Okay, so you’ve heard about Korean skincare and your ready to jump on board to obtain all the talked about benefits for your skin. BUT…then you realise there are SO MANY BRANDS and EVEN MORE PRODUCTS to choose from! And…there are apparently 10 steps to a Korean skincare routine!
Where do you even start in forming a routine for your skin?
What products should you choose and where should you buy them from?
Can you just start with a few basic products or do you absolutely have to do all 10 steps to see improvements in your skin?
Take a breath.
I’m going to help a fellow newbie out here. You see, I spent HOURS researching on how to start a Korean skincare routine before I made my first purchase! I hope that by writing this helpful guide, that you can feel comfortable to go and buy your first Korean skincare products and start your routine in no time.
First of all, let me tell you:
You absolutely DO NOT have to purchase a bazillion products to start a Korean skincare routine! All you really need to begin is 5 steps in your skincare routine. In fact, it might actually be better for your skin (never mind your wallet) to use less products.
Here are the 5 steps (in order of application):
- First cleanser (oil-based cleanser – PM routine only)
- Second cleanser (water-based cleanser)
- Hydrating toner
- Moisturizer, and
- Sunscreen (AM routine only)
It really is that simple, and actually better for your skin as starting too many new products at once can be super-irritating to your skin. You may end up actually doing more harm that good (especially if you are acne-prone or have sensitive skin to begin with).
Once you’ve found a good fit for you (for all these basic products), then you can start thinking about adding things like actives (such as vitamin C, AHAs and BHAs), essences, serums and ampoules, eye creams and sleeping masks (depending on what your skin concerns are).
I would even say that you could get away with only three of these steps: an oil-based cleanser, a water-based cleanser and a sunscreen! This is all that I started with and I saw huge improvements in my skin within a week. My face was less oily (and I live in the humid tropics), my overall skin tone was better and I noticed that some of my pigmentation was fading as I was wearing a sunscreen every day.
Okay, so let’s get started in setting up your 5 step Korean skincare routine! I’ve made some suggestions for what I think are the best products for each step listed above (based on my personal experience using the products and by spending countless hours watching and reading reviews).
Step 1: First Cleanser (Oil-Based Cleanser; Recommend PM Routine Only)
You might be confused why I’m saying that you’ll need two cleansers to start your Korean (or Asian in general) skincare routine. Well, once you know why, it actually makes a lot of sense and you’ll question why you never did it this way before!
So basically, the double cleansing routine just involves cleansing your face twice: first with an oil-based cleanser, followed by a water-based cleanser. The oil-based cleanser’s job is to remove oil-based impurities such as sebum, sunscreen and makeup.
And if you have oily or acne-prone skin, you might think I’m crazy for suggesting you smother more oil on your face! But in actual fact, oil-based cleansers remove bad oils from your skin and won’t make you produce more sebum.
So which cleansing oil should you choose?
Oil cleansers come in either a solid (balm) form or in a liquid (oil) form. Of course, they also differ in texture, fragrance – and price. To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed with the choices in front of me when I first jumped onto the Korean skincare train. I wanted to try everything, but my bank account was preventing me from doing that, so I had to be sure I was choosing THE ONE perfect oil cleanser for me!
There are so many amazing products to choose from, however my first choice would have to be the Clean It Zero Cleansing Balms by Banila Co. These cutely packaged cleansing balms come in 4 varieties: Original, Nourishing, Revitalizing, and Purifying.
Step 2: Second Cleanser (Water-Based Cleanser)
Why do you need a water-based cleanser if you’ve already washed your face with an oil-based cleanser? My philosophy is that you can have a simple skincare routine, while still seeing noticeable results – so why am I now saying you need a second cleanser? Well, the answer is that you’ve just removed all the oil-based impurities (sunscreen, makeup and sebum), but you still need to remove dead skin cells, bacteria and sweat.
That’s where the water-based cleanser comes in (or the second cleanse as it’s also known).
