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As an Asian girl with a lot of Asian friends, it was always a mystery to me how my friend’s moms seemed to never age. I’ve definitely seen my friends mature as we’ve grown up, but their moms managed to look exactly the same as the years went by.
A few years back, the conversation came up with a Korean friend of mine, where she mentioned her mother’s insane 10-step skincare regimen. I immediately wrote it off as an unaffordable solution for me, because 10 products sounded way out of my budget. But when my friend showed me her medicine cabinet, my perspective changed.
Korean beauty is based upon the “10-step regimen”: it is an art form that involves layering and using multiple products for maximum effect. Each product plays a specific and equally important role.
Over the years I’ve done heavy research on Korean beauty products and integrated many of them into my own skincare routine. However, I wound up removing certain steps because my acne-prone, combination skin would sometimes get congested. I’ve tried every step and learned that not everyone may need every step due to the difference in skin types.
After some heavy experimentation with both American and Korean brands, I’ve settled on the Korean side of things. Why?
Jump to: The 10-Step Korean Skincare Regimen
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Korean products have better ingredients
While not all products may be organic or preservative-free, Korean products tend to strive towards less toxic chemicals and synthetic ingredients. Instead, they are filled with naturally-derived, active ingredients like snail filtrate and even sake (Japanese rice wine). These exotic ingredients have properties that synthetic ingredients are actually inspired by, but usually come without the side effects.
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Korean regimens are a long-term relationship
Most of Korean skincare revolves around slowing down the aging process. While we tend to grab for medicated products like Retin-A or heavily-drying benzoyl peroxide, those short-term fixes can actually cause more damage in the long-run. The idea behind Korean skincare is to nourish your skin and boost its natural processes, not strip it and hinder it from healing itself.
Korean products encourage self-care
10-steps. Slowly massage makeup off. Lay down with a mask on for 20 minutes. Gently pat in product. Korean products all have distinctive methods of application, which all require care and mild handling. This self-pampering routine is something that our American culture tends to neglect. Many of us work high-stress jobs 5 days a week, so it’s a great habit to take some time out of your day and be kind to yourself.
They are affordable
The Korean beauty market is massive. Where we are forced to choose between the price points of sub-par drugstore items and bank-breaking products at Sephora, their “drugstore” brands can compete with many crowd favorites I’ve purchased at Sephora for $30-$70 a pop. 80% of my skincare regimen comes from Korean brands, and all of them are also under $12. This makes investing in a full Korean skincare regimen extremely affordable, whereas in American culture you’d normally walk out of the store $50 poorer with only a single item in-hand.
Korea definitely has their high-end luxury products and I’ve seen them go for over a hundred or more, but I’ve never found a reason to venture into that price point (although I’m sure the results must be otherworldly).
Of course, I’ll get to the meat of why you’re probably reading this. I’ve tried so many Korean products over time, and I’ve gotten comfortable with a few products. Here are my favorite products integrated into a full 10-step Korean routine, along with tips and tricks I’ve learned during my career as a licensed esthetician.
Unsure about what skin type is best for you? Take my skincare consultation quiz below and get a skincare regimen custom-tailored to you.
The 10-Step Korean Skincare Regimen
Step 1: Remove makeup
It’s very important to cleanse not once, but twice. The first cleanse removes all your makeup, and the second cleanse removes the rest of the leftover dirt and debris.
Contrary to popular belief, using an oil-based makeup remover gives better results, and here’s why: oil has more lubrication, so you’re not irritating or pulling at your skin when trying to remove long-lasting makeup. This is crucial for areas like the eyelids, where the skin is thinner and more fragile. Oil also helps remove sebum build-up inside the pores, so you’re actually getting a thorough cleanse.
My favorite oil cleanser: The Face Shop Rice Water Bright Cleansing Light Oil. This oil is non-comedogenic, so it won’t promote pore congestion or acne. What I love about this oil is that the rice water extract actually helps a lot with hyper-pigmentation and acne scars, something that people with deeper skin tones tend to get more often.
