The Truth About the Korean Beauty Routine
Are 10 steps really necessary? The answer: Yes.
Bear with us, friends.
It’s no real surprise that when it comes to talking beauty, the conversation almost always lands on some exotic, nay, crazy concoction that has made its way from the East. You know those snail-infused sleep masks you’re obsessed with? Or that oil cleanser you use every AM and PM? Or the brightening serum responsible for your glow? All Asian imports. You gotta admit, when it comes to skin care, they’re onto something.
Sure, it’s likely due to the fact that they’ve been up to it since, oh, let’s say 700 BCE, and have been busy passing down their techniques since then. While the likelihood that our brains could compute centuries’ worth of skin-care data is, well, questionable, it doesn’t mean we aren’t going to try (big emphasis on try here, guys).
If you haven’t gleaned over countless multi-step K-beauty articles by now (we’re going to ignore the fact that you’ve been living under a rock), here’s the gist of it all: Getting porcelain-like skin is all about cleansing (twice to be thorough), hyper-targeting skin issues (that’s where most of the steps lie), and protection (SPF; duh). We might be simplifying a bit, but we’re trying to ease you into it, OK?
What we’ve learned is that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all type deal, nor is it that difficult. To help you (and us) mine the hotbed of info, we went to the experts to tell us why it’s actually worth your time and money (just think about how much you’ll save on concealer).
1. Oil Cleanser
Oil cleansers are an essential step for all skin types. They remove oil-based debris such as makeup, sebum, and soot.
2. Foam Cleanser
This is the second part of the double cleanse, which is necessary to thoroughly clean your skin at the end of the day. Foaming cleansers remove water-based debris such as sweat and dirt.
Not to be used daily, exfoliating renews your skin by scrubbing away dead skin cells.
This softens, moisturizes, and preps your skin to better absorb the essences and serums to follow. It also resets your pH balance after using the cleansers.
These typically contain an active ingredient that optimizes your skin’s natural cell turnover rate—think skin regeneration.
This is a more concentrated version of an essence, usually thicker in consistency. Different serums can hyper-target skin issues and are meant to be layered.
7. Sheet Mask
These are sometimes used in place of an essence.
8. Eye Cream
This is meant to hydrate and protect the skin around your eyes.
9. Sleeping mask
Apply this to intensely hydrate and restore firmness as you sleep.
Founder of Peach & Lily
On why 10 steps isn’t really a thing (but kind of is)…
“Honestly, the 10-step Korean skin-care routine is not a real thing. I’m not sure who came up with that marketing-friendly coined term. I grew up in Korea, and from a Korean person’s perspective, it’s a little bit funny. Korean women don’t think, ‘Oh, I have to do my 10-step regimen.’ Instead, what they think is that flawless, radiant skin that is very healthy is a sign of true beauty. It goes back historically for centuries, where the noble class never went outside in the sun and had porcelain-like skin—healthy skin. I think it boils down first and foremost to achieving healthy skin from the inside out. It’s not about symptomatically getting rid of acne or fine lines, it’s about how your skin health is really doing—your skin’s inner environment.”
“Not everybody will double-cleanse, it’s really up to the [person]. I think because there is more of a focus on skin health in SoKo, women are more into wiping things off very gently. You take the first layer off with a gentle, gentle oil cleanser and get all the oil-based impurities off your face, then you follow up with a very gentle, nourishing, non-stripping, water-based foam cleanser to get all your water-based impurities off. The philosophy there is to cleanse gently. There aren’t a lot of people using the Clarisonic, for example, because it would be seen as very harsh on your skin.”
On the trick to mixing and matching your products…
“These are not hard-and-fast rules, but commonly regarded as ingredients that should be used together with caution, if at all (not only Korean-beauty-specific): retinol and benzoyl peroxide can potentially cancel each other out, and be too drying and irritating to be used together. Retinol and AHAs actually can be used together, as the ingredients will stay active, but can be a bit harsh on the skin. Retinol and vitamin C, if in super low doses, can be fine to use together, but both are very potent and can be very, very drying and irritating to use together. AHAs and vitmain C are both very acidic ingredients and can cause, again, a lot of irritation and even peeling. Copper peptides and vitamin C typically cancel each other out. Also, it can increase photosensitivity and dryness, so it’s very important to use humectants (moisture-loving ingredients) and other hydrating ingredients to stay moisturized. Also, make sure to use sufficient SPF.”
