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For years now, South Korean skin care products have been all the rage in beauty circles. With innovative ingredients, fun packaging and glowing results, it's a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.
But some people may find it hard to adapt to. It's a little more involved than your standard routine, and there seems to be no end to the product recommendations.
Here's everything you need to know about the popular 10-step method and how to figure out if it's right for you.
What is Korean skin care?
"Korean skin care has always been about clean and natural beauty," said Vicky Lee, a South Korean entrepreneur and founder of Sorabelle, a luxury beauty blog. "The Koreans believe that skin care is food for the skin. They know that if they feed it properly and give it the nourishment it needs, it'll bloom."
To encourage this, Lee says that Korean skin care products are packed with herbs and extracts with medicinal, soothing and moisturizing properties. Alicia Yoon, founder of the South Korean beauty brand Peach & Lily, agreed, explaining that the multilayered routine focuses primarily on preventative and gentle care, allowing for sustainable, long-term results.
"If one were to summarize the key benefits to be obtained from skin care regimens from the Korean perspective, those words would be clarity, brilliance and beauty," said Craig Kraffert, a board-certified dermatologist and the president of Korean beauty brand Amarte. "This philosophy focuses on a quality experience that allows for optimized cleanliness with epidermal brightness and overall transcutaneous lucidity."
And Lee is convinced that this trend will continue to thrive in the United States market.
"Unlike Western skin care, which focuses on treating the signs of aging after they've appeared on your skin, the Korean approach is all about prevention, which is a basic principle when it comes to skin care," Lee said. "Their skin care routines specifically target the cause of their problems, nipping them in the bud."
How did Korean skin care become so popular?
While the concept and philosophy may be a newer trend in the U.S., it's been an integral part of beauty in South Korea for much longer. Yoon, who attended esthetician school in South Korea in the '90s, has always used this beauty regimen, even after moving to the U.S. more than 20 years ago. Her brand was one of the first to bring Korean skin care products into the country as early as 2012.
"When it comes to skin care, when people see profound results, the word spreads," she said. "Fundamentally, I think Korean beauty became popular because of the results people were seeing. Ultimately, the emphasis of caring for your skin for long-term results and approaching skin with a gentle, layered routine has been resonating with people."
Jude Chao, a Korean beauty blogger at Fifty Shades of Snail and the digital marketing director of indie skin care line Holy Snails, said that the accessibility of Korean skin care products has also led to their increased popularity.
"We used to get our beauty advice mostly from magazines and media, which often promote products out of reach for most people, or from the limited number of people 'in real life' who could offer it," she said. "Now we can go online and find people from all over the world with the same skin type and same skin goals as ours, and learn what they use."
South Korea's position as a global beauty powerhouse is also helping the longevity of the trend. Marie Claire has said that the country is years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of technology, and Lee says that scientists in South Korea are constantly developing new, cutting-edge treatments and breakthrough ingredients.
"Korea's focus on scientific research and love for natural and medicinal ingredient, combine to create skin care products of the highest quality that nourish and hydrate skin," she said. "To meet demand, Korean companies compete to bring the highest-quality products and technologies at the most affordable prices. It's a move that gained Korea a reputation as the new France."
The 10-step Korean skin care routine
Ten steps may sound daunting, but the adaptable routine may be easier than some think, especially since it can be customized.
"When I coined the term 'Korean 10-step skin care routine' in 2012, my intention was to help inform and educate everyone on how to design a skin care routine that worked for them," said Charlotte Cho, co-founder of Soko Glam and The Klog. "The number of steps is truly personal. It depends on your skin care goals and concerns. It's about having the right products that are doing the right things and using them in the right order."
"While most agree that it's a 10-step routine, the truth is that the versatility of the routine allows for personalization, depending on what your skin is telling you," said Ryan Sim, a beauty blogger who goes by Ryanraroar.
Chao said that she personally found the idea of a 10-step routine to be a bit damaging, since it could cause people to think that Korean skin care isn't for them if they lack the budget or time to do a full 10 steps every day.
