Hello, my name is Logan, and I’m a Korean skincare routine addict.
If you’ve never heard of Korean skincare, or if you’ve never looked into it much, I’m going to warn you right now: This post may be a little bit overwhelming for you. May. But don’t worry, because I intend to break absolutely everything down for you so that you can begin to build a routine of your own!
I’ve been a dedicated Korean skincare routine user for a few years now and it’s done wonders for my skin problems! I’ve suffered from oiliness, acne, and acne scarring for much of my life, and while this hasn’t solved all of my problems (yet), it certainly has helped a great deal. And I hope that it can help you, too!
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The Novice’s Guide to an Advanced Korean Skincare Routine
What the heck is a Korean skincare routine, actually?
No worries, I got you covered with the basics. When you hear skincare addicts say “Korean skincare routine,” they’re not just referencing some Americanized exotic mumbo-jumbo, I promise! Korea as a whole has an obsession with creating healthy, glowing skin, and thus the 10-step Korean skincare routine was born.
The main tenant of a “Korean skincare routine” is that that magical, one-size-fits-all product that will solve all of your skin concerns? Yeah, it doesn’t exist.
Korean skincare focuses on the idea that each skincare concern that you have should be treated with specific products tailored to that concern, in a step-by-step process that gradually layers healthy, targeted products into your skin. These products are applied based on a few different factors, but generally, the more concentrated products come earlier in the routine, as well as the lighter products that absorb easier.
Another thing to remember? Just because it’s called a “Korean skincare routine” doesn’t mean that all of your products must be Korean. In fact, many Koreans themselves prefer to use Western products, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re better. You should always choose what you believe will work best for your skin!
Sound simple enough? Good! Because I’m about to take you through my whole night time skincare routine, and it’s not for the faint of heart. But if you get overwhelmed, don’t worry! Just remember: you don’t have to do any of this, or as much of this as I do ! That’s the beauty of a Korean skincare routine. You can pick and choose what you want to include and leave the rest behind.
The 10-Step Korean Skincare Routine
Oil / Cream Cleanser
The first step in any Korean skincare routine is the oil or cream cleanser. The purpose of this step is two-fold. If you wear makeup, these oil-based products will gently break up your foundation, eyeliner, and mascara with ease. Even if you don’t wear makeup, this cleanser will help penetrate your pores and loosen any dirt, grime, or dead skin cells stuck beneath the surface.
You want to use this type of cleanser for at least a minute to ensure that you really work it into your pores! My personal favorite cream and oil cleansers are the Skinfood Black Sugar Perfect Cleansing Oil and the Ponds Cold Cream Cleanser. I’ll switch back and forth between both depending on how much makeup I’m wearing. For everyday wear I’ll use the oil, but if I’ve had an event and did a full face of makeup? The cream cleanser is the only thing that will take it all off!
Foaming Cleanser + Clarisonic with Acne Brush Head
Your next step is the Foaming Cleanser, which should be water based. This will help remove any residue left over from your oil cleanser and will also help deep clean your pores of any impurities that you loosened with the previous step. The two-step cleanse is a hallmark of an easy Korean skincare routine, as they each perform different functions!
Foaming cleansers can also be targeted: for instance, my go-to cleanser, the Skinfood Egg White Pore Foam, focuses on tightening my pores so that they don’t produce as much oil throughout the day and night. If you suffer from acne, you could look for a face wash with Salicylic Acid to clear out acne-causing bacteria! A few times a week I’ll use my Clarisonic, which has a brush head specifically for combating acne, to time out this step and ensure a deeper cleanse.
Now, here’s the important thing: you don’t want to over cleanse. You can strip your skin of oils and nutrients that are essential to its function, which we want to avoid doing in our Korean skincare routine. Never wash your face more than twice a day (unless you’re removing your makeup and reapplying, for instance), and only use one oil cleanser and one foam cleanser at a time. If you have multiple you want to use, use one in the morning and one at night, or alternate days!
One of the best things you can do for your face is aid in the natural exfoliation of your skin. Dead skin cells can build up and clog your pores deep beneath your skin, leading to whiteheads, blackheads, cystic acne, and milia. This third step in my easy Korean skincare routine will help you avoid this!
Just like it’s important to avoid over-cleansing, you also want to avoid over-exfoliation, as this can damage your moisture barrier and even make your skin worse. Have you ever had your skin sting during your skincare routine, regardless how gentle or light of a product you’re putting on it? This is a sign that you’ve damaged your moisture barrier, and it can take weeks to correct.
When it comes to exfoliators, I prefer gels to cleansers, primarily because I can use them in combination with my double-cleansing without stripping my face. I only use them 2-3 times per week. The two that I prefer to use are the Skinfood Pineapple Peel Gel which causes the dead skin to pill up on my face, and the Dr. Brandt PoreDermabrasion Pore Perfecting Exfoliator. The Skinfood Gel is much gentler, but my face never feels as clean or as smooth as after I’ve used the Dr. Brandt!
Clay Face Masks
Ever wonder where your cabinet of face masks would actually fit into a Korean skincare routine? Well, here we are! Clay face masks tend to target specific facial issues, like charcoal face masks target oil and acne, and bubble face masks target your pores.
Because you’ll end up washing these off with water or a damp cloth, you want to do this step before you start applying products that you want to soak into your skin. After all, you don’t want to accidentally wash those off!
