Demystifying the Korean Skincare Regimen with the Experts: Are All the Steps Necessary?
How do Korean women keep their skin so flawless?
We get asked this question a lot. And we want to provide thoughtful answers based on real expert input, so we dug deep for you all.
First, who are the experts who’ll provide answers for you?
Alicia Yoon: Hi, I’m one of Peach and Lily’s co-founders, and I trained since age 18 as an aesthetician in Korea’s esteemed beauty schools, and travel to Seoul (and Japan) at least every 2-3 months and spend weeks there (it’s easy since I grew up splitting time between Seoul and NYC, and my parents still live there) working directly with the wonderful brands that we interview, curate, and ultimately, carry.
I’ll be writing this entry and sharing tidbits of wisdom from my latest trip to Seoul this past month!
Aromatica CEO: Earned a doctoral degree in Australia and Korea studying natural and aromatherapy remedies and created a world renowned skincare brand, Aromatica, which boasts champion status on EWG’s SkinDeep.
Mizon R&D team: These amazing scientists come straight from Amore Pacific’s beauty labs, and created a cutting edge and deliriously addictive beauty brand, Mizon. We’re in constant touch with this team to understand the best of beauty coming out of Seoul.
Korean skincare can be a big topic, so let’s start with the top 3 most frequently asked questions. We’ll give it to you straight.
Question #1: Why are there so many steps in the regimen? Is that really necessary?
Indeed, there are many steps in the typical Korean skincare regimen. There are anywhere between 4 to 15 steps depending on the woman and her skin’s needs. The long and short of it is that the regimen does not absolutely need to be 10+ steps long. However, with skin care, which is based on science through and through, you get out of it, how much you put into it.
We’ll talk about why each step is critical and what the goal of each step really is - and then you can determine which steps you’d like to keep or take out of your regimen. We’ll also highlight which steps are an absolute must-keep. The answers are provided with input from all our in-house and partner experts.
Step 1- AM) Washing the face in the morning: This step is not unique to Korean skincare and is a must-keep for all women, everyday. Why? Because when you sleep, your body’s metabolic processes are actively working for you, and toxins are released from your skin. This needs to be washed off; otherwise, when they interact with the sun, it’s a free radical party (read: accelerated aging). No need for double-cleansing, just a non-drying, gentle cleanser. We recommend micro-foam cleansers that won’t strip your face dry. A Peach and Lily favorite pick: May Coop Cleansing Mousse.
Step 1 - PM) Washing the face in the evening / the double cleanse: We’re going to assume you have some makeup on. Korean women will typically take two steps to cleanse the face at night. The first step involves a cold cream or a cleansing oil or some other makeup cleanser to gently lift dirt and makeup off the face. The next step then involves a foaming cleanser (can use the same one you use in the morning) or a light natural bar soap to gently wash off any other remnant impurities, including the remains of your first cleanser. The double cleanse method is built on the philosophy that the skin should be respected and handled with care. Therefore, each step is done very gently without rubbing or tugging (you know how sometimes you feel like you’re battling with your makeup to get that last trace of mascara off - that’s a no-no for korean women). And because every rub is so gentle, it can take two steps and two types of cleansers to get the job done. Are both steps necessary? Essentially, no. However, the key here is that there should never be harsh rubbing. So if that means, taking two steps (a more intense cleanser to get makeup off, and then a gentle foaming cleanser to get all other residue off), then so be it. I’ve personally found that two steps work well because just a foaming cleanser leaves my eyes rather racoon-y from mascara and eyeliner residue, and only sticking to makeup dissolving cleansers leaves my skin feeling not squeaky clean unless I rub vigorously to get the actual cleanser off. Here’s a good step-one cleanser I recently got into: Aromatica Orange Cleansing Sherbet.
Tip: during the wash, applying pressure on pressure points (temples, in between inner eyebrows and nose in that hollow space, bottoms of eye sockets, and sides of cheeks) and rubbing/massaging in circular motions all over the face not only increase circulation but stimulates underlying facial muscles to keep skin youthful and firm.
Step 2) The Toner: Yes, yes, yes. This, again, isn’t a Korean thing, but should be a step that isn’t skipped. Why? Facial cleansers are slightly more alkaline to get oils off the face (which is more acidic). What that means is that your skin’s optimal pH balance (between 4.5-6.5) is thrown off balance. Why is that bad? The optimal balance allows for better bacteria-fighting (which helps prevent acne), and allows other skincare steps to be absorbed better. No need for a fancy toner. Just a non-alcoholic, gentle one does the trick here. For AM and PM, and a must-keep step.
