Growing up in Korea, I was surrounded by seas of lotions, creams and moisturizers everywhere I went—I never second-guessed the importance of skincare. But, despite the craze today around the 10-step Korean skincare routine, the obsession with applying topical product after product, and all the different ingredients popping up (from snail oil to gold-infused creme), the only Korean skincare ritual that my family passed down to me is the one spoken about the least: the Korean diet.
For those who aren’t familiar, Korean cuisine is always a balanced meal of grilled protein and rice (never bread), with lots of various fermented vegetables such as kimchi and miso paste.
Kimchi, a fermented, pickled cabbage almost iconic in our culture, is dense with minerals, vitamins A, B and C, fat-free and most importantly, loaded with probiotics, a gut-friendly bacteria that takes shelter in your stomach after ingestion. And what probiotics do for our health and our skin, is almost immeasurable: our stomach, the so-called “second brain,” is actually the ruler of our overall health. And when our stomach is off, our skin takes a beating almost immediately. But with probiotics, our stomach is able to fend off a lot of what causes these problems, and gets our skin to its optimal condition.
Furthermore, Koreans consume a TON of collagen-based dishes and soups. Collagen is a type of protein that all living, breathing animals— including humans— produce. It makes up our bones, muscles, skin, and hair. Think of them as gatekeepers of moisture in our cells; and without this collagen “wall” to keep our cells hydrated, our cells increasingly lose structure, leading to weaker, stretchier, and thinner skin. And of course, this is what causes wrinkles, fine lines, dry skin, cellulite, and the loss of structure in your hair follicles (integral to holding on to your hair). And unfortunately, time and our environment, such as pollution, smoking, eating fried foods, and more, cause our body produce less and less of it (a rate of 1.5% a year). 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.
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 what you ingest, translates to your skin. If you take a second to trace some of our most frustrating skin and hair problems to their roots, you would find yourself circling back to your stomach and liver, two of our most stressed out, hung over organs. And you’d also see, that whether it’s inflammation or fatigue, something probably was a bit off at the cellular level.
Despite being entrenched in 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 rarely thought about eating the “right” type of foods. I focused mostly on putting extra eye cream on nights following a tough day, and religiously spent hundreds of dollars monthly on massages, facials, and more products.
The crystallization of just how important ingestible skincare to was to the health of my skin, 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 20g 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, once chronically dry, didn’t need as much topical attention as it used to.
And that was when it hit me.
Our moms were right all along— when it comes to skincare, it really is what’s underneath, and inside, that counts.
Sally Kim is the founder of Crushed Tonic, a marine collagen, probiotics, and biotin blended beverage brand.
Originally published at Thrive Global and WMag.