The 10 steps to a successful Korean skin care routine (and how it changed my life)
Being lazy and vain is a struggle. In previous years, for someone who would fling her wallet straight into closest Priceline store, I’d often been negligent with my beauty habits (like ‘forgetting’ to wipe my makeup off before bed); thinking hey, I can always cover up any problem spots with makeup. That’s what foundation and concealers were made for, right?
And that’s all good and well, until you start getting grossed out by the dull, sunburned, blemish-ridden skin you’ve got underneath all that fancy face paint. (I wish I had pictures, but I hated taking no-makeup selfies back in the day.) This goes without saying – but being uncomfortable with your natural look can really do a number on your self-esteem.
That’s when I discovered the beauty of skin care. A daily process that the lazy girl in me used to snub because – pah – ain’t nobody got time for that. But after suffering from leatherface syndrome after a holiday in Boracay under the blazing heat (with no moisturizers or cleansers packed in my toiletries *cringe*) I’d decided that enough was enough; it was time to start giving myself the self-care I needed.
I got into Olay’s products for some time, and while I have to say that they worked wonderfully to repair the damage done to my skin, nothing worked as many wonders as the Korean skin care products I discovered soon after.
At first, the whole ‘10-step’ trend all K-beauty lovers raved about seemed wildly excessive. Please, I couldn’t be bothered lifting a finger to dab on the moisturizer back then – much less indulge in the whole 10-step process.
But let me tell you, it’s worth it. To all fellow lazy gals out there, I know I sound like some converted cult member but man, did these guys really make massive improvements to my bare face. And the best part is, I now spend less and less time applying my daily make-up; sometimes I’m even tempted to go out with nothing at all (except for eyebrows. Always the eyebrows.)
My skin now has a natural, healthy glow, which really is the core philosophy of all Korean skincare: to start with the basics and promote natural beauty, not cover it up.
Thankfully, it’s a process you can slowly ease yourself into. I started with 5 steps, saw the glorious results, and then moved my way to 7, and finally – 10.
Below is the process I follow on the daily. I have a slightly different day and night routine which I make note of, along with a few recommended products for you to get started:
Step 1: Oil Cleanser (Day and evening step)
If you think simply wiping off your makeup with wet wipe is enough (like I did), allow me to lay down a few enlightening facts. While makeup wipes claim to be your answer to a quick, convenient clean, all they actually do is smear about all the dirt and makeup present on your skin’s surface. They don’t actually have the active ingredients needed to break down all the gunk on your face, so while it may seem like you’ve successfully transferred this stuff onto your wipe, you’ve likely still got a lot of leftover product sitting on your pores.
Plus, all the rubbing involved with using a wipe can cause inflammation, fine lines (especially around the eye area!), and skin pigmentation. Yikes.
The proper (and more effective) way of removing your make-up is to use an oil-based cleanser. These guys are the BOMB, because not only do they successfully break down your make-up and sunscreen, but they also draw out all the oily impurities in your pores. Simply apply the product to a damp face, massage in circular motions to remove foundation, eye makeup, and suncscreen, then rinse.
The Korean skin care market has a ton of beautiful cleansing balms that are super effective in melting off all those beauty products, and leaving your skin with a clear, clean finish. Some of the best-selling balms out there are the infamous Clean It Zero by Banila Co., and the Emma Hardie Moringa Cleansing Balm.
Step 2: Water-based Cleanser (Day and Evening step)
While your face may seem all clean and dirt-free, it’s best to do a thorough, deeper clean of your pores to remove any further impurities. And that’s where a water-based cleanser comes in!
Rinsing out every nasty particle on your skin’s surface with a second cleansing step will ensure a brighter, clearer, more youthful complexion. Some of the most highly recommended products for these are the Cosrx Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser and the Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam.
Step 3: Exfoliants (Evening step)
Think you’re done with the cleansing process? Hah, not even. Your next step is to use an exfoliating product, which sloughs away at the dead and dull skin cells on your face, leaving a consistently bright, plump appearance.
There are two types of facial exfoliants: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants often consist of fine granules or crystals in the product, which help scrub away at impurities, dead cells, and clogged pores. Chemical exfoliants dissolve all this nastiness and is suitable for skin that’s deeply congested or sensitive to physical scrubs.