Steps 3-6) The Essence/Facial Oil/Serum/Ampoule: This is where the steps can multiply to many steps. The idea here is that each of these different products are formulated to be delivered deep into the skin’s dermis. These products are what really does work for your skin whether that be delivering moisture to your skin, combatting wrinkles, brightening the skin, plumping it, rejuvenating it, nourishing it, etc. Essences are a bit lighter weight than a serum, a bit less viscous and is really formulated for those who like a lighter weight feel on the face. Facial oils are phospholipids and absorb quickly into the skin. Counterintuitively, facial oils can be used with oily skin (excess sebum production which results in oil being secreted onto your skin is different than healthful oils being delivered into your dermis - that won’t make you necessarily oilier; in fact, it can have the opposite effect, so it’s worth experimenting with even if you have oily skin as the benefits here are great!). Serums are pretty similar to serums in the US - slightly viscous and more potent than essences. Ampoules are a new family that gained more popularity in South Korea in recent years. They are super potent serums - shots of nourishment that is delivered into your skin. They’re a lot “stickier” than essences and serums, but are great for high impact results. Among these family of products, the order doesn’t matter. In fact, they can even be mixed altogether and applied at once. The idea is that they are formulated to be that step that goes into the skin to provide whatever functional need your skin may need.
For me personally, I have dry skin, so I’ll definitely use a serum that hydrates (love this one: Be the Skin Power Serum), a firming serum as dry skin leads to faster sagging (love this one: Mizon Collagen Serum), and I mix it with this trustworthy Aromatica organic argan oil. I also use Dr. Myer’s ampoules lately - which is going to be latest item coming fresh onto our site in a week or so (sneak preview mention!) and was just also recently mentioned in the May issue of W Magazine where we had a 2-page feature (so honored and adore the ever-so-talented and incredible beauty editor, Katie Becker of W Mag)!
Yes, these are a lot of steps. Are all these steps necessary? The answer here is the most personalized. Each of these products are typically formulated to do one thing well - nourish, de-wrinkle, boost radiance, firm, hydrate, etc. It’s an a la carte menu where you choose what your skin needs. I wouldn’t choose more than 4-5 items as your skin can actually get flooded with way too many ingredients and then it won’t be absorbed into the skin very well (sort of like an overflowing sponge) and your product will be wasted, but I wouldn’t worry about it, because most women I’ve consulted in the last almost 15 years, have parched skin in need of a lot of hydration and nourishment. It’s not easy pampering your skin to the point that it’s overflowing with goodness. ;) This part of skincare shouldn’t be daunting or tedious; just think, whatever you do in this step pays off in the long run. So think carefully about what your skin needs and pamper accordingly and enjoy!
Side question: I’m on a budget here, and I can’t really pick everything my skin needs. What should I prioritize?
I hear you. I would say, hydration is SUPER important. If skin is dry, all sorts of bad things happen: premature wrinkling, collagen breakdown, and a fast path to lackluster skin. A facial oil that hydrates and nourishes at once (argan oil, rose oil), hyaluronic acid, or any other serums that has hyaluronic acid in it would do the trick. If your skin is well hydrated but has other issues, then I’d focus on keeping it firm as that’s a hard issue to fix once firmness breaks down. And for that, collagen, peptides and vitamin C esthers are great.
Is this step a must-keep? Absolutely. I’d argue it’s the most impactful step. However, keep this step personalized to what you need. A little personalization goes a very long way here.
Whew, that was a long answer!
Step 7 or Step 3) The Emulsion: The reason that this step and term confuses everyone is because the brands in Korea aren’t consistent across the board with this. In general, an emulsion is like a moisturizer but slightly more watery. Emulsions are either used (counterintuitively) before the serums, ampoules, etc step or (intuitively) right after. Some emulsions will emulsify and soften the skin without creating a moisture barrier so that serums, etc. can be absorbed more easily. Other emulsions are formulated to be applied after the serums, etc. to create a moisture barrier and seal in all the skincare goodies that you just pampered yourself with. So how do you know which is which? This is where the fine print matters. Read what each brand says - if they suggest using an emulsion before the serums, that’s fine to do. Otherwise, rule of thumb, stick to using emulsions after your serum step. Is this a must-keep step? In our opinion, nope. Hooray, one step that can be crossed off this long list without much hesitation. It’s great to use one if you’d like more supple skin and emulsions do add a great deal of comfort to taut skin, but in all my years of training and advising and speaking to scientists, this isn’t a crucial step like the serums. However, Korean women do all the extra-credit steps in their skincare regimen, so if you have the time and money, why not. It definitely will only help. For the record, I only use an emulsion in the winter time when my face is feeling a bit taut and dryer than in the summer.
