to “pay directly to the driver.” Then you just pay whatever the taxi meter says with cash, a credit card or potentially your T-money card (more on that below) once you arrive at your destination.
KakaoTalk for chatting
The three apps above are the more important ones to download, but to communicate with certain businesses, you may find yourself needing KakaoTalk (similar to iMessage or WhatsApp). While most businesses I interacted with for bookings or reservations were happy to communicate via direct messages on Instagram, there was one that I could only reach via KakaoTalk so downloading this did come in handy.
Where to stay
I’d recommend staying in Myeongdong and the surrounding neighborhoods indicated by the green arrow below. You’re closer to tourist sites and I found this area to be very foreigner-friendly. If I needed help, I was way more likely to find English speakers at restaurants and other businesses in this area. The Four Seasons is an excellent luxury option in this general area with a phenomenal location (and must-visit hidden speakeasy-style bar, Charles H).
When I visited Korea in 2010, I stayed in Itaewon which is where a lot of foreigners live. It was also easy to navigate around the city from this neighborhood.
This trip, we stayed in Gangnam at the newer Andaz Seoul Gangnam indicated by the orange arrow. Gangnam is super posh and often analogized as the Beverly Hills of Korea, but staying in this area required a much greater reliance on our translation apps, we experienced some anti-foreigner sentiments in this area, and we ultimately spent more time in the areas indicated by the orange arrow.
When you arrive in Seoul, you’ll want to stop by a 7-Eleven, CU or other convenience store to get a T-Money card. T-Money cards are stored value cards that you use as tap-and-go payment on the subway and buses, plus you can use them to pay for some taxis. Expect to pay about 2,500 KRW (~US$2) for the card itself; you’ll then additionally load KRW to use as payment.
The public transportation system in Seoul is unbelievable and we used the subways and buses a TON as it was often faster to use public transportation versus getting a taxi, so you want to make sure you have a T-Money card to take advantage of the public transportation.
You’ll tap in and out with the card on both subways and buses. While it’s obvious on subways that you need to tap out as you’ll go through a gate when exiting, it’s not as obvious on buses, so just remember to tap on your way out of a bus too.
At the time of writing, Apple Wallet doesn’t have T-Money card support like they have for Los Angeles TAP cards or Tokyo PASMO cards, so ensure you pick up a physical card.
Getting a local SIM/eSIM is pretty cheap and the data is very high speed. You can get one ahead of time for a discounted price if you remember, but there are also desks at the ICN airport arrival hall for the major telecom providers. I got mine through KT (Korea Telecom) at the ICN arrivals hall as I forgot to purchase it ahead of time – no big deal. If your phone is eSIM capable and you do want to purchase it ahead of time, here’s where to do so with KT, though you can of course research other options. That page describes their eSIM package options and the button to purchase can be found closer to the bottom of the page.
Note that your phone needs to be unlocked in order to install and use eSIMs from other carriers; you may need to reach out to your carrier’s customer support to check if your phone is unlocked. If it’s not, they should be able to assist with unlocking it.
In addition to being a culture-rich city to visit and experience, a trip to Seoul, South Korea can be a great way to take your skincare routine to the next level. Not only are the treatments far less expensive compared to pricing in the US, they are also performed by highly trained and experienced practitioners using cutting-edge technology and innovation. Whether you’re looking for a simple facial or a more invasive cosmetic procedure, Seoul has something for everyone. Time to pack your bags and get ready to experience the best skincare that the world has to offer!