Korean skincare combines extensive scientific research and development with age-old traditional ingredients and skincare knowledge. Cleansing, hydrating, and protecting the skin are the central pillars of Korean beauty. This approach has been catapulted into the mainstream beauty space over the past five years, but many skincare enthusiasts were left scratching their heads as to how to create and follow a K-beauty routine.
If you’ve been down the rabbit hole of searching online for Korean skincare advice, I KNOW you’ve seen the many (many!) articles, blog posts, magazine pieces with titles along the lines of “The Famous 10 Step Korean Skincare Routine”/”How To Get Perfect Skin With a 14 Step Skincare Routine”/”Why You Need 1700 Steps in Your Skincare”. That last one may be a slight exaggeration, but the amount of media coverage on Korea’s somewhat infamous multi-step routine has really overshadowed and distorted the basic philosophy of Korean skincare and the true reasoning behind a multi-step approach to caring for your complexion.
Korean skincare is about looking at your skin and deciding what it needs. It shouldn’t be overly complex nor complicated just for the sake of it. It’s wise to first think about your overall skincare aims and then once you have your products, select what you need for that day. Is your skin feeling tight and dry? Are you dealing with a hormonal breakout? Are you experiencing sensitivity? You may feel that your skin needs 4 products or 10, and that doesn’t matter! By gathering a selection of products for your overall aims and skin type, your daily choice of steps is down to you. In today’s post, I’m going to explain the typical steps within a Korean skincare routine, and then you can select which you need and why. It’s that simple, and I hope this post breaks down the confusion and helps you determine what YOUR skin needs.
Although oil cleansing has become popular worldwide, there are still questions surrounding what it is and why we should do it. Oil cleansing is the practice of using an oil-based product to remove makeup and sunscreen during an evening routine, also known as a “first step” cleanse, before moving onto a more typical foaming, water-based cleanser. Attempting to remove oil products with water-based cleansers will rarely cleanse efficiently and therefore we use a cleansing oil or balm to gently and effectively remove those oil-based products. Targeting oil with oil is the idea. Having said this, some people (including myself) prefer to remove eye makeup with a specific eye makeup remover first and then do an oil cleanse. Your cleansing choices are down to what you’re comfortable with and what works for you, but a thoroughly clean face is the basis of a good routine.
A water-based or foaming cleanser is your “second step” cleanser. This may be used on its own in the morning and after your oil cleanser in the evening. It should remove all impurities and residue, leaving you with a fresh, balanced canvas for the rest of your routine. It’s best practice to use a gentle cleanser which is aligned with your skin’s natural pH to prevent a drying feeling of the skin. This is particularly true if you suffer from dry skin! Cosrx Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser is a go-to option. It has a soothing gel consistency that cleanses and balances the skin, without leaving your skin feeling tight and stripped of its natural moisture. Just what we want!
Exfoliation is a step many of us are familiar with. It’s the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of your skin to reveal radiant, more youthful looking skin beneath. It’s a vital step in maintaining a healthy complexion, and yet surprisingly difficult to balance and get right! The key phrase to repeat to yourself when exfoliating is BE GENTLE. This is not about scrubbing our skin until it’s red or worse, causing serious damage.
Exfoliation typically comes in two forms- chemical and manual. Manual exfoliation consists of using a scrub or a tool to physically buff dead skin cells away. You often see and feel immediately smoother skin. Chemical exfoliation uses acidic ingredients within products to dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells, which causes them to come away. Chemical exfoliation usually requires some time to see results but can overall be less abrasive on the skin. Choosing the exfoliation method you prefer is entirely a personal choice and it’s always best to start gently with whichever you choose.
Toner and Essence
The toner/essence category is extensive (so much so that we have an entire guide on the different varieties here) and can quickly become confusing, we get it! To put it simply, Korean toners are watery products to be used immediately after cleansing. They are supposed to hydrate and rebalance the skin’s pH, preparing your skin to absorb your next product more efficiently. Essences are like toners in that they’re usually a watery liquid. However, essences will typically contain more concentrated ingredients and target more specific skincare aims, such as brightening.
Hydration is so important for a glowy complexion and I would certainly recommend incorporating at least one hydrating product in a routine. A toner that works for most skin types would be a product such as Son & Park Beauty Water, which offers hydrating refining, and brightening in a watery consistency. As I mentioned earlier, hydration forms a key part of any Korean skincare routine and many enthusiasts even do more than one hydrating layer. Which type you choose is of course down to you and you should select the products you feel align with your personal skincare aims.