How to use: Apply a dime-sized amount and remove all face make-up, using circular massaging motions. Be gentle when removing eye makeup. Afterward, use cotton rounds to wipe off the excess oil, paying careful attention to the eyes. To remove eye makeup, swipe the cotton rounds in a downward stroke, following the direction of the lashes. Never pull sideways – this can irritate the thin eyelid skin and cause accelerated wrinkling.
Other notable oil cleansers:
- Banila Clean It Zero Sherbet Cleanser: $17.05
- DHC Deep Cleansing Oil: $27.73
- Innisfree Olive Real Cleansing Oil: $16.34
- Klairs Gentle Black Deep Cleansing Oil: $19.00
- Etude House Real Art Cleansing Oil: $14.48
Step 2: Cleanse
The second round of cleansing focuses on removing any excess residue. I prefer using gentle cream or foam-based cleansers that won’t dry-out the skin. Drier skin forces your sebaceous glands to secrete more oil in order to protect itself. If you like that paper-dry or tight feeling after a cleanse, you may very well be over-cleansing.
My favorite cleanser: Cosrx Low Ph Good Morning Gel Cleanser. This is my new favorite! Most cleansers have a high pH level (more alkaline), creating a breeding ground for bacteria. Your skin is slightly acidic, so this cleanser is a great way to control breakouts without drying your skin out. It also works well for dry skin.
How to use: A little bit goes a long way. Lather up a pea-sized amount and massage into the skin.
Other notable cleansers:
- The Face Shop Rice Water Bright Cleansing Foam: $11.99
- Neogen Real Fresh Green Tea Cleansing Stick: $14.94
- Etude House Baking Powder Deep Cleansing Foam: $8.69
- Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Pore Cleansing Foam: $8.85
- Skinfood Egg White Pore Foam: $9.97
- The Face Shop Jeju Volcanic Lava Deep Pore-Cleansing Foam: $11.50
- Mizon Snail Foam Cleanser: $8.17
Step 3: Exfoliate
Exfoliating is a very important step in Korean skincare. A popular practice of exfoliation is scrubbing off dead skin cells to encourage new cells to the surface. However, there are plenty more methods other than abrasive scrubbing. One of the most popular exfoliating methods include gentle chemical exfoliations with acids or peels, and these are highly encouraged in the Korean regimen.
My favorite exfoliant: Skinfood Black Sugar Mask Wash Off Exfoliator. Black sugar contains glycolic acid, which can penetrate deeply into the skin and break apart the outermost skin cells. This derivative of alpha hydroxy acid makes this product not just a scrub, but a chemical exfoliant too. This product is great multitasker for those who want to physically unearth clogged pores while lightening dark spots.
How to use: Dampen your face and massage a small scoop of scrub into the face for 2 minutes. After scrubbing, leave on for 10-15 minutes and wash off. Exfoliate 1-2 times a week, or as needed. Depending on the type of exfoliant, you may not need to exfoliate daily. It’s encouraged to exfoliate no more than once a week, but over the years many new products have developed that allow gentle exfoliating benefits safe for daily use. As a general rule of thumb, if you find your skin growing more dry, sensitive, or even extremely oily, you may be exfoliating too frequently. Give your skin a few days to recuperate in-between exfoliating treatments.
Other notable exfoliators:
- Mizon Honey Black Sugar Scrub: $14.89
- Mizon Apple Smoothie Peeling Gel: $10.18
- Nature Republic Super Aqua Max Soft Peeling Gel: $11.92
- Neogen Dermalogy Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Wine: $12.90
- Skinfood Pineapple Morning Peeling Gel: $11.40
Optional Step 4: Treatment Mask
For my oily skin, I like using a detoxifying mask to ensure a thorough pore cleanse right after exfoliation. If you’re suffering from breakouts or congested skin, this is the best time to do a treatment mask since the entrance of the pores are more exposed after exfoliating. Clay-based masks can also be very drying if used often, so sometimes it’s okay to skip this step if you’re in need of hydration.
