This Ancient Korean Nail Technique Is Having a Modern Revival

While listening to an episode of my favorite podcast, Get Real, one of the co-hosts Ashley Choi took a second to comment on the nails of their guest, Korean singer Sogumm: “The balsam is very pretty.” The balsam? Sogumm held up her hands, showing off tangerine nails stained in the way red polish does when you don’t use a base coat — but in a pretty, purposeful way. Sogumm went on to share she dyes her nails because she plays the piano and can’t get nail art. As someone who is white and grew up in America, I must admit this is the first I had ever heard of this fascinating chip-free, long-lasting manicure technique. 

With some quick research, I found out dyeing your nails with a paste made out of crushed-up fresh balsam flowers is a time-honored tradition in Korea. Honestly, not only is Sogumm is one of my friends, but she is one of the genuinely coolest people I know, so I’m not surprised she would be the one to introduce me to an ancient Korean nail technique, also known as 봉숭아 물들이기 (balsam dye).  


What’s Old Is New 

But I had to know more, so I asked Korean nail artists and beauty experts about it. Everyone responds with the likes of “It’s been so long since I’ve dyed my nails.” In fact, iconic nail artist Jin Soon Choi, who was born and raised in Korea before moving to New York City in 1991 and becoming a backstage staple at Fashion Week, tells Allure, “I have such fond memories of it since it was a big part of my childhood.” 

Turns out, balsam dye was popular with kids in Korea back in the ’90s and earlier because many schools didn’t allow students to have manicures back in the day. (Dress codes have since become less strict.) Zion Ko Lamm’s grandma would tint hers, so she could still have bright nails despite school rules. “What I loved about it was it lasted forever — basically until your nails grew out,” the Korean-born, Charlotte-based board-certified internist recalls.