It’s Korean Beauty Week here at Byrdie HQ! Each day this week, our Korean-beauty correspondent, Alicia Yoon, will be sharing the most interesting findings from her recent trip to Seoul. Consider this a deep dive into what’s really happening over the pond, from the newest product innovations to the beauty goods real Korean women are obsessing over. For the third instalment, Yoon is shining light on what it’s really like at a Korean bathhouse—from the steaming saunas to the famed full-body scrub-down. Read up!
There are bathhouses in Korea that are higher end as well as those that are more tourist-focused. Then, there are your super-local bathhouses you walk to from your home—there’s usually one you can find in any neighbourhood. If you’re ever in Seoul and you’re up for a real local experience, here’s what you can expect (and this is going to get a little personal, as I’ll be sharing with you a play-by-play what it’s like at my neighbourhood bathhouse). Let’s dive right in (pun intended)!
Keep scrolling to find out how to navigate a Korean bathhouse!
It’s all very unceremonious. You pay a small entrance fee of anywhere between $2-$10. In the bathhouse I’ve been going to since I was 11, you walk in and pay at a small counter desk at the entrance.
You also take your shoes off by the entrance and put them in the shoe rack by the door. Some places will have separate shoe lockers, but the local places will usually just have a shoe cubbyhole that’s not locked (so don’t bring your Jimmy Choos). You trade in your shoes for indoor slippers—some are rubbery and foamy, and some are flat cotton slippers. They’re not usually brand-new ones: They’ve probably been worn by others and potentially gently spritzed (if of the foamy material), but people aren’t too concerned about this, so if you’re squeamish about sharing slippers, BYO.
As soon as you walk in, be prepared to see a lot of nudity everywhere. Bathhouse-goers are super comfortable in the buff, and they’ll do everything from blow-drying their hair to sipping on yogurt drinks (we’ll get to this later) to having boisterous chats with friends without a stitch of clothing on. At the same time, if you’re fully clothed in a coat and just hanging out, no one will really care.
No one is going to really lead you to a locker. You walk in, and you just find an empty one with a key hanging off it. There aren’t robes inside the locker, so be prepared to strip down, lock up your belongings and join the nude crowd. If you’re shy about this, there are thin towels stacked up somewhere near the entryway of the bathing area, so grab one of those to cover up. The towels are usually small, though—like a large-ish face towel—and will probably only cover up your torso.
Local bathhouses don’t come with a ton of bells and whistles. They’re neat, practical, and comfortable. There’s usually a bathroom; glass doors that lead to the main bathing area; an area with lockers; an area with vanities stocked with skincare products, dryers, Q-tips, and body lotion; and an area where you can hang out and drink yogurt juice, watch TV, lay down, and relax.
My local bathhouse is a pretty typical one, and here’s what it looks like: There’s a section of standing showers with just one showerhead next to another; no partitions. Then there’s another section, a slightly larger one, of sit-down showers that run next to each other. The showers have a tile shelf in front, a small mirror running across the front of the showers, and stools to sit on while showering. These stools are really low, about a foot-and-a-half high. This sit-down section gets pretty communal. It’s not uncommon for people to come together and chat while showering and take turns scrubbing each other’s backs. And a common scrubber you’ll see is some version of the "Italy towel" that gets every layer of dirt right off. It’s actually not great for the skin to scrub so hard—and Koreans can scrub!—so I recommend going easy on the skin. Gentle is usually the better way to go here.
There are usually the thin towels lined up by the main bathing area, as well as a scale. I have a habit of weighing myself before I go in and get my body scrub, because so much dirt comes off that it’s curious to see a whole half-pound invariably fall off when I get out. (In reality, I’m sure it’s actually due to sweat, not exfoliated skin.) The main bathing area is usually stocked with some sort of bar soap you can use for your body, and sometimes they'll have shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste. Most people bring their own bathing supplies. When you’re entering the bathing area, in addition to your own supplies (which I highly recommend, as there won’t be loofahs or toothbrushes supplied, and the soap and shampoos available, while just fine, may not be exactly according to your taste), you should grab a thin towel or two that’s usually stacked right by entrance.
In the middle of the room, there are two bathtubs that can fit about 20 people easily. One is filled with extremely hot water, and the other is filled with ice-cold water. The idea is that going in and out of these tubs from one to the other can help achieve the ideal level of circulation. These baths are on the shallow side and have a ledge to sit along inside the tub, which brings the water right to about belly level. The reason is that the hot tub can also be used as a half-bath to also help with circulation. Sit in the tub with only your belly button down immersed in the hot water, with everything else, including arms and hands outside of the water. You’ll work up a sweat, and Korean tradition says it helps with circulation. I love doing this, and I sit there like this for about 15 minutes. It’s my bathhouse peace time, and many of my meditative moments have happened here.
There’s also a regular warm-water tub to bathe in in the far corner of the space. Along one wall, there is a wet sauna room. (There’s a dry sauna room outside the main bathing area.)
