I've been very intrigued by Korean beauty routines, ever since this guy in one of my English classes who had really great skin told me about /r/AsianBeauty (also /r/SkincareAddiction). And Korean skincare has since become my absolute obsession.
I mentioned it briefly in my "23 of 23" birthday blog, but it honestly deserves its own post. It will change your life, I promise. Even if you're a guy, this applies to you too. Good skincare is for everyone. I have yet to meet a guy that hasn't had a minor existential revelation after doing a face mask with me. And the notoriously "crazy" 10- to 16-step routine has received a fair amount of media attention, from IntoTheGloss to Brit + Co to Cosmopolitan. But it takes discipline; I'm still getting used to doing it every night and sometimes I'm still lazy about it, but I've still seen good results so far.
The point of a Korean skincare routine is not to use the best products simply because they're the best, or even to use Korean products at all. The point is to assess your personal skincare needs and tailor your routine to fit—you have to evaluate the condition of your skin and choose products that target those issues.
Another major difference between American and Korean skincare is that American skincare is focused on fixing problems or reversing damage, while Korean skincare is largely preventative. So much of the Korean routine is focused on anti-aging, even in your 20s, in the hope that you'll have fewer problems to fix later.
So, here is your step-by-step guide to building your own Korean skincare routine!
The first things you need to do for great skin are make sure you cover the basics: get a good night's rest, eat well, find ways to reduce stress, and drink lots of water.
This is more of a lifestyle tip than a beauty tip, but it's equally as important to consider what goes into your body as what goes on it. And honestly, this is the part I struggle with the most, because I don't sleep at all and I will stop eating Flaming Hot Cheetos only when someone takes them from my cold, dead hands.
But it really does help, especially drinking water. I notice a significant difference when I drink more water. It makes your skin nice and hydrated and youthful-looking.
So what I've noticed is that while there is a lot of content about Korean skincare routines out there, it's hard to know where to start. Basically, you start by identifying your problems. Is your skin dry? Oily? Combination? Do you want to prevent wrinkles? Lighten dark spots? Get rid of breakouts? These questions will help you decide which steps to include (if you struggle with breakouts, for example, you probably want a very lightweight moisturizer).
Usually people have two routines, one for morning and one for night. But the trick is layers. You have to layer products from thin to thick, to ensure maximum absorption. Your face will feel like it's encased in a mask, but I promise that you will thank me when you wake up in the morning. I used to think that good skin was all genetics, but as it turns out, it's pretty easy to fake with the right skincare.
This routine is adapted from SokoGlam.
For when you first wake up, pre-makeup
step 1 | water
Cleansing your face with water (just water, no products!) dissolves all of the products you applied the night before.
step 2 | toner
Toners are like skin primers; they moisturize a little bit and prep your skin to absorb the vital products, like essences and serums. It's a very, very gentle chemical exfoliant, sweeping away any dead skin.
step 3 | essence
Essences are rich and filled with nutrients to promote cell turnover. These are like the power packs of the beauty world, like a skin boost in a bottle.
step 4 | moisturizer
Necessary for hydrating skin and keeping moisture locked in all day.
step 5 | sunscreen
Sunscreen is so important. Here's why. It's also the most effective way of preventing aging, and why Koreans have such flawless skin.
Post-shower (if you're that kind of person), right before bed
step 1 | oil cleanser (double-cleansing, part I)
Oil cleansers remove alllll the makeup and dirt you've accumulated over the course of the day. It's the first step in "double-cleansing," or washing your face twice, once with an oil-based product and once with a water-based product.
step 2 | water cleanser (double-cleansing, part II)
This is the second part of the double-cleansing routine, to remove all of the oil.
step 3 | exfoliant
This is the physical exfoliant, the one that will slough away all of the dead skin. It's good especially when you've been wearing a lot of makeup, just to make sure all traces of it completely disappear.
step 4 | toner
You want to take a little bit of this on a cotton pad and swipe it over your face, just to remove the dead skin. Be gentle!
step 5 | essence
Pour a couple drops into your palm and pat it into your face (it doesn't waste product and it's good for circulation).
step 6 | serums
Serums are amazing. They're absolutely packed with nutrients, vitamins, and so much other good stuff, like supercharged essences. They're made to target problems like dehydration, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, elasticity, acne, etc. Pick your poison, mix a couple of drops on your skin, and pat the mixture in.
