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Dispatch from Seoul: 5 Spots to See Off the Beaten Path

South Korea has become ground zero for beauty innovation in the last few years (BB creams, anyone?). Lucky for us, former Birchbox copywriter Mai is teaching English in Seoul this summer—and sending us weekly updates about her finds in beauty, food, and beyond. This week, she’s rounded up the best activities for those seeking refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life.

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This view from the N Seoul Tower might seem like mostly urban sprawl, but there are plenty of green spaces and quiet retreats within the city limits. 

When I first arrived in Seoul, I felt like I had time-traveled into the future. Riding the eerily quiet subway, I saw schoolchildren watching TV shows on their antenna-equipped smartphones. Outside, giant LCD screens filled every corner, and the streets were litter-free. I was in awe: New York seemed downright medieval in comparison (the city is only now getting wi-fi installed on select subway platforms). Yet after a few weeks, I started craving a change of scene away from all the hustle and bustle. It turns out that I didn’t have to travel far—beneath Seoul’s high-tech exterior, there’s plenty of historical charm and hidden greenery. If you’re planning to visit the metropolis, here are five things you should try to unwind:

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Dispatch from Seoul: Gradient Lipstick is Huge Right Now

South Korea has become ground zero for beauty innovation in the last few years (BB creams, anyone?). Lucky for us, former Birchbox copywriter Mai is teaching English in Seoul this summer—and sending us weekly updates about her finds in beauty, food, and beyond. This week, she gives us the scoop on the hot lipstick trend sweeping the nation. 

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Korea is always one step ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to beauty trends—so allow me to predict that by this time next summer, American women will be wearing gradient lipstick, a look that’s being sported by approximately 98 percent of the female population right now in Seoul. (Okay, that’s me guesstimating a little, but it seems like everyone is wearing it!)

While this trend may sound as bold as, say, bright blue eyeliner, it’s actually demure and natural-looking when done right. I learned from my photogenic subject Irene that the best way to get the look is to start by dusting your lips with a beige face powder, apply a nude lipstick, then finish with a bolder hue. Read on to get the full scoop! 

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Dispatch from Seoul: 5 Unforgettable Korean Foods

South Korea has become ground zero for innovation in the last few years (BB creams, anyone?). Lucky for us, former Birchbox copywriter Mai is teaching English in Seoul this summer—and sending us weekly updates about her finds in beauty, food, and beyond. Here, she presents some of the most memorable Korean dishes she’s come across.

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You’ll find tons of premade side dishes at any Korean grocery store—including spicy dried squid shaped like bricks (bottom right). 

I’ve always considered myself an adventurous eater, but nothing prepared me for Korea. This country’s love of spicy food puts American buffalo wings to shame, and I’ve eaten dishes so bizarro exotic that I feel like I’ve earned a gold star for adventurousness. The upside of all my culinary adventures? I’ve definitely learned to expand my palate. Here are a few of my new favorite dishes, plus some that I’m still too scared to try:

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Dispatch from Seoul: The Korean Shortcut to Radiant Skin

South Korea has become ground zero for beauty innovation in the last few years (BB creams, anyone?). Lucky for us, former Birchbox copywriter Mai is teaching English in Seoul this summer—and sending us weekly updates about her finds in beauty, food, and beyond. Here, she talks about her latest skincare obsession.

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No Korean drugstore would be complete without an aisle full of cleansing oils.

Every time I step out of my apartment here in Seoul, I see women with the kind of skin that almost defies description: radiant, dewy, and seemingly immune to blemishes. Of course, maintaining a perfect complexion requires ongoing discipline. As my Korean friend joked to me while we were standing in a bustling drugstore, “the girls in this country start taking care of their skin when they’re ten years old.” When I pressed her to reveal the details of her countrywomen’s routines, she kept returning to one subject: cleansing oils.

Though cleansing oils are still an unfamiliar concept in the US, they’re as widespread in Korea as kimchi. At first, they baffled me—how can an oil cleanse your skin?—but then I decided to give them a try, and now I’m hooked. Read on to learn which cleansing oil is so popular in Asia!

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Dispatch from Seoul: 7 Fascinating Korean Beauty Products

South Korea has become ground zero for beauty innovation in the last few years (BB creams, anyone?). Lucky for us, former Birchbox copywriter Mai, is teaching English in Seoul this summer—and sending us weekly updates about her finds in beauty, food, and beyond. Here, she rounds up the coolest beauty products she’s spotted in her short time on the ground.

