Beauty Benefits Of The Korean Diet

Makgeolli (fermented rice wine)
Doenjang (soy bean paste)
Chilled Boricha (roasted barley tea)
kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage)

Your Korean friend in her mid-30s has the skin of someone at least 10 years her junior, and gasp—she doesn’t even use essence! (More on that here; it's important, trust me.) As it turns out, there may actually be some truth to the whole "there's something in the water" speculation (it's roasted barley). Here's a rundown of what she may be putting in her mouth rather than on her skin that's helping to give her that age-defying glow.

The Side Dish
An average Korean person eats 40 lbs of kimchi every year, and I’m actually surprised it isn’t more. This spicy fermented cabbage seasoned with garlic, salt, vinegar, and chili peppers is present at almost all Korean meals (I even eat it with my homemade Bolognese). The fermentation process produces lactic acid and lactobacillus bacteria (a probiotic!) that boosts the immune system. It's also high in vitamin C and beta-carotene which can improve your skin’s elasticity.

The Water
It’s common to see a pitcher of chilled boricha, or roasted barley tea, in the fridge during the spring and summer while the drink is served warm during colder months. Full of antioxidants and fiber, the nutty-tasting drink made from whole grains helps to cleanse your body of toxins, preserve skin elasticity and promote better blood circulation. The tea is a common substitute for water in every Korean household and kid-friendly because it is caffeine-free—it's literally what's in the water.

The Stew
Doenjang is a fermented soybean paste mainly used in a spicy and salty stew with tofu and veggies (and clams if you want to get fancy). Considered a classic comfort food, it has a pungent flavor which definitely makes it an acquired taste. It pairs well with Korean BBQ or scorched rice. Because the soybean is fermented, it has a much higher nutritional value than regular soybeans. It's abundant in vitamin E, one of the most powerful antioxidants that helps protect and repair your skin by neutralizing free radicals and prevents cellular damage from occurring.

The Spirit
Makgeolli is a fermented rice wine rich in vitamins, minerals that's traditionally served in a bowl rather than a cup. Amino acids such as lysine and methionine keep skin firm and vitamins B2 and B3 are known to brighten skin. Leave it to the Koreans to come up with a way to get their drizzy on (though it does contain less alcohol than beer) and improve their skin all in the same night.

—Charlotte Cho

Charlotte is the co-founder of SokoGlam, a retail site with a mission to bring Korean beauty products direct to women in the US. Follow her on Instagram @sokoglam.

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  • B

    Sadly, kimchi also contains a lot of nitrites which is also implicated in stomach cancer. There is also no evidence anywhere, in ANY science journal, that a certain diet attributes to good skin. That said, Vitamin C is probably the most important as it is involved heavily in collagen production.

    Also, would like to point out that no such thing as "detoxing" anything out of the body.

    I do love my Korean BBQ, stew (favourite is beef bone soup with seaweed!) and roasted barley drink (in fact, it's my ultimate favourite after Korean ginseng!), but there is NO such thing as what I have pointed out above.

    Aging, at the end of the day, is due to your genetics, sun exposure and collagen in your skin.

    • maiastras

      I agree that diet isn't a quick and direct way to get good skin. There's always that girl who eats a croissant, drinks black coffee and smokes a cigarette for breakfast everyday and it turns out that she is of mixed heritage, and attributes good skin to one of her parents. This is always disheartening to a person like me, where every stressful event seems to show up on my face as a lovely blemish.

      One aspect that frequently gets overlooked in Korean cuisine is the fact that somehow a very large variety of vegetables are incorporated into your daily diet. Usually you eat a bowl of rice (size is up to you, mixed-grain if you're extra-healthy) with each meal, and in the obligatory soup there will be veggies. Especially if you're with a larger traditional family where your industrious grandmother is head cook, each season there will be an assortment of at least 7 different kinds of kimchi or vegetable/wild harvested herb side dishes. These get rotated daily, and change with the season so you're never stuck with the same combination.

