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The Need to Know About Hanbang K-Beauty

August 08, 2023

The Need to Know About Hanbang K-Beauty

The Need to Know About Hanbang K-Beauty


On episode 212 of the Korean Beauty Show podcast Lauren takes a deep dive into Hanbang and its place in Korean beauty. We’re covering everything from the definition and regulations to the history of Hanbang, common ingredients, brands of note, why Hanbang has succeeded and some issues with the category. 



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What is Hanbang?

The official definition comes from the Korean Dictionary ( 국어사전) which describes Hanbang cosmetics as "한방에서 쓰는 약재의 성분이 들어 있는 화장품" ("cosmetics containing medicinal ingredients used in oriental medicine").

For most Koreans, Hanbang "한방" is similar to Hanyak "한약" (oriental medicine). Traditional oriental medicine focuses on health from the inside of the body and believes in supplementing empty energy. 

Many Hanbang brands believe that the main goal of Hanbang cosmetics is “to restore overall skin function, rather than be limited to the external cause of skin concerns. This is why herbal cosmetics brands focus more on the combination and processing methods between raw materials and emphasize them rather than focusing on the efficacy of one raw material.” 


When it comes to the efficacy of Hanbang cosmetics, there is the same kind of confusion in Korea as there is in western countries around things like organic and natural cosmetics. Are they inherently better? Do the ingredients perform differently on the skin? Let's take a look. 

The Need to Know About Hanbang K-Beauty


Main Principles of Oriental Medicine

In general the key principles of oriental medicine include that: 

  1. Our bodies respond to the environment around us;
  2. Your body knows how to heal itself;
  3. Every part of your body is connected;
  4. Yin & Yang - opposite forces are interconnected; and 
  5. Outside factors affect balance in the body 

However, there are differences between Chinese traditional medicine and Korean. Korea's traditional medical practices are cited in the Donguibogam (동의보감) (known as the "Mirror of Eastern Medicine"), which was compiled by a court physician Heo Jun (1546-1615). This is a classical piece of Korean literature and of significant value to the medical world. The underlying message is that it is possible to keep a body in good health by maintaining its energies in balance. 

The Need to Know About Hanbang in K-Beauty

Although Heo Jun worked with the royal family, he made treatments that would be accessible to common people, using cheaper ingredients. This book records the fundamental importance of skin health: 

 “Since the beginning of all diseases stems from the skin, skin beauty, which makes the skin beautiful and healthy, is a spring that makes the body and mind healthy.”

Whereas the emphasis in western medicine is on treating diseases if one becomes ill, in oriental medicine there is a dual role of preventing and treating disease. 

The Cosmetic Definition of 'Hanbang Cosmetics'

In January 2012, Korea' Ministry of Food and Drug Safety established advertising and labelling guidelines to be implemented for oriental cosmetics. This includes:

"Cosmetics used to manufacture herbal medicines according to the 'Korean Pharmaceutical Exhibition', 'Korean Pharmaceutical Exhibition' (Korean Pharmaceutical) Standard Book', and 'Temporary Regulations on Existing Chinese Medicine'."



The existing herbal medicine books here refer to 11 herbal medicine books, including Donguibogam, Boncho Gangmok, and Hyangyakjipseongbang.

All herbal ingredients contained in 100g of cosmetics should be converted into raw materials and the combined weight should be more than 1 mg. In short, if you use more than 0.001% of the ingredients in one of the 13 herbal medicines above, you can name and advertise them as "Hanbang cosmetics".

Common Korean Herbal Ingredients Known to be Good for the Skin 


Red ginseng (Hong Sam - 홍삼) 

Red ginseng is a very effective herbal ingredient for the skin because it gives elasticity and brightening effects. In Korea, it is sold in various forms such as capsules, liquids and powder.

Ginseng (Insam - 인삼) 

Regular ginseng is very good for the skin because it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It also strengthens immunity, helping to keep your skin healthy and recover. Ginseng is sold in various forms such as capsules, powders, and tea.