I’m a huge fan of the Origins Clear Improvement Active Charcoal Masks, which I received in a Sephora gift box for Christmas. I also like the Original Skin Retexturizing Mask from the same brand, which I’ll use on the days I don’t exfoliate. And then there’s the fun ones, like the Elizavecca Milky Piggy Carbonated Clay Mask which literally bubbles up on your face! Honestly, in a Korean skincare routine, you can’t go wrong with masks.
Now, think about all of the different products we’ve applied up until this point. We did two cleansers, an exfoliator, a clay mask, and we know that we’re moving on to soaking products into our skin. But before we do that, we want to give our skin a reset: we want to relax it so that it will soak up our next products.
That’s where toner comes in. Think of it as a final, super gentle cleanse to get any lingering residue off. I also prefer to use this step, initially, to balance the pH of my skin, which is why I use the Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Cleansing Toner. This has the same pH that your skin has naturally, which makes it perfect for a reset!
But you know how we talked about not over-cleansing or over-exfoliating? Well, in Korean skincare routines, you can never have enough toners. If you want to layer them (which can be an advanced step) just make sure not to combine things that will work against each other, and you can look this up online. I use one other toner, Nature Republic Greentinol Multi Toner, which has green-tea extract to moisturize the skin and prevent wrinkles!
Your next step in your easy Korean skincare routine is an essence. Think of these as super light, water-like products with the express purpose of helping the rest of your routine soak in even better!
In a Korean skincare routine in general, you always want to apply products you intend to soak into the skin in order from lightest to heaviest. Toners and essences are extremely light products, which is why they’re applied first, so that they can soak in easier!
I’ve been using the Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence in my routine for a couple years not and recently switched to the mist version, and I love it! It helps with cell turnover, which is extremely important to prevent wrinkles and heal acne scars, and it’s so light and refreshing that I want to bathe in it.
Actives are the most concentrated skincare solutions that you can apply to your face and generally target a very specific concern. So that topical gel that your dermatologist prescribed to you? Yep, this is exactly where it goes in your routine!
But here’s the most important thing to remember about actives: you only want to apply one a night, and you want to make sure to leave at least 20 minutes for it to soak into your skin.
Because actives are so concentrated, they all tend to work at specific pH levels and target different concerns. Combining them in any way that hasn’t been specifically communicated to you by your doctor or aesthetician can severely damage your skin. After all, you don’t want to apply a very acidic product, like a Vitamin C serum, right after a very basic product, if you remember anything about chemistry.
I switch off between two different actives during the week: my Curology subscription which targets my active acne as well as my acne scars, and the Sunday Riley CEO Rapid Flash Brightening Serum, which evens out skin tone.
Sheet masks are the hallmark of a Korean skincare routine, but if I’m being honest? I don’t really incorporate them into my every day or even weekly routine. Depending on where you get them they can be relatively inexpensive ($2-$6 each), but when you factor in that you can only use each one time, it can get pretty expensive to do every day.
These masks work very similar to serums, but they have an occlusive factor to them: basically, they’re soaked in a serum that will address a specific skincare concern, and once you drape that over your face, the only place that serum has to go is into your skin. That’s the occlusiveness of it, it helps with absorption!
Are sheet masks a great way to treat yourself? Absolutely. Are they a sound investment for your everyday routine? In my opinion, not really.
So, we just talked about sheet masks, which help your skin absorb serums because they’re occlusive. But, in my opinion, the far more sensible step would be to purchase a serum in a bottle and apply it to your face every night! You get more bang for your buck and it lasts way longer.
These are concentrated solutions to specific skincare problems, similar to actives, but they’re not as strong and can be easily combined during the same night and definitely during the week! They vary in how thick and heavy they are, so if you’re using multiple, always make sure to apply the lightest one first.
My go-to serum right now is my Missha Aqua Cell Renew Snail Skin Treatment, which is super light, refreshing, and smells like cucumbers! But don’t get freaked out by the “snail mucin” ingredient. Snail mucin is actually an extremely important aspect of any Korean skincare routine because it helps repair the skin and, in my case, improve acne scars. It’s a great place to start if you want to start incorporating some Korean products because it’s also extremely gentle!
In general, your spot treatment will always come towards the end, and depending on what kind of spot treatment it is will determine whether it comes before or after your moisturizer.
Just like it sounds, spot treatments will target specific problem areas on your skin and should only be applied in those areas rather than all over your face! For instance, I use a few spot treatments that specifically target my acne scars and are designed to be absorbed into the skin, such as my Ponds Dark Spot Corrector or Klairs Midnight Blue Calming Cream. I’ll apply those to my problem areas and let it soak in!
But spot treatments can also target wrinkles in specific areas or, in my case, active acne that I would like to heal. I’ve used the Proactiv Oatmeal spot treatment, the Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Treatment, and, recently, I’ve been loving the Cosrx Acne Pimple Master Patches, which help draw out the impurities in your whiteheads overnight! Since these spot treatments are meant to sit on top of the skin and not soak in, you’d use these after moisturizer, at the very very end of your routine.
Now, for those of your who are newly initiated into the Korean skincare routine hype, this might sound controversial, but here goes: Everyone. Should. Use. Moisturizer. My dry-skin friends are probably rolling their eyes because of course they know they need to use moisturizer. But all my oily-skin friends? That’s right, I’m talking to you too.
I thought the solution to my oily skin was not to moisturize at all because, clearly, my skin had way too much moisture in it at all times. But in reality, my skin was parched for moisture and was over-compensating for the lack of it by majorly over-producing oil. Once I started regularly moisturizing? Man, my skin became way more manageable.
Are you ready to start a Korean skincare routine of your own? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to share with a fellow skincare addict!