      I do like Charlotte's selection of foods above, particularly the inclusion of makgeolli. There is nothing that beats fresh brewed makgeolli and unfortunately you'll have to fly out to Korea or make your own using rice and amylase starter. Just be careful, because as easy as it is to drink, it will give you a killer hangover the next day after you've effortlessly sipped your way through a gallon of it.

    • Talia

      Wouldn't Kimchi only be nitrite heavy if one of the ingredients involved had some in it, such as the preserved shrimp? I'm genuinely curious, since I make kimchi at home and am very conscientious about nitrites in prepackaged food.

    • Bridget

      Actually your diet has everything to do with aging!!

  • Sara

    I am not Korean, but I simply adore kimchi, and could it eat it every single day. I used to make my own kimchi -- very easy and inexpensive. Please note that the process called fermentation doesn't produce Lactobacillus spp. Lactobacilli among other bacteria are the bacteria that cause fermentation and the production of lactic acid, which reduces the pH value.

    • Charlotte – CURATOR OF SOKO GL

      Wow, impressive. My aunt in Korea doesn't even make her own Kimchi anymore. Thanks for the insight on the lactobacillus!

    • thunderlegz

      Oh! Can you tell me how you make this kimchi? Im not talented in the kitchen and can eat a boatload of kimchi-I guess I could just google this, but, Sara, I have to know what makes your kimchi tick!

  • Stephanie

    I live in Canada and my mother who is Italian has been using Korean products for 25 years. She gets so many compliments on her skin. She is 65 and people mistake her for 50. She buys Korean products in the back of a Korean grocery store in downtown Toronto. All the women who work there have doll like skin and perfect make-up.

    • Melissa

      May I ask which grocery store she goes too? It would be much easier for me to grab the stuff right away for instant gratification than waiting for 2 weeks for it to come in the mail.

      • Stephanie

        I will find out the exact name and address and get back to you.

      • Stephanie

        yes it is P.A.T on Bloor. Also in Richmond hill there is H-mart on Yonge and Weldrick area. There is another one on finch but I don't have the exact address.

    • Paul Knapp

      Italians naturally have that "skin glow" anyways!

  • Divya

    I have lived in Korea for 3 months (worked for Samsung Electronics) and that was the best time I had! People were so great and the food everywhere was amazing! I used to eat at the company cafeteria and not too many people (non-koreans) could handle it! Luckily for me I had enough Korean friends and Korea-loving friends to have a great time exploring the country!
    This is all off-topic but this just reminded me of those times! Sorry for the rant!

    • Charlotte – CURATOR OF SOKO GL

      Did you work at the Seocho HQ? Love that building. The cafeteria had so many options tho, not just Korean...Tell me about it, I am super nostalgic about Korea too!

    • Janet Lee

      Loved your rant :)

  • K.Raa

    Any Londoners who know where to go for Korean groceries? Ideally in South-East or East London, but I am so willing to travel for kimchi - it's only that I don't know where-to, though I've been looking!

    • Charlotte – CURATOR OF SOKO GL

      I lived in Brighton for a little and it was really hard finding a Korean grocery store! This places looks promising:

    • Ingrid

      New Malden is where most Koreans are, but it's a huge trek. Great restaurants though. There's a pretty sizable pan-Asian grocery store in Shoreditch somewhere, close to old street, parallel to Kingsland Road. And I saw a Korean and Japanese supermarket on New Oxford St yesterday, closer to Tottenham ct road than Holborn.

    • Name
    • Sumi

      You can buy a lot of the really common Korean foods at some of the supermarkets in Chinatown (Arigato has a small Korean section), or for a wider slection there's a Korean supermarket behind Centre Point near outside Tottenham Court Road station.... it's opposite a row of Korean restaurants: Woo Jung will give you your side dishes at no extra charge, Korean style! I reall the other ones making you order them from the menu if you wanted them. It'll be expensive buying in central London though, so if you plan to buy loads the trek to New Malden is probably worth it!

