Among the many words of advice passed on to me when people learned I was moving to South Korea to teach was to “pack a year’s worth of deodorant.” Everyone said that deodorant would be difficult to find in South Korea, and even when found, it would would be expensive and/or ineffective.
I researched this point a little before leaving the states, mostly by cruising blogs of others living in South Korea (and documenting their experience) and expat advice sites on the internet and found among all these sources a consensus that, yes, indeed, deodorant is difficult to find in South Korea.
Eager to test the validity of this rumor once I had arrived in South Korea, I made it a point to check out the toiletries aisle at our neighborhood E-mart during our first shopping expedition. The aisle was well stocked with every imaginable health and beauty product available, from shampoo and conditioner to toothpaste to shaving cream and disposable razors. “Ah ha!” I thought smugly to myself. “Deodorant is surely among this plethora of products.” I walked confidently down the aisle expecting any moment to see Korean versions of recognizable brands like “Secret” and “Old Spice” or some other similarly branded Korean deodorant. But alas, there was no sign of deodorant of any kind. I tried a couple of other likely aisles thinking perhaps E-mart arranges their toiletries in a different manner than it’s American counterparts, but I never found deodorant at E-Mart that day, or any day since.
Several months had passed since that first search for deodorant when I went to Itaewon for the first time and consequently to the Foreign Food Market. There, on a high shelf behind the counter, safe from the hands of casual shoppers and possible shoplifters, I noticed a collection of “foreign” beauty products. There, sitting between a bottle of Nivea body lotion and a container of Noxzema was a row of various brands of American deodorants. Because I had taken the advice of all those many expat blogs and websites and stocked up on deodorant before I came (thank you Dollar General Store) , I had no need to inquire into the price of those sticks of deodorant, but considering Campbell’s Tomato Soup is over $3.00 a can, I’ve no doubt the those rolls and sticks of deodorant were over priced and comparatively expensive.
But perhaps the proliferation of deodorant on the shelves of E-Mart and like chain stores is not too far in South Korea’s future. South Koreans are very consumerist oriented and lately I’ve been noticing advertisements on the subway for prescription antiperspirant, and really deodorant is not a big leap from antiperspirant, is it? (I know I confuse the two all the time). I also know Korean people to be fastidious in the personal hygiene as well as avid consumers, two conditions which, combined, seem to me to make an auspicious market for deodorant companies.
Consider dairy products as an example. I assumed there would be few dairy products in S. Korea for a couple of reasons: One, where would dairy cows be kept? Secondly, as far as I know, folks of Asian persuasion have a difficult time digesting lactose. Imagine my surprise when I saw aisles and aisles of dairy products at E-mart. Milk of every flavor (chocolate, strawberry, banana, peach, mango), American branded yogurt, drinkable yogurt (delicious, by the way), pudding and all kinds of ice cream. The only dairy product that has not much caught on yet is cheese (still available, but expensive).
On sidewalks in front of schools and academies on any given day there are stationed well dressed representatives of myriad companies promoting milk products the best way possible – by giving away free samples to kids. Convenience store owners are also known to give away an extra carton of flavored milk as “service” to customers buying something from their store. Also, there is a lot of very positive advertising for dairy products on billboards in the city and 0n the
subway. The most memorable of these is an imperative from “Smoothie King” to “Be White.” A slogan successful because white skin is highly prized in this part of the world, though it certainly doesn’t hurt to have celebrity endorsement of the likes of Olympic Gold Medalist, Yuna Kim.
I believe it is the direct result of this heavy marketing that S. Korean folks have embraced dairy products as enthusiastically just as they have embraced eating meat for three meals a day (as opposed to hardly ever); further, it is no big stretch of the imagination that, should deodorant companies begin a marketing campaign as aggressive as that of dairy products, deodorant companies will easily convince S. Koreans that they need these products despite the likely fact that they do not. I mean, if marketing can convince people to drink a product that is arguably hard on their digestive system, why wouldn’t it work equally well to convince people that don’t sweat much from their armpits that they need a product to prevent or minimize the odor of such bodily function? No much at all, I fear.
At this writing, unless you have access to the army base, deodorant is still pretty difficult find in South Korea and expensive when it is found. If you are headed to the R.O.K and deodorant is an important part of your personal hygiene, then I also recommend packing extra for the trip. If you are the sort of person who is overly concerned about such things as the availability of deodorant in a foreign country, then you may want to reconsider your trip all together.