Looking to get clear skin or glowing skin using the Korean skin care steps? Korean women know a thing or two about skin care, and it shows. We know they’re famed for their flawless complexions, but how do they do it?
The 10 steps in Korean skin care are no longer a beauty secret, and you too can learn the steps to get glowing skin … even if you have only five minutes to spend on your evening skin care routine, really.
Here I tell you what you need to know about the skin care steps and why they’re easier than you think. You really don’t need to follow all 10 steps to improve your skin, and you can find out why.
The Korean skin care routine is not as complicated or as time consuming as you’ve been led to believe. It’s quite adaptable, and can even work for someone with the busiest of schedules.
Read on to find out about the Korean skin care steps are and what you can do to get your best skin yet, without all the fuss and without having to go overboard on your skin care spend.
I give you Skin Clinica‘s view on what it is about the Korean skin care routine that gets results, so you don’t have to obsessively focus on all 10 steps. Skin care is meant to be enjoyable, right, not a tedious chore!
So let’s get started by getting to know what sits behind the Korean approach to skin care.
Understanding Korean skin care
Korean skin care dates back as far as 7000 BC. However its documented beginnings are found in an ancient medicinal text, the Dongui Bogam, which was first published in 1613. This text, written by the royal physician, provides information on the preparation and use of herbal ingredients to treat skin concerns. The use of active botanical ingredients is at the heart of Korean skin care.
South Korea is one of the largest and most advanced skin care manufacturing countries in the world, and it even makes products for many leading western skin care brands. You may be using branded skin care products that are made here and not be aware of it!
The country also has developed expertise in fermenting ingredients to create fermented filtrates used in ampoules, boosters, essences, toners and serums. These fermented filtrates are so often credited for the smooth, supple and hydrated appearance of Korean women’s skin. SK-II’s Facial Treatment Essence and Estee Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair are two cult products that contain these skin wonders.
But there’s more to Korean skin care than just fermented filtrates. Korean skin care manufacturers also have expertise in botanicals, epidermal growth factors, snail mucin, nano encapsulation and silicone emollients, and have patent registrations by the truckload.
More and more people are discovering Korean skin care products and learning how to follow the Korean skin care steps.
What are the Korean 10 skin care steps?
It can get a little confusing as there are references to the Korean skin care routine as 7 steps and 10 steps. Essentially, they’re the same thing.
Anyone who is truly serious about their skin care is following most of the Korean skin care steps anyway, probably without even knowing it.
I’ll talk about the steps, but I’ll also highlight what I see as the four most important elements of Korean skin care than can be applied to any skin care routine. That way, even if you don’t follow the 7 steps or 10 steps, you can still use this knowledge to achieve clearer or more glowing skin.
Step 1: Cleansing
Good skin care starts with proper cleansing and Korean women are meticulous about this. Micellar waters just won’t cut it. Korean women use an oil cleanser or balm cleanser to remove makeup and sunscreen, especially that stubborn and potentially pore-clogging mineral sunscreen.
Step 1 cleanse is followed by a step 2 cleanse. A foam, gel or cream cleanser is used, according to skin type.
An important part of this in the Korean skin care routine is choosing the right cleansers, and in particular cleansers that are mildly acidic, a pH of bout 5.5. (A pH level of 7 is rated as neutral for skin.)
The skin has an acid mantle, a thin layer on its surface that is there to prevent infection and protect against environmental stressors. This mantle comprises sebum, lactic acid and amino acids. A disrupted or impaired acid mantle can lead to skin issues, including dermatitis, eczema and rosacea, and even make acne worse.
Due to natural ageing, diet, stress, health issues or medication, the acid mantle can be affected, and this can alter the microbiota found on our skin and lead to it becoming more vulnerable. To find out more, read our blog on why Skin health: Take a deeper look.
Soap cleansers and detergent cleansers are too alkaline and tend to rob the skin of its natural oils. That squeaky clean feel some people think is a sign of a good cleanse is really the skin being stripped bare. Doing this type of cleanse does not stop the skin being oily or prevent acne, and may even make it worse.
