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Korean Skin Care Routines: What You Need To Know

Focus on the philosophy — replenishing and respecting your skin — not necessarily the steps

Person applies moisturizer as part of their skin care routine after a shower.

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If you’re not sure what that means, there’s a good chance you’ve managed to keep your head above water as hallyu, “The Korean Wave,” has broken across the English-speaking world. Kpop, Kdramas, “Hallyuwood” and Kbeauty are increasingly ubiquitous — and it’s sending enrollment in Korean language classes through the roof across the U.S.

For dermatologist Alok Vij, MD, the arrival of Korean skin care is particularly welcome. We asked him to explain what distinguishes Korean skin care from its Western counterparts, what makes it so great and how to integrate Korean skin care products into your daily routine.

What is the philosophy of Korean skin care?

People of a certain age remember a time when taking care of your skin wasn’t just a chore: It was often downright painful. Toners stung, abrasive exfoliants left our skin red and absolutely everything had an unavoidably strong scent. We knew our skin was “clean” when it was tight and dry. We avoided oils at all costs and — our greatest skin care sin of all — we turned to tanning beds for a not-so-healthy glow. It was a one-size-fits-all approach that didn’t work for the vast majority of us.

Today, Dr. Vij explains that Korean skin care products are helping us undo what he describes as the “years and years of damage” we’ve done to our skin. And as we undo that damage, we’re beginning to learn that taking care of our skin can be relaxing, luxurious and even fun. And the end result feels as good as it looks. Korean skin care is all about restoring (and respecting) your skin — not punishing it.

“These are elegant lotions and potions that feel good and rewarding to use,” he notes. “So, it builds a positive cycle of reinforcement.”

That’s not the only reason Korean skin care products and approaches are so popular. Here are a few others:

Designed for diverse skin types

“There’s been an overall trend toward inclusive skin care and inclusive beauty,” Dr. Vij says, “and Korean skin care offers a lot of solutions to common problems in a way that we hadn’t thought of before.”

U.S. beauty products are often marketed toward people with fair skin — and the skin care issues that come along with it.

“Dermatologists know that people with fair skin often have a certain subset of complaints, and people with darker skin tend to have slightly different concerns,” Dr. Vij says. There are plenty of exceptions to every skin care rule, but dermatologists more frequently treat people with pale skin for conditions like redness, rosacea and aging, while people with skin of color are more focused on issues like hyperpigmentation and uneven complexion.

“The beauty of Korean skin care is that it really hits the sweet spot, where it has active ingredients that work for everything,” Dr. Vij shares. “The products offer anti-aging benefits, but they’re also hydrating and promote an even skin tone.”

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Korean skin care products are addressing needs that the U.S. skin care market hasn’t. And it definitely doesn’t hurt that Kbeauty brands tend to be much more affordable than their U.S., British and French counterparts.

A sunscreen standout

Korean skin care has popularized a lot of different ingredients (like ginseng and snail mucin) and preparations (like ampoules, serums and essences) that are new to Western audiences. They’re also putting new, innovative spins on old skin care standards — especially sunscreen. And U.S. skin care companies quite literally can’t compete.

“The FDA is notoriously slow when it comes to approving sunscreens,” Dr. Vij states. “In the U.S., we’re still living on products that have were approved 20 to 30 years ago. And we haven’t made a lot of progress in new approvals.”

While Asian countries are producing unscented, sting-free SPF++++ (yup, that’s a thing) sunscreens, U.S. manufacturers are stuck with the same old chemical sunscreens. And the longer they’re around, the more concerns they’re raising.

“There’s more and more data that these chemical sunscreens get absorbed into your bloodstream — and they stick around in your body for a long time,” Dr. Vij says. “And we don’t know if there are any real deleterious health effects that go along with it. Meanwhile, there are sunscreens in other countries that are much, much more effective for sun protection, potentially safer to use and are even better for the environment.”

Different ingredients

One of the things that makes South Korean skin care products so enticing is the way regulations and competition within the industry impact their formulation. The products:

  • Are frequently (if not always) vegan and cruelty-free.
  • Tend to have little to no fragrance added.
  • Encourage gentler alternatives to active ingredients like acids and retinols.
  • Use natural ingredients (like Centella Asiatica) that aren’t as common in Western products.