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Sheet and clay masks come in a jaw-dropping array of varieties here in Seoul. 

I didn’t realize how truly prevalent beauty culture was in Korea until a recent trip through a subway station in Gangnam, the trendy neighborhood south of the river that bisects Seoul. Wedged in between a coffee stand and a convenience store, a popular beauty boutique called Nature Republic was advertising a sale—and it was packed with groups of women silently elbowing each other as they rifled through nail polishes and BB creams. The way they were clamoring for products reminded me of how New Yorkers fight over designer jeans at the legendary Barney’s Warehouse Sale.

Though I avoided the underground shopping spree, my curiosity was piqued, and in the course of a single day I visited a slew of beauty stores. Korean outposts feature a wider range of products than I ever could have imagined. Even after years of testing products for Birchbox, I was blown away by the selection. Here are some of the products that caught my eye.

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Bye Bye Birchbox: My Favorite Beauty Products Revealed

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Before I started working at Birchbox as a copywriter, I didn’t know what a serum was—let alone how to use one. Two years later, I’ve tested dozens of them, sniffed countless perfumes, and developed an addiction to bright lipstick in every hue. While my love of beauty will never waver, I’m moving on from my full-time job here to pursue an MFA in creative writing.

Though my budget in grad school will put me squarely in the Ramen bracket, I still plan to splurge on my favorite beauty products that I discovered through work. Here are the things I’m willing to go into credit card debt to buy:

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Now There’s an App that Photoshops Your Face For You

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We’ve all used Instagram filters to make our selfies look a little brighter and rosier. But now there’s a new iPhone app that takes it one step further: Pixtr. The app enhances your pics by using facial recognition software to erase wrinkles, fade zits, enhance skin tone, and tweak prominent features like your nose or jawline. It performs the kinds of retouching magic once reserved for Photoshop artists, yet it doesn’t require any technical savvy (all you have to do is select the pic and the app does the rest). Pixtr even takes your gender into consideration, so if you’re a girl you won’t have to worry about ending up with the jawline of Jon Hamm.

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Amika’s Creative Director Vita Raykhman on Designing Eye-Catching Prints, Her Hair Routine, and More

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Photo: William Hereford 

I’ll never forget the day I first used amika’s Obliphica Nourishing Mask. It came in a big, colorful orange tub that dwarfed all my other shower products, and the thick cream inside smelled amazing. What was really impressive, though, was how shiny and healthy it made my hair look, even though I only left it on for thirty seconds instead of the recommended five minutes. I knew I had stumbled upon something special.

Since that memorable day, my hair and I have become very good friends with amika. The brand’s treatments and styling tools work magic, and they’re also famous for their distinctive design, especially in the form of eye-catching prints. I got in touch with Vita Raykhman, amika’s Creative Director, to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes at this stylish hair company, including their plans to make an exclusive mini blow dryer together with Birchbox! 

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How To: Gradient Smoky Eye Makeup

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As an Asian woman, I find it impossible to follow the instructions in conventional smoky eye tutorials. My attempts to fill in my crease always end in a string of expletives. And it’s not because I don’t have a crease; my eyelids actually have multiple creases. This is pretty common among people of Chinese heritage—they’re traditionally known as “double eyelids,” though the term is now used interchangeably for surgically altered eyes. I’ve always embraced my natural eye shape, but for years I stuck to liner because eyeshadow was just too confusing. 

After watching editor Candice’s Asian eye makeup video, I was inspired to experiment more with eyeshadows. Read on for a five-step gradient smoky-eyed tutorial for Asian multi-crease eyes. I devised this look through tons of trial and error—it’s subtle enough to wear to work and requires a minimal amount of time. 

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What Skin Type Are You?

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Skincare terminology can be confusing. We all know we fall somewhere along the dry-combination-oily spectrum, but many of us have a hard time figuring out our exact skin type.

Our fellow editors over at Birchbox UK decided to get to the root of the problem in their brand new blog series on skincare. They asked former New York Times Magazine beauty editor Rona Berg to share the best way to decode your skin type. Turns out all you need is a sink and a few sheets of tissue. Read up on the full method here

—Mai

Over on this side of the pond, we’ve rounded up answers to all your most pressing SPF questions