Breaking down the 10 step skin care routine into something more manageable
If you’ve ever spent time on the web looking for ways to improve your skin, then you’ve most likely come across the hugely popular 10-step Korean skincare routine.
You were probably intrigued and intimidated by the sheer amount of steps and products involved. The next thing you know, what was meant to be a simple search to figure out what moisturizer to use has morphed into you struggling to navigate the differences between essences, serums, and ampoules.
It looks complicated, but it doesn’t have to be.
We’re here to simplify all of that so that you can figure out what the essentials are.
The 10-Step Korean Skincare Routine
Korean skincare is all about gentle, nature-derived ingredients, and thorough care.
A lot of men might think that washing their faces with soap and water is “sufficient” skincare, but why is it that we never see bar soaps recommended in a Korean skincare routine? Facial skin is fragile, especially around the eyes, so something as harsh as bar soap can dry out delicate facial skin and wreak havoc on its pH levels.
Why 10 steps and not just a good old fashioned 3 in 1 product? It’s designed to let your skin get the most out of each ingredient. Applying everything in layers allows the skin to breathe and fully absorb each product before the next one is added.
Now the big question: Do you really need to do all 10 steps? Before we get to that, let’s break down what goes into the full routine:
Step 1: Oil-based cleanser
Oil cleansers dissolve sebum buildup and break down trapped dirt in the pores while keeping skin soft and moisturized. It’s a great cleaning method because oil adheres to other oils more effectively so it’s able to draw out more impurities than regular soap or a facial wash.
Contrary to popular belief, cleansing oils aren’t bad for oily skin because they’re formulated for every skin type. For example, oils high in linoleic acid are lightweight and won’t clog your pores, making it great for acne-prone skin; while oils high in oleic acid are suitable for dry skin as they’re richer and more moisturizing.
How to oil cleanse: Gently massage a couple of pumps of oil cleanser all over your dry face. Add a bit of water to emulsify the product and break down dirt further. Wash off thoroughly with water.
Step 2: Water-based cleanser
Water-based cleansers get rid of remaining oil or dirt, as some oil cleansers don’t fully wash off with just water. The combination of these two steps is called the double cleanse method, and it helps ensure that your skin is clean of any impurities and possible congestion.
Our skin has a naturally slightly acidic surface to help protect it against bacteria, so choosing a gentle low pH cleanser is essential for this step. You want to retain the moisturization from the oil cleanse without disrupting your skin’s pH levels.
Double cleansing may seem like it’ll overly dry your skin, but using two gentle cleansing products is far better than using a single one containing harsh ingredients like sulfates, which are responsible for that tight, squeaky clean feeling.
Step 3: Exfoliator
Skin becomes lackluster when its ability to shed off dead skin cells diminishes, but you can boost your skin’s renewal process by means of physical or chemical exfoliation.
This once-popular method involved creams containing tiny grains made from nutshells designed to scrub away dead skin cells as you wash your face. However, this medium gained a negative perception because it was discovered that these roughly-cut nutshells caused micro-tears in the skin that led to breakouts and irritation.
Nowadays, more people are favoring gentler methods using finer exfoliants that soften as they are worked into the skin, like water-soluble microbeads, baking soda, oatmeal, and sugar. Peeling gels, in particular, is a popular method in Korean skincare and works by clumping together as you massage it into your skin, taking off dirt and dead skin cells along with it.
As scary as the word “chemical” sounds, this is actually the gentler of the two options. Chemical exfoliants make use of acids such as AHAs and BHAs to break down all that hard-to-reach gunk on your face without you risking over-massaging and accidentally damaging the fragile skin, especially around the eye area.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA)
Work on the topmost layer of skin,
Improve overall texture and quality, and premature signs of aging.
Best for: Dry or mature skin.
Precautions: Increase skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, so sunscreen is a must.
While exfoliation has become a staple in any skincare routine, it’s important to remember that over-exfoliation is a real risk.
Exfoliate 1-3 times a week, at the most. Any more and you risk damaging the natural barrier of your skin, leading to increased sensitivity and irritation.
Step 4: Toner
Toners have very high water content and serve the dual purpose of normalizing your skin’s pH level after all that cleansing and exfoliating, and further ridding your skin of any impurities you may have missed.
Toners should help restore moisture, so avoid anything containing denatured alcohol.
Denatured alcohol is responsible for that cool, refreshing sting that makes you think a product is “working”, but in fact, it’s incredibly dehydrating and will trigger your skin to produce even more sebum to compensate for the dryness.
Step 5: Essence
Essences are a cross between a toner and a serum. They’re slightly more viscous than a toner and more watery than a serum, and usually contain a mild mixture of vitamins and antioxidants. Essences are meant to soak into the skin to give it another layer of moisturization and to prepare it to better absorb thicker moisturizers in the later steps.
Step 6: Serums and ampoules
Serums are thicker than essences, and ampoules are thicker than serums. Both contain a higher concentration of active ingredients like vitamin C and hyaluronic acid and are formulated to target specific skin concerns like hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, fine lines, etc.
Serums can be used every day, but ampoules are only recommended 1-2 times a week.