My favorite mask: Elizavecca Milky Piggy Carbonated Bubble Clay Mask. Maybe it’s the novelty bubbles, but I absolutely enjoy using this clay mask. After several minutes, this mask EXPLODES into foam and your face turns into the Michelin Man. The product uses carbonation to thoroughly cleanse out the pores. My T-zone’s congestion is completely obliterated after using this!
How to use: Apply onto skin and wait 10 minutes. After bubbles have finished rising, gently massage skin and then rinse off.
Other notable masks:
- SkinFood Egg White Pore Mask: $9.89
- Innisfree Super Volcanic Pore Clay Mask: $14.49
- Skin Food Rice Mask Wash Off (Jumbo): $24.99
Step 5: Tone
After cleansing, your skin is stripped of its protective barrier. More than likely, your skin won’t be at it’s normal 5.5 pH level. 5.5 is slightly acidic because the skin actually has what is called an “acid mantle,” or a protective barrier comprised of fatty acids. If your skin tends to be dry and sensitive, this is a sign of weaker acid mantle, meaning your skin is too alkaline. A toner helps bring your skin’s pH levels back to normal and creates a balanced environment for the next step in your skincare regimen.
My favorite toner: Skin Food Peach Sake Toner. My T-zone tends to get congested easily, but this toner controls sebum buildup and prevents the appearance of large pores. It also smells like fresh peaches!
How to use: Using a cotton round, swipe all over face and wait until dry before proceeding onto next step.
Other notable toners:
- Etude House 10-in-1 House Wonder Pore Freshener: $9.14
- Cosrx AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner: $11.40
- Mizon Acence Derma Clearing Toner: $14.89
- Skinfood Lettuce & Cucumber Toner: $15.44
- Mamonde Rose Water Toner: $23.00
- Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner: $15.99
Step 6: Essence, Serum or Ampoule
This is where it gets a little confusing. Essences and serums are basically leave-in products supercharged with active ingredients. Depending on your type of skin and the time of day, you’ll have different needs: essences are the least concentrated and very watery, whereas serums tend to be thicker in consistency and more concentrated. I would recommend essences for people with oilier, acne-prone skin, and a serum for others who need hydration.
My favorite serum: I have yet to find a budget friendly essence (by about now you should be noticing that I pay no more than $10-$12 per Korean product here), but I do really like Skin Food’s Peach Sake Pore Serum. It is very mattifying and helps prevent that inevitable shiny T-zone I tend to get midday.
How to use: Apply a pea-sized amount of serum or essence to entire face, ensuring that the face is completely dry before proceeding onto the next step.
Other notable serums:
- Innisfree The Green Tea Seed Serum: $19.70
- The Face Shop The Therapy Essential Formula Emulsion: $21.58
- The Face Shop Whiteseed Brightening Serum: $16.99
Ampoules are another leave-in treatment that addresses specific skin concerns. Because it is far more concentrated than both essences and serums, I recommend using an ampoule during your nighttime routine in place of an essence or serum.
My favorite ampoule: Mizon’s Snail Repair Ampoule is one of the star players in my routine. I’m not joking when I say that when I wake up in the morning, my acne scars have significantly faded! This ampoule has anti-aging, anti-wrinkle, and healing properties thanks to the 80% snail secretion filtrate, which is just another fancy word for filtered snail slime. Don’t worry, there’s no funky smell or texture – it’s just a clear, viscous solution.
How to use: Drop a pea or dime-sized amount onto palm and pat into face until dry. Be sure to avoid physical contact with the dropper to avoid contamination.
Other notable ampoules:
- Mizon Original Skin Energy – Hyaluronic Acid 100: $14.98
- Mizon Original Skin Energy – Peptide 500: $23.00
- Mizon Original Skin Energy – Placenta 45: $14.96
- Missha Time Revolution Artemisia Treatment Ampoule: $27.50
- Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid: $14.80
- Cosrx Galactomyces 95 Whitening Power Essence: $13.00
- Cosrx Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence: $13.80
- MISSHA Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence: $27.79
Optional Step: Spot Treatment
I had to update this post and add a step for people dealing with the occasional zit or full-on break-out. Korean products focus on nourishing the skin rather than stripping it, which is why there aren’t too many Korean products on the market. Proper exfoliation in previous steps are key to preventing pimples, but sometimes they can be inevitable.
