Everything you need to know about Hanbang

K-beauty, can not be simply defined as innovative modern skincare and makeup from South Korea. In truth, there are several subcategories to devise Korea’s diverse beauty offerings – one of which is Hanbang, otherwise know as Traditional Korean Medicine. Oriental medicine as a whole largely contributes to Hangbang, with influences from other Asian countries that ruled before Korea as we know it today, and before the Japanese annexation of Korea. Most of the Hanbang practices which still stand today surfaced during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). 

Hanbang is simply an umbrella term for all the types of therapy used to treat skin problems, and in some cases physical conditions concerning organs other than the skin. Although, we will be focusing on the topical application and aspect of skincare (cosmetics).


Defining ‘Hanbang’

Both Oriental and traditional Korean medicine stem for the concept of ‘Chi/Qi’, or in Hangul. Chi is the manifestation of how everything has a source of energy. Chi energy consists of polar opposites ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’, which you’ve probably heard of before. Even though they’re opposites, Yin and Yang attract each other and complement one another. By working in harmony they achieve equilibrium - a balanced and stable system which allows things to function healthily and naturally. 

The theory of Chi energy, and Yin and Yang, stretches into the idea that our skin as an organ also requires balanced energy to remain healthy and keep us protected from external stressors. Furthermore, the skin is seen as the window of health, due to it’s direct correlation to the inner body. 

For centuries it has been suggested that if an organ/particular area within the human body is not healthy or well-functioning, this fault will reflect on the skin. For instance, if one experiences digestive issues it will most likely inhibit the delivery of vital nutrients and energy to the skin; thus resulting in breakouts, a dull complexion, skin’s inability to retain sufficient moisture, and so on. The ‘Face Mapping’ method is based on this ideology. 

Face Mapping is a diagram and system which highlights how acne can affect different quadrants of the face. Depending on where the acne is situated on the face determines which organ or part of the body is imbalanced. Some types of acne are caused by hormonal changes within the body and are recognised as a warning sign or clue as to what could be going on inside a person’s body. Upon examination of the skin, a Hanbang specialist would be able to determine which ingredients should be used in a concoction to best treat your skin based on the cause or concern.  


The benefits of Hanbang cosmetics VS other types of Korean skincare

What sets Hanbang cosmetics apart from more commercialised Korean Skincare products, is that Hanbang cosmetics are more refined and categorised – specialising in particular functions such as anti-aging, brightening and soothing rather than simply solving skin dryness and that alone. Hanbang cosmetics usually refrain from “doing it all’, so to speak, and typically do not provide all-in-one solutions. Although it is common to put brightening and nutrient-dense ingredients together to provide two solutions in one. Hangbang cosmetics are intended for consistent use to be effective. They do not provide temporary solutions to minor skin concerns, and are therefore more targeted at the specifics. 

Authentic Hanbang cosmetics and skincare treatments in Hanbang clinics should involve the use of herbal and natural ingredients from nature, just like in all types of Oriental medicine. More often than not, Hanbang makes use of only easily accessible, trustworthy, necessary and high quality ingredients found within Korea, and are usually grown on Korean soil. Hence why many Hanbang ingredients for skincare are also food sources from nature’s harvest.


Common Hanbang ingredients

Everything you need to know about Hanbang


There are several, although these are among the most usual and common:

  • Ginseng, particularly premium Ginseng – boosts blood circulation within blood vessels, thereby resulting in synthesis of collagen and firmer skin
  • Lotus root – helps regulate sebum production 
  • Chaga mushroom – protects skin from sun damage
  • Various tea extracts – mostly provide antioxidants 
  • Perilla leaf – rich in omega-3 and skin-loving essential nutrients
  • Mugwort/Artemisia – for soothing skin
  • Fermented extracts/probiotics, e.g. rice ferments, yeasts, fermented soybeans, fermented flower substances, etc. – reinforce the skin barrier and in the long term can smooth out fine lines and wrinkles, and more.

In most cases some of these ingredients can be combined together to maximise the antioxidant content and effects of a product. Others are best used on their own or with just a few other ingredients to form more concentrated treatments which rejuvenate skin cells and promote collagen synthesis. 


Many people argue that in order to truly be classified as Hanbang cosmetics, the products have to meet 2 points:

  1. They must be formulated with natural ingredients that we’re used in the past
  2. They should be made using ancient methods of preparation, such as the fermentation process.


Related article: A Complete Guide to Korean Beauty Expiration Dates


Nowadays, there are Korean skincare brands who abide by the rule of using ancient-old ingredients, but do not implement fermented ingredients and develop them with modern methods. Whereas there are some brands who meet all criteria. Those who pride themselves on creating Hanbang cosmetics which closely resemble (as much as possible) the remedies used in ancient times, will usually do so according to the Donguibogam (동의보감) - a medical encyclopedia comprised during the Joseon era by Royal physician Heo Jun. It holds prescriptions detailing ingredient combinations for treating multiple skin issues, and notes the functions and characteristics of more than 300 herbal remedies. 

Some well-established skincare brands that incorporate elements of Hanbang are Sulwhasoo, Whamisa, The History of Whoo, Su:m 37 and Beauty of Joseon.


Hanbang cosmetics worth trying

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum this is one of Sulwhasoo’s most famous products and has undergone five revamps to upgrade its formula to make it even better than it already was. It’s a powerful anti-aging booster that aids in skin rejuvenation to achieve natural-looking, youthful skin. It has been made with 23 years worth of research to back its efficacy, and is formulated with a signature blend of 5 herbal ingredients which ultimately nourish and visibly firm skin. It’s hydrating texture helps with the absorption of subsequent products applied on top. It contains Ginger, Licorice, Walnut seed, Honey, Natto Gum, and several botanical extracts – all of which are consistent with Hanbang practices. 


Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum Glam Touch UK
Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum's ingredients


Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Oila gentle first step cleanser which leaves skin feeling moisturised after the delicate, yet thorough removal of makeup and impurities. The herbal oil complex consists of Camellia Japonica seed oil to soften skin, retain moisture skin deep and deliver an immense amount of phytonutrients. Apricot Kernel oil and Plum Blossom extracts have been added to soften and smooth out skin, whilst improving skin’s radiance with vitamins C and E. This cleansing oil emulsifies well and doesn’t leave skin feeling greasy, nor dehydrated.


Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Oil Glam Touch
Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Oil
Beauty Of Joseon Ginseng Essence Water - this refreshing, watery essence toner contains 80% ginseng water instead of purified water to deliver deep hydration. The Ginseng complex consists of Ginseng root water, Ginseng callus culture extract, Ginseng root extract, Ginseng berry extract, Lactobacillus/Ginseng root ferment filtrate that nourishes the skin. This key ingredient is rich in antioxidants that combats damage from external aggressors that can cause premature aging. It also contain 2% Niacinamide which is great for oil control, improving texture and brightening skin.
Beauty Of Joseon Ginseng Essence Water
Beauty Of Joseon are continously creating skincare formulas which are a well-balanced crossover of Hanbang, and modern day Korean skincare. Not only are they well-known for optimising the benefits of Ginseng, Rice, and Green Plum extracts, they are knowledgable about how to combine such ingredients with popular 21st Century skincare ingredients such as Hydroxy Acids, Arbutin, and Ceramides. Resulting in a well-rounded brand which provide skincare for all. 

What do you think about Korean's traditional skincare ingredients? Tell us your opinion below!

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