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Traditional Chinese Medicine and Hanbang in Asian Skincare

As the last decade within the Western beauty and self-care industry has been notably marked by the idea of holistic wellness, it’s no wonder that holistic wellness is carving out a prominent niche in skincare as well. But before the recent steady increase in interest of holistic wellness in the Western sphere, this all-encompassing understanding of wellness had already been thoroughly dissected and practiced in Asian medicine at least 2,200 years ago.

Let’s break down the traditional medicinal practices of China and Korea, and take a look at the development of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM/hanbang) into their current applications within mainstream skincare products.

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?

TCM has roots dating back to around the early Zhou Dynasty of China, and has different branches such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, and diet. Depending on who you ask, there can be anywhere from five to eight branches of TCM!

The core philosophy of TCM revolves around keeping balance within an individual’s body, taking inspiration from the balance that can be observed in nature. Qi, or the vital life force/energy that makes up everything in the universe, and subsequently the individual, must be balanced in order to steer clear of physical ailments and disease.

To keep this balance, an individual must understand the concept of yin-yang as well—yin being the “dark” energy to yang’s “bright” energy, both of which are forever linked in relationship to one another. All things in the universe, as well as within an individual, have qi generally designated as either yin or yang. Too much or too little of one leads to decrease in health and wellness, and it is the ultimate goal of TCM to balance yin and yang within an individual to create harmony. (For instance, if an individual naturally has more yin energy than yang energy, a TCM practitioner may prescribe them a yang herb such as female ginseng to maintain balance.)

This heavy emphasis on yin-yang and qi throughout the past thousands of years has now manifested in modern skincare, in which we see Asian beauty brands focusing on overall skin health through the inclusion of TCM herbs. Much in the same way that TCM also attempts to prevent diseases from manifesting rather than treat the aftermath, TCM-inspired skincare also prioritizes plants and herbs with anti-inflammatory properties to prevent inflammation-caused skin conditions.

What is Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM/Hanbang)?

Hanbang is a broad umbrella term for Traditional Korean Medicine, which includes different components such as hanyak, or herbal and folk remedies. As hanbang is thought to be influenced by TCM with the introduction of Chinese medical texts into Korea in the 10th century, hanbang shares many of the same techniques and ingredients with TCM. Hanbang also centers the balance of um (or yin) and yang, and considers spiritual obligations and emotional expression within an individual’s harmonic energy.

Taking into account the internal and spiritual workings of the body’s multiple systems, hanbang works to even out energy in order to outwardly express health. A slowed function of the respiratory or digestive system, for example, can lead to the malnutrition of the skin, therefore causing conditions such as dehydration or acne.

Differences Between Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM/Hanbang)

So how do TCM and hanbang differ? For one, the baseline requirements of traditional herbal medicine differ vastly from region to region depending on the availability of local plants. When hanbang practitioners attempted to follow the already well-established TCM in the 11th century, they had to import Chinese medicine at a steep price; to get around importation of limited resources, which obstructed the treatment of many Koreans who could not afford such medicine, hanbang practitioners and the Korean government took an interest in developing domestic medical herbs that could be “locally cultivated and harvested.”

Moreover, hanbang’s development towards consitutional medicine, or treating the characteristics of the individual with a symptom instead of treating the symptom itself, can be seen in Korea’s approach to skincare today. Whereas Western skincare may attempt to dry out a pimple to treat it, therefore treating just the symptom, hanbang skincare may attempt to discover and treat the root cause of the pimple (such as replenishing moisture to dehydrated skin, thus regulating sebum production and reducing pimples).

While hanbang skincare focuses more on ingredients and processes such as fermentation to better increase the absorption of nutrients into the skin, TCM highlights the flow of qi as a major part of skincare. The now-popular TCM technique of gua sha, historically used alongside fire cupping, encourages the flow of qi for optimal skin health.

TCM also goes beyond plants and herbs, sometimes including minerals and animal parts as a part of remedies. While the wider practice of hanbang occasionally uses animal parts as well, hanbang skincare heavily relies on plants and herbs as active ingredients.

Product Recommendations

Here are some of our favorite TCM and hanbang skincare products at Glowie Co, all infused with locally sourced ingredients and focusing on overall skin health to target specific skin concerns.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Product Recommendations

23.5°N Oriental Beauty Tea Balancing Toner

23.5°N Oriental Beauty Tea Balancing Toner

Starting from the Tang Dynasty, tea was widely used not only for beverages, but for medicinal purposes as well. In TCM, tea (with the exception of a few varieties) is believed to be yin, as it is cooling and eliminates thirst. If your skin is unbalanced and dehydrated, resulting in excess oil production, a tea-based toner like 23.5°N’s Oriental Beauty Tea Balancing Toner will do wonders! 23.5°N is a Taiwanese skincare brand that celebrates nature by sourcing ingredients locally, and they formulate this balancing toner with Taiwan-indigenous Oriental Beauty Tea from Hsinchu County.

