Like most of us, I’m obsessed with K-beauty products. But, also like most of us, I don’t have time for a 10-step skincare routine each and every night. Thankfuly, the famed 10-step Korean skincare routine isn’t actually meant to be 10 steps every night. It’s most important to understand what each step does and how often you should do what.
Even for us lazy gals, there are some important takeaways to be gleaned from the way Koreans approach skincare. If we’re being honest, I probably won’t get “glass skin” anytime soon with my lazy Korean skincare routine. But, I can at least rest assured that I’m keeping my mascne under control — and that I’m taking good care of my skin.
Below, I’ll talk about each step in the 10-step Korean skincare routine, my lazy version of a K-beauty skincare regimen, and my favorite Korean skincare products to elevate your daily cleansing ritual. Let’s get started!
The 10-Step Korean Skincare Routine
So, what actually are the 10 steps in the Korean skincare routine — and do you need all 10 of them to get healthy, vibrant-looking skin? The quick answer is, probably not. But the long answer is that there’s a time and a place for each step, even if you don’t use them every day. Still, before we get into that, let’s go over what each step actually is, and what it’s place is in the Korean skincare routine.
1. Oil-Based Cleanser
Double-cleansing is at the heart of every Korean’s beauty ritual. Double-cleansing means first washing with an oil-based cleanser to draw out oil-based impurities, then following up with a water-based cleanser to, you guessed it, draw out water-based impurities.
The double-cleansing method is actually grounded in some pretty solid biochemistry: as you might remember from high school, water is polar, while oil is non-polar. That’s why when you mix oil and water, the two layers remain separate. They’re chemically different! So, the idea behind double-cleansing is that if you use just one type of cleanser, you’re only eliminating one type of impurity. Non-polar oil won’t be able to bind to a water-based cleanser, and vice-versa.
2. Water-Based Cleanser
Oil-based cleansers are designed to draw out sebum, sunscreen, and pollution, but not water-based impurities like dirt and sweat. That’s where your water-based cleanser comes into play. Polar pollutants (try saying that ten times fast) like dirt and sweat can’t bind to your non-polar oil-based cleanser. Hence, you need to follow up with a water-based cleanser to make sure you’re truly getting everything off your face in the morning and at night.
When the Koreans talk about exfoliating, they’re talking about using a scrub (physical exfoliant) or peel (chemical exfoliant). They aren’t talking about face masks, which are considered a separate step in the Korean skincare routine. The role of an exfoliant is to draw out those deeper impurities that clog your pores, causing blackheads and other blemishes. But it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t perform this step every day: exfoliating more than once or twice a week can strip your skin’s protective barrier, leaving it vulnerable to sensitivities in the environment.
To be honest, I had to google what toner actually does, because I really wasn’t sure. As it turns out, the benefit of toner is that it’s a fast-penetrating liquid that delivers a quick shot of hydration to your skin. But, toners can also double as treatments: you can purchase toners that contain salycylic acid, for example, to address oily, acne-prone skin, or toners with soothing aloe for sensitive, dry skin.
The essence is a step that’s pretty unique to the Korean skincare routine. Before K-beauty hit the American skincare scene, I had never heard of an essence or seen one on the shelves of my local Sephora. Essences are lightweight, hydrating products designed to add an extra layer of moisture to your skin.
Moisturizing is key in the Korean skincare routine, which is why so many steps are designed to restore moisture to your skin’s protective barrier! If you, like me, grew up getting breakouts, you may have heard that people with oily skin should beware of too much moisture, or else you’d clog your pores. However, it’s actually more harmful to strip your skin of its natural oils: when your skin gets dry, it triggers even greater oil production to restore the skin’s protective barrier, which can lead to further breakouts.
The moral of the story: don’t skip moisturizing, even if you have oily skin!
When it comes to K-beauty, the main skincare treatments are serums and ampoules. Serums have since become standard in the American skincare routine, but ampoules are, as far as I can tell, still pretty uniquely Korean. Ampoules are a bit thicker and more concentrated than serums, allowing them to deliver a double-shot of nutrients to your skin.
Treatments should ideally be selected for your unique skincare concerns. Whether you have oily skin, dry skin, or skin that’s somewhere in-between, I can guarantee there’s a serum or an ampoule out there that addresses your skincare woes!
7. Sheet Masks
If sheet masks aren’t a part of your self-care routine yet, you’re going to want to change that. Not only do they deliver a concentrated shot of essence directly to your skin, but they are incredibly relaxing. Sheet masks have a cooling, gel-like temperature that instantly seems to make your worries melt away. And, they make for some pretty cute photos on your phone’s camera roll!
8. Eye Cream
The delicate skin around your eyes needs some extra TLC. Because it’s so thin, it’s prone to wrinkles and fine lines — meaning that eye cream is essential for your anti-aging strategy. Eye cream can also help soothe puffiness and dark circles from a night of crying or tossing and turning in bed. Your weakest finger is your ring finger, so use the tip of your ring finger to gently tap eye cream onto your skin.
Moisturizer is the final layer that seals in all the nutrients you’ve just applied to your skin. It also administers an extra boost of moisture to replenish your skin’s protective barrier, which may have been stripped during cleansing. Moisturizing is a favorite step in the Korean skincare routine, so the Koreans have invested a lot of energy into discovering the best ingredients for the job: think unique products like snail-slime- and cica-based moisturizers!
10. Sun Protection
The risk of sun cancer and premature aging is real, no matter the weather. Rain or shine, you need to finish your skincare routine with a layer of SPF protection during the daytime. At minimum, doctors recommend using SPF 30. Anything higher than SPF 30 doesn’t provide as much extra protection as you think. Just make sure your sunscreen blocks from harmful UVA and UVB rays to cover your skin from every angle.
My Lazy Version
Ain’t nobody got time for 10 steps twice a day — which is why I simplified my skincare routine. While it still reflects the Korean philosophy on skincare, it saves me time, energy, and product by doing it the “lazy way:”
- Double-cleanse morning and night. I use Ulta cleansing balm followed by Differin face wash.
- Stick to serum in the AM and treat at night. I use the Tatcha Dewy Serum (PR product) in the morning and my Curology prescription treatment before bed. I’ll also spot-treat with Differin gel and/or Peach Slices acne patches as needed.
- Never skip moisturizing. Use a moisturizer with SPF in it in the AM, so you don’t need separate products. I use the Differin one during the day. At night, I prefer to hydrate with CeraVe.
- Use a mask once or twice a week. On days when I exfoliate, I skip my Curology treatment and Differin gel so I don’t sensitize my skin. My favorite sheet mask is the Tonymoly I’m Rice one.