For the health of your skin, ensure your cleansers only use mild surfactants, and avoid anything that has sodium laureth sulfate, which has a pH of as high as 9.5.
To find out how to correctly double cleanse, view our post on the Oil cleansing method.
Our expert tip:
- The Korean skin care routine is as much about the ritual, as it is the result. Take the time to relax and enjoy gently massaging the oil cleanser to boost blood flow and promote a healthy skin.
- In the morning, wash your face with water only or a gentle cleanser.
Step 2: Toning
The Korean skin care routine involves toning. And while that may seem a wasted step for many of us, especially given the double cleanse, it’s done to restore the acid mantle that has been disrupted by tap water and prepare the skin to better absorb the essences, ampoules, boosters or serums that follow.
Korean toners are intended to be lightly hydrating. Similar to many of their other products, they often contain botanicals that target specific skin concerns. This is different to many western toners that are often little more than fragranced and coloured water solutions with some citric acid thrown in to adjust the pH.
Our expert tip:
- Remember to always go beyond the marketing claims and read the ingredient list before buying a skin care product. Truth is a rare ingredient in skin care, and some ingredients do more harm than good.
- As wonderful as some Korean skin care products are, many are not! Beware of those that are astringent or use high amounts of ingredients that are unkind to the skin, including alcohol, essential oils, fragrance oils, glycols or witch hazel.
Step 3: Exfoliating
Korean skin care uses natural or synthetically derived exfoliating ingredients that break down the tiny bonds that are found in the cement in between the dead skin cells that form the topmost layer of the skin. Korean skin care often takes a slow and steady approach, rather than use harsh physical scrubs that can cause micro-injury to the skin and lead to inflammation.
As skin cells reach the surface of the skin, they die off and become flattened. The older we get, the less efficient our skin is in turning over cells, which can make skin duller, drier and more uneven in tone.
By exfoliating, you’re encouraging these old skin cells to renew faster. And the benefits are not just superficial! At the topmost level, skin is refined and pigmentation reduced over time. At a deeper level, the skin is stimulated to speed up the production of cells and collagen.
If you’re following a Korean skin care routine, it’s easiest to incorporate an exfoliating toner into the 10 steps. Try an exfoliating toner that contains one or more Alpha Hydroxy Acids, or AHAs. Select AHAs that best suit your skin type and skin concern. Use at night only, 1-3 times a week rather than every day.
If you have blocked pores or pigmented skin, you may find you need to do this more often, however always ensure you’re not causing redness, irritation or sensitisation.
If you have whiteheads of blackheads, an exfoliating toner with Glycolic Acid and Salicylic Acid may be a good choice.
But, if your skin is sensitive, it’s especially important to go easy on the exfoliation and choose a gentle active ingredient, such as an AHA that has a large molecule, which means is does not penetrate as deeply and so refines the skin much more gently. Mandelic Acid, derived from almonds, Poly Hydroxy Acid and Azelaic Acid are considered better choices. These AHAs are less likely to cause stinging, burning or redness, but results will be more gradual.
Our expert tip:
- When using any type of exfoliant, it’s essential you actively take steps to protect your skin from UVB and UVA damage. AHAs thin the topmost layers of the skin and make it more sensitive and susceptible to UV damage.
Step 4: Essence
Having used a toner and, possibly, an exfoliating toner, it can be somewhat puzzling to work out why you now need to follow with an essence, a light fluid that seems to be rather water like. More than anything, in Korean skin care steps, the use of essence is the most confusing. An essence is not a toner and is not a serum.
Korean women swear by thus step. There are many celebrity favourite Korean and Japanese essences on the market, and some that come at quite eyepopping price tags. However there are many wonderful ever-so-affordable Korean skin essences available too, so it’s easy to incorporate this step without having to splurge on the luxury skin care brands.
Fermented filtrates have long been used in Asian skin care to improve the health of the skin. Even though they’re much loved and widely used, there has been limited research verifying their benefits, until more recently. We’re now beginning to understand that old wisdom and practice may be ahead of the science.