Oriental Beauty Tea is an unroasted, heavily oxidized oolong tea prized for its intensive growing, harvesting, and processing procedure. As with most types of tea, Oriental Beauty Tea contains micronutrients and antioxidants like polyphenols, which help scavenge free radicals and prevent premature skin aging. Additionally, tea also reduces sebum while calming inflammation and preventing the growth of bacteria, making it a great ingredient for anyone with acne-prone or oily skin. Even though the Oriental Beauty Tea Balancing Toner is meant for oily skin, it’s by no means drying or astringent; rather, it provides a refreshing dose of hydration to rebalance the skin. Remember, TCM-inspired skincare is focused on overall skin health, not just putting a temporary bandaid on the problem!

And, might we add, the thin and cooling nature of this toner is fantastic for layering—you can take into consideration your skin’s needs and personalize application as you see fit. Check out Anthony Harper’s in-depth review of this toner here!

My Beauty Diary Royal Pearl Radiance Sheet Mask

My Beauty Diary Royal Pearl Radiance Sheet Mask

Did you know that within parts of Asia and Europe, pearls were revered for their believed health and beauty properties? For the past 2,000 years, China has used pearl powder (sterilized and finely milled pearl) for the benefits associated with its inorganic and organic constituents, as well as its symbolic beauty. Pearl powder could be prescribed for the patient to ingest orally to treat a variety of health concerns within TCM, and was also used for cosmetic purposes by elite and royal families in Asia! Although the reasoning of applying pearls to the skin to achieve a glowy, pearl-like sheen may seem, to the skeptical, unsound and pseudoscientific, there is evidence to suggest that pearl powder can indeed scavenge free radicals and moisturize skin. Pearl powder contains beneficial minerals and amino acids for the skin, and was shown to possess “antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-aging . . . and wound healing” properties in animal studies.

My Beauty Diary’s Royal Pearl Radiance Sheet Mask harnesses the power of hydrolyzed pearl (or pearl powder/extract), which can effectively “inhibit tyrosinase activity,” thus inhibiting “melanin synthesis,” to achieve a brightening effect. Other TCM ingredients found in this sheet mask include licorice root extract (one of the most common herbs in TCM), and ginkgo biloba leaf extract, both of which provide anti-aging benefits such as brightening and strengthening the skin barrier.

A non-TCM shout-out: this comfortably form-fitting sheet mask amps up the brightening factor with arbutin, a known tyrosinase inhibitor!

Annie's Way Calendula + Chamomile Softening Jelly Mask

Annie's Way Calendula + Chamomile Softening Jelly Mask

When we have inflamed, damaged skin, we’re reaching for the Calendula + Chamomile Softening Jelly Mask from Annie’s Way, the two key ingredients of which are soothing and wound healing herbs commonly used in TCM.

Despite its Mediterranean origin, the herb calendula has quite the presence in traditional medicinal practices across the world, including TCM. Calendula, also called jin zhan ju in Chinese, was often prescribed topically “to stimulate circulation and support healthy skin,” as it has “anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, [and] antiviral” properties. While the exact mechanisms and compounds responsible for calendula’s wound healing abilities are still unidentified, studies have shown that calendula extract stimulates tissue formation.

Chamomile, or huang chu ju, is known as a “cure-all” that is able to soothe inflammation both internally and externally. In the same manner that chamomile is a soothing tea when ingested, chamomile can also be used topically to treat skin irritation. In addition to its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties, chamomile also contains phenolic compounds such as flavonoids, which act as antioxidants.

This softening jelly mask combines both anti-inflammatory herbs for a potent soothing effect, hydrating and repairing dry skin as well. Just apply an even layer over the face and rinse off after 15-30 minutes!

(For those with sensitivities to plants from the daisy family, you may want to skip this jelly mask!)

Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM/Hanbang) Product Recommendations

Haruharu WONDER Black Rice Hyaluronic Toner

Haruharu WONDER Black Rice Hyaluronic Toner

As mentioned earlier, fermentation is commonly used in traditional medicinal practices to increase the body’s absorption of nutrients. Fermentation uses microorganisms to break down the active compounds into smaller molecules, allowing the ingredient to better penetrate the skin. In other words, fermentation can “enhance [the] original characteristics” of the herb and “produce new effects” to improve efficiency.

One brand that takes fermentation super seriously is Haruharu WONDER, which processes natural ingredients through two different technologies in order to best deliver benefits into the skin. The first technology is, no surprise here, an expertly-developed fermentation process that “transforms raw ingredients into a more flexible configuration for the skin to absorb.” The second technology is even more impressive: Haruharu WONDER’s patented Ultra Deep Technology wraps active ingredients with sphere-shaped liposomes extracted from panax ginseng root, which itself contains 6-year-old ginseng concentrate to boost the anti-aging effect. In applying the Ultra Deep Technology to active ingredients, Haruharu WONDER is able to formulate products that can penetrate and absorb past the skin’s oil layer.