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the importance of the pH of your skin. The pH of healthy skin is actually slightly acidic (about 4 to 5.6). Since second cleansers are water-based – it means that they have a pH specific to them. It’s therefore really important to choose a cleanser that won’t alter the pH of your skin (look for low pH cleansers).
If the pH of your second cleanser is too high, it could disrupt the acid mantle of the skin and cause an imbalance in skin flora – leading to irritation and breakouts. Of course I go into this in a bit more detail in my double cleansing post I linked to above, as well as recommending the best water-based cleansers for your skin type.
Below are some fantastic low pH water-based cleansers that you could include in your 5 step routine:
Step 3: Hydrating Toner
Out of all the products I’m listing in this post, a toner is probably the last product you need to purchase – however, with that being said, if you buy an awesome hydrating toner, it really will make such a difference to your skin.
Before I go any further though, I just want to point out that in Asian skincare, toners are quite different to Western toners.
Western toners tend to contain astringent ingredients such as alcohol that dry your skin and leave it feeling tight and squeeky clean.
Asian toners are the complete opposite in that they work to preserve the structure of your skin’s acid mantle. They are also formulated to hydrate your skin (by drawing water molecules into your skin) and they prepare your skin for absorbing subsequent layers of skincare products – such as serums, moisturizers and sunscreen.
And there I was for years, applying my Western toner to try to keep on top of the oil my face was producing – when in actual fact it was contributing to the problem by destroying my skin’s moisture barrier.
You will find that there are two main types of toners in Asian skincare: hydrating toners and pH adjusting toners. Hydrating toners contain humectants such as hyaluronic acid, which as explained above, attract water molecules to your skin.
pH-adjusting toners are formulated to return your skin’s pH to an optimal level after cleansing, which ensures that your skin can better absorb active ingredients such as AHAs and BHAs. They aren’t absolutely necessary though if you are already using a low pH second cleanser.
One thing I do like about them though is that they contain various beneficial ingredients, such as plant extracts (such as green tea and mugwort), galactomyces (I love it when people call this galactic mice), niacinamide, ferments and propolis. I think this makes them a great choice for hot and humid weather as they are quite light. Let me tell you – there’s nothing worse than putting on something heavy or sticky on your face in the middle of a tropical summer!
Step 4: Moisturizer
In Korean skincare, there are many options for moisturization – including emulsions, gels, creams, lightweight lotions, sleeping masks, and my favorite – natural oils. Which type of product (and how many) you decide to use is preference-based and all depends on your skin type, and of course what the environment is like where you live.
If you have oily skin and you live somewhere hot and humid like me, you may only require a thin emulsion, whereas if you have dry skin or live somewhere cold or dry, you may require a thicker cream, or you may even need to layer more than one product.
I always thought I didn’t need a moisturizer, since I have oily and acne-prone skin. I was so scared to put anything on my face (especially cream) as I really thought it would cause me to break out more. Oh boy, I now know that a moisturizer is one of the most important items in my routine! This is because moisturizers provide hydration (by the way of humectants) and also lock hydration in with occlusive ingredients.
Just like with toners, moisturizers can contain a whole range of other beneficial and interesting ingredients, allowing you to address other skincare issues at the same time as moisturizing and hydrating your skin!
Step 5: Sunscreen (AM Routine Only)
In my last post (about how to fade hyperpigmentation), I shared a photo of my sun-damaged skin. I am only 34 years old, but I have a lot more sun damage than other people my age.
Yes, I live in Australia where the sun is a lot harsher than many other places in the world (we even have a hole in the ozone layer), but no matter where you live (or time of year it is), you should be wearing sunscreen every day as UV radiation is the most contributing factor to skin aging.
All your other skincare steps (and money) would be wasted if you don’t wear sunscreen.
Now, before I started my Korean skincare routine, I knew my skin was getting damaged (and aged) by the sun, but I was so scared of putting sunscreen on my skin. Every time I did – I broke out badly – not to mention I smelled strongly of sunscreen all day and looked (and felt) like a greasy mess.