My favorite spot treatment: I prefer Mizon’s Blemish After Cream over many other acne spot treatments on the market because it’s free of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, an ingredient that can increase hyperpigmentation and inhibit the skin’s ability to protect itself from the sun. Salicylic acid is often found in toners, so an additional spot treatment may cause the skin to dry out and become sensitive.
Mizon’s Blemish After Cream contains honey propolis extract, which has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that will simultaneously bring down redness and inflammation while killing bacteria at the same time. It also helps accelerate the skin’s healing process. Best of all, it doesn’t dry your skin out!
How to use: Wait until serum, essence or ampoule is fully dry. Distribute a pea-sized amount of product across all troubled areas and gently pat into the skin until absorbed.
Other notable acne treatments:
- Mizon Acence Blemish Out Pink Spot: $13.50
- Cosrx Acne Pimple Master Patch: $11.40
- Nexcare Acne Absorbing Covers: $6.01
- Cosrx Centella Blemish Cream: $14.51
- Cosrx One Step Pimple Clear Pads: $16.95
Optional Step 7: Sheet Mask
I tend to skip past this step because layering too much product congests my acne-prone skin, but this step is great for those who need a boost of hydration. Sheet masks are layered on top of the products you’ve already applied, and then left in. It’s a step that also forces me to lay down and relax… something I don’t normally do. Maybe I should try this step more often.
My favorite sheet masks: TONYMOLY I’m Real Sheet Masks: this pack of 10 sheets comes in a variety of formulas to try, which lets you figure out which formula is your favorite.
How to use: Simply stick-on the mask and leave on for 30 minutes, then remove the sheet. Do not rinse the product off – massage into the skin until absorbed. If you feel there’s too much, pat down with a tissue and then proceed to massage into skin.
Other notable sheet masks:
- SNP Animal Character Printed Masks (Pack of 10): $13.98
- Innisfree My Real Squeeze Sheet Masks (Pack of 9): $14.90
- Dermal Korea Collagen Essence Sheet Masks (Pack of 16): $10.99
- The Face Shop Living Nature Grind Sheet Masks (Pack of 15): $15.99
Optional Step 8: Eye Cream
I’m a bit biased about this step, because I don’t feel that everybody truly needs an eye cream. As a licensed esthetician, I’ve witnessed many people develop milia (harmless miniature cysts) around their eyes as a result of using eye creams. These formulas tend to be overwhelmingly heavy for the delicate skin on the eyelids, so this may result in the skin’s inability to properly absorb it. For those with oily or acne-prone skin, I would say this is a product that’s probably safe to pass. I do, however, recommend this for mature folks whose skin may be getting thinner and more dry as the years pass. As we get older, our skin’s healing cycle slows down due to a decrease in collagen production, and this process starts around the age of 30.
In regards to dark under-eyes: honestly, those dark circles may just be a result of genetics. 2 other major causes of dark under-eyes are lack of sleep and proper nutrition, so try addressing those issues before resorting to an eye cream. Using eye creams as a first solution is like taking diet pills without exercising.
My favorite eye cream: Mizon Snail Repair Eye Cream. This tiny little jar has similar ingredients to the Mizon ampoule I mentioned earlier, but those anti-aging properties are key here. The first signs of aging can be found around the eye area because of the thinner skin, so this cream can help prevent crow’s feet and fine wrinkles that may be developing.
How to use: Using a fresh cotton swab to prevent contamination, scoop a tiny amount of eye cream the size of the white moons on your fingernail. Distribute this amount onto both ring fingers and gently pat the cream onto your eyelids, paying special attention to the area directly underneath your lower lash line. Use quick, light tapping motions until the product is absorbed. Do not rub, pull, or stretch the eyelids.