Step 8) The eye cream: Again, not a Korean thing. And this is a must-keep step. The skin around the eyes are a lot thinner and more delicate so keeping it nourished will ensure more youthful, bright, wrinkle-free eyes for as long as possible. Love this one for my dark circles: Cremorlab Shadow Off Eye Cream.
Step 9) The moisturizer/lotion/cream: Finally, we come to a near-end. You just pampered yourself silly. Don’t let all that evaporate and seal it all in with a moisturizer/lotion/cream. The big secret in skincare is that most of these products are formulated with particles that are too big to be absorbed into the skin, which is precisely the point. It creates a barrier on the skin to protect it and emulsify the top layer of the dermis (read: supple skin) and seal everything in. Is this step necessary? Not entirely. If you do a spectacular job in the serums step and it’s not too dry outside, your face could be so well hydrated that your skin stays well moisturized even without sealing everything in. I use a very lightweight moisturizer in the spring/summer/fall and find that I’m fine even with exceptionally dry skin (I have eczema and therefore, have very-dry-skin-challenges) because I take extra care in the serums step. However, in the winter, I definitely need to supplement everything with a majorly protective cream. Here’s my favorite lightweight, almost all-year round cream: Cremorlab Smooth Pudding.
Step 10 - AM) The Sunscreen and the importance of SPF: Please do not ever skip this step. The Korean skincare lines typically carry SPF moisturizers that are at least SPF 40+. Some as high as 65+. This is the biggest defensive thing you can do to keep aging at bay (and really terrible things like skin cancer). This can be included in your BB Cream, CC Cream, foundations, but please make sure that you have adequate coverage. And yes, everyday. Must-keep!
Step 11) The Face Masks: Face masks are all the rage in South Korea now. They’re, in fact, ubiquitous and sold everywhere for around $1-3 a pop. They’re essentially specific and intense serums in one simple mask that can be placed onto the face and peeled off after 15-30 relaxing minutes depending on the mask. Is this necessary? Not at all. However, the benefit of this step is that if your skin has a particular need that day and you don’t want to splurge on your serum, you can get a single mask to help with that day’s needs. Skincare fine-tuning at its best. For example, my skin is usually decently radiant (by sheer effort and willpower that I’ve had to take up to combat eczema), but some days when I’m up late, the next morning, I’m definitely looking pretty dull. I’ll pop on a radiance-boosting mask and then I’m all set for the day! Here is a great mask that we get rave reviews on: Mizon Peptide Face Mask. There’s a whole separate entry coming on masks as that deserves an entry of its own, so stay tuned!
Step 12) The Exfoliator: Exfoliation is definitely an important part of skincare. Helping with skin turnover to keep skin from clogging, becoming dull and rough goes a long way. What Korean women stay away from are harsh exfoliators that harm the skin’s surface (microbeads unfortunately aren’t great) where micro-scratches, broken capillaries become common casualties. Peeling gels that are gentle or more fruit-based peels are great. Mizon has a fantastic Apple Smoothie Peeling Gel that I swear by. Another sneak preview, coming soon to our site in a couple weeks!
Step 13) The Overnight Sleeping Mask: Ahh, yes, the new big trend in Korea. So this step is in lieu of your night cream, and depending on the brand, it can be used daily or as infrequently as weekly. The idea here is that your skin goes to work most while you sleep, so why not put on an extra potent (but gentle) cream that penetrates the skin and delivers nutrients into the dermis while you sleep. Unlike masks you need to wash off, these feel like creams and don’t need to be washed off until the morning. Are these a must-keep step? Not at all. However, they do work wonders and do give your skin that extra boost while it’s already working for you while you sleep. Here’s what I’ve been using lately to keep my skin firm: May Coop Tightening Mask. I give this one two thumbs up for sure. Love it.
I know this was a LOT to digest and take in, but I wanted to be as comprehensive as possible and explain the logic behind each step so that each of you could be empowered with information to customize your own Korean skincare regimen according to your needs.
Also, we’re passionate about providing as much personalized guidance as possible. If you have any questions or feedback, always, always feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we make sure to get back to you right away.
We promise to provide well researched answers from experts who have proper training, so hopefully, we can help demystify the world of Korean beauty for you all and help bring extra radiance State-side!
To keep this entry from becoming way too long, the other two questions below will be answered in subsequent entries to come in a couple days.
- Question #2: Does order really matter in the Korean skincare regimen?
- Question #3: What are the best ingredients that Koreans swear by?
Enjoy the weekend and cheers to radiance!
xo - Alicia