But Korean sunscreens really changed all that! I would never go a day without wearing sunscreen now (even if I’m not planning on going outdoors). Korean sunscreens don’t make my skin look or feel greasy and they don’t make my skin produce more oil. I haven’t noticed any increases in acne since using Korean sunscreens either (whereas I would experience terrible cystic acne the day after wearing Western sunscreens!).
Where To Buy Korean Skincare Products
So I guess you’re now thinking – that’s all great that you’ve told me what products my first Korean (and Japanese haha) skincare routine should include, but where in the heck do I buy them from? In short, the answer is that you need to shop online.
I purchase everything online, since I live in a regional city in northern Australia. We do have a little Korean grocery shop where I live, but apart from picking up my kimchi and yummy Korean snacks, I sadly can’t buy Korean skincare products there. So, even if you don’t live in Korea or a big cosmopolitan city like me, there are so many trustworthy online shops where you can purchase Korean skincare products.
I’ll list a few of what I think are the best places to purchase your skincare products from, no matter where in the world you’re located. Of course, there may be more local online shops for you to obtain products from, but that would be another whole post in itself!
- Jolse – Interesting fact: Jolse is actually the first online shop I ever purchased Korean skincare products from (way back in 2013 I think). I remember I actually bought a lot of Etude House makeup and the cute Tony Moly egg pore tightening and blackhead clearing set (but, I digress…). I’ve bought from them since and I’m always very happy with their customer service and how fast they ship. I also like that you earn points when shopping with them and you can exchange your points for a discount. They stock a huge range of Korean skincare and makeup products and they offer free shipping and include lots of samples with your order.
- Yesstyle – This online shop is massive. Not only does it stock Korean skincare and makeup products – but Japanese and Taiwanese ones too. Yesstyle is also hugely popular for its huge selection of Asian fashion and accessories. I have also shopped from Yesstyle a few times so far and am always happy with their service and how long it takes me to receive my order. I have read though that some people haven’t been as lucky and have had to wait up to a month to receive their goodies, so I would advise to order ahead if you are running low on something. Depending on how big your order is, you will also receive freebies with your order. I received a cute milk carton filled with memo pads with my last order. Perfect for writing down blog post ideas! It’s also a good idea to check out their website every now and then as they hold big brand-wide sales all the time.
- Amazon and eBay – You can pretty much buy anything on Amazon and eBay these days, and the same goes for Asian skincare products. I think this is a great option for you if you are located in the United States (and I’ve read that many Korean skincare enthusiasts to shop on Amazon for the fast shipping). However, be sure to read customer reviews to avoid buying fake products. I often include links to Amazon products in my post, but I’m always careful to read reviews first. If it sounds dodgy, I won’t link to it.
- Smaller Online Boutique Stores – There are many boutique-style stores now that you can also shop from. These online shops often curate their products very carefully and also provide lots of high quality information about Korean skincare on their website too. The only downside is that the range of products is not as high and you might have to pay for shipping. A high quality and well-curated website that I love (but haven’t purchased from because Australia is in the middle of nowhere and costs a billion dollars to ship to) is the United States-based SokoGlam. This is a beautifully laid out website that is easy to navigate. I love that you can browse for products based on your skin type, skin concerns or routine steps.
I hope this simple (but not so brief) guide helps you to form your very first Korean skincare routine (consisting of only 5 steps). Or perhaps, it may help you to simplify your already established but complicated skincare routine. As you can see, there really isn’t that much you need to make a big change in your skin’s health and appearance and it’s not as complicated as it often seems (I’m looking at you – 10 step Korean skincare routine).
Start out with these basics and once you’ve found products that you feel are right for your skin, you might then consider adding in additional steps such chemical exfoliants (AHA and/or BHA), a vitamin C serum or a retinol product (for preventing skin aging and fading hyperpigmentation) or sleeping packs for intense skin hydration.