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I remember riding the subway one day with some female friends in northern Seoul.  We were sitting down since the train wasn’t too crowded.  While we were there, they were looking at a woman wearing a surgical mask and started giggling to themselves.  Seeing people wearing mask in public may be a culture shock to many westerners when they first go to Korea.  After all, in many western lands, a person wearing a mask in public is usually associated with someone on Halloween or a robber.  But it can be an everyday thing in the City of Seoul.  Why do so many Korean people wear mask in public?  While there may be many reasons, I’ll focus on a couple of the most common reasons why you’ll see this in Korea.

Poor Air Quality 

Korea can have days where air quality is very bad, and possibly dangerous to breathe in.  Part of this is due to what is called Yellow dust.  (It can also be called Asian dust, Yellow sand, Yellow wind and China dust storms.)  This is a weather phenomenon where windstorms from China carry yellow particles in the air that can go as far as the western United States.  What makes this worse is that as the storms move east, they pick up pollutants from major cities in China and carry the pollution along with it.   Spring time is usually the worst time for these storms, and the sky can appear to have a yellow haze to it.  To protect themselves from breathing in all of this pollution, many wear mask to try and filter out the air while outside.  To better track air quality, there is an actual Twitter account called @yellowdust that gives regular updates as to how the air quality in Seoul is and if you need to take precautions.

A Trip To The Clinic

Korea is known for many things.  One of them happens to be plastic surgery.  For better or worse, Korea is so famous for its plastic surgery centers that even Korean Americans will travel back to Korea to have it done.  Sometimes, to help protect sensitive areas of a person’s face when they have plastic surgery, they are told to wear a mask in public.  On the day that I talked about in the beginning of this post, the Yellow dust quality was very low, so the woman wasn’t wearing a mask for that reason.  The mask she wore was from having plastic surgery.  Gangnam-gu is especially known, or notoriously known depending on your personal view of plastic surgery, for having many plastic surgery centers and for having many advertisements about plastic surgery.  (And for getting sued for some of the ads being misleading.)  Plastic surgery in Korea doesn’t carry the stigmas that it does in other parts of the world.  That being said, Korea is also not known as a place where people hold out the gift of plastic surgery to younger people if they excel at certain activities.  In that way, Korea is more middle of the road with plastic surgery.

If you’ve never been to Korea before and you see a bunch of people wearing surgical mask, you don’t need to feel worried.  You also should not assume that a person wearing such a mask had plastic surgery.  These were just two reasons why you will see this in Korea.  But hopefully you now have a better understanding of why you may see a lot of people wearing mask in Korea.