  • Sylvie

    Sounds like a diet low on dairy and high on veggies, and that definitely helps your skin!

    • Charlotte – CURATOR OF SOKO GL

      Exactly, so many fermented veggies at every meal!

  • ayme nicole

    Where would you be able to get the roasted barley tea?

    • Charlotte – CURATOR OF SOKO GL

      Do you have any Korean markets around you? If not, Amazon works. I recommended getting it in large tea bag form, so you can just pop it in a pitcher of water. Or, if you want to you can get the actual roasted barley grains and just boil it in a pot of water. Here is a link to the tea bags!

    • Janet Lee

      You should be able to get loose barley granules in Korean grocery stores. The way my Mum used to make it is, get a large kettle full of water in it (or any saucepan for the stove), and put some granules in them, bring it to boil, let it boil for about 5 minutes, take it off the heat and let it cool to room temperature. Scoop the granules out if you like, but we usually left them in.

      You can also buy them at websites like, so if you don't live near an Asian grocery store, you can still get them.

  • TheBeautyWolf

    I inherited the Korean diet (and skincare regime) through marriage, best side benefit ever!

  • han

    There is a 'Bloor Meat & Grocery' store right across P.A.T. They sell homemade Kimchi and it's quite famous. It's very delicious that I had to call my mom and let her know the kimchi from there is as good as hers. It's way better than P.A.T kimchi. Kimchi is in the fridge near the cash desk. I'm Korean and I recommend it!

    • Jennifer Blakney

      Definitely going to Bloor Meat & Grocery today. Thanks for the rec!

  • Stephanie

    ITG, you are killing it with your posts lately! I love this. It's inspired me as an expat blogger to try to write one about my own East Asian home country of Taiwan, but when I attempted to make a list of healthy, skin-friendly foods that Taiwanese eat, I kind of realised...that I don't know any! I'll have to ask around.


  • nononononono

    The rate at which your skin ages has nothing to do with the products you use. Genetics and sun exposure are the largest factors to take into consideration. Eating kimchi everyday will have no impact on how your skin ages.

  • mission_dog

    lol please elaborate on "toxins"

  • sanarae

    The most fabulous I've ever looked from head to toe is/was when I'm visiting Korea (half-Korean, here). I totally concur that it's not just the inordinately complex beauty regimen + cosmetic procedures which keep the ladies (and menfolk!) flawless, but that diet plays a major factor as well - especially as a) there's a growing national obsession with organic food (ingredients are often labelled by country of origin, too), and b) all three meals often involve some combination of fish, vegetables (banchan ahoy!), various types of kimchi and miso. (Yeah, can't have samgyeopsal or kalbi every day of the week. In a perfect world...) And yes, Koreans do notoriously drink like fish, but the appearance-conscious sweat the alcohol out of their pores in the 24-hr saunas the day after ;) PS - if you're worried about keeping a trim figure, avoid eating rice - I'd eat everything else/add it to my rice bowl, but without touching the rice itself (lowcarb ftw), claiming that I just wasn't that into it. okay, so this got me a few weird looks, but mostly girls surreptitiously asking for more of my 'diet secrets'...apparently some K-pop stars have averred rice-avoidance as one of their diet stratagems as well. anyways, since Korean food tends to be strongly flavored, you can get quite satiated and happy just partaking of the individual dishes in turn like a fun and varied buffet! :)
    Unfortunately, Korea does have one of the highest rates of gastric cancer in the OECD (a popular young actress recently died of it in her 20s; I can't recollect her name), but some research indicates that heavy smoking amongst Korean men might also exacerbate the issue. Frankly, current research and occ'l propaganda is all over the place when it comes to this stuff...I wonder if certain types/preparations of kimchi (the methods differ between provinces, for example) might be more of a hazard than others. Meanwhile, I'm not giving up my kimchi jigae just yet. Or my perilla leaves.

  • Clever Girl Reviews

    I love roasted barley tea!

  • Ailyn Koay

    koreans do take care of their skin. just look at their skin care sale!