Getting your first Korean skin care routine seems like a daunting and intimidating process. The famed “Korean 10-step regime” is not a misnomer, it does consist of 9-10 steps, but the frequency and time spent on each varies from face to face. The goal and amazing thing about Korea’s 10-step skin care routine is that it is created for customization. Each step gives people the ability to choose their skin care concerns and address them with products.
The 10-step skin care routine can be created to help people with oily or dry skin, but it can also help with things like brightening, skin discoloration, and other signs of aging. The products can be hard to find and buy in the U.S. (not to mention costly), so we recommend getting into it slowly – no need to jump from zero to sixty all at once! Find the steps that you can incorporate easily and slowly add them into your routine, or by all means, jump in head first, we wont stop you!
Our Korean 10-Step Skin Care Routine
1. Emulsifying Oil Cleanser
Think of this as an extended version of your oil-based eye makeup remover, but for your whole face! The emulsifying oil cleanser is part of what is known as a double cleanse (steps 1 & 2 of the 10-step routine). The idea is to use an oil-based cleanser to lift and remove oil-based products (sunscreen, makeup, etc.) and follow it with a more traditional foaming cleanser to wash it all away. In recent years, it’s clear that cleansing with a foaming cleanser only is too harsh on your skin and removes the skin’s natural oils. Starting with an oil cleanser is a way to more gently remove makeup and replenish some of the natural oils.
2. Foaming Cleanser
Foaming cleanser encapsulates a lot of different options you have when choosing something for step 2. It’s generally a water-based product that produces foam when you lather it with water, it could be called milks, creams, sherbets, you name it! What is most important is the pH of the product. When choosing your product you want something that will be very gentle on your skin, Korean skin care is all about being kind to your skin. Look for a cleanser with a pH from 4 – 5.5 (generally the higher pH products are gentler). There is an amazing resource on Reddit’s Asian Beauty community on why pH is important, plus a spreadsheet with product pH’s. The good news is there are plenty of pH friendly cleansers in the U.S. market, so you can easily buy a product for this step at home or abroad.
3. Chemical exfoliator
Exfoliation is important for both cleaning clogged pores and removing dead skin. A common misconception is that exfoliation should only be done through physical means, like the classic Apricot Scrub that everyone grew up using. In reality, recent studies have shown that physical exfoliation is harmful to your skin, and instead suggest using chemical exfoliants. Like cleansers, pH is important, try to find an exfoliant that is in the 3 – 4 pH range. Look for ingredients like glycolic and salysic acid in your chemical exfoliant, as they’re nearly universally approved by dermatologists.
This is a step where it is important to diverge from Western markets. In the US, toner is often astringent and harsh on your skin. Asian toners are meant to add moisture and are used to prep the skin for all the steps to follow. Look for a toner with a pH of 5.5 and lower and try to use the toner as soon as possible after the previous steps. Some say as quick as “2 seconds after“!
5 & 6. Essence, Serums, and Ampoules
This is where things start to get a little crazy, in a good way. Essences, serums, and ampoules are the step when you can get most creative and customize your 10-step skincare regime to your desired outcomes. Essences, serums, and ampoules are all systems to deliver active ingredients into your skin.
I’ve grouped them as step 5 & 6, because essences, serums, and ampoules are all similar products, but in the classic 10-step skin care routine, you apply an essence first (step 5) to your entire face and then finish with your serums and/or ampoules (step 6).
Essences, serums, and ampoules differ in their consistency and active ingredient concentration.
- Essences: The thinnest delivery agent, it has the consistency of a watery lotion. It is a skincare category created in the Korean market. Essences have active ingredients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, but at the lowest concentration of the three agents.
- Serums: This is the mid-range agent that is generally oily and thicker in consistency. It comes in a smaller bottle and has a higher concentration of active ingredients to address issues like dark spots and aging.
- Ampoules: This is the most super-charged delivery agent and comes in the smallest bottle accordingly. They generally come with small droppers, because you need very little ampoule, as they’re so concentrated in their active skin care ingredients. Due to the high concentration, they’re generally used less frequently to conquer crisis moments.
In Korean skin care, you can include as many or as few essences, serums, and ampoules as you’d like, you can even throw in some snail slime into one of the steps. It’s all about finding the balance that’s right for you and addresses your needs. We will have a full write-up of different ingredients you can look for coming soon.
7. Sheet Masks
This step shouldn’t be used everyday. Instead, apply a sheet mask 2 – 3 times a week to amp up your skincare. Sheet masks are a simple way to ensure your face absorbs powerful ingredients. It works by creating a barrier to the air, so less active ingredient is evaporated and more is absorbed. You can use different masks to address different problems you’re having such as acne or dryness.
8. Eye cream
Since our eyes and the wrinkles around them are such an indicator of age, Korean skin care routines have created their own step just to ensure they’re properly cared for! The most important aspect of this step is to gently dab your eye cream, because the skin around our eyes is the most sensitive. Our favorite eye cream is Mizon’s snail repair eye cream, you can use it day or night. If you’re still scared of snail products, you can read a little more about why it’s great here.
This is another area where the product you use will differ greatly by your desired outcome and skin type. Product types for this step include emulsions (thin, liquid lotions often good for oily skin), creams (heavier lotions for drier skin), and sleeping masks (very thick lotions that are meant for deep treatment overnight. The goal of moisturizers are to seal in the previous steps and lock in your skin’s moisture. It’s key to maintaining healthy, youthful skin. Generally, you want to apply a moisturizer morning and night, it can be the same product or can be two different moisturizers depending on your preference.
We saved the best for last! The most important aspect of your skincare routine is habitually applying sunscreen. The good news is, Korean skincare is so dedicated to sun protection that they’ve created a range of products that are much lighter than their Western counterparts, so you won’t feel bogged down by this step. Simply apply your favorite SPF before you start applying your makeup and you’re ready for the day.
And you’ve made it through all 10-steps! A few things to remember:
- Find products that work for you – Korean makeup and skincare is all about customizing to your skin and its health.
- All 10-steps are not required – play with the steps and find what works for you. It’s good to start with just double cleansing, moisturizing, and sunscreen.
- Don’t get bogged down – make your routine a time to pamper yourself and your skin. It shouldn’t be a chore.
Have fun and enjoy your new, fresh skin!