Other notable eye creams:
- Innisfree Orchid Eye Cream: $18.60
- Etude House New Moistfull Collagen Eye Cream: $10.70
- Innisfree The Green Tea Seed Eye Cream: $16.84
- Mizon Collagen Power Firming Eye Cream: $14.60
- Missha Super Aqua Ultra Water-Full Eye Treatment: $9.90
Step 9: Emulsion, Lotion, Gel or Cream
We’re almost finished! This is the moisturizing step. For daytime, a lotion (or “emulsion,” as some of them are marketed as) is ideal since they are usually lighter in consistency. For those who have oilier skin, a gel would be optimal. Gel moisturizers tend to contain glycerin, a humectant that helps moisturize the skin without weighing it down.
Creams are the nighttime alternative to moisturizing. A thicker moisturizer helps to seal in all the product and prevent the skin from drying out as the hours pass.
My favorite emulsion/lotion: Innisfree’s Green Tea Balancing Lotion is a watery and lightweight moisturizer that my troublesome skin actually reacts well to. My skin is hydrated from the get-go, but my skin doesn’t create excess sebum as the day passes (yay, no dinnertime oily T-zone!). I also absolutely love the subtle earthy smell!
Other notable emulsions and lotions:
- Cosrx Oil-Free Ultra-Moisturizing Lotion: $14.45
- Skinfood Premium Avocado Rich Emulsion: $20.99
- Mizon Collagen Power Lifting Emulsion: $18.99
- The Face Shop Arsainte Eco-Therapy Moisturizer: $20.96
My favorite gel: Natural Republic Aloe Vera Gel comes in a huge jar the size of a hair gel jar, making the $8.79 price tag very reasonable. For those who have heavily oily skin, I definitely recommend this mattifying moisturizer. My boyfriend has been using it for several months now and I’ve noticed that the high aloe content calms down the redness and inflammation in his breakouts.
Other notable gel creams:
- Mizon Water Volume Ex Cream: $13.20
- Mizon Snail Recovery Gel Cream: $9.99
- Benton Aloe Propolis Soothing Gel: $15.81
- Nature Republic Super Aqua Max Fresh Watery Cream: $12.85
My favorite cream: The Face Shop’s Mango Seed Facial Butter is literally like ambrosia in a jar. It seals in moisture without feeling too heavy and is perfect for the drier winter months. A little goes a very long way with this product, so this jar could probably last you almost a year.
Other notable creams:
- Mizon All In One Snail Repair Cream: $16.90
- Cosrx Advanced Snail 92 All In One Cream: $15.00
- Innisfree The Green Tea Seed Cream: $16.93
- Innisfree Orchid Intense Cream: $18.90
- Etude House Moistfull Collagen Cream: $12.91
How to use all of the above: If product is in a jar, scoop a dime-sized amount with a clean cotton swab and pat into the face until product is absorbed.
Optional Step: Nighttime Mask
Sometimes your skin is in turmoil and you just know you need to do a little something extra to help it. When we sleep, our body works hard to regenerate and heal itself in every department, and your skin is no exception to that. Incorporating an extra step during your slumber can help boost your skin’s ability to repair itself.
My favorite sleeping mask: Laneige’s Water Sleeping Mask is something I have been using for years. Each time I use this mask I can see a huge difference in my skin when I wake up. My skin tone is much more even and the texture is extremely soft. This mask also claims to have calming properties that aid in sleep. I’m not sure how solid this claim is, but I’ll never forget the first time I put this on and immediately passed out in bed. I think it may have been the light floral smell… or perhaps just the long day I had at work.
How to use: When your skin is suffering or if you’re prepping for a huge event, use this the day before. After your moisturizer is fully absorbed, massage in a pea-sized amount of this mask right over your moisturizer until your skin soaks it up. Since it functions as an extra layer that seals in everything underneath, you don’t want to lay it on too thick and suffocate your skin. Leave it on overnight and then rinse off in the morning, followed with a moisturizer.
Other notable sleeping masks:
Step 10: Sunscreen
Sun exposure is the #1 cause of physical aging in the skin, and is something that is also avoidable. Aside from wearing hats or staying out of the sun completely, sunscreen not only helps you age slower but also helps slow down the process of hyper pigmentation. Did you ever notice that after a day in the sun, your dark spots look even darker? The sun acts like glue to pigment and makes it harder for the spots to fade.