On the cult products you should try…
1. Cremorlab Mineral Treatment Essence packs moisture into the dermis and uses fermented chamomile water to nourish. Other active ingredients brighten skin and combat wrinkles.
2. Banila Co Clean It Zero gently melts off all traces of makeup and casts away impurities.
3. Mizon All-in-One Snail Repair Cream: This is one of our bestsellers for the way it hydrates, firms, nourishes, combats acne, and rejuvenates all in one lightweight formulation.
4. Iope Air Cushion Sunblock XP: This is called the “six second” compact because one is sold every six seconds. You went through all that effort to achieve radiant skin—makeup shouldn’t mattify that, but should add on to the radiance. Achieve a glow with just a few dabs.
5. Cremorlab Herb Tea Blemish Minus Calming Mask: This is extremely soothing and hydrating, and it’s that great mask.
6. Be the Skin Non-Stimulus Face Polisher: The exfoliator that I was telling you about where your dead flakes and impurities just gently roll off the face.
7. Caolion Blackhead Steam Pore Pack: Think GlamGlow, but better priced and exceptionally well formulated. This heats up on the face and, using charcoal, draws toxins and impurities out. All-natural, to boot.
Co-Founder of SoKoGlam.com
On trying to follow the Korean beauty routine…
“Don’t feel overwhelmed. First, get to know your skin. Figure out what it needs. Slowly add products to your routine and see if the consistency and ingredients are beneficial to your skin. The fun is in the discovery of new skin-care products and finding the one that works best for you.”
On how to apply your products…
“The general rule of thumb is to be gentle. Use light tapping motions to help product absorption, or gentle upward circular motions. Massaging the skin when cleansing helps with circulation and leads to a brighter complexion. It also helps with relaxation, which is a great way to end or start the day.”
On being diligent with all the steps…
“While Korean women do typically have more products in their routine than their American counterparts, it’s not like they are using all 10 products, twice a day, every day. Whether it’s daily, every other day, or weekly, each product enters the rotation for a specific purpose. Some you might even only use once a month, or only during a certain season.”
On what steps you shouldn’t skip when you’re short on time…
“I would break it down into four main categories that are really crucial: cleansing, exfoliating, moisturizing, and SPF!”
Board Certified Dermatologist and President of Amarte
On the legacy of Korean skin care…
“The first key to understanding the Korean skin-care industry is to understand the legacy behind it. Koreans have among the longest documented historical civilized legacies (dating back to 8,000 BCE) in the world. The peninsular geography with ample precipitation provided for a relatively stable socio-political environment and allowed artistic endeavors to flourish. Skin-care interest has been documented since the earliest Korean writings (700 BCE), and the Dongui Bogam, an ancient Korean medicinal text, has an entire section (the Tangaekpyeon) on preparation and use of herbal ingredients, including for skin concerns.”
On why Korean products are different than North American products…
“Novel skin-care ingredients and ingredient research and refinement are something for which Koreans have a great reputation. The state-of-the-art Korean skin-care technologies (and there are several) really do lead the world. These include unique ways of processing (and fermenting) plant extracts, utilizing nanotechnologies such as nano-sulfur and nano encapsulation of both EGF (Epidermal Growth Factor—aka human oligopeptide 1), and retinol, as well as unique ways of formulating with silicone-based emollients. A very different way of deploying emollients is actually a much sensed but little understood key component to the uniqueness and desirability of Korean products.
“Koreans (especially women, but men as well) view the care of skin as something to savor and enjoy. When it comes to daily skin-care regimens, the ‘sense of urgency’ and compulsion to hurry and finish are typically absent. Rather than compress and hurry, Koreans prefer to stretch out the skin-care process.”