Despite its hostile border, South Korea has never struggled to lure in visitors, attracting a whopping 17 million tourists annually.
It’s easy to understand why. The country has something for quite literally everybody: whether you’re part of the K-pop cult, a spicy street food fanatic, history geek, or simply an admirer of the traditional (and highly Instagrammable) hanok architecture.
But, emerging on the skyline of Seoul is a new trend that has tourists flocking en masse: botox.
Tapping into the country’s own obsession with perfection and image, the cosmetic procedure has become ubiquitous in South Korea’s capital, where clinics offer it at rock bottom prices.
So what’s it like to visit one of these cheap botox clinics and are they safe?
Beauty standards in South Korea
The societal pressure to look perfect is tangible on the streets of Seoul, which can be kind of intimidating as a tourist.
Everyone is dressed to impress in high-end designer brands and groomed to meticulous detail, while somehow giving off an air of nonchalance.
But South Korea’s image-focused culture goes much deeper than a luxury wardrobe. The country boasts the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita, with reports stating around one in three South Korean women have gone under the knife at some point in their life.
Demand for cosmetic surgery and injectables has become so insatiable the price has become extremely competitive — with some clinics offering botox as low as 29,000 won (around €20).
South Korea’s no-frills botox obsession
Gangnam — home of the eponymous and grating song — has become the heart of South Korea’s beauty tourism.
The neighbourhood is now a concrete jungle of skin clinics and dermatologists that offer a slew of facials, injectables and cosmetic surgery procedures for prices that are almost too good to be true.
Muse and Lienjang Plastic Surgery are two clinics regularly visited and endorsed by social media influencers. They have both racked up an impressive following from sharing patients’ before and after photos, as well as their latest promotions.
But these clinics are not the fluffy kind of spa-like experiences found in Europe or the US. There’s no royal-drying robe and classical music while you wait for your treatment.
In fact, clinics like Muse and Lienjang operate more like a militant fast-food chain.
What’s it like inside a Seoul botox clinic?
You self-check in on an iPad and wait until your number appears on the TV screen above you.
If you want a coffee you can make it yourself — you’re not going to be served peppermint tea while kicking back on the chaise longue.
It’s kind of nostalgic, really. It reminds me of being eight years old and waiting for my Argos collection number to be called out so I could get my roller skates.
You can book an English consultation, but availability is limited and they go quick. Here, you’ll be asked what kind of procedures you want, the potential side effects, and the total cost.
Brevity is key in these meetings. You’ll be told to expect swelling and discomfort then have a chip and pin machine shoved in your face.
After that you’re sent upstairs where you wash your face with the products provided and put your belongings into a locker.
When your name is called you’ll be taken into what looks a little bit like a morgue: a perpetual corridor of 20-something-year-olds all dying from the fear of not looking perfect enough.
Again, this is not a sensual, relaxing environment. You go in, get your treatment, then leave.
So, if you want the results and don’t care for all the thrills, you might like South Korea’s approach to beauty tourism. If you’re after a more lavish and pampered experience, I’d suggest you go elsewhere.
‘I’m hooked’: South Korean botox tourism
Raouia Naji is a medical doctor from Tunisia who recently visited Lienjang Clinic in Gangnam.
The 27-year-old had forehead botox, under eye fillers and a microneedle skin booster.
In Europe, these procedures would typically rack up to €1,000 or more. But in South Korea, they’re available for as low as €158.
In an interview with Euronews Travel, Dr Naji explains how she often sees before and after videos of South Korean clinics pop up on her Instagram and TikTok pages.
“At first, my sister tried skincare procedures before her wedding at the same place and had such a good experience, so I was tempted too,” she adds.
After waiting a couple of weeks for the results to fully kick in, Dr Naji says she was “very happy” with the end product.
“I’m hooked and I don’t think I will try anywhere else but South Korea because they were so gentle… I didn’t know it was this cheap.