step 7 | eye cream
Eye cream treats the delicate skin on your eyelids, and it's thicker than most moisturizers, so gently tap it with your fingers until it's absorbed.
step 8 | sheet masks
Sheet masks are a great way to soak in extra nutrients, and the best part is you can just sit and chill with it on your face for 15 minutes while you watch TV, do your taxes, etc. They feel nice and cooling on the skin, and leave behind a nice, thick layer of nourishment.
step 9 | moisturizer
The last step is to seal in all of that wonderful stuff you've packed into your skin. It'll make sure that your skin works overnight to repair itself, and impart that really dewy, glowy look that Koreans are famous for.
It's taken a long time, but I've finally developed a skincare routine that I think works for me. These are all of the products I use—you'll notice that very few of them are actually Korean. For reference, I have combination skin and mostly focus on hyperpigmentation and dullness.
Really the only reason I bought this was because my cousin and I naïvely wandered into The Body Shop in 10th grade and were immediately scooped up by this really nice guy who gushed over the entire line. But I've used it ever since, because I actually really like the scent and how clean and pure it feels on the skin. It's like a wake-up call. I use it instead of an actual cleanser, just to clear away all of the dead skin and oil in the morning, because I always shower/wash my face the night before.
This toner was highly recommended by a lot of Korean beauty bloggers and praised on Reddit, so I trusted it. I tried the BHA (beta hydroxy acid) one first, but I think this one suits my skin better because I've never actually gotten blackheads (AHAs and BHAs are gentle acids that help target different kinds of breakouts). I never really thought about pH, but it is important, so these acids help balance it out. So far, this one works for me, but I also use it mostly as a preventative measure.
I've recently started using this both in the morning and at night, because I feel like it creates a good base for makeup. It also smells amazing, really fresh and clean, like a rainforest.
I like ones that I can wear under makeup, so on normal days I wear the Josie Maran, and on high exposure days I wear the MISSHA. Sometimes if I'm feeling fancy, I'll wear both. You'd think it would be really heavy, but actually, I like the texture of both of them together.
oil cleanser | Banila Co. Clean It Zero Resveratrol*
This is the most amazing makeup remover I've ever used in my life, which is unfortunate because Banila Co. tests on animals. I have a comparable one saved in my Amazon cart for when I finish it, but for now, this one is Holy Grail status. It's a sherbet-like consistency that melts into an oil on the skin, and it takes everything off. Liquid eyeliner, waterproof mascara, long-wearing lipstick. All of it slides off your face. And it smells great, a little bit like cotton candy.
exfoliant | Beauskin Apple Whitening Peeling Gel (1x week)
This stuff is so cool. I use it on all my friends. It's a chemical exfoliating gel, so when you massage it into your skin, it takes of all the dead stuff. It's grossly fascinating, watching all the skin come peeling off. But it leaves your skin so smooth and soft, so it's 100% worth it.
water cleanser | KORRES Greek Yoghurt Foaming Cream Cleanser
Oh my god. KORRES is my new favorite brand, because every single product they have (okay, the two I've tried) has knocked it out of the park. I never appreciated facial cleansers before this, because none of them made my skin feel that different. But this one cleans without stripping the skin, it has a faint honeyed scent, and it leaves your face so soft and purified and fresh-feeling. Plus, a tiny, tiny bit goes a long way, so it lasts forever even if you're using it daily.
exfoliant | St. Ives Blackhead Clearing Green Tea Scrub
I feel like the apricot scrub was a part of every 7th grade girl's arsenal, mostly because we didn't know better (it destroys your skin, just...no). But this one is different; it's a lot gentler, and the 1% salicylic acid helps clear any breakouts.
toner | Pixi Glow Tonic
I just started using this, but I really like it so far. It's alcohol-free so as not to dry out the skin, and the glycolic acid content is a little higher than normal, but it's still supposed to be very gentle (which is why it has aloe vera in it). It's called glow tonic for a reason—it gives you that gorgeous lit-from-within look once you've applied it. I use this one at night so that the active ingredients can work while I'm sleeping.
This is the same one I use in the morning, but unlike the other two toners I that I use on a regular basis, I pat this one directly into my skin instead of using a cotton pad, to let all of that acid soak into the skin and work its magic.