Ampoules are like a powerful booster shot that you only need when your skin is in dire need of a pick-me-up. This explains why ampoules come in much smaller packaging and are sometimes only used for spot treatment.
Step 7: Sheet mask
Sheet masks – a Korean skincare staple – are designed to seal in moisture and prevent it from evaporating too quickly so that your skin has more time to absorb all that goodness.
Sheet masks are a gentle and low maintenance way to keep your skin hydrated every day. Just leave it on for 15 – 20 minutes and you’re good to go.
For daily masking purposes, make sure your masks don’t contain exfoliants like glycolic acid or you’ll risk over-exfoliation.
Step 8: Eye cream
The skin around the eyes is the thinnest on the body and is an area that consistently experiences a lot of micromovements that wear the skin down over time. This is why the eyes are often first to show early signs of aging, and why specialized creams are recommended for them.
Eye creams help improve overall skin quality and elasticity. They’re specially formulated with active ingredients like collagen, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid to combat dryness so that wrinkles don’t stick around; and other ingredients like retinol and niacinamide to counteract dullness and brighten dark circles.
Eye creams are thicker and contain more oil compared to other moisturizers to effortlessly glide onto the skin.
Creams should be gently patted into place, not rubbed, as this can damage the delicate structures of the skin around your eyes.
Step 9: Moisturizer
Moisturizers — also called emollients — soften and smoothen the skin. This works particularly well when you apply moisturizer while your skin is still damp right after a shower because your pores are still open and can easily absorb anything you put on it.
Moisturizers are classified under 3 different types:
Humectants work by attracting moisture from the atmosphere and drawing it into your skin — fantastic if you live in humid climates.
Occlusives contain more oil and leave behind a thin film on the skin which prevents moisture from evaporating too quickly. This is fine for dry skin but not so great for acne-prone skin.
Ceramides occur naturally in the skin. They’re responsible for reinforcing your skin’s natural barrier by keeping your skin cells together in a way that prevents moisture from escaping.
When picking out a moisturizer, it’s best to go with one that contains more humectants or ceramides as these will work well on a variety of skin types.
Step 10: Sunscreen
Prolonged effects of sun damage can be devastating on the skin — it can deteriorate skin texture and elasticity, destroy collagen fibers, cause wrinkles, age spots, discoloration, and skin cancer.
If you’re heading out, a broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen is ideal as it’s proven to block as much as 97% of UVB rays, which are responsible for sunburns. Keep in mind though that the danger of sun damage isn’t just limited to the outdoors.
UVA rays can penetrate through clouds and glass meaning you can actually get sun damage inside your own home. So even if you’re indoors, it’s a good idea to put on at least a SPF 15 sunscreen, which can block as much as 93% of harmful UV rays.
Sunscreens contain a lot of pore-clogging ingredients that help reflect UV rays, so don’t forget to use an oil-based cleanser to properly wash it all off at the end of the day.
A Simplified Korean Skincare Routine For Men
In actuality, for men, doing all 10 steps every single day isn’t necessary. This mostly has to do with the fact that a man’s skin is different from a woman’s.
Because of testosterone, men’s skin is 25% thicker and tougher than women’s, produces more sebum, and has a higher collagen density which basically allows you to get away with more wear and tear with minimal skincare.
Men can still reap the benefits of Korean skincare with just half the steps.
Here’s our simplified version of a Korean skincare routine for men:
Micellar water in the morning, double cleanse at night
Double cleansing is more beneficial in a nighttime routine so you can thoroughly wash the day off your face. In the morning, you can start off with micellar water. Micellar water is made up of micelles — molecules of oil — suspended in purified water. It’s a gentle, no-fuss way to improve skin’s permeability, remove impurities, and moisturize all in one step.
Exfoliating pads are round cotton pads that come in a large tub and are steeped in an exfoliating solution. One side of the pad is rough and meant to slough off dead skin cells to reveal brighter skin, while the other side is softer and is designed to sweep away remaining loose debris.
Like with any chemical exfoliant, this should be used at most 3 times a week.
Toners neutralize your skin’s pH level, but if you’re already using a pH balanced cleanser then you can skip this step altogether. Essences are still indispensable as they help your skin absorb heavier moisturizers later on.
Since men’s skin is less susceptible to premature wrinkles and fine lines, you can skip the serums, sheet masks, and eye creams (for now at least) and go straight to your moisturizer. A good moisturizer can double as an eye cream — just be sure to pat it in gently with your ring finger to avoid unnecessary pulling at the skin around your eyes.
As always, sunscreen is non-negotiable. It doesn’t matter how thorough your skincare regimen is, without sunscreen, you’ve undone all the work you’ve put in.
Quick tip for remembering how to layer products: Start with the thinnest consistency and end with the heaviest.
Korean skincare, with its multitude of processes and products, can be quite complex for the uninitiated. Hopefully, with our comprehensive guide and simplified routine, we’ve lessened the confusion and helped you achieve a better understanding of the benefits of these products and how they can bring out the best in your skin.
Got any questions? Do you think we missed out on some steps or products? Share your thoughts and favourites with us in the comments section.