In the span of just a couple of years, Korean beauty products have gone from cult to commonplace. BB creams? Cushion foundations? Those Jason-like sheet masks celebrities are posting as selfies on Instagram? All Korean.
The products are drool-worthy, but most articles writing about them inevitably talk about the famously-overwhelming 10-Step Korean Beauty Regimen. Ten steps? Twice a day? How is that even possible?
To find out why an old-school American regimen of only cleansing, exfoliating, and moisturizing is beauty child’s play, we spoke with Alicia Yoon, founder of Korean website Peach & Lily—one of the premiere places for all things K-beauty.
So, this 10-step phenomenon: Is it a real thing? Well, yes and no. “It’s not a set in stone practice in Korea: women don’t talk about their 10-step Korean beauty regimen,” says Yoon. “Korean skincare is all about knowing your skin intimately and tailoring a routine to meet your skin type and needs.” While some women might only do four or five basic steps, explains Yoon, others will do as many as twenty. “In Korea, beauty ideals are closely linked to healthy skin, so the focus is on having a regimen that will address skin holistically to achieve that inner glow.”
1. Oil-Based Cleanser
2. Water-Based Cleanser
5. Ampoule/Face Oil/ Serum
6. Eye Cream
7. Moisturizer or sleeping pack in the evening
2. Masks, including sheet masks, rubber masks, sleeping masks, wash-off masks, and splashing masks
Steps 1 & 2: The Double Cleanse
Start with an oil-based cleanser to gently remove dirt, oil, and debris, and then finish with a water-based cleanser that won’t strip skin. The double cleanse is life-changing (as we discussed here), especially if you have oily skin. Try (1) Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Oil ($38), which takes off even the most stubborn makeup, and then follow with (2) Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Foam ($36), which leaves skin feeling perfectly clean without even a lick of tightness.
Step 3: Toning
This step helps moisturize, balance your skin’s pH, and prep it for the serums, lotions, and potions to follow. While traditional American toners require a cotton pad, you simply pat Korean toners—like bestselling (1) May Coop Mini Raw Sauce ($14) or (2) Son & Park Beauty Water ($30)—onto your fingers and then massage them into your skin.
Step 4: Essence
Of all the Korean beauty innovations, Essence may be the most mysterious and glamorous. Part serum and part moisturizer, Essence is a power-packed step—often with brightening, anti-wrinkle, or plumping benefits—designed to hydrate, prep, and treat skin. “Essence is usually more watery than serum and is formulated to drench skin with hydration,” explains Yoon, adding, “Think of your skin as a dry sponge following your toner application. A damp sponge is more able to take in and hold product than a dry sponge.” Try the bestselling (1) Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence ($49), which includes niacinamide, lactic acid, and hexapeptide 9, or (2) Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum ($84), a light radiance and circulation-boosting gel.
Step 5: Ampoule/Face Oil/Serum
Formulated to penetrate deeper into the skin and actively target a variety of needs, serums and ampoules are highly concentrated versions of skincare goodness, with every benefit under the sun. Try (1) Be The Skin Botanical Pore Serum ($35) to reduce pores, (2) Mizon Snail Repair Intensive Ampoule ($38) to hydrate and help plump skin, or (3) Dr. Dream Dream Age Rejuvenating Serum ($95) to combat lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.
Step 6: Eye Cream
Try (1) Etude House Moistfull Collagen Eye Cream ($22), which uses collagen to help plump crows feet, or (2) Banila Co. It Radiant Brightening Eye Cream ($25) for dramatically brighter under-eyes. Patches are also very popular in Korean beauty: Two great options are (3) Shangpree Gold Black Pearl Hydrogel Eye Mask ($60), with actual gold and black pearl absorbed into skin to help get rid of dark circles, and (4) Tonymoly My Little Pet Eye Patch ($5), a hydrogel cooling patch full of green tea, niacinamide, and sunflower seed extract.
Step 7: Moisturizer (AM) or Sleeping Pack (PM)
Moisturizers are self-explanatory: They simply exist to seal in hydration after all the previous steps. Popular options include (1) Skin Food Steam Mask Milk Cream ($22) for super dry skin, and (2) SU:M37 Water Full Timeless Moisturizing Cream ($76) for its anti-aging benefits. At night, try a sleeping pack—which is like a night cream on steroids—such as (3) Mizon Snail Wrinkle Care Sleeping Pack ($26) for firmer skin, or (4) Lioele V-Line Sleeping Pack ($16) for intense oil-free hydration.
Step 8: SPF
Korean foundation/SPF hybrids provide both sun protection and airbrushed makeup coverage: Try (1) IOPE Air Cushion Sunblock XP SPF 50 ($39), considered the holy grail in the beauty world. Good ol’ fashioned BB cream, like (2) Dr. Jart Premium Beauty Balm SPF 45 ($39), will also provide SPF, hydration, and coverage benefits.
Step 9: Exfoliator
“Regular exfoliation encourages cell turnover, allows for a brighter and smoother complexion and can help products absorb better,” says Yoon. Recommended exfoliators include (1) Mizon Seaweed Jelly Scrub ($18) which is anti-inflammatory, helps combat breakouts, and gently sloughs dead skin with Konjac fibers. Or try (2) Goodall Phytowash Yerba Mate Bubble Peeling ($33), which starts as a creamy serum and turns into a bubbly foam.
Step 10: Masks
While sheet masks are pre-soaked with ingredients for single-use application, sleeping masks are like super intense overnight creams that seal in moisture while your skin regenerates. If your skin needs moisture and TLC, try (1) Laneige Water Sleeping Mask, ($23), which helps brighten and soothe tired, stressed skin. If you’re prone to breakouts, try (2) Dr. Jart Clearing Solution ($9), which features niacinamide, salicylic acid, and tea tree oil to combat oiliness and acne.