You already know.
This is also part of the Drops of Youth line, but this is the stronger version, the serum. It comes in this tiny lil bottle, and I only use two drops every night, but it feels so moisturizing and nice, and it's supposed to give you that "bounce" in your skin.
serum | Cedar + Stone Equinox Face Serum
My sister got this for me for Christmas, and I'm absolutely in love with this. A lot of my skincare routine consists of cocktailing different ingredients and different products since I'm still relatively new to skincare, so it's difficult to tell which ones are working, but this is the one thing that makes a noticeable difference when I wake up. It smells amazing; it has grapeseed, cranberry, pomegranate, and jojoba oils and bergamot, gardenia (probably my favorite floral scent), rose, jasmine, and chamomile. It's like a delicious, floral cup of tea. And it leaves your skin feeling soft and hydrated in the mornings. It's perfect.
eye cream | Kiehl's Creamy Eye Treatment with Avocado*
I read somewhere that your 20s is when you should really start taking care of your skin, so I'm doing the adult thing and preparing for the future (still working on the diet and exercise part). I don't really see any benefits to it, but I'm hoping I will in 40 years or so.
moisturizer | KORRES Pomegranate Balancing Cream-Gel Moisturiser
My friend Tia recommended this one to me, and I've only been using it for a month or so, but it's another product that's landed KORRES at the top of my list. I'm in love with this stuff, and I normally don't have very strong opinions on moisturizers, but the pomegranate scent is so amazingly good I could eat it, and the cream itself is rich but light and super-hydrating. It's heavy enough to use as a night cream, but light enough to wear under makeup.
spot treatment | The Body Shop Tea Tree Night Lotion
This is the only product I've ever used that helps clear up breakouts almost overnight. The tea tree oil definitely takes some getting used to, but I've gotten my whole family hooked on this stuff.
DO'S AND DON'TS
Some general tips and tricks.
do: wash your face at night
If I can leave you with one piece of advice to follow, it's always, always, always wash your face at the end of the day! I don't care if you wear a full face of makeup or just eyeliner or no makeup at all, do it! Even if you don't do the full night routine. Just wash your face. Or use a cleansing towel if you're feeling exceptionally lazy. But your skin does so much regenerating overnight, and it can't do that with a layer of dirt and oil.
don't: scrub at your face
My non-Korean mom always told me: treat your skin like tissue paper. And I've kept this close to my heart, always. Even if you're tempted to scrub at it, just don't. It can actually cause micro-tears in your skin and increase oil production and/or cause breakouts.
Honestly, Korean skincare is a project. Make sure you know your stuff. But don't just rely on cult followings (which is why I haven't tried Glossier yet). What works for others may not work for you, and there's no point in using really expensive products or just to use them. Each ingredient in your routine should have a purpose.
don't: try to do it all at once
Start out slowly. It's like in science: you have to isolate the variable to know if it works. And make sure you patch test! You never know if your skin will react well to a product. Try a tiny bit overnight. If that's okay, then gradually incorporate the product into your routine. Remember: sensitive skin is not a skin type; it's a condition.
do: change your pillowcase often
Especially if you don't shower at night! Think about all of the oil and dirt and products that end up on your pillow. If you can't do this, I recommend putting a towel over your pillow and changing it often.
don't: forget to moisturize
Okay. Because I have combination skin, I never thought to use moisturizer on the oily parts of my face. But it's actually so important. Moisturizing balances your skin; it's what tells it that you have enough oil so it doesn't have to produce any or overcompensate, and applying an oil or a moisturizer at night can actually help reduce oiliness. Sounds counterintuitive, but it works. Trust me. Oils sound like the worst thing in the world for oily skin, but they help a lot.
IN A NUTSHELL
Korean skincare routines can seem intimidating or excessive, but your skin is your skin forever, so you should take care of it! And it's like...your face, so it's worth the investment. I personally have noticed a very positive change in the way my skin looks in the mornings, I feel more confident going out with a bare face, and it's eliminated the need for heavy foundation.
Good luck! And tell me what products you use ^_^ I'm always looking for new recommendations (Glossier and The Ordinary are next on my to-try list!).
writer/creator. problem-solver. curious cat.