Our ultimate guide to the 10 step Korean skincare routine

The 10 step Korean skincare routine stems from Korea’s renowned ethos of achieving healthy, glowing skin supported by years of scientific innovations and developments in pursuit of a ‘skin-first, makeup second’ approach. Koreans place more emphasis on good skin before even thinking about applying makeup. Now I know what you’re thinking, 10 steps sounds like a lot, especially if you’re someone like the past me who would ‘clean’ their skin with a bar of soap, take off makeup with face wipes and maybe use a moisturiser if my skin was feeling a bit dry that day, but these 10 steps are not just about impulse buying a ton of skincare to fill your shelves and setting a routine in the name of self-care that you’ll stop doing in a few days because it’s too much hassle and quite frankly, whose got the time and energy for that?

Rather, the 10 step Korean skincare routine as we understand at Skin2Seoul is more about focusing on a selection of products that work effectively for your skincare needs, using them in the order that suits your skin to achieve the best, maximum results and trust me, the Korean skincare industry knows exactly how to do this. Don’t just take my word for it, the Korean skincare industry is believed to be ahead of the West by 10-12 years due to its highly competitive nature. As a result, the industry sees huge investments into research and development, producing innovative formulations for gentle and hydrating skincare whilst tackling a variety of skincare needs, ready for everyday use. 

 

Step 1: Oil based cleanse

The first step in the Korean skincare routine is the double-cleansing method which is divided into two steps. The first cleanse is an oil cleanser which thoroughly yet gently cleanses the skin. Oil-based cleansers target oil-based impurities such as makeup, SPF, sebum and other external pollutants without compromising the skin’s natural barrier, maintaining the oil-water balance whilst whisking away even the most stubborn, waterproof makeup providing your skin with a deep cleanse. Oil-based cleansers can come in a solid and liquid form, the solid form usually as a balm. One of the most popular cleansing balms is the Banila.Co Clean It Zero Cleansing Balm Original which cleanses the pores without stripping away essential oils from the skin and drying it out which tends to happen when using makeup removing products. The Face Shop Rice Water Cleansing Oil is a liquid oil based cleanser containing beneficial vitamins and amino acids formulated to be less irritating to the skin, ideal for oily and combination skin types. And of course, who could forget? The holy grail of cleansing balms – Heimish All Clean Balm known for its sherbet-like texture that emulsifies impurities, unclogs pores drawing out trapped dirt helping to keep breakouts at bay. Oil-based cleansers not only cleanse but also soften and hydrate the skin to reveal a luminous and supple complexion.

To use an oil-based cleanser: apply a suitable amount onto dry skin and massage it to allow the removal of unwanted oils. Mix a little water into the cleanser to emulsify it and then wash off with lukewarm water.

Heimish All Clean Balm

 

Step 2: Water-based cleanse

The oil-based cleanse is then followed with a water-based/foam cleanse which is essential in order to remove water-based impurities such as other bacteria and dust as well as removing remaining oil and residue from the first cleanse left on your skin. Cleansing twice is often recommended by dermatologists and aestheticians as it helps to thoroughly remove impurities that can cause breakouts. Double cleansing with both an oil cleanser and a water cleanser combine to thoroughly cleanse the skin without stripping the skin. The COSRX Good Morning Gel Cleanser is a gentle, hydrating water-based cleanser perfect for everyday use.

To use: after washing off the oil-cleanser, gently massage the water-based cleanser all over damp skin in circular motions. Rinse off with lukewarm water.

Cosrx Good Morning Gel Cleanser

 

Step 3: Exfoliator

Exfoliating concludes the last step of cleansing and is a key part of skincare as it removes dead skin cells which clog pores and can result in your face to appear rough/flaky. Gently exfoliating your skin once or twice a week removes dead skin cells and regulates your skin cell turnover to reveal a brighter and more even-toned complexion. As we age, our skin cell turnover rate slows down which leads to dead skin cells staying on the skin’s surface for longer, stressing the importance of exfoliation.

