Unless you’re a complete beauty newb, chances are you’ve at least heard of the epicness that is the Korean skincare routine. In case you need a refresher, the typical Korean skincare routine consists of a whopping 10 steps, with each serving a unique purpose. While Korean skincare may seem daunting at first, once you find the best Korean skincare products for your skin type and concerns, you’ll get your own routine on lock. Here, learn all about why you should commit to a Korean skincare routine and get product recs tailored to you, straight from top experts in the Korean skincare industry.
Beauty 101: What is a Korean skincare routine, and why is it so popular?
A typical Korean skincare routine includes everything from double cleansing to treating skin concerns with products like essences and ampoules to intensely moisturizing. Korean skincare involves a lot of steps with a major focus on hydration, says Michelle Wong, PhD, who writes about the science behind beauty products on her website Lab Muffin. Craig Kraffert, MD, board-certified dermatologist and president of Amarte, a skincare brand that launched in Korea in the ’90s, says the multistep Korean skincare routine was born out of an obsession with the Korean concept that skincare is a privileged activity of “indulgence, enjoyment, and self-respect.” Alicia Yoon, founder of K-beauty brand Peach & Lily, says the overall goal of Korean skincare is to create a healthy glow, and the routine resonates with people because it’s a unique take on skincare. “There’s a little bit more of a long-term approach to achieving a healthy outcome for skin,” says Yoon. “It’s not about expecting overnight results from something like a very intensive peel.” Korean skincare products also play a role in the popularity of the multistep routine. Kraffert, who founded Dermstore, has had the opportunity to try skincare products from all over the world and says that Korean skincare products have been more aesthetically pleasing and pleasant to use than ones made in America or Europe. “The state-of-the-art Korean skincare technologies—and there are several—really do lead the world,” says Kraffert. “The Korean government has actively participated in nurturing the skincare product manufacturing industry through partnerships with academia to advance R&D [research and development] efforts.” Besides their advanced formulas, the packaging of many Korean skincare products is totally adorable. Many of them come housed in the cutest containers, and that adds to the appeal, says Yoon. The proliferation of Korean movies and music to the West in the last few years is also piquing people’s interest in Korean skincare, says Kraffert. “Starting in the second half of the ’90s, the Korean wave swept across Asia, and, more recently, is sweeping across both America and Europe,” he says. “This began with drama productions. Korean actresses and their legendary beauty are revered across Asia. The Korean penchant for excellence in plastic surgery is also well known.” Couple that with the high-tech product formulations and a historical obsession with skincare, and it makes sense that Korean skincare has taken off around the globe.
East vs. West: What are the major differences between Western and Korean skincare routines?
“Western beauty routines usually contain [fewer] steps, harsher active ingredients, and less of a focus on moisturization,” says Wong. While the Western world is slowly becoming more and more influenced by Korean skincare routines, she says, we tend to combine steps with multi-use products, whereas a Korean skincare routine separates everything out. “In a Korean skincare routine, you’ll have a lot more steps,” Wong explains. “For example, cleansing will involve two steps—this is known as double-cleansing—and there will be multiple steps that deliver active ingredients to your skin, like essences and serums.” Wong adds that Asian skin is generally more prone to dehydration, which is why moisturization plays such a huge role. Asian skin is also more prone to hyperpigmentation, says Wong, so pigmentation-lightening ingredients like niacinamide and kojic acid—both rarely seen in American and European beauty products—are in a lot of Korean skincare products. Sarah Chung, CEO of Landing International, an online marketplace that connects global brands and retailers, says that Korean skincare tends to be a lot stronger when it comes to the nutrient stage of the routine. While we sometimes include serums (or a similar product like an essence or ampoule) in our skincare routines here in the U.S., in Korea this is considered a vital step that would never be skipped, says Chung. Korean skincare also places a big emphasis on preventive measures, says Yoon, which is different from in the U.S., where we tend to wait until our skin is damaged and then try to reverse it. That’s why you’ll always find sunscreen in a Korean skincare routine.
How to Put Together a Korean Skincare Routine
So now you know why Korean skincare is trending and what the benefits of a Korean skincare routine are, but what about actually following the 10-step process? We’re making it easy with our step-by-step guide.
Step 1: Use an oil cleanser.
Oil cleansers are great because they gently remove impurities (like dirt and makeup) from your skin without having to resort to tugging or pulling, says Yoon. She says people with any skin type—even oily skin—can use an oil cleanser. Yoon’s favorite oil cleanser is Aromatica Natural Coconut Cleansing Oil ($45), which dissolves impurities without leaving any residue and can be used by all skin types. Chung is a fan of oil cleansers that come in a balm form, like SkinRx Lab MadeCera Cleansing Balm ($26), because they’re travel-friendly. “The solid format means you can put them in your bag and go anywhere,” she says.