To use these products, simply massage them in gentle, circular motions throughout your face. Be sure to not apply excessive pressure – doing so may irritate or injure the skin.
A couple of the best products on the market are SkinFood’s Black Sugar Mask Wash Off Exfoliator, the Neogen Dermalogy Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Wine, and the TOYO Cure Natural Aqua Gel.
Be warned, however: exfoliants should only be used 2-3 times a week, max. Over-exfoliating can lead to unwanted redness, dryness, and skin irritation or sensitivity.
Step 4: Toner (Day and Evening step)
This is probably the most satisfying step for me, since you’re not only prepping your skin up for additional treatments, but you’re also potentially catching any debris you might’ve missed in the previous cleansing steps.
While the benefits of using a toner vary from one product to the next, these guys generally help your skin absorb the rest of your skin care products better, as well as providing additional hydration and balance to your pH levels.
To properly apply toner, apply a few drops to a cotton pad and swipe across your face in upward motions. Or, you can also pat the product gently all over your skin (I prefer the swiping method though, just to give my face that extra clean).
Some of the best toners out there are the Klairs Supple Preparation Facial Toner (for acne-prone/oily skin), or the Son & Park Beauty Water (for all skin types, with multiple functions!).
Step 5: Essence (Day and Evening step)
Ah, the secret to every Korean woman’s flawless, youthful face. The K-Beauty website, Soko Glam, claims that essences are actually the most essential step to any skin care regimen due to their anti-aging and brightening properties. They’ve been dubbed as the “Korean skincare secret to flawless skin”, and it’s easy to see why.
By applying essence, you’re alleviating wrinkles, fine lines, and dull skin – making room for a brighter, smoother, and overall younger-looking face. This is due them promoting skin regeneration, which revitalizes your skin with enough regular use. If you’re after that porcelain glass-like look – this is it.
To use essences, simply pat them evenly all over your face and neck. Remember, PAT; not only does this enhance absorption, but avoid tugging or rubbing at your face – which often promotes premature wrinkles. The best products to go for are the Cosrx Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence, the Botanic Farm Rice Ferment First Essence, and the Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence Intensive Moist.
Step 6: Boosters, serums, or ampoules (Day and Evening step)
This step is where you get to be a bit more creative with your treatments! Basically, whatever your predominant skin issues are – be it fine lines or wrinkles, redness, acne, or hyperpigmentation – this step is where you apply a booster, serum, or ampoule that specifically address such concerns.
These guys come with concentrations of active ingredients that provide these additional skin care benefits, giving your skin that that extra oomph it needs to look its best. Plus, without the fillers that moisturizers have (such as emulsifiers or emollients), these ingredients get to absorb themselves into your skin a lot faster.
But what are the differences between the three?
Short answer: not much. Apart from minor differences in consistency or concentration of ingredients, the all pretty much perform the same job. As stated best by The Klog, “The wording is mostly a marketing tactic to differentiate skin care products and make them sound special—not to say that they aren’t! But just so you know, they all basically function similarly.”
To apply these products, gently tap them all over your face, focusing on the problematic areas. Be sure to pick one with ingredients that can specifically address your personal skin issues, so do your research!
But to start, some of the most popular treatments out there are: the Cosrx Centella Blemish Ampoule (for acne-prone skin), the Missha Time Revolution Night Repair New Science Activator Ampoule (for combination/damaged skin), and the Time Stop Collagen Ampoule.
Step 7: Sheet Mask (Evening step)
Ooh, another favourite step of mine. With a sheet mask, you can just kick back and relax for 15-20 minutes while the mask’s nutrients work their magic. The fun part is that there is such a wide range of them to choose from in the market that perform a variety of functions – from adding a glowing effect, to repairing damaged skin, to promoting tightening and elasticity. And they all come in such cute packages!
To use them, simply apply a fresh mask onto your face and leave it be for the recommended time. Since it clings to your skin well, you can go about your other activities or chores in the meantime. These sheets are usually one-size-fits-all, but depending on your face shape, you may need to do a bit of adjusting with some.
After removing the face mask, you can pat in any of the extra essence left on the mask or in the package. Allow your skin to absorb the product.
PRO-TIP: While some choose to use this extra product on their face (or arms and legs), I actually save mine in tiny vials that I can pat onto my face for future routines. It saves money, plus I get more out of the mask!