10-step Korean skin care routine

If you’re familiar with Korean skin care, you’ve probably heard of the “10-step” routine. It usually looks something like this:

  1. Oil-based cleanser.
  2. Water-based cleanser.
  3. Exfoliant (one or two times a week).
  4. Toner.
  5. Essence.
  6. Face oil, serum, or ampoule that targets your primary skin concern.
  7. Sheet mask (not every day).
  8. Eye cream.
  9. Moisturizer.
  10. Sunscreen.

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Ten steps are a lot. A lot of time, a lot of money and a lot of new products to put on your face. That’s why Dr. Vij doesn’t recommend a 10-step routine to his patients.

“If you give someone a 10-step routine, they’re probably going to do two or three of those steps reliably,” he concedes. “And if you start adding a bunch of different products to your routine at once, you won’t know what’s effective or harmful.”

The concept of the 10-step routine is brilliant from a marketing standpoint, but Dr. Vij prefers to focus less on steps and products and more on principles:

  • Be gentle. Gone are the days of harsh astringents, rough exfoliants and skin-peelingly intense retinols. Dr. Vij explains that a good Korean skin care routine focuses on water-based products, doesn’t strip away too much of the natural oil on your face and doesn’t overburden your skin with lots of different active ingredients.
  • Hydrate with every step. “Pretty much every step of a Korean skin care routine is going to have some component of hydration,” he notes. If a product leaves your face feeling tight or dry, it’s not the right choice for you.
  • Always finish with sunscreen. For better and for worse, pale skin is prized in many Asian cultures. As a result of those beauty standards, sun protection is indispensable to a Kbeauty routine. As Dr. Vij is quick to point out, all skin colors are beautiful in their own right. And we don’t have to buy into colorism to believe that we all deserve top-notch sun protection.

If you’re looking for a Korean skin care routine that’s cheaper and involves fewer steps, Dr. Vij suggests following this basic plan:

Morning routine
Gentle cleanser
Evening routine
Gentle cleanser
Toner
Evening routine
Toner
Serum, essence or ampoule of choice
Evening routine
Serum, essence or ampoule of choice
Thin moisturizer
Evening routine
Thin moisturizer
Eye cream
Evening routine
Eye cream
Sunscreen
Evening routine
Thicker moisturizer

If you have the interest, time and money for a 10-step skin care regimen, Dr. Vij recommends integrating products very slowly. Not only will this reduce the hit to your wallet, but it will also make it easier to see what products are proving worthwhile and — if you develop an allergy — what products your skin can and can’t tolerate.

“Anyone who has a history of sensitive or delicate skin needs to be careful about using new products — especially if it has a fragrance or preservatives in it,” he cautions. “The Korean skin care industry may have better technology than we have, but you can still have an allergic reaction or intolerance. That’s why slowly increasing the number of products you use and the steps in your skin care routine is always a great idea.”

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Who should try a Korean skin care routine?

The sheer size of the Korean skin care industry means that there’s probably a product (or 20) out there that will work wonders for your skin. But with all the innovative ingredients and preparations available, you need to be comfortable that your skin can handle the trial and error.

“Acne, rosacea, eczema — those are common skin conditions where you really need to pick and choose what you use carefully,” Dr. Vij advises. But because Korean skin care tends to be fairly gentle, he finds that people with these conditions usually do OK with these products. Still, hypersensitive skin can be hard to calm down once it flares up, so it’s important to patch test products on your inner arm before putting them on your face.

Focus on the philosophy

There are many reasons to be excited about Korean skin care. But getting into it takes time — learning about the brands, about the different ingredients and preparations available, testing products … it can be overwhelming. And it’s OK if that isn’t your priority. There’s more than one way to do right by your skin.

“Some people have this stereotypical view of Korean skin care leading to endless beauty,” Dr. Vij muses. But that’s not reality — it’s just great marketing.

At the end of the day, he says what makes Korean skin care special is its foundational principles: It’s all about keeping your skin hydrated, happy and protected from the sun — and starting as early as possible.

“That’s the key,” he says, “and you can do those things with any good skin care routine.”

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