10 Step Korean Skin Care Routine: Easy Tips for Flawless Skin

The Korean skincare industry has been exploding in the Western world, helped by the surge of interest in all things Korean, from the beauty regimens of global K-pop stars like Blackpink and BTS to the recent rise in K-dramas.

Part of the reason why many Korean women boast amazing skin is because the Korean beauty industry has been decades ahead of the curve in terms of cosmetic development, as explained in the K-beauty section of my book How to Live Korean.

The K-beauty craze first kicked off in the Western world around 2011 with the introduction of BB creams (blemish balm creams), which have long been popular in South Korea since around the 1980s.

BB creams were brought to the U.S. in 2011 by Dr. Jart+, a Korean skin care brand, which launched two BB creams at Sephora shops.

Today, Korean cosmetics is a billion dollar industry. South Korea is among the top 10 beauty markets in the world, with its market size estimated to be $9.4 billion in 2019, according to an August 2021 report by the International Trade Administration (ITA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Standards remain high as the industry is regulated by the country's Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS), with new innovations tested by research organizations such as the Korea Institute of Dermatological Sciences.

In March 2020, South Korea introduced the world's first "customized cosmetics system," which sees cosmetics stores create a product tailor made for individual customers, according to their skin condition and preference.

So what is the secret to Koreans' seemingly ageless, glowing skin? Many Korean women, myself included, swear by a 10 step (more or less, depending on how much time you've got to spare) basic skincare routine to maintain healthy skin.

A spread of different beauty products.
A spread of different beauty products, including creams, lotions and a sheet mask. iStock/Getty Images Plus

The 10 Step Korean Skincare Routine

Below are the steps that many Korean women follow to look after their skin. It basically entails adding layers of different products to your face, with each layer being thicker in consistency than the previous one.

1. Oil-Based Cleanse

No matter how tired I am, I am religious about removing makeup and washing my face before hitting the bed.

Oil-based cleansers, such as ones containing jojoba or macadamia oil, help gently remove makeup and oil-based impurities on your face. I tend to initially remove the makeup using either a cotton pad and makeup removing liquid or a makeup removing face tissue before washing my face.

Cleansing is among the crucial principles to bear in mind with Korean skincare, said Alicia Yoon, the founder/CEO of Korean skincare brand Peach & Lily, who is a Harvard Business School graduate with an esthetician license.

"For proper cleansing, I think using a gentle cleanser that can cleanse down to pores without stripping skin or disrupting the pH level is key," she explained.

A woman washing her face with soap.
A woman washing her face with a foaming cleanser. The double-cleanse is a key part of the Korean skincare routine. iStock/Getty Images Plus

2. Water-Based Cleanse

The double-cleanse is a key part of Korean skincare, so you'll need to wash your face with a water-based cleanser just after your oil-based cleanse. This is to flush out any residual water-based impurities (such as dirt and sweat) and do a more thorough cleanse to help prevent breakouts.

In the mornings, it's good to wash your face using cold water to get the blood flowing but also to tighten the pores. For your evening face wash, using warm water helps open up the pores to remove impurities but also for better absorption of the products you'll apply.

A woman splashing her face with water.
A woman splashing her face with water. Using a water-based cleanser will help dissolve any water-based impurities on your face, such as sweat. iStock/Getty Images Plus

3. Exfoliation

Use an exfoliating cream, gel or mask to remove all dead skin cells and promote smoother skin. I find charcoal or clay masks to be both soothing and cleansing. This step can be done once or twice a week and ultimately further purifies your pores and helps the skin better absorb products.

A woman wearing an exfoliating clay mask.
A woman with an exfoliating clay peel spread on her face. Exfoliating your skin is important for removing dead cells. iStock/Getty Images Plus

4. Toner

Applying a toner is key for preparing the skin for the rest of the 10-step routine. The toner repairs the skin's barrier, allowing it to better absorb the different products you'll be applying.

Your skin is like a sponge, in that it can be more difficult to rehydrate if it's dry and hard than when it's already a bit moist, explains Soko Glam, the K-beauty website co-founded by Charlotte Cho, a licensed esthetician and author of The Little Book of Skin Care.

It's good to apply the toner just when you've come out of the shower or washed your face to quickly lock in the moisture.

A woman putting lotion on her face.
A woman wearing a towel on her head patting lotion on her face. Gently patting products onto your face, rather than slathering it on, can help promote better absorption. iStock/Getty Images Plus

5. Essence

An essence is a lightweight, concentrated hydrating product that also has anti-aging and complexion-enhancing properties.

According to Yoon, applying an essence is often a key step overlooked by some. She said: "I love that a huge part of the Korean skin care routine, hence the gentle multi-layered steps, are focused on hydration and layering skin with hydration. For that, I have seen essences be a missing step that unlocks luminous glowing skin.

"Give this step a try and you might be very surprised how many skin issues get resolved when skin is thoroughly hydrated," Yoon advised.

An Asian woman holding hands to her
An Asian woman holding hands to her face. Many Korean women follow a 10 step skincare regimen to maintain healthy, glowing skin. iStock/Getty Images Plus

6. Serum, Ampoule, Other Treatments

Next, you can apply any treatments or skin perfectors, such as a serum, which contains a high concentration of ingredients targeting specific skin issues, from acne and pigmentation to wrinkles. An ampoule is a super concentrated serum.

Serums are applied daily, while ampoules tend to be used temporarily to treat certain skin conditions.

7. Sheet Mask

A sheet mask—referred to as a "pack" in Korean—is a thin sheet drenched in ingredients offering different benefits, from hydration to a brighter complexion. They come in a variety of textures, from cloth to rubber.