Some of the most popular masks out there are Innisfree’s, Papa Recipe’s, or My Beauty Diary’s mask range.
Step 8: Eye Cream (Evening step)
I owe my life to whoever invented the eye cream. As someone who’s struggled with persistent puffiness, dark circles, and under-eye bags, you can only imagine my relief when I finally incorporated this product into my nightly routine.
Now, while didn’t perform miracles, it did do well in relieving some of my most relenting eye concerns. I’ve noticed that over time, the skin around my eye area has perked up, mitigating its once swollen, perpetually-tired appearance. (I guess getting a healthy amount of sleep every night helped too – definitely prioritise this first when treating tired eyes, no amount of skin care product can substitute beauty sleep!)
So with that said, I’d say that this is one of the most important steps to have in your daily skin care regimen. The skin around your eyes is thinner and has less elasticity than any other part of your face (making it age faster than the other areas), so it’s important you’re giving it the proper care and maintenance it needs.
Different eye creams target different concerns, though the most common functions you’d find would be smoothening fine lines, hydrating the skin, and de-puffing the eye area. Some of the most popular ones to start you search as Innisfree’s Orchid Eye Cream and Erborian’s Ginseng Infusion Total Eye.
Step 9: Moisturizer (Day and Evening step)
You’re almost there! To seal in all the awesome ingredients you’ve patted into your skin, be sure to apply good moisturizer. Not only does it lock in all the good stuff, but it keeps your skin looking plump and smooth.
There are all types of moisturizers, usually in the form of creams, emulsions, lotions, or sleeping masks. (Personally, I like to add a sleeping mask on top of my moisturizer. 😉) I have two separate moisturizers for my evening and day routines: before going to bed, I use either a rich night cream or an emulsion, and occasionally slather on a sleeping mask. During the day, I use a ‘day cream’ with added SPF that’s a tad more lightweight.
Some bestselling Korean moisturizers include Innisfree’s Green Tea Balancing Lotion EX, Klairs Rich Moist Soothing Cream, and if you fancy yourself a sleeping mask – Laneige’s Water Sleeping Mask is an all-around favourite you’re guaranteed to love.
Step 10: Sunscreen (Day step)
And now we’ve come to the final step: sunscreen.
Now, I’ve got to admit I’ve constantly slacked on applying this product when I was first starting out as a skin care addict – primarily because I just didn’t think it was necessary. After all, I’m not hitting the beach, and it’s not like its 40 degrees out, so why bother?
The truth is, wherever there’s sun, there’s a risk of exposing your bare skin to harmful UV rays. Even on an overcast day, 80% of the sun’s rays can still pass through clouds. Think you’re safe during the winter months? Nope – snow can also reflect up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays, which increases your skin’s risk of sun damage even more.
It is an absolute must to shield your precious skin with sunscreen, even on a day indoors (UV rays aren’t blocked by the glass in your windows!). Not only are you preventing the risk of sun damage – or, even worse, skin cancer – you’re also helping prevent signs of premature aging. Exposure to the sun can cause your skin to acquire a leathery, thick, and overall discoloured look (which I’ve experienced myself during my ignorant, lazy-girl days), and it’s a look you don’t want. Trust me.
While you can use any sunscreen you can find from your local pharmacy (doctors recommend an SPF of 30 or higher), some highly recommended ones are the Missha All-Around Safe Block Water Proof Sun Milk (SPF50+), and the COSRX Aloe Soothing Sun Cream (SPF50+).
You’ve done it! You’ve successfully completed the skin care routine that all beauty buffs on the internet are raving about. Now to reap those incredible results, you’ve just got to do it over again… day by day, night after night…
And yes, while it all may seem totally daunting at first, it’s absolutely worth the effort. I’ve been there – if you just beat through the CBF attitude in the beginning, you’ll notice massive improvements for the better. And because you’ll look better, you’ll feel better too.
As I’ve mentioned, it’s absolutely fine to ease into this process; some people start out with a 5-step routine (oil cleanser, water cleanser, toner, essence, and cream), before eventually working their way up to the whole 10 steps. It’s all about figuring out what works best for you and your skin goals.
So, if you haven’t gotten onboard yet, what’re you waiting for? Time to dive into the world of K-Beauty – you (and your skin) won’t regret it.
(Some of the products recommended above may include affiliate links that I might earn commission from.)