There’s been a lot written about the K-beauty skincare regimen. There’s the 10-step version, the 12-step version, even an 18-step routine. But it’s not how many steps that’s important. What’s important is that you’re using the right products in an order that optimizes the absorption of ingredients into your skin where they’ll have maximum efficacy. “It’s to introduce ingredients into your skin gradually and gently so you don’t ‘shock’ the skin,” says one K-beauty expert. It’s why you use a gentle hydrating toner, which softens and preps skin, which then allows for essences and serums to absorb better. Then you seal it all in with a face lotion or cream, so that the nutrients don’t evaporate.
You also want to take into consideration what’s best for your skin type and what works for your lifestyle. The condition of your skin changes seasonally, even monthly or daily, depending on the weather, your diet, your stress levels, even how much you sleep. Some days, a sheet mask and an ampoule and serums are called for. Other days, you may feel fine with just an abbreviated version of your routine. And that’s the beauty of the K-beauty skincare regimen — it’s eminently customizable and ultimately all about what works for you. It gives you the opportunity to think about your skin, your condition, how you’re feeling today, and let’s you pick and choose accordingly. After all, you pick out your outfit of the day based on all sorts of factors — the weather, your mood, your destination, perhaps even how much you worked out that week. You should be just as flexible with your skincare.
Of course, the K-beauty regimen is not just about products and the order in which you use them. Application methods and skincare philosophies are important to know as well. Once you understand the basics, try incorporating the following steps into your regimen. It doesn’t have to be all at once, and it doesn’t have to be with Korean beauty products (though honestly, why wouldn’t you use them — they’re so good and so effective and often more affordable). But understanding the order in which you use certain products will help you maximize absorption and efficacy of your skincare.
Here, a general outline of the Korean beauty 10-step skincare routine.
Start with an oil cleanser to remove oil-based makeup and sunscreen. With more and more cosmetic products made to be water-resistant, you need something that will liquefy all those layers of makeup and sunscreen on your skin. Oil-based cleansers may come in oil, milk, cream, or even gel textures, and some may feel the need to add an eye or lip-specific makeup remover. (Those lip tints that don’t budge with your morning coffee? They also don’t come off with soap and water.)
Gently massage the oil cleanser all over your face. Some Korean women will massage for a good minute or two, ensuring they get all the debris off. K-pop star Suzy even went so far as to espouse a 4-2-4 method of double cleanse, a seemingly impossible routine of four minutes of massaging with a cleansing oil, two minutes with a foam cleanser, and four minutes rinsing it all off.
Of course, this step is only relevant in the evening to take off makeup. In the morning, you can simply use a gentle water-based cleanser (see Step 2).
After removing makeup, a foam or water-based cleanser is then applied to wash off environmental pollutants and every last bit of debris that may have built up on the skin over the course of the day. (Bonus points for eschewing a towel and patting skin until it’s at least moist, if not completely dry.)
Note: Even though it’s called “foam cleanser,” you don’t have to use a cleanser that actually lathers or foams; in fact, you don’t want to strip skin of its natural oils so avoid foaming cleansers with skin-irritating sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate (SLS/SLES). Also, a foam cleanser with the right pH (about 5.5) will ensure you’re not stripping your skin, which can lead to all sorts of skin issues.
Typically, a hydrating toner (often called “skin” or “skin softener” in Korea) is applied immediately after cleansing. Korean women don’t like to leave their skin dry even for a few seconds, and a hydrating toner jumpstarts the hydration process. Think of it this way: When the soil in a flowerpot dries out and hardens, any water you add just runs off the sides. But when the soil is moist, it’s able to absorb water and nutrients readily and deeply.