There are two types of exfoliators: physical and chemical.

When thinking of exfoliators, you’re probably imagining those gritty-textured type scrubs known as physical exfoliators which remove the dead skin cells on the top layer of the skin. Whilst these physical exfoliators are effective in revealing an obvious difference in the skin almost immediately after using them, a lot of physical exfoliators can be harsh and irritating for some skin types. This is where chemical exfoliators come in.

Like physical exfoliators, chemical exfoliators remove dead skin cells but in a different way using Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) which tend to be more gentle and less irritating. While you may not see visible results straight away with chemical exfoliators, this does not mean that they are any less effective. Chemical exfoliators penetrate deeper into the skin, beyond the manual removal of dead skin cells on the first layer and instead work to break down the substance that bonds skin cells together making it a whole lot easier to wipe away dead skin.

If you have normal or sensitive skin, you may want to opt for the Isntree Clear Skin 8% AHA Essence which is a unique no-rinse exfoliating essence. Another popular exfoliant that I like to use twice a week is the COSRX Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser. This is ideal for oily, combination skin types.

To use: apply the exfoliator of your choice onto your skin and either wash off with lukewarm water or gently rub into the skin. 

Cosrx Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser

 

Step 4: Toner

Toners are a perfect way to prep your skin for the rest of your skincare routine. They are designed to balance the skin’s pH level in the skin and to provide the first layer of hydration after cleansing as well as removing any leftover residue from your double-cleanse. In comparison to toners in the West, Korean toners are formulated to be much milder and gentler and they also help to assist the following products in your routine to sink deeper into the skin making your skin ready and prepped.

We have a wide range of toners for different skin types and skin concerns. The HaruHaru Wonder Black Rice Hyaluronic Toner is a popular choice here at Skin2Seoul. Formulated with Black Fermented Rice and Hyaluronic Acid, this toner provides deep anti-ageing nourishment as well as intense hydration and rejuvenating qualities.

The Some By Mi AHA.BHA.PHA 30 Days Miracle Toner is a K-Beauty cult classic, containing natural tea tree extract, this toner works to even out the skin tone and improve dullness. Not only is it a toner that provides hydration but it effectively exfoliates the skin removing dead skin cells, minimises the appearance of pores and blackheads whilst keeping breakouts at bay.

One of my personal favourites is the COSRX Full Fit Propolis Synergy Toner as it contains Propolis and Honey extract which really work to soothe and repair dull and tired skin leaving the most luminous glow.

To use a toner: after cleansing, apply the toner by using a cotton pad or pour a suitable amount into the palm of your hands and swipe over the face gently patting the toner for better absorption.

Haruharu Wonder Black Rice Toner

 

Step 5: Essence

Essences are a skincare category invented in Korea and are usually considered by many as an essential part of the Korean skincare routine. Essences often contain a higher amount of active ingredients. They work to flood the skin with hydration and help the following products of your routine to be absorbed better into your skin. Essences work as a sort of primer for the rest of your skincare routine and also as a treatment as they target your skin on the cellular level, revitalising, brightening and hydrating your skin. They have more of a liquid consistency and a lightweight texture in comparison to serums but are still thicker than water and often have a transparent, clear colour. The biggest misconception that people have of essences is whether essences actually do anything for your skin. However, essences are not to be underestimated and are actually considered powerhouse skincare products because they improve the effectiveness of your skincare products and support the benefits of the skincare you layer on top.

One of the most popular essences in the K-beauty world and has a cult-like following is the Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence Rx also known as being a more effective and affordable dupe for the SK-II Facial Treatment Essence. The Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence Rx helps to repair damaged skin, even out the skin tone and reduce the appearance of redness and pigmentation. 

Another essence that you've probably come across before and meets the hype is the COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence. Yes you read that right, snail. Snail Mucin has been a staple ingredient in Korean skincare and although it may sound a bit gross, snail mucin is a promising ingredient that has proved to be extremely popular because of the amazing benefits it delivers to the skin such as hydrating, brightening and regenerative qualities. 

The COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence in particular is a lightweight, quick-absorbing essence which is formulated with 96% Snail Secretion Filtrate. It works to improve skin elasticity, skin tone, hyperpigmentation and aid skin repair. This essence is also known to soothe and improve blemishes as well as delivering anti-ageing qualities. The COSRX Advanced Snail Radiance Dual Essence is an updated version of the COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence as it also contains Niacinamide which is a brightening powerhouse ingredient. The dual essence also works to deeply hydrate and effectively brighten the skin. 

To use: apply the essence after cleansing and toning and pat it gently onto your face until it's absorbed. Follow up with a serum and ampoule.

 

Step 6: Serums and Ampoules

These two product types crop up a lot in skincare but what exactly is the difference between serums and ampoules? 

Both serums and ampoules are formulated to target specific skin concerns used as treatments in your routine. Both have a high concentration of actives, have a thicker consistency than essences and are used after the essence step. The difference, is that ampoules are a highly concentrated version of a serum and act as a sort of booster, boosting the skin with active ingredients to help skin concerns such as hydration, moisture or brightening.

A popular serum in our store and is much loved by many is the Jumiso All Day Vitamin Brightening & Balancing Facial Serum. This serum contains various vitamin complexes such as Vitamin A, B, C, D, E & K to target hyper-pigmentation, uneven skin tone and anti-ageing concerns.

The Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Probio Ampoule is a Korean skincare dupe for the Estee Lauder's Advanced Night Repair Serum. The Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Probio Ampoule is not only kinder to your wallet but is very similar and in some instances even better in terms of formulation and targeting skin concerns. This ampoule is formulated with Bifida Ferment Lysate and contains more natural beneficial extracts in comparison to the Estee Lauder serum and is designed to be incorporated into your evening routine, working overnight to brighten, improve skin elasticity encouraging a clear, glowing complexion. 

To use a serum and ampoule: apply 2-3 drops and gently pat into the skin until it is fully absorbed into your skin. 

Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Probio Ampoule

 

Step 7: Sheet Masks / Sleeping Masks

One of the very first skincare products you're introduced to is probably sheet masks. If you follow our Self-Care Sundays on Instagram at Skin2Seoul, you'll know how much we love a good sheet mask. A sheet mask a day is a popular skincare ritual among many in Korea for the reason of achieving dewy, glass skin. Sheet masks are usually infused with essence and work to soak the skin with hydration and other active ingredients, creating a barrier over your skin so that the beneficial active ingredients can be better absorbed. The sheet mask prevents the essence from evaporating into the air, ensuring that the essence sinks into your skin. 

Korean sheet masks offer a huge variety, formulated with different ingredients targeting many different skin concerns and even made out of different materials such as cotton, cupra and tencel sheets so you can find a sheet mask that suits you. 

The Jumiso Helloskin Rich Nourishment Mask as well as the other Helloskin masks are made of cupra sheets which soak up 10x the essence of a regular sheet mask! 

Sleeping masks are great multi-functional products and are a perfect way to get moisturised, glowy skin while you sleep. They can be used after your moisturiser in your night routine or in place of a moisturiser based on your skin type and needs. The COSRX Ultimate Nourishing Rice Overnight Mask is one of my firm favourites as it contains 65% Rice extract and Niacinamide to brighten and hydrate the skin while you sleep. The Huxley Secret Of Sahara Sleep Mask: Good Night is a healing and soothing overnight mask that works to renew your skin. Formulated with Sahara's prickly pear cactus extract which is full of skin-benefitting antioxidants, Vitamin E and linoleic acid, this sleeping mask hydrates and repairs dull, nutrient-depleted skin all while you snooze!

To use a sheet mask or sleeping mask: sheet masks are used after cleaning, toning, essence and serum whilst sleeping masks are used in the last step of your night routine. 