We’re discovering more about the microbiome and microbiota, and the important role it plays in keeping us healthy. Not only does our gut have its own complex microbiota, so does the skin and the two have extraordinary communication pathways that also link to the brain. Fermented filtrates in skin care are types of yeast that soften the skin and may also strengthen it by helping ensure the right microbiota balance. Western skin care is starting to embrace this too, and we’re seeing probiotic skin care products on the market.
Bifida Ferment Lysate, specifically, has been shown in laboratory testing to reduce the number of bad microorganisms living on the skin and make sensitive skin less irritated and reactive.
Essences soothe, condition and hydrate, but they don’t do it in a heavy way. They work very subtly, over time. In using these products, I found my skin felt softer and smoother, and very slowly became more refined. And in using one with Niacinamide, it was calmer and less sensitive.
If you’re new to Korean skin care you may wonder why these essences are so thin. At this stage, you really want something that’s going to be easily absorbed into the skin, rather than leaving a film that prevents the rest of your skin care products from being able to do their good work.
Our expert tip:
- Apply your essence by pouring a small amount into your hand and then patting it gently all over your face. This makes it easier to apply and you won’t be wasting any precious drops on your makeup pad.
- Avoid fermented filtrates if you have Malassezia or rosacea.
Step 5: Treatment
Great, you’ve made it this far. Now it’s time for the heavy lifting. Ampoules, boosters and serums are designed to do just that.
You’re going to want to use one that has a high concentration of actives that target your skin concern, whether that’s dryness, oiliness, pigmentation, sensitivity or wrinkles. These are intended to actively target your skin needs and boost the power of your essence.
Korean ampoules, boosters and serums come in range of formulations and consistencies, ranging from traditional serums to light lotions to suit different skins.
Our expert tip:
- Apply directly to your hand and gently smooth all over the face, tapping gently to help absorption.
Step 6: Sheet mask
Korean women swear by their beauty masks as part of their Korean skin care routine. While few us find time to fit these into our routine, they do add that extra zest to your skin care routine and amp up your results.
That said, you don’t need to be using a sheet mask every night! This a treat for the skin that really only needs to be applied a few times a week or when your skin needs that extra pick-me-up.
Apply the sheet mask according to the instructions and leave for at least 15 minutes, but longer is better. Sheet masks allow for better absorption of active ingredients and add loads of hydration to the skin. As with serums, use one that targets your skin concern, so that you can build up the effects.
Our expert tip:
- Ensure you allow about 15 minutes for your serum to absorb completely before applying your sheet mask or you could just be diluting all the active ingredients your serum.
- Choose a serum that works well with the mask. A lotion or cream serum that tends to leave an occlusive layer on the skin won’t work well and dilutes all your hard work.
Step 7: Eye cream
Korean women have got this one right. I love eye creams. Despite the many articles and posts I read that eye cream is not necessary, I can’t live without mine. I go into more detail about the role and importance of eye cream in Common Questions, so check out the extra information I provide there.
Many ingredients applied to the eye area can be too irritating or do not suit the specific delicate nature of the skin in this area, and that’s why a dedicated eye cream is important.
Eye creams, just like every other cream, come in many forms and types, and different formulations target different skin concerns. Pick the one that best meets your needs. I’ve found eye creams incredibly individual and challenging to get right. Find the one or two right for you, and you’ll never look back.
Korean women love snail mucin, including in their eye creams. It’s claimed to have many skin beneficial properties, however the science is somewhat lacking. And besides, I prefer to go cruelty free, especially when there are better ingredients around.
Amino acids, ceramides, cholesterol, fatty acids (plant sourced), Hyaluronic Acid (plant sourced), marine collagen, peptides, Vitamin E and Vitamin C derivatives are all ingredients that are gentle enough to use on this area and keep this delicate skin looking its best.
Our expert tip:
- The skin around the eye area is thin and fragile, and is prone to fine lines. Start looking after the skin around your eyes as early as possible in life. Apply your eye cream extra gently by using a light tapping. Don’t be tempted to rub it in circles, as this could pull and injure the skin.