Ampoule and Serum
Serums and ampoules pack a skincare punch and are a more intensive treatment step. This is where you really get to address your skincare concerns and select a serum based on your needs. Think of them as a level-up from a toner or an essence! You will find intensely moisturising serums, brightening serums, antioxidant serums, and many more to target everything from anti-ageing to hyperpigmentation. Serums are often thought of as a step to include in your routine as you get older, however beginning a serum early on helps retain a youthful complexion and works pre-emptively. Dr Ceuracle’s Royal Vita Propolis 33 Ampoule is an ideal starting serum for extra nourishing and works well for most skin types. It can be spot applied, added to a moisturiser, or patted onto your entire face. The result? GLOW.
Korean brands are at the forefront of innovative skin treatments and there’s an option for every skincare concern! Personally, I love sheet masks. Sheet masks are sheets of face-shaped material soaked in a serum, applied to the face for 30 minutes, then removed to reveal hydrated, glowing skin. Incorporating sheet masks into my routine on a regular basis helps maintain a dewy, plumped complexion and I notice a huge difference with consistent use. Alternatively, if I have an event, I love to do a sheet mask several hours before for an instant brightening effect. I like to apply sheet masks after my regular toners and serums and before a moisturiser.
Other treatments include clay masks, wash-off gel masks, eye patches, lip masks, and just about every other kind of mask you can imagine. We wrote a detailed guide for you on Korean masks with much more in-depth information here. The treatments you enjoy will depend on your skin type and needs.
You’ve probably all heard of eye cream and I don’t want to bore you with a long explanation. An eye cream is usually of richer consistency than a typical moisturiser and you pat a small amount around your eyes to nourish and protect the thin eye area skin. Protecting that delicate skin is certainly important, whether you decide to use a dedicated eye cream or simply a gentle regular moisturiser. Just ensure it’s a non-irritating formula!
After hydrating and treating the skin, restoring your skin’s natural moisture, and locking it in, is the next step. Your choice of moisturiser will largely be based on your skin type and preferences. Oily or acne-prone skin may prefer a light, gel-based cream whereas if you deal with flakiness or dry skin, an oil-based, rich cream may be your choice. Your preference could also depend on how many moisturising layers you’ve done before this step. The range of moisturisers available from Korean brands is extensive but we have several firm favourites including the light and balancing Benton aloe Propolis Soothing Gel, the healing Cosrx Advanced Snail 92 All in One Cream, and the nourishing Dr Ceuracle Royal Vita Propolis 33 Cream.
Sun protection is a must, every day, no matter what age you are and no matter where you live. This is a non-negotiable! We prefer broad spectrum options that protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Korean sunscreens are, thankfully, cosmetically elegant and easy to wear. You need to liberally apply your sun cream all over the face, neck and ears and it should be reapplied every couple of hours if you are outside. Dr Ceuracle’s Cica Regen Anti-Dust Sun Gel is a soothing option for all skin types, protecting both from UV rays and pollutants. I love the multi-use aspect!
Sleeping Mask or Facial Oil
I’d never heard of a sleeping mask before I became interested in Korean skincare, but it’s just like a night cream. A sleeping mask (or sleeping pack as they’re also referred to) usually has an occlusive texture meaning it locks in the goodness from your routine overnight as you sleep, allowing your skin to absorb as much product as possible, and resulting in a glow the following morning. I like to apply a thick layer after my moisturiser and let it work the magic while I sleep.
Alternatively, a facial oil can work in a similar way. An oil is an added layer of moisture and again helps seal the moisture in your skin. I also love to add a couple of oil drops to a moisturiser if my skin feels particularly dry or flaky.
And that’s it! Although I’ve listed 10 steps here, there is no right or wrong Korean skincare routine. There are multiple steps for you to choose from and that number may differ season to season and even day to day. Once you understand the purpose of each step, it becomes easier to apply the philosophy to your own routine and go from there. Skincare is a learning journey, particularly if you’re a beginner, and it can take some time to establish a routine that works for you. I hope this step breakdown was useful, and we have several other guides that you may also find helpful to reference:
Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or would like further clarification on any Korean skincare steps or products!
Katherine Spowart from http://www.skinfullofseoul.com/