"There are many possible steps to a Korean skin care routine, but that doesn't mean everyone has to do every step every day," said Chao, who explained that she does a longer routine at night, with a much shorter plan in the morning. "All skin is different, and what works for some people may not work for you. The fun of Korean skin care is finding out what works for you!"
The experts TODAY spoke with shared the 10-step routine, providing some insight into the benefits of each stage. Below, we've compiled their advice, opinions and favorite products.
- 1. First cleanse
The first cleanse is typically an oil-based makeup remover to remove all traces of makeup, sunscreen and other oil-based impurities from throughout the day.
"Oil attracts oil," explained Yoon. "Oil-based cleansers are great for all skin types, even and especially for those with oily skin. It can help truly keep skin clear of 'baggage' down to your pores."
Product Pick: Missha Super Off Cleansing Oil Peel Off, $29, Amazon
Sim recommends this brightening cleansing oil, which removes even the most stubborn waterproof makeup. It provides a deep clean and takes care of stubborn dead skin with natural oils.
- 2. Second Cleanse
According to Lee, these two steps together are called "double-cleansing." This time, a water-based cleanser is used to remove the residue from the first cleanse, as well as removing any water-based impurities, including sweat.
"It's important to cleanse twice daily," said Kraffert. "Any time you clean your face, there is a component or degree of exfoliation. The skin care products you use work best on debris-free skin."
Sim recommends being sure to find a water-based cleanser with a low pH.
Product Pick: Innisfree Jeju Bija Anti-Trouble Cleansing Gel, $13, Amazon
This low-pH cleanser contains Jeju Bija oil, good for oily, troubled skin. Sim recommends it as a second cleanser.
- 3. Exfoliate
While the double-cleanse may provide some exfoliant, it's important to fully exfoliate your skin as well. Lee says that this removes the dead cells, which make skin dull and rough, and reduce the effectiveness of the skin care products that follow.
However, this shouldn't be done daily; Lee recommends doing it no more than twice a week.
Product Pick: Cosrx One Step Original Clear Pad, $17 (usually $19), Amazon
Sim recommended these single-step cleansing pads, perfect for breakout management. The toning wipes are pre-soaked and loaded with betatine salicylate and willow bark water, designed to gently dissolve dead skin without irritating it.
- 4. Toner
Toner — which should again be at a low pH — balances skin and adds some hydration, helping your skin better absorb the products that are applied in the following steps.
"Many Korean toners are not watery and astringent, but instead are a bit thicker than water and full of humectants like hyaluronic acid to bind water to skin, resulting in a plump and glowing look," said Chao.
Product Pick: Leegeehaam Grow Tea Tree 70 BHA Toner, $34, Glow Recipe
This recommendation comes from Allure's list of best Korean skin-care options. This popular, gentle toner is non-irritating and clarifying, with tea tree leaf and willow bark extract. It can be applied directly to the face, or swiped on via cotton pad, but no matter what you do, it's sure to hydrate and soothe breakout-prone skin.
- 5. Essence
This step involves applying a product that is a blend between a toner and a serum, which again hydrates skin and aids in cellular repair and turnover. It also allows for serums to absorb better.
"The watery first treatment essence is the cornerstone of a Korean skin care routine," said Sim.
Product Pick: Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX, $72, Walmart
Chao swore by this essence, which she says is one of the few luxury products she owns. "Sulwhasoo focuses on traditional Korean herbs in their products; the ingredients in this one increase the circulation in my skin and give my cheeks an incredible rosy glow," she said. "I love it."
Product Pick: Missha Time Revolution The First Intensive Moist Treatment Essence, $19, Amazon
Sim recommended this essence, which contains yeast extract to improve fine lines and even skin tone while restoring skin. After cleansing, this essence should be applied via a cotton pad, starting from the center of the face and working upwards and outwards.
- 6. Treatments (Serums, essences, ampoules, etc.)