Sheet masks not only promote better absorption of products but also help you relax, as you wear it on your face usually for around 15-20 minutes. Exact wearing times differ according to the brand.

I tend to lay down flat when I'm wearing the mask to further help the products naturally seep down into my pores. I also like storing sheet masks in the refrigerator to keep them cool, making it extra rejuvenating when you apply the cold sheet on your face.

Sheet masks have been all the rage in South Korea for a long while. According to the ITA, one cosmetic store in South Korea now offers a tailored 3D mask and serum.

A customer's facial dimensions are measured by a smartphone app, which generates a skin diagnosis. This information is then sent to a 3D printer, which prints a "hydrogel facial mask" catered to the user's face shape and skin conditions.

A tailored serum is also prepared on the spot by mixing the "optimal ingredients" for the person's skin type and concerns, the ITA said.

A woman wearing a sheet mask.
A woman wearing a sheet mask. Wearing these thin sheets drenched in various products can also be a relaxing ritual for your daily skincare routine. iStock/Getty Images Plus

8. Eye Cream

No matter how glowing the rest of your face may be, dark circles and other tired patches around the eyes can age you. So it's essential to target the delicate eye area with an eye cream containing gentle ingredients that moisturize and nourish the area.

A woman applying eye cream.
A woman applying eye cream while looking at a mirror. No matter how glowing the rest of your face might be, dark circles and other tired patches around the eyes can age you. iStock/Getty Images Plus

9. Moisturizer

The moisturizer is the thickest of all the layers applied in the 10-step regimen and therefore is meant to seal all the moisture into your face.

Yoon advised: "For proper hydration and protection, using a deeply hydrating moisturizer that's also packed with antioxidants or vitamins is helpful in keeping skin moisturized and also combatting signs of free radical damage."

10. Sunscreen

Wearing sunscreen—even when you are indoors—is one of the easiest ways to prevent premature ageing and is one of the key ways that Korean women maintain ageless skin—simply by wearing a SPF (sun protection factor) cream or avoiding the sun altogether as much as possible.

Yoon said: "In the morning, it's important to always apply SPF and reapply throughout the day."

Sunscreen is applied as the last step over your skin to avoid having the SPF get diluted by other products placed over it.

A bottle of sunscreen.
A bottle of sunscreen seen by the side of a pool. You should be wearing sunscreen even if when you are indoors. iStock/Getty Images Plus

K-Beauty Tips

How To Apply Skincare Products

One of the distinct practices I learned from watching my own mother's daily skincare routine while growing up—which is done by many other Korean women—is to gently slap or pat the product onto the face, as opposed to slathering it on.

Slapping the product onto the face (of course not hard enough to cause pain or leave marks, but enough to make a gentle noise) aims to help it penetrate deeper into the skin for better absorption. You can think of it as sifting the product into your pores, rather than rubbing it over the surface of the skin.

Patting the face can also help increase blood circulation (which can create a naturally youthful, rosy glow), while helping to firm your face muscles and reduce sagging.

Don't Forget the Neck and Chest

Just as tired eyes can age you, you don't want to neglect your neck and décolletage area. Be sure to apply the skincare products you use for your face also to the neck and upper chest areas to complete your daily and nightly routines.

A woman applying cream to her neck.
A woman applying cream to her neck. Don't forget to apply the same skincare products you use on your face also to your neck and upper chest area. iStock/Getty Images Plus

For Those Short on Time

For those who might not have the time to do all 10 steps on a daily basis, the key steps to stick with would be to cleanse, hydrate and protect the skin (steps 1,2, 4, 5, 9 and 10).

Peach & Lily's Yoon explained she focuses on "the three principles of keeping skin properly cleansed," which means cleansing down to pores without stripping skin as well as keeping the skin incredibly well-hydrated and well-protected.

You could also reduce some steps by getting a sheet mask that specifically contains an essence or ampoule product or ones that target hydrating your skin, allowing you to tick off more than one step by wearing a sheet mask.

Why is Skincare So Big in South Korea?

The importance of skin care in Korea goes back many generations, especially to historic times when the condition of your skin was one of the main, if not only, ways beauty was measured in society in the absence of makeup.

The definition of beauty was also tied to Confucian beliefs, especially during Korea's Joseon Dynasty, with inner beauty emphasized over outer beauty, favoring a clean, natural look over a face done-up with any form of makeup.

The middle and upper class members of Korean society also wore lighter makeup, while the courtesans or female entertainers in the royal courts (known as "gisaeng") wore bright, more colorful makeup.

Many K-beauty products today also tend to use mostly natural ingredients, from seaweed and rice to even snail excretion. The use of natural products is reflective of historic times in Korea when ground mung beans mixed with water were used as soap and the juice of plants like aloe vera was used as lotions.

Some of the popular skincare components in the beauty industry today can also be traced back to Korean traditions, such as vitamin E, which has been a personal skincare staple of mine for years. During Korea's dynasty eras, women also applied safflower oil to their face, which is rich in vitamin E.

Is Korean Skincare For Everyone?

Absolutely yes. Peach & Lily's Yoon explained: "Sometimes I get asked if Korean skincare is only for Asian skin and the answer is an emphatic no! Korean skin care is for all skin tones and skin types."

She believes in respecting the "skin's ecosystem," Yoon said. "I'm never harsh with my skin, I don't look for overnight results."

The beauty of Korean skincare is that it focuses on "holistically approaching skin to improve it from within" and "emphasizes addressing skin priorities without having new issues crop up," she explained.

A smiling woman touching her face.
A woman touching her face with her hands. Korean skin care is suitable for all skin tones and skin types. iStock/Getty Images Plus