Cosrx Ultimate Nourishing Rice Overnight Spa Mask

 

Step 8: Eye Cream

Eye creams are formulated to be gentle and work to target the under-eye area, delivering active ingredients aiding skin concerns working to hydrate and moisturise. It's important to make sure that the under-eye area is well moisturised as the skin under the eye tends to be thinner and delicate. As the level of collagen reduces as we age, this can result in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as well as veins and dark circles. Thin skin also tends to fill with fluid more easily which may lead to puffiness. 

As someone who has genetic dark circles and suffers from puffy under-eyes, I've always been on the hunt for an effective eye cream. I've been trying countless of eye creams over the years all claiming to brighten under-eyes yet nothing seemed to work, in fact I started to develop dry skin patches around my eye area. Finally, the search was over when I came across the COSRX Advanced Snail Peptide Eye Cream. A double-functioning eye cream that works to diminish dark circles and reduce puffiness - just what I needed! I was a little apprehensive that this eye cream would turn out to be like others I've tried and won't show any noticeable results. However, within the first few uses I noticed not only my dark circles lightened considerably but my morning puffy eyes reduced and with consistent use, the dry patches under my eyes had gone!

So, what was different about this eye cream in comparison to other eye creams? It would definitely be the formula. 

The COSRX Advanced Snail Peptide Eye Cream is formulated with snail secretion filtrate and contains five different types of peptide which help to produce collagen tackling dark circles and puffy-under eye concerns. Another amazing eye cream that targets fine lines and wrinkles is the Pyunkang Yul Black Tea Time Reverse Eye Cream. Made up of fermented Black Tea which contains powerful anti-oxidants to boost the skin's vitality and peptides, this eye cream nourishes the under-eye area improving skin elasticity. 

To use an eye cream: use your ring finger to gently tap a suitable amount of cream onto the under-eye area until it's absorbed.

 

Step 9: Moisturiser

Moisturisers come in many forms such as: a cream, lotion, gel, emulsion and sleeping mask and they work to introduce and seal in moisture keeping your skin hydrated. Whether you have dry skin, normal skin, oily or combination skin, moisturising is a must in your skincare routine! 

For dry and normal skin, the Etude House Soon Jung 2x Barrier Intensive Cream is a great choice as it contains Panthenol and Madecassoside to deliver deep hydration, balancing and soothing properties. This moisturiser is also free from artificial fragrances, colours, irritants and parabens making it suitable for sensitive skin too. 

For oily skin, you may want to opt for an emulsion which is like a light version of a moisturiser. The Isntree Green Tea Fresh Emulsion is formulated with green tea from Jeju Island which is rich in amino acids providing the skin with vitality. This emulsion also helps to reduce excess sebum whilst providing moisture keeping the skin feeling refreshed ideal for oily and acne-prone skin. 

To use a moisturiser: apply a suitable amount onto your skin after the rest of your skincare routine and gently pat for better absorption. Finish with applying SPF or use as the last step of your night skincare routine. 

 

Step 10: SPF  

Sun protection is an important and essential part of skincare as it protects your skin from harmful UV rays. Sunscreen should be worn everyday, re-applied every 2 hours even when you're inside and in cold weather. Sunscreen, sun cream or SPF is a quick, easy and effective way of preventing skin cancer, sun damage and premature ageing and is used in the last step of your morning skincare routine. 

The COSRX Aloe Soothing Sun Cream is a cult-favourite and is a staple for many. Formulated with Aloe Leaf Water, this sun cream improves the skin's moisture barrier and protects the skin against UVA and UVB rays. 

Thank You Farmer SPFs are also super popular in our store as there is one for everyone! 

 

To use sunscreen: use in the last step of your morning/day time skincare routine and apply two fingers worth of SPF onto your face. Re-apply every two hours. 

Whether you're a newbie to K-beauty or a skincare junkie, we believe that skincare is a journey. Finding the right products that work for you and using them in the way that suits you best may take time, so be patient, trust the process and most importantly love the skin you're in!