Around the World with DAYSPA: Korean Spas

close up of a vigorous body scrub

Rigorous Ritual

The traditional Korean scrub is not for the shy and sensitive among us. As one Hollywood dermatologist put it, “After I had one for the first time, I had to go home and pour myself a stiff drink.” Clients who opt for a Korean scrub should be sure to check their self-consciousness at the door (or pop a Xanax) because they’ll be nude among a roomful of equally nude strangers during most of their spa visit. 

The Korean scrub ritual goes as follows:
• After shedding all clothes, a client soaks in a communal tub for approximately 10 minutes.
• A scrubber, generally an older Korean woman (referred to as an ajuma in Korea) dressed in sturdy undergarments leads the client to a noticeably warm room to lie atop a wooden table topped with vinyl.
• The ajuma sprays the client with warm water and begins the sloughing activity. And it is active: Using a white towel, she vigorously scrubs all parts of the body: behind the ears, neck, under the breasts, arms, stomach, legs, feet—even between the fingers and toes. Korean scrub practitioners are relentless; the goal is to create extreme friction with the towel, then hold up the resulting rice-paper-thin sheets of dead skin to show the client, like a prize.

“Layers of dead skin come flying off,” says Schwartz. “Some people tell me it’s like they’re a dead fish and someone is scaling them!” 

Often the scrubber will use a basic bar of Korean soap to aid the exfoliation. In more upscale establishments (many developed for Western tastes), practitioners use a Korean scrub net and all-natural liquid (Ready Care is one popular brand). Indeed, Korean spas have developed a wide spectrum of treatments to entice Western customers. Olympic Spa in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, for example, offers sugar scrubs with milk baths, grapefruit body shampoo, a honey moisturizer and a chopped cucumber facial.

Interestingly, once clients experience (or perhaps “endure” is a better word) a Korean scrub, they may think that Western exfoliations are for sissies. “No American treatment can compare to the Korean body scrub—it feels like you’re a little child and your grandmother is scrubbing you clean,” says Schwartz. “People end up feeling really loved, nurtured and cared for. And it leaves their skin so soft and glowing. After that, American scrubs feel just like a tickle.”

Add-ons also mitigate the intense Korean scrub experience, and many spas now offer post-scrub treatments like a milk-and-rose-water shampoo and condition, Korean deep-tissue massage or a pineapple cream facial.