Step 2: Cleanse again.
“In a way that is analogous to shampooing—wash, rinse, repeat—double cleansing of the skin can provide improved removal of oil, keratin, and assorted microscopic skin debris,” says Kraffert. He says that while you can double cleanse no matter your skin type, it might be more beneficial for those who are on the oilier side. If you’re going to double cleanse, Kraffert suggests choosing a gentle yet deep-cleansing foam cleanser, like Amarte Daily Wonder Cleansing Foam ($40), for this step. It’s formulated with hyaluronic acid, which is one of the most hydrating ingredients out there. “High-quality facial cleansers typically do not lead to dry skin, even with double cleansing,” he says. Yoon is a fan of Shangpree S-Energy Facial Mousse Cleanser ($35), particularly for sensitive skin. “It’s made by the best spa in Korea,” she says, referring to Seoul’s Shangpree Spa. “It’s a water-based cleanser that doesn’t have any sulfates. It’s really beautiful and doesn’t disrupt the skin at all.
Step 3: Exfoliate (once or twice a week).
You don’t have to exfoliate every day. Once or twice a week tops should do, says Yoon. Exfoliating rids the surface of your skin of dulling, pore-clogging impurities, but over-exfoliating could irritate your skin and lead to even more issues, she warns. There are two types of exfoliators to choose from: physical ones (like scrubs and microfiber cloths), which manually buff off dead skin cells, and chemical ones (like glycolic and lactic acids), which loosen dead skin cells so they come off more easily, says Wong. Chemical exfoliators can also be formulated with plant enzymes, such as pumpkin, pineapple, or papaya extracts, says Wong. Be The Skin Non-Stimulus Face Polisher ($29), which Yoon loves, relies on plant extracts for exfoliation and is suitable for all skin types. Kraffert recommends Amarte Daily ExfoliPowder ($37), which utilizes ultra-fine corn starch for very gentle manual exfoliation (it can even be swapped in for the second half of your daily double cleanse, he says). Chung cites Wish Formula C200 Bubble Peeling Pad for Face ($26) as an innovative chemical exfoliant. It comes with a pad that you soak in an exfoliating serum—which contains AHAs, vitamin C, and hyaluronic acid—and wipe over your face.
Step 4: Tone.
“Korean toners are very hydrating,” says Yoon. “They’re not astringent.” They’re awesome at balancing your skin’s pH and kickstarting the hydration portion of your routine, she says. As for when to apply it, Yoon says, “You don’t want your skin to be totally dry when you apply toner. You should apply it within five seconds of washing your face.” Yoon recommends Be the Skin, a beauty line that offers toners for all different skin types, like the Botanical Pore Toner ($25) for oily and acne-prone skin, Purifying White Waterful Toner ($29) for dull skin, Botanical Nutrition Power Toner ($29) for dry skin, and Botanical Nutrition Toner ($29) for normal skin. Landing International’s best-known brand in the U.S. is COSRX, and they also offer a variety of toners for different concerns, says Chung. One of the newest and most popular toners from the brand is the Poreless Power Liquid ($22), which cleans and tightens pores without stripping skin. She also likes the COSRX One Step Original Clear Pads ($20), pre-soaked toning pads that fight acne without drying out skin.
Step 5: Apply essence.
Essences are likely the products you’re most unfamiliar with in the Korean skincare routine. They were developed in Korea, and while they’re similar in appearance and texture to toners, they don’t serve the same purpose. Essences are meant to be hydrating, not cleansing, says Yoon. Wong says that they often contain ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, while Kraffert compares essences to serums and says they may even be preferred over serums if you have dry skin. Yoon recommends Eco Your Skin’s essences for their unique formula that can be layered on. “You can apply one layer or 20 layers, and your skin keeps drinking it up,” she says. The brand offers a Moisturizing Layering Essence, Lifting Layering Essence, Soothing Layering Essence, Spot Care Layering Essence, Oily Layering Essence, and Anti-Wrinkle Layering Essence (all $25).
Step 6: Layer on a serum or ampoule.
