South Koreans are known for their obsession with healthy skin. As a result, Korean Beauty has become popular to skincare enthusiasts, and the reason is simple: It works. Backed by constant innovation and discoveries in skincare, South Korea has become the leader in cosmetic science in the world.
One thing Korean skincare is known for in the West, is the “10 step skincare routine”, yet it does not actually originate in South Korea. It's an easy, gimmicky way to refer to various steps in a skincare routine, the truth is there is no set amount of steps to follow as it all depends on your specific skin concerns.
Many would be forgiven for thinking that they need to follow all several steps twice a day, every day, when that’s not the case at all. It’s even more confusing when you see people on Instagram using so many different and ever changing products in their routines on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. The truth is simple, your Korean skincare routine will depend on you and your specific skincare concerns at that moment. Where one day you have a breakout, the next you might be battling dry skin. As your skincare needs change, so will your routine.
With any skin routine, not just the Korean Routine, it is basically 3 steps with additional steps in between. For some it may only require 3-4 steps, for others as high as 15-20. It all depends on what your skin needs.
The 3 basic steps in a Korean or any skincare routine are: Clean, Treat, Protect.
If we take those 3 steps and map it to Korean beauty functional products, it’s a lot simpler to understand. The basic steps of a skin regime can be divided as follows:
- First cleanser: Double cleansing is when you clean your face with both an oil and water based cleanser. The first cleanser is usually an oil cleanser used to remove makeup, sunscreen and dissolve dirt. These can come in the form of an oil, a sherbet balm or a cream.
- Second cleanser: The second cleanser is used to cleanse the oil cleanser and any left over impurities. It’s typically a liquid, gel, cream or foam based cleanser, one that you mix with water. A second cleanser would be used in the morning and at night.
- Toner - Toners are called “Skin” in Korea and is seen as one of the most important steps to get your skin hydrated and prepped for the rest of your skincare. Most toners balance the pH level of your skin to protect your skin barrier from bacteria, and prepare it for your treatment products. Some products need an optimal pH level of your skin to work effectively, hence using a toner is more than just an extra cleansing step. Many Korean toners are hydrating, rather than astringent as with many Western toners that contain alcohol which can be drying on the skin.
- Essence - This step is to treat your skin with hydrating, healing, repairing, protective or nourishing ingredients found in essences and serums.
- Ampoules, Boosters, Facial Oils - These typically come in dropper bottles or similar, and are used to treat a specific condition. It is usually targeted for whatever your skin needs e.g. hydration, lightening of pigmentation, anti-redness, repair, dryness, wrinkles, acne, brightening etc
- Eye Cream - Protect the delicate eye area with a nourishing eye cream
- Moisturizer - Protect, hydrate and prevent moisture loss with a moisturizer. Most moisturizer are both a humectant and occlusive, An additional step before your moisturizer is an emulsion or lotion which are both thinner and are used as a lighter moisturizer e.g. in the Summer when moisturizers are too heavy on your skin.
- Sunscreen - During the day time use sunscreen to protect against sun damage. Use a sunscreen that has a high sun protection factor (SPF) during the day time even if indoors. Most sunscreens protect against UVB rays (the ones that tan the skin), and the more harmful UVA rays which are the ones that cause skin aging and can even penetrate glass. Newer sunscreens also protect against HEV (High Energy Visible Light) which can cause or aggravate pigmentation and aging of the skin. If you suffer from pigmentation, look for a micronized sunblock with ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, mexoryl SX or avobenzone.
Some additional exfoliating or treatment steps are specific to skin concerns as they arise and are used in the Treat step above as applicable. Eg. AHA or BHA exfoliators for cell renewal and pore cleansing; kojic acid or niacinamide for hyper pigmentation; vitamin C for additional brightening; anti-oxidant products for anti-ageing, pigmentation or acne treatment as prescribed.
The additional steps depend entirely on your skin’s needs. Some of us only get PMS related or hormonal acne and only need to use acne treatments at that time of the month, so it wouldn’t make sense to use acne targeted products every day. This is why it’s important to not simply follow someone else’s regime as their skin’s needs at that time might be different from yours at any given time.
Certain products are only used weekly or biweekly, again, depending on your skin’s needs. An example is exfoliation. You can exfoliate skin using a physical, chemical or enzymatic method once a week or more if your skin can handle it.
Masks are a staple in any Korean skincare routine. They come in many forms like sheet masks, clay packs, modeling masks, sleeping pack masks etc. It can be used as often as your skin needs it to target specific skin concerns, with some Korean actresses even claiming to use one every single day! It’s always important to make sure that the mask you use will not clog your pores and is suitable for your skin type.
That’s basically what the “10 step Korean beauty routine is”, which isn’t actually 10 steps as you can see. Your routine can include as many or few steps as your skin needs. The best way to get to know your skin and what routine works for you, is to test products by introducing one every 2-3 weeks and selecting treatment steps based on your skin’s needs.
It’s also okay to mix and match different brands as it has not been proven that using only one brand yields any better results than using a few brands. What matters are the ingredients inside the products.
As long as you’re cleaning, treating and protecting your skin, it doesn’t matter how many extra steps are in your routine to treat your specific concerns.