There are a couple schools of thought on where a sheet mask goes into your routine. This can go before your essence/serum step, or after, depending on your personal preference. Some treat a sheet mask like an intense treatment session and use it instead of a typical essence or serum; others like to seal in all their serums by finishing that step with a sheet mask. I personally like to use it before my serums simply because it fits into my schedule better. I often find that after a good sheet mask, my skin feels so plumped and saturated, I can do an abbreviated version of my usual routine. (And note: I don’t sheet mask every day; only when I feel my skin really needs it, or seasonally as a 1-day-1-pack booster session.)
Just remember — don’t panic! Steps 4 to 6 are essentially all serum/treatment steps made to address and correct specific skin issues, so it’s no big deal if you prefer to apply an essence first and then a sheet mask or vice versa. Again, it’s what works for you. (To prove it, check out the varying routines of each of the Beautytap squad — links below.)
Yes, this is considered one step, but that doesn’t mean there’s only one product involved (thought it may well mean that for you). For my myriad skincare concerns, I have an arsenal of serums that I apply generally in order of consistency, from lightest to thickest. Because essences, serums, and ampoules provide the highest concentration of active ingredients (hence, why they’re usually the most expensive items in a line), I really focus on this step of my routine. I always include a variety of serums that feature certain proven ingredients, including antioxidants, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and peptides.
Here is where your targeted treatments for specific skincare issues would fall, whether it’s brightening/hyperpigmentation issues, acne, dark circles, or wrinkles. These would include retinoids, spot-fighting ingredients, and benzoyl peroxide. Note that for alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), beta hydroxy acids (BHA), and vitamin C, there is a different school of thought in which these ingredients need to be applied when the skin is at a certain pH, i.e., immediately after cleansing. After a lot of trial and error, this is ultimately the order that I follow, something that I’ve found works for me best. (Contributing editor Jude Chao also follows this order.)
In the same vein, different brands and products may recommend a different sequence. (Some suggest using spot treatments before your essence/serum step. Indeed, Sulwhasoo formulates their emulsion, usually applied after serums, to be used before your serum step.) So make sure you read the product insert on usage to get the most out of your regimen.
Now that all your serum/treatment steps are done, seal everything in with an occlusive moisturizer specifically made for the eyes. The skin around the eyes is the most delicate on the face, so using your ring finger, tap in a small amount (about the size of a grain of rice) around each eye, all the way out to the orbital bone and even to the temple.
In old-school, traditional Korean skincare, when serums and essences were less pervasive, a lightweight moisturizer with a lotion texture was applied after “skin” and before a thicker face cream. But today, especially with increasingly sophisticated and hydrating serums and essences and sheet masks, some may find they can skip the lotion/emulsion step and move straight to face cream. For others with extremely dry or dehydrated skin, or maybe for your winter skincare regimen, you may want to add a lotion under your face cream to help seal in moisture. Still others with oilier skin types or in the summertime may feel fine using a lotion and skipping a face cream altogether. Again, it’s about what works for you.
These days, face creams come in all sorts of textures ranging from lightweight gel creams to heavier balms to increasingly popular facial oils, so there’s something for everyone. Essentially, face creams are occlusive layers (meaning they create a physical barrier on the skin to avoid trans epidermal water loss, or loss of moisture through the skin) that you apply over all your serums and treatments to seal everything in, protect your skin barrier, and avoid evaporation. Like all your other skincare, pat in your face cream to maximize absorption.
For day, a sunscreen is an absolute must, 365 days a year. There’s no use applying all those serums and treatments to address your skin issues if you’re going to undermine all that effort by not protecting your skin from damaging UV rays. UVA rays — the rays that contribute to premature aging — can even penetrate clouds and windows, so don’t think you can skip a day just because it’s cloudy or you’re indoors.
At night, your skin’s restorative processes are on high gear, while the humidity in the air in your bedroom is at an all-time low. So you may want to consider a sleeping mask (or sleeping pack) with stronger occlusive properties to prevent evaporation and keep your nighttime treatments sealed in.
Looking for product recommendations for every step of your routine? If you’re curious about what the K-beauty squad at Beautytap uses (and when), check out each of our routines here:
Share your routine with us below. We’d love to compare notes!