This is one of the most specific and precise steps, and one that should always be kept, but it can also be very personalized. According to Sim, there are tons of different options for treatments, including essences, boosters, serums and ampoules. The products contain ingredients that address every concern from acne to fine lines to hyperpigmentation.
"This is the step where specific, personalized treatments are used," said Yoon. "The general rule of thumb is to apply thinner to thicker viscosity. These products are generally more concentrated than the other steps, and help to address specific skin care priorities."
Product Pick: Benton Snail Bee High Content Essence, $13, Amazon
Sim says he first uses this essence, which includes snail mucin, to support natural cell regeneration and replenish moisture. It also includes bee venom, which has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, helping keep skin safe and clean. The essence also has no fragrance, which, combined with its healing properties, makes it a great pick for those with sensitive or troubled skin.
Product Pick: Neogen Dermalogy White Truffle Serum In Oil Drop, $20 (usually $22), Amazon
Sim follows that essence with this serum, which helps create hydrated, glowing skin. The hypoallergenic formula is great for all skin types, and the white truffle extract helps repair weakened and damaged skin.
- 7. Eye Cream
Everyone agreed that the area around the eyes is delicate, and can always benefit from a little extra care.
"A good eye care product will help keep the thin, delicate eye area soft and supple," said Sim. "Depending on the issues you are trying to address and your personal preference, there are products with different textures to choose from."
Product Pick: Cosrx Advanced Snail 92 All in One Cream, $16 (usually $21), Amazon
Chao says that while the idea of snail mucin might sound gross, it's a great skin care ingredient!
"It smooths my skin, speeds up healing time when it's irritated or something has broken me out, and increases my skin's overall resilience," she said. "Some research suggests that snail mucin may also help reduce sun damage."
She recommends this cream, which she personally uses as an eye cream, but you can use the nutrition-packed, moisturizing product anywhere on your face.
- 8. Moisturizer
Follow up with moisturizer that's right for your skin type. According to Yoon, this "seals everything in" and is a key step! Once again, there are several options to use, including moisturizing gels, emulsions, lotions and creams.
Product Pick: A'pieu Madecassoside Cream, $12, Walmart
Sim recommends this gentle moisturizer, which he says is great for acne-prone skin. You can apply small amounts for spot treatment or use it more abundantly when applying at night. It's not just limited to your face, either; you can even apply it on your elbows to give your whole body a soft, moisturized feel!
- 9. Sheet masks
Sheet masks may be one of the most fun parts of the routine! A staple on Instagram, these masks come in every color, look and style imaginable and can address dozens of concerns.
"This is a fun step, where you're giving skin that extra boost to help keep it in tip-top shape," said Yoon. "I also love this step as a fun way to indulge in a moment of self-care on the weekend."
Sheet masks don't necessarily need to be used daily, but they can be, depending on your preferences and skin type.
Product Pick: Shangpree Gold Premium Modeling Mask, $37, Amazon
Lee recommended this fun mask from Shangpree. With a glittering golden gel, this peel-off is great for skin care and funselfies.
"I probably have tried more than 200 different masks so far, and (this) is absolutely one of the best," she said. "This one is formulated with gold, Korean ginseng and caviar, and I see the noticeable difference in my skin."
- 10. Sunblock
While this step is only applicable in the day time, it's one of the most important parts of the routine. As a major preventative tool, the SPF protects your skin from harmful exposure.
While the routine may seem involved, it's one of the best ways to truly treat your skin and provide gentle, proactive care.
"Without sun protection, no amount of anti-aging or brightening skin care will do a thing," said Chao.
Product Pick: Missha All-around Safe Block Waterproof Sun Milk, $18, Amazon
Chao strongly recommends this lightweight gel, which she says feels weightless even when applied in generous amounts. She also said that she generally found Korean sunscreens (along with Japanese-brand sunscreens) to be "much, much more cosmetically elegant and easier to use every day" when compared to Western sunscreens. So if you're spending your summer at the beach, try checking out some new brands!