So, I’m sure you’ve most likely heard of the “10-Step” Korean skincare routine. This idea has been touted around and capitalized on by companies. “Here are the 10 steps!” they yell, as they lay out a dizzying and intimidating array of terms and products.

Of course, this isn’t really the case in Korea. Not every Korean woman has 10 steps that she faithfully follows every day. That’s silly. Like I said in an earlier post, one of the best things about Korean skincare is its sheer adaptability to whatever you want/need.

Still, wading through products with unclear naming systems (A softener is also a toner? What on earth is a “skin?”) can be daunting. So, I’m going to lay out the various steps, and give some general guidelines for order of application.

Basically after cleansing, products are used in the order of thinnest to thickest. The thinner ones are able to absorb more quickly, until you reach the heavier products like moisturizers, which act as occlusives to keep in the moisture. After each step (actives are the exception, but I’ll get into those in another post), you want to give your skin a minute to absorb the product.

If you’re a visual person, Tracy over at Fanserviced-b (a fabulous blog you should also be reading) came up with this incredible visual that you can print out if you need a guide when first starting (and building) your routine.

  1. Double Cleansing: An oil-based cleanser followed by a water-based cleanser

A double cleansing is used to ensure that you have an absolutely clean face so you don’t clog pores. The oil cleanser breaks down makeup, sunscreen, dirt, and everything else from the day. You add water to emulsify the oil, turning it a milky white, then rising it off.

Then, the water-based cleanser takes away any remaining impurities and any residue from the oil cleanse. (Contrary to most Western descriptions of face washing, your face should not feel tight or “squeaky” clean after. That means the moisture has been stripped from your face.)

2. Exfoliation (either manual or via acids or “actives”)

Exfoliation sloughs off the dead skin cells, making your face brighter and allows your following products to better sink into your skin. The methods of exfoliation are manual, like facial scrubs (but not those hurty ones with environment-killing microbeads) or actives, like vitamin C, BHAs, and AHAs.

3. Toners (also go by “skin” or “softener” or “refresher”)

Don’t let the name scare you: these aren’t like Western toners. These help to balance your skin’s ph while also prepping your skin to absorb the products that come next. The best analogy I’ve read is that you can think about your skin like a sponge: it’s easier for it to absorb liquid when it’s already damp vs when it’s dry. I like pour it into my hands and apply generously. No cotton ball needed.

4. Essences

The essence is what really sold me on Korean skincare. It’s a lovely, light, watery substance that sinks quickly into the skin. It’s basically a watery serum that makes your skin feel so hydrated and glowing. You also apply it directly with your hands.

5. Serums and Ampoules

These are the specialized treatment products that are more concentrated and are chosen for specific skin concerns such as brightening, hydration, pigmentations, wrinkle-care, etc. You usually only need a few drops and you softly tap them into your skin.

6. Sheet Masks

The results of a sheet mask are immediate. I think that’s why so many people find these are their gateway to Korean skincare. These thin paper or gel masks are drenched in essence and deliver a maximum dose of moisture and treatment to your skin. The mask itself helps your skin absorb the essence by acting as a barrier, pushing the essence into your skin. For the 30 minutes or so that you’re wearing it, you may look like a serial killer but you’ll feel like zen master. It’s incredibly calming (and addictive!).

7. Eye Creams

You should always use your ring finger to apply eye cream since it is the weakest: your eye’s skin is the most delicate on your face. Tap the cream very gently, don’t rub, down to the orbital bone. I even spread it on my eyelid to help so my eyeshadow doesn’t flake.

8. Emulsions/Lotions

The terms will vary. I look at emulsions and lotions like thinner versions of moisturizers. In the summer, I can stop after using one of these. In the winter, I use them to layer on my hydration. Some emulsions may come earlier, depending on their consistency. Use your judgement about where to place something in your routine based on consistency rather than any “rules” about product order.

9. Moisturizers

Your hydration will come from your earlier essences and serums; they help to add to the water content of your skin. Moisturizers help to create a barrier to seal in all of that goodness. They are, of course, the thickest thing you put on.

10. Oils 

If you use facial oil, you can add it to your moisturizer or put it on after. Oils are the most occlusive, and therefore should be added last if you use them.

11. Sleeping Pack (Nighttime only)

Sleeping packs are incredibly thick, creamy moisturizers that help to make your skin softer and hold more moisture. These are a skin saver in the winter. I use one most nights, and my skin wakes up plump and happy. Gone are days of waking up to swatches of white, dry skin on my cheeks.

12. Sunscreen (Daytime only)

Your number one anti-aging skincare product is sunscreen. Use it. Every day. No exceptions. BB creams, CC creams, foundations, and moisturizers cannot provide you with enough SPF because you don’t put enough on your face to reach the SPF they claim on the bottle. This is a must.

None of this is new, and I know you can find guides like these most everywhere on the web. I just wanted to lay this all out before I began discussing my own routine and products. Remember, use this as a guide, but this order isn’t some sort of hard and fast rule. Use products in the order that work for your skin.

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2 thoughts on “A Skincare Routine

  1. What kind of face oil do you use? I love reading your blog post, I recently just started AB and currently trying to get as much knowledge as I can.

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    1. Hi! I’m glad they’ve been useful for you. I am currently using Illi’s Total Aging Care Cleansing Oil, but I also really like Banila Co., Clean it Zero. Both work really well, but are in different forms. Clean it Zero is a sherbet cleanser.

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