It goes without saying that any product from Haruharu WONDER is a home run, but we have to highlight their best-selling Fermented Black Rice line as a standout in the KBeauty world. And within that line is a holy grail any skincare lover should have in their collection: the Black Rice Hyaluronic Toner. This lightweight, fast-absorbing toner is formulated with Korean-produced black rice extract, the polyphenol and flavonoid contents of which are nearly tripled and doubled respectively after fermentation for unparalleled antioxidant activity. Combined with the Ultra Deep Technology, the fermented black rice extract restores elasticity to the skin by promoting skin cell regeneration and protects skin against free radicals. It hydrates, moisturizes, and nourishes the skin on a deeper level, imparting a fresh and rejuvenated feel to dry and sensitive skin.

Pyunkang Yul Essence Toner

Pyunkang Yul Essence Toner

While Haruharu WONDER’s approach to hanbang skincare considers nutrient absorption via fermentation, there are other wonderful facets of hanbang skincare we have yet to discuss! Minimalist hanbang brand Pyunkang Yul, founded by the Pyunkang Oriental Medicine Clinic in South Korea, focuses on recovering skin balance through regulating temperature. Their basic line is separated into two: the UP line, which aims to increase skin temperature to promote blood circulation, and the DOWN line, which aims to decrease skin temperature for moisture retention.

For reference, here are Pyunkang Yul’s UP and DOWN products at Glowie Co:


Pyunkang Yul Essence Toner
Pyunkang Yul Moisture Serum


Pyunkang Yul Moisture Ampoule
Pyunkang Yul Moisture Cream

The Pyunkang Yul Essence Toner, part of the UP line, treats dull skin by adding vitality with yang energy in the form of milk vetch root extract (also known as astragalus membranaceus root extract or huang qi). Milk vetch root extract replaces purified water in this formula, and is composed of smaller particles that easily penetrate the skin to improve skin elasticity through its isoflavonoids’ antioxidant activity. Pharmacological research indicates that milk vetch root extract is also anti-inflammatory and provides anti-aging effects in the body. This viscous toner contains only seven ingredients, only using what is necessary to rebalance and hydrate skin while nursing damaged skin back to its optimal condition.

Beauty of Joseon Hanbang Serum Discovery Kit

Beauty of Joseon Hanbang Serum Discovery Kit

Our last hanbang product recommendation hails from none other than Beauty of Joseon, a skincare brand based on the traditional hanbang and beauty practices by upper class women of the Joseon Dynasty.

Out of a spectacular roster of all-star products, Beauty of Joseon is perhaps most known for its dewy and brightening sunscreen, the Relief Sun: Rice + Probiotics! Yet, there’s an underrated Beauty of Joseon must-try that we would designate as a flagship product: their Hanbang Serum Discovery Kit.

Beauty of Joseon carries four amazing hanbang serums: the Calming Serum : Green Tea + Panthenol, the Glow Serum : Propolis + Niacinamide, the Revive Serum : Ginseng + Snail Mucin, and the Glow Deep Serum : Rice + Alpha-Arbutin. These serums are all formulated with hanbang ingredients that treat various skin concerns to promote overall skin health—see below for the hanbang ingredients spotlight!

Calming Serum : Green Tea + Panthenol

  • Green Tea Extract: Effectively improves skin damaged by UV rays. UV rays are the main cause of skin darkening and stimulate aging. Catechin suppresses the synthesis of the melanin pigment caused by UV rays and removes free radicals that promote aging, thereby helping to keep skin clearer.

Glow Serum : Propolis + Niacinamide

  • Propolis Extract: Contains a variety of antioxidants which have the effect of brightening skin flaws and dark spots, as well as healing wounds.
  • Turmeric Root Extract: Calms skin irritation and reduces acne-related redness

Revive Serum : Ginseng + Snail Mucin

  • Ginseng Root Water: Anti-inflammatory that rejuvenates and maintains the moisture of the skin.
  • Licorice Root Extract: Brightens skin, reduces redness and irritation.

Glow Deep Serum : Rice + Alpha-Arbutin

  • Rice Bran Water: Full of amino acids and minerals to nourish skin, while brightening and evening out overall skin tone.
  • Job's Tears Extract: Rich with antioxidants and Vitamins B1, B2, and C to repair skin and protect against free radical damage. Evens skin tone and soothes skin.
With the discovery kit, you can try all four of these hanbang serums in mini-sizes to determine which is the best for you!

Final Thoughts

TCM and hanbang have been around for thousands of years, and their application to skincare is nothing short of exciting. The holistic wellness within such medicinal practices encourage an understanding of your unique self and what you require to maintain a careful balance.

We hope this article was helpful in your journey to discover your healthiest, most balanced skin!