“I want to take all of my friends there!”
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Is South Korean botox the next ‘Turkey teeth’?
As beauty tourism continues to bloom in South Korea, so does concern. Are these procedures being done safely? Should injectables be so accessible to young people? And are Europeans soon going to be walking around with frozen faces and drooping eyebrows?
In the post ‘Turkey teeth’ era, more people are aware of the potential downfalls of going abroad for a beauty makeover. But filing your teeth to tiny nubs seems to be asking for trouble, whereas botox is quickly becoming seen as a standard procedure.
I spoke to aesthetic surgeon Dr Glyn Estebanez of Prima Aesthetics in Chester, UK to find out whether botox tourism is as safe as advertised — or if tourists are risking too much to get rid of those pesky crow’s feet.
“Botulinum toxin is the most poisonous neurotoxin and could therefore be life threatening,” he tells me. “However, when administered in small doses like the ones that are used for botox, it is considered to be extremely safe.”
What are the risks of getting botox?
The main risks with having botox — or any anti-wrinkle injections — are not from the drug itself, but from treatment that is performed by a practitioner who is not qualified or experienced, Dr Esetbanez explains.
If botox isn’t administered correctly, or in the correct place, complications can occur. These include infection, vision problems, breathing problems and temporary asymmetry of the face.
However, Dr Esetbanez says complications like these are “rare if in the right hands”.
“You have to remember that these procedures are ‘blind’,” he adds. “What I mean by that is that they’re carried out under a patient’s skin and, whilst we can have a good idea of the facial anatomy, we’re still penetrating the skin and muscles to place the botox or filler.
“If this is placed incorrectly by someone with inadequate knowledge it could lead to skin necrosis, blindness or paralysis of the muscles causing deformation of a patient’s face.”
With this in mind, it’s important to vet your clinic and make sure your practitioner possesses the right qualifications and training.
The invisible side effect of botox
It’s easy to understand how suffocating the pressure to look perfect is for South Koreans, and unfortunately, it’s a catch 22.
I spoke to Dr Esetbanez about a side effect of botox that can happen anywhere in the world — whether you’re in a sketchy salon in South London or a renowned clinic in Los Angeles: perception blindness.
“What I mean by this is the fact that we’re redefining our beauty perceptions all the time after treatment,” Dr Esetbanez tells Euronews Travel.
“After a few weeks, that fresh face becomes the normal face we see in the mirror every day. What do we do then? We’re going to focus on something else and that’s going to bother us.”
This can put patients in a vulnerable position.
“Unscrupulous practitioners will chase and chase these things, and the patient then moves further and further away from the natural starting point. We lose sight of where we started and become focused on the individual problems.”
This can very quickly become a “perfect storm” if the practitioner is also unable to appreciate the subtle tweaks that enhance natural beauty, Dr Esetbanez warns.
“Many practitioners unfortunately suffer from perception blindness too, and therefore focus on significant transformations which in turn can lead to a distortion of beauty.”
Post-procedure: How to stay safe if you get botox on holiday
Hygiene standards in Seoul’s cosmetic surgery clinics seem high, and the potential side effects of botox — when you’re in the right hands — seem less scary than those pearly new whites from Bodrum.
But, is it a good idea to travel to any country for a treatment that can cause risk? I spoke to Shehzeen Ahmad, managing director at Dubai Cosmetic Surgery, who sees patients travelling from all over the world for botox and other treatments.
She advises avoiding places where there is no “adherence or strict regulations about patients’ safety” — which is the common fault of the Turkey teeth nightmares you see online.
“It is important to ensure that you remain in the country post-procedure to ensure there are no complications,” Ahmad adds. “This timescale can vary from two days to one week.”
Most clinics also recommend returning after a week or two to make sure enough botox has been injected. They will often sell cheap bundles where the second dose is even cheaper.
But if all of this is too confusing and conflicting, there is an easy solution: just sleep with a frownie patch.