“In Korean skincare, serums usually target wrinkles, dullness, and pigmentation,” says Wong. Yoon says you can use a serum (a lightweight, watery skincare product that penetrates deeply into your skin to deliver nutrients) or an ampoule (a souped-up version of a serum with a slightly more potent formula). Yoon loves Shangpree S-energy Long Lasting Concentrated Serum ($120). “It’s good for all skin types,” she says. “It’s a lightweight clear gel that absorbs into skin and is proven to help with fine lines and wrinkles.” Kraffert says the Amarte Aqua Veil Pure Hydration Serum ($57) has a water-rich formula that provides tons of hydration so that skin can withstand harsh environments. Chung says Skin&Lab Red Serum ($35) helps improve the texture of skin and is very high in antioxidants. “Anyone I recommend that to falls in love with it,” she says. If you want to try an ampoule, Wish Formula offers a few, says Chung. The I’m Pro Ampoule Pad – C ($32) nourishes skin with plant extracts, while the I’m Pro Ampoule Pad – M brightens dull skin with vitamin C ($32).
Step 7: Pop on a sheet mask (a few times a week).
Like essences and ampoules, sheet masks are quintessential parts of a Korean skincare routine. These fabric face masks are soaked in concentrated serums and are generally used two or three times a week. “Sheet masks hydrate your skin and can help the underlying products sink into the skin,” says Wong. Don’t wash your face after using a sheet mask, Chung notes. Since sheet masks are packed with serum, pat the serum into your skin after taking the mask off. Yoon says Peach & Lily sheet masks are formulated without alcohol, fragrances, or harsh ingredients, all of which could irritate skin. “They’re filled with lots of skin-enhancing ingredients and are gentle enough to use even daily,” she says. The Good Skin Day Drench + Nourish Sheet Mask hydrates and brightens, the Chubby Cheeks Lift + Plump Sheet Mask perks up sagging skin, and the Reset Button Soothe + Restore Sheet Mask calms irritated skin (all $6).
Step 8: Dab on an eye cream.
The delicate skin around your eyes deserves attention, too! “It’s super important to keep the skin around your eyes moisturized,” says Kraffert. Because it’s so fragile, this skin is prone to dryness and showing signs of aging like dark circles and crow’s feet. Kraffert recommends using eye cream twice daily and patting it into your skin with gentle pressure. For fine lines and wrinkles around the eyes, Kraffert says the gold star ingredient is retinol, which you can find in Amarte Eyeconic Eye Cream ($80). “Retinol is one of the most effective cosmetic anti-aging ingredients and is proven, via rigorous studies, to improve conditions associated with chronological aging, such as wrinkles and fine lines,” he says. Yoon likes Eco Your Skin Volufiline15 Eye Essence ($70). “It sinks really deep into skin,” she says. “It’s formulated with peptides and niacinamide and is firming and brightening. It fills in fine lines for flawless and creaseless makeup application.”
Step 9: Moisturize.
The ultimate goal of Korean skincare is a glowing complexion, which means moisturizer is a non-negotiable morning and night. For oily skin, choose an oil-free formula for daytime, and for dry skin, choose something heavier (moisturizers in jars are often richer), says Wong. Avoid heavy fragrances if you have sensitive skin. Yoon says the Peach & Lily Peach Slices Aqua Glow ($12) combines serum and moisturizer and works on all skin types to brighten and hydrate. “You can use one layer for oily skin or five layers for dry skin,” she says. “It doesn’t pill, it’s non-comedogenic, and it primes your face for makeup.” Chung likes Skin & Lab Red Cream ($35), which has an antioxidant-packed gel–cream formula to soften lines and plump up skin. “Sleeping masks or sleeping packs are a Korean product that I’ve found really useful for preventing dehydration, especially in dry winter weather,” says Wong. “You layer them over the rest of your skincare routine to help seal in moisture.” Try Laneige Water Sleeping Mask ($25), which has a gel formula that hydrates while you sleep.
Step 10: Protect your skin from the sun (in the morning).
“Sunscreen still remains the most important weapon in preventing premature skin aging and skin cancer, especially because these problems occur in frequently exposed areas including the face, neck, upper chest, arms, and hands,” says Kraffert. Pick one that’s broad-spectrum (that means it protects against UVA and UVB rays) and SPF 30 or higher, says Kraffert. “Apply SPF over your moisturizer and under your makeup,” he says. He recommends Amarte Ultra Veil Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid SPF 50 ($56), which is broad-spectrum and water resistant, contains brightening antioxidants, and has a semi-matte finish that won’t leave a greasy or chalky residue. The bottom line: Sure, following a Korean skincare routine might take you a few extra minutes, but you’ll get the hang of it after some practice, we promise! Plus, when you see that radiant glow shining back at you from the mirror, we have a feeling you’ll think the added time has been worth it.