One thing Korean skincare is known for is the “10 step skincare routine”. There are hundreds of articles that detail exactly what those 10 steps are, with some taking it to a further 12 and 15 steps with yet others paring it down to much less.
This becomes very confusing to those who are new to Korean Beauty. Many would be forgiven for thinking that they need to follow all 10 steps twice a day, every day, when that’s not the case at all. It’s even more confusing when you see people on Instagram using so many different and ever changing products in their routines on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.
With any skin routine, not just the Korean Routine, it is basically 3 steps with additional steps in between. For some it may only require 3-4 steps, for others as high as 15-20. It all depends on what your skin needs.
The 3 basic steps in a Korean Skincare routine or any skincare routine are: Clean, Treat, Protect.
If we take those 3 steps and map it to Korean beauty functional products, it’s a lot simpler to understand. The basic steps of a skin regime can be divided as follows:
Step 1: Clean
1. First cleanser: This is to remove makeup, sunscreen and dissolve dirt with an oil based cleanser. These can come in the form of an oil, a sherbet balm or a cream.
2. Second cleanser: To cleanse the oil and any left over impurities. It’s typically a liquid, gel, cream or foam based cleanser, one that you mix with water.
3. Toner – Toners are called “Skin” in Korea and is seen as one of the most important steps to get your skin hydrated and prepped for the rest of your skincare. Most toners balance the pH level of your skin to protect your skin barrier from bacteria, and prepare it for your treatment products. Some products need an optimal pH level of your skin to work effectively, hence using a toner is more than just an extra cleansing step. Many Korean toners are hydrating, rather than astringent as with many Western toners that contain alcohol which can be drying on the skin.
Step 2: Treat
4. Essence – This step is to treat your skin with hydrating, healing, repairing, protective or nourishing ingredients found in essences and serums.
5. Ampoules, Boosters, Facial Oils – These typically come in dropper bottles or similar, and are used to treat a specific condition. It is usually targeted for whatever your skin needs e.g. hydration, lightening of pigmentation, ranti-edness, repair, dryness, wrinkles, acne, brightening etc
Step 3: Protect
6. Eye Cream – Protect the delicate eye area with a nourishing eye cream
7. Moisturizer – Protect, hydrate and prevent moisture loss with a moisturizer. Most moisturizer are both a humectant and occlusive, An additional step before your moisturizer is an emulsion or lotion which are both thinner and are used as a lighter moisturizer e.g. in the Summer when moisturizers are too heavy on your skin.
8. Sunscreen – During the day time use sunscreen to protect against sun damage. Use a sunscreen that has a high sun protection factor (SPF) during the day time even if indoors. Most sunscreens protect against UVB rays (the ones that tan the skin), and the more harmful UVA rays which are the ones that cause skin aging and can even penetrate glass. Newer sunscreens also protect against HEV (High Energy Visible Light) which can cause or aggravate pigmentation and aging of the skin. If you suffer from pigmentation, look for a micronized sunblock with ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, mexoryl SX or avobenzone.
Some additional exfoliating or treatment steps are specific to skin concerns as they arise and are used in the Treat step above as applicable. Eg. Retinoids might be used for anti aging, pigmentation or acne; AHA or BHA for cell renewal and pore cleansing; kojic acid for hyper pigmentation; vitamin C for additional brightening; anti-oxidant products for anti-ageing, pigmentation or acne treatment as prescribed.
The additional steps depend entirely on your skin’s needs. Some of us only get PMS related or hormonal acne and only need to use acne actives at that time of the month, so it wouldn’t make sense to use acne targeted products every day. This is why it’s important to not simply follow someone else’s regime as their skin’s needs at that time might be different from yours at any given time.
Certain products are only used weekly or biweekly, again, depending on your skin’s needs. An example is exfoliation. You can exfoliate skin using a physical, chemical or enzymatic method once a week or more if your skin can handle it.
Physical exfoliation is when you use a manual exfoliator or a scrub that has specific exfoliating granules in the product which works by the movement of your hands to remove the layer of dead skin on your face. Physical exfoliation can also be achieved by using a cleansing device such as a Clarisonic or any other sonic cleanser.
Chemical or enzymatic exfoliators are products that contain specific ingredients such e.g. Glycol Acid, Salicyclic Acid, Lactic Acid etc which loosens trapped sebum and dirt and sloughs off the top layer of skin.
Masks are a staple in any Korean skincare routine. They come in many forms like sheet masks, clay packs, modeling masks, sleeping pack masks etc. It can be used as often as your skin needs it to target specific skin concerns, with some Korean actresses even claiming to use one every single day! It’s always important to make sure that the mask you use will not clog your pores and is suitable for your skin type.
Many South Koreans visit estheticians or skincare spas at least monthly, with some going as often as weekly. Monthly treatments can include more in depth skincare treatments such as chemical peels, skin rejuvenation, laser treatments, or simply a luxury facial to pamper the skin. It’s not necessary, but dependent on your own needs and budget.
That’s basically what the “10 step Korean beauty routine is”, which isn’t actually 10 steps as you can see. Your Korean or other skincare routine can include as many or few steps as your skin needs. The best way to get to know your skin and what routine works for you, is to test products by introducing one every 2-3 weeks and selecting treatment steps based on your skin’s needs.
It’s also okay to mix and match different brands as it has not been proven that using only one brand yields any better results than using a few brands. What matters are the ingredients inside the products.
As long as you’re cleaning, treating and protecting your skin, it doesn’t matter how many extra steps are in your routine to treat your specific concerns.