Mugwort (SSuk - 쑥) 

Mugwort has played a very important role in the history of Korea. It even appears in one of the founding myths. Mugwort promotes blood circulation to make your skin healthy. 




Licorice (Gamcho - 감초) 

Licorice is very effective in calming the skin. It helps to soothe the skin and reduce inflammation, and it also has a brightening effect. In oriental medicine, the root is generally used and can be boiled in tea or taken as medicine.


Other common ingredients include: 

  • Jujube- which is effective in hydrating and moisturizing the skin. 
  • Pomegranate -known to keep skin energized. 
  • Turmeric - an ingredient with strong anti-inflammatory effects so it is effective for skin diseases. It also contains antibacterial and antioxidant properties.
  • White Tea -rich in catechin, so it has a very good antioxidant effect on the skin. 
  • Hansamin - a mix of ingredients, including ginseng and Goryeo red ginseng which is effective in giving elasticity to the skin and suppressing oxidation. It is sold in various forms such as capsules and liquids.
  • Korean Angelica - plays a role in supplying moisture and nutrients to the skin. It also has antioxidant properties and helps keep your skin healthy. They usually use roots and can be digested in various ways.

Famous Korean Hanbang Brands in Korea

In Korea, the most well known Hanbang brands include Sulwhasoo, The History of Whoo, Charmzone, Coreana, Sooryeohan, Baekoksaeng, and Donginbi

The domestic market for Hanbang products developed mainly through human sales distribution such as door-to-door sales and home shopping. Historically, the market has been dominated by AmorePacific and LG Household & Health Care.



Famous Korean Hanbang Brands Overseas

Overseas, in addition to Sulwhasoo and The History of Whoo other famous Hanbang brands include Beauty of Joseon, Pyunkang Yuland even Missha, who has had various Hanbang lines over the years.

Why Has Hanbang Succeeded?

Hanbang has always been popular domestically because of its links to oriental medicine. Similarly, it has performed well in countries with a similar shared cultural heritage, like China and parts of Southeast Asia where traditional oriental medicine is well understood. 

However, increasingly the sucecss has also been in part due to government support. The Korean government has supplied research and development support for oriental medicine and fermented cosmetics and has also increased the ratio of private R&D investment by expanding their investments.

Issues with Hanbang 

There are a few key issues with Hanbang as a category:

  1. The regulations are vague. The guidelines set out by Korea's Ministry of Food and Drug Safety do not have specific regulations on herbal medicines.
  2. There are no country of origin labelling requirements, meaning that the ingredients don't have to come from Korea but can come from foreign countries. These tend to be cheaper and sometimes may also be inferior.
  3. Issues around the efficacy of the products themselves. The regulations stipulate that no matter which ingredients are mixed, it is only necessary to include 1 mg per 100g of the relevant herbal ingredient. Naturally, this leads to concerns over whether that is enough to have any true efficacy. 
  4. There are issues around scientific verification of herbal ingredients. Few herbal cosmetics ingredients have been recognized as "functional cosmetics". The reality is that there is a lack of scientific research and data to back up the actual efficacies of many of these ingredients. Instead, many brands simply use herbal cosmetics as a "concept".
  5. The name "Hanbang" itself can cause consumers to believe that the products have been proven to be effective to some extent. This is not necessarily the case.

Beauty Hankook says:

"There are many cases where the definition and regulations of herbal cosmetics are ambiguous and cannot be differentiated from herbal, natural, Chinese, and wreath-related products in overseas markets, and the effectiveness is not clearly verified."


Conclusion: The Need to Know About Hanbang K-Beauty

Hanbang cosmetics have a long and important history in Korean culture, literature and medicine. However, these days the term "Hanbang" only means that that oriental medicine ingredients have been used in the formula over 0.001%. Use of the term "Hanbang" therefore does not guarantee any specific "functionality" in and of itself. It is therefore still necessary to focus on the efficacy of each brand's products rather than on the concept of "Hanbang".

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    “Many Hanbang brands believe that the main goal of Hanbang cosmetics is “to restore overall skin function”

    - Allure Korea on Hanbang 

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