Across the opposite wall is a small, low glass partition. Behind that are five “beds” covered in a rubbery material. My bathhouse heroes are the five women manning the beds. They’re usually donned in what can only be described as slightly toned-down evening lingerie (think sheer black lace bras and sometimes equally sheer underwear). This wardrobe is pretty typical in most bathhouses, but no one bats an eye; we all get it, it gets hot and wet in there, and sheer, thin materials are comfortable to wear. Plus, it’s all contextual, and when nudity is the standard, this lingerie really serves in part as a way to set apart those who are getting their bodies rubbed down and those who are providing the incredible body rub-downs.
These women will take their Italy towels and, using just some soap and water, get so much dirt off your skin (it looks like eraser crumbs just all over your body) that you’ll be astounded. It costs extra, but you can also get a body massage, which involves everything from deep-tissue to body stretches to light pounding with fists. The best part is that they’ll use straight-up milk (literally the milk that I might have drank that morning), sesame seed oil or just plain-old body oil. I always ask for the sesame seed oil followed by the milk. Throughout the massage (and sometimes even through a part of the scrub-down), they’ll leave freshly cut and grated cucumber on your face. They also finish up with a invigorating scalp massage as they wash your hair.
Other bathhouses can have different rooms with different herbal scents or tubs with green tea, clay, you name it, but my local bathhouse includes pretty much just the staples.
Now that we went over the lay of the land, let’s get down to the routine. Not everyone will get a full-body scrub-down or massage, but I always get one when I go to the bathhouse because that’s the point for me.
First things first. Before heading into the bathing area, I always make sure to use the bathroom. I mean, who wants to be interrupted during this whole bathing ritual? After this, I head in and shower. I use the sit-down showers. Before sitting on the stool, I wash it thoroughly with soap (atypical bathhouse behavior, but I get squeamish), place my towel over it, and wash hair, body, and face. People also brush their teeth here at this point (Koreans are really into brushing their teeth, and it’s a thing during lunch breaks at the office), but I usually save that for when I’m at home.
Next, I do my half-bath in the hot tub. I don’t do the hot-cold bath because I get cold easily and I can’t really handle the cold tub, but this is where others would typically start doing the hot-cold bath swapping.
After this, I head into the wet sauna armed with my other towel completely soaked in ice-cold water. The wet sauna is steaming hot, and I quickly scurry to an open area and lay down on the floor where it’s a bit cooler. I usually go to the bathhouse with my mother, and while we don’t scrub each other’s backs (mainly because we’re both going to get a full scrub-down from the women at the rubber beds), this is where we have total solidarity.
I’m usually gasping for air and struggling to stay in the hot wet room. My mom tries to tell me a long-winded story in a hushed voice to keep me in the room. The women at the beds really like you to stay in the wet room for at least 10 minutes because it helps with the exfoliation later without having to rub too hard, which can irritate skin (especially my sensitive skin). Thanks to my mom’s storytelling, I make it to the 10-minute mark and quickly exit the room.
I make it to the rubber bed, and I always ask for a softer scrub-down. My scrubber complies but usually defaults to a pretty intense scrub (I just prefer it much, much, much softer than what is typical). She also applies the fresh, cool cucumber to my face, and by the end of the scrub-down, half of it is on my bed and hair. After the scrub-down, I’m asked to go over to the standing shower and quickly rinse off and soap down. It takes all of two minutes. I head back and she greets me with dry towels and towels me off. And then, I’m off to the massage with sesame seed oil, followed by milk. I wouldn’t call this massage relaxing (since it’s a bit vigorous), but it’s really rejuvenating. There’s some deep tissue, some pressure points, and a whole lot of thumping and pounding (not painful), all the while oil and/or milk is being sloshed and rubbed into my body. She washes off the milk and washes my hair. I love this part because the scalp massage is one of the best I’ve ever had to date. I still can’t find a better place for head massages than my local bathhouse. It’s the right amount of pressure, and it’s a fairly long massage. Tension and worries melt away.
Pictured: 8-Piece Asian Exfoliating Washcloth ($7)
After this, I walk back out to the non-bathing area onto dry land again. I weigh myself. Yup, I shed a whole quarter kilogram (half a pound-ish) in maybe equal parts sweat and dead skin cells. I go to my locker and get out my skincare products. I find a seat at the vanity table area (an L-shaped area with about 10 puffy seats to sit on along a long counter and huge mirrors in front). I place a towel over the seat and start slowly indulging in my skincare routine, which usually includes about a dozen-plus steps for me. (I have dry and frail skin and am decidedly very high maintenance about it all.) I use the Q-tips in front of me for my ears as well as the body lotion provided. I skip blow-drying my hair, but dryers are available for those who might need them. My mom and I sit next to each other and share some products, but we have our own personalized routines, so only a few products overlap.
I finish before her (she spends a lot of time doing facial massages and stretches while sitting), go to my locker, and put on just my shirt and underwear. I ask the lady in the front for two things: a roasted egg, Korean-bathhouse-style, and a “Yakult” yogurt drink, two popular bathhouse snacks. I sprawl on the floor as I wait for my mom to finish up, sometimes falling asleep. (She’s still going at it at the vanity table, at this point.) Once she’s done, I get dressed and we’re all done.
The whole experience takes about two hours, but it’s always two hours well-spent. I walk away relaxed, clean, supple from head to toe, and with a lighter gait.
You can re-create the famed Korean bathhouse scrub-down with an Italy towel ($7) at home.
Have you ever been to a Korean bathhouse? Click below for the first two installments in our Korean beauty series!