For years, I thought that I was a skin care fanatic. Then, Korean beauty trends and their famous 10-step skincare regimen started to gain popularity worldwide, and finally, I felt like I wasn't as obsessed with skincare as I once believed. But even though my countertop was filled with an embarrassing number of skin care products, when I looked at photos of Korean women on the Internet, their skin looked so much smoother and more flawless than mine. So, I started exploring the reasons why Korean skincare products and the 10-step regimen deliver such great results.
One book that really came in handy for learning more about Korean skincare was "The Little Book of Skincare: Korean Beauty Secrets for Healthy, Glowing Skin" by Charlotte Cho. As a second generation Korean child born and raised in the US who moved to Korea as an adult, Cho got the chance to compare the way Koreans care for their skin to what we are used to in the West.
It turns out, caring for your skin is part of the Korean lifestyle, regardless of age and gender. Children are taught to protect their skin from sun rays since a young age — I can't even recall seeing a bottle of sunscreen in my home until I was a teenager! They routinely exfoliate their skin in order to brighten their complexions, and don't leave the house without a good moisturizer to reapply so their skin can look fresh and dewy all day long. It is believed that good skin care is the key to having healthy skin and aging beautifully.
As if photos of beautiful skin weren't enough to convince me to try the whole Korean skin care regimen, I recently met a Korean woman with clear, almost poreless skin, so I decided to give the whole 10-step routine a try for myself in the hopes of one day waking up with flawless skin. For the trial, I used a mix of Korean and American brands, (in the book Cho says that even Koreans use some Western beauty products, as long as they cover the function properly). In the process of looking for the right products, I had the chance to discover some Korean products, which turned out to be not only effective, but quite affordable and cute.
I must say, I was a little frightened at the idea of following all ten steps every morning and evening (who has that kind of time?). However, the book says that not every step must be followed every single day in order to achieve results and that the routine should be customized according to your skin's needs. Here it goes!
Step 1: First Cleanse
Since I usually wear makeup, I could not skip the first step of the routine, which is all about makeup and sunscreen removal. For this task, Koreans tend to prefer oil cleansers that are specifically formulated to emulsify and rinse off easily. This is the phase in which sunscreen, makeup and all the dirt and grime that have accumulated on your skin during the day need to come off, completely. I used the Elizabeth Dehn for One Love Organics Vitamin B Enzyme Cleansing Oil and Makeup Remover, which, like Korean oil cleansers, effectively lifts all makeup and sunscreen from the skin.
Step 2: Second Cleanse
While the first cleanse removes product and dirt from your face, product residue may still linger on your skin. The second cleanse, which is performed with a water-based cleanser, removes all residue. After the second cleanse, the skin is ready to absorb whatever treatment is applied next. For this step, I chose to stick to an old favorite of mine, Yuli Halcyon cleanser, which, like Korean water-based cleansers, cleanses the skin gently yet effectively.
Step 3: Exfoliation
Exfoliation is one skin care step that is not very common in the Western world, but it is very important in the Korean regimen. Exfoliation removes dead skin cells, encourages skin cells turnover, and allows treatments to better penetrate the skin. Being that my skin is very delicate I only exfoliated a few times a week, using an exfoliating powder by Eminence Organics.
Step 4: Toner
Toner is an often overlooked skin care step, but in the Korean routine it's quite important. It helps to re-balance the skin's pH and it provides hydrating ingredients that soothe the skin after a deep cleanse. For this step, I just picked up the Korean toner that has the best reviews across the web, which contains both AHA and BHA. I found this toner to really complete the cleansing process perfectly, removing the last tiny amount of product left on the skin and making my skin feel cleansed, but non stripped.
Step 5: Essence
Essence is perhaps the most mysterious part of the Korean skin care routine. It's not a toner, but it feels like one. It's not a moisturizer, but it hydrates like one. It is usually a lightweight formulation that contains a high percentage of active ingredients and should be gently pressed into the skin to boost hydration and promote skin renewal. American brands have not caught up with this trend yet, so I picked a Korean essence (with artichoke!) that made my skin feel and look smooth and supple.
Step 6: Treatments
Ampoules, serums and boosters are concentrated formulations that treat specific skin concerns and are a very important part of the Korean regimen because they help to prevent and treat skin problems. Although I was familiar with serums and had used many different ones in the past, I could not resist picking up one of these highly praised, fancy looking ampoules. This is, however, one of the steps that someone with no particular skin concerns (not me, unfortunately) could potentially skip.
Step 7: Sheet Mask
Sheet masks are the very first thing that come to my mind when I think of Korean skincare. If you can get past the fact that they make you look a bit scary, they provide a true spa-worthy experience. Not only do they contain hydration boosters like hyaluronic acid, but they also contain active ingredients, and by keeping a sheet mask on for about 20 minutes, you're sure to give your skin enough time to absorb all of the beneficial goodness. Unsurprisingly, this was my very favorite part of the whole regimen, especially when I put one in the fridge and I pulled it out on a hot day. It was really like a refreshing drink for my thirsty skin and left it looking so plump and calm.
Step 8: Eye Cream
Eye creams are fairly popular in the Western beauty world, but in Korea, they are extremely important. While quite young, Koreans begin to apply eye cream as part of their daily regimen to keep the delicate skin around the eyes well-hydrated, preventing fine lines, and saggy eyelids.
Step 9: Moisturizer
Koreans are big fans of glowing, dewy skin, also known as chok chok. Koreans love that healthy, fresh glow that results from keeping the skin well hydrated at all times. My pick for this step was a lightweight Korean cream that made my skin feel hydrated but never greasy.
Step 10: Sunscreen
This is definitely the most important step of the whole routine. UV rays truly accelerate skin's aging process, and Koreans diligently protect their skin to prevent it. The same care applies to the rest of the body such as neck, ears, chest and hands. This is also the main reason why Korean people usually have very bright, even skin. By avoiding sun burns at a young age, they do not develop signs of sun damage such as brown spots and premature wrinkles. For this step I used an USA-made sunscreen with a lightweight formula that my skin does well with, and I religiously applied it every morning.
Although I was already caring for my skin before trying the Korean regimen, I found that my skin looked healthier and dewier than before I started. The first day it felt like I was never going to get out of my house, but by the second day I was already into it. I'm now a sheet mask and essence convert, and I won't leave my house without sunscreen. My skin is far from looking like the Korean woman I met (years of sun damaged can't be reversed), but I'm confident that the extra effort put into caring for my skin will effectively protect my skin in the future and give my skin a bit of that chok chok look.