- Use a different eye cream in the morning to the one at night. Gels or lighter creams work best in the morning, especially if you are going to apply primer, sunscreen or foundation. Too rich a cream in the morning can be too much, and may not layer well.
Step 8: Moisturiser
Once you’ve cleansed, nourished and treated your skin, as part of your Korean skin care routine, you want to top it off with something to seal the deal. Moisturisers serve to smooth and soften the topmost layers of your skin and further boost the water content. They usually also contain ingredients that help lock in all the goodness of the ingredients you’ve applied, and prevent your skin become dry. A replenished and well-moisturised skin in less reactive and appears younger.
Find a moisturiser that’s right for your skin, whether a gel for oily skin or a richer cream for drier skin. Look for one that offers the right balance between being emollient, humectant and occlusive.
Some moisturisers also include active ingredients, however if you’ve already layered on active ingredients through the other steps, it may all prove too stimulating for your skin. Look for something complementary. Be patient in your approach or you could end up overdoing it.
Our expert tip:
- Dab the moisturiser in little dots around your face and use light, upwards sweeping motions to apply it. This will help it sink in and avoid stretching the skin.
Step 9: Sleeping mask
This really is the icing on the multi-layered Korean skin care cake. Korean women will use a sleeping mask, a cross between a mask and moisturiser, that refines, nourishes and plumps up the skin overnight. This can be used instead of or in addition to a moisturiser when skin is dry or stressed.
The sleeping mask is claimed to penetrate more deeply and do more to hydrate than a moisturiser. Korean skin care products are generally lighter and it may make some sense to add this extra layer a few times a week. Although I doubt it’s going to absorb well if you’re using a moisturiser that is occlusive! So I prefer to avoid that type of moisturiser when I’m following the 10 steps.
Our expert tip:
- Use a sheet mask instead of your moisturiser, rather than both.
Now for the last of the 10 steps to Korean skin care, strictly for daytime, of course! Naturally, it also happens to be my fave topic.
Step 10: Sunscreen
It just wouldn’t be a Korean skin care routine without this most important step: sunscreen.
UV exposure is leading cause of premature skin ageing. Korean women are as obsessive about avoiding the sun as they are about applying sunscreen. They look to achieve porcelain-like skin, not a tanned appearance.
Most of us are aware of the effects of UVB rays, however UVA rays penetrate deeper and do less obvious damage to the skin. UVA rays can penetrate glass, so it’s equally important to apply the sunscreen if you’re going to be indoors and near a window. Even small amounts of UV exposure each day can lead to permanent skin damage that doesn’t show up until much later in life. Protecting the skin is far more effective than trying to correct it later.
Our expert tip:
- Mineral sunscreens are safer for you, however chemical sunscreens work better when you’re applying foundation. Stick with mineral sunscreens if you’re pregnant, as some chemical filters have been found to make their way into breast milk, or if your skin barrier is impaired. Read our page on Sunscreen Ingredients to find how to choose a sunscreen and which chemical filters are of concern.
Are the Korean skin care steps for you?
If the Korean skin steps seem all too much, remember you can adapt the 10 steps to develop your own skin care routine. But do choose your products carefully.
I found that, in using too many products or using western products that weren’t intended to be layered in the way that Korean skin products are, my skin got overloaded and broke out. No, this wasn’t ‘purging’.
If you want to adapt the Korean skin care steps to your own skin care routine, focus on the four most important elements of the Korean skin care routine:
- thorough cleansing every night
- use of active ingredients that are as safe as possible
- gentle exfoliation, regularly
- meticulous sun protection every day
Now that you’re an expert in the Korean skin care steps, it’s time to put it into practice. Be patient, though. A traditional Korean skin care routine is not about getting quick results but achieving healthier and more radiant skin over the long term.
Want a skin analysis and a Korean skin care routine mapped out for you? Go to our Skin Care Packages page.
Or if you want to skip ahead to find some of the best Korean skin care products, go to our skin care Shop. We’ve very carefully curated our products based on science, actives, results and safety.
Yours in better skin