If you visit Korea in the springtime, you may spot women and children sporting bright orange-stained nails and fingertips.
However, this vibrant orange is not a result of chemical dyes, but natural stains made from flowers and leaves that closely resemble henna.
When I was a child in Korea, my friends and I were banned from wearing nail polish by our parents and our teachers. “Not until high school,” they always told us. The only exception to this came around once a year when Garden Balsam began to bloom in the spring. After school, we would all rush outside to pick handfuls of these flowers and leaves to take home to our moms who would then crush them into a paste dye.
In the olden days, this practice was believed to ward off evil spirits, but as time passed, Korean and Chinese women began to use it for cosmetic purposes, as an earlier version of nail polish.
In Korean culture, it is also said that if the orange color lasts by the first snowfall, you will marry your true love.
The paste simply consists of crushed garden balsam (impatiens balsamina) flowers and leaves. Surprisingly, the molecules (lawsone) found in these flowers are identical to the chemical structure found in traditional Indian henna.
To soak the dye into the nails, the mixture is applied to the fingernails or toenails, wrapped in plastic and tied off using a piece of string or tape and left on for a few hours to overnight. While this can also stain your fingertips, the orange color will leave your skin in less than two weeks while the nails stay a peachy orange.
Although many people still prefer to make their own paste, Korean stationery corner shops sell powder versions of this natural dye, often for less than 1,000 won (roughly $1), making this a year-round trend, no longer restricted to warmer months.