My favorite sunscreen: Biore’s Aqua Rich Sunscreen is a very lightweight sunscreen that feels as thin as an essence. It dries to a matte finish, and I absolutely love this because it’s hard to find a sunscreen that doesn’t feel greasy or look shiny. Not only is the texture lightweight, but it has a huge amount of SPF and PA. SPF only protects from UVB rays, whereas PA protects from UVA rays. And you see those +’s? That’s actually a PA ranking: the more +’s the better. Just like SPF’s number: the higher, the better.
How to use: Apply all over face, neck, and all other areas exposed to sun. Reapply every 2 hours – no ingredient remains active all day!
Other notable sunscreens:
- The Face Shop Natural Sun Eco Sebum Control SPF 40 PA+++: $14.56
- MISSHA All Around Safe Block Essence Sun Milk SPF 50+/PA+++: $13.96
- Missha All Around Safe Block Essence Sun SPF45/PA+++: $8.50
- Cosrx Aloe Soothing Sun Cream SPF50 PA+++: $15.00
- Innisfree Intensive Triple Care Sunscreen SPF50+ PA++++: $15.11
- A’Pieu Pure Block Natural Sun Cream SPF45/PA+++: $6.50
- Etude House Sunprise Mild Airy Finish Sun Milk SPF50+ / PA+++: $9.95
Optional Step: BB Cream
If you’re an avid make-up lover and can’t seem to put the foundation down, a BB cream is a great alternative to take care of your skin while getting the coverage you need. BB creams serve as a foundation with hydrating and brightening effects and can also double as a sunscreen. While BB and CC creams have made their debut in America, Korean-brand BB creams have still remained superior to their American counterparts.
Fun fact: Many BB creams have a limited selection of colors, but that’s because they actually change color to match your skin. They may appear gray at first, but give it some time and some window light and the product will oxidize.
My favorite BB cream: MISSHA’s M Perfect Cover BB Cream is my all-time favorite BB cream. Not only is this formula hydrating (which is rare in a foundation), but the coverage is buildable due to its opaque color. You can apply it using your fingers for a natural look, or you can use a foundation brush for medium to full coverage. The second reason why I like this BB cream is that this line has colors in the deeper tonal range, something that most Korean BB creams don’t bother with – east Asians have very fair skin, so Asian manufacturers don’t see a need to formulate darker color options.
How to use: Pump a small amount onto the back of your hand, and using either your finger or foundation brush, apply it to the face as you would with a foundation. I personally like using my finger and blending it over dark spots for a more natural look. Give it time to oxidize, and then set with powder.
Other notable BB creams:
- Etude House Precious Mineral BB Cream Moist: $13.50
- Holika Holika Pore Clearing Petit BB Cream with Tea Tree Oil: $7.99
- Missha M BB Boomer: $9.49
- Skin79 Super+ BB Triple Function Hot Pink: $17.96
- Skin79 Super+ BB VIP Gold Label: $17.96
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15 Total Products: $155.12
*Note: All prices and stock are subject to change.
If you had to average this total out, you’d be looking at about $10.34 per product, which is very reasonable. Also remember: you may not even need all of these products. With the choices between treatment masks, sheet masks, sleeping masks, to essences, serums and ampoules, and emulsions, gels, and creams, it’s probably safe to say that you’d walk away spending less than $100 on products that you actually need.
I know that investing in 10 or more products can be risky, especially if they wind up not working for you. A safer alternative: Target now carries a range of popular Korean beauty brands from Laneige, Missha, Soo Ae, and Mizon. You can pick up a product or two at your local Target store now, or order online.
I used to shell out hundreds of dollars at Sephora, and now I’m spending far less and getting even better results. Everyone’s got their tried-and-true beauty staples, but sometimes those products aren’t worth the heavy prices. Will you be trying out Korean beauty? Let us know in the comments below!
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