Is the 10-Step Korean Skincare Routine Right for You?
The 10-step Korean skincare regimen is being splashed all over social media, blogs and the beauty magazines. Many beauty editors, other influencers and Korean women are touting it as the best way to achieve taut, silky, flawless skin — or, as they say in Korea, “glass skin.” But does it make sense for you?
Among American beauty influencers, reviews are mixed. The failures are mainly due to three things: carrying out all 10 steps even when it’s too much; using trendy yet ill-advised products; or neglecting to adjust the regimen to your own skin’s idiosyncrasies. Instead, approach it as an à la carte menu. Custom select your steps and products day by day, based on quality, personal taste, and cues from your skin.
If you really want to do right by your skin, consult a dermatologist for help customizing a plan. They can also help you determine the best way to fit aesthetic treatments and prescription products like tretinoin (Retin-A), hydroquinone or adapalene into your K-beauty regimen.
Step 1: Oil Cleanser
Kick off your quest for glass skin by removing built-up face oils, pollutants and leftover face products, as well as any sunscreen. An oil cleanser or natural botanical oil, like jojoba or olive, can act as a solvent to help gently dissolve such residues.
If you’re wearing makeup, use an oil- or glycerin-based makeup remover to loosen it without drying your skin. You may decide to bother with this step only when you need to remove makeup.
Step 2: Foam or Cream Cleanser
Wash away the impurities lifted during step 1, using a gentle cleanser. Avoid stripping your skin by working it into a soft lather first, then massaging it on. And whatever you do, don’t use soap on your face — it’s too harsh.
Instead, if you have resilient skin that’s normal to oily, a product like Obagi C-Cleansing Gel can thoroughly clean your skin without drying it (and triggering more oil!). If your skin is in the normal to dry range, you may like Revercel Gentle Blue Cleanser. CSI Gentle Soothing Cleanser is good for all types, but especially sensitive, post-procedure or acne-prone skin.
Step 3: Rinse-off Exfoliator
A physical exfoliator or scrub — used according to your skin’s needs and tolerance — is great for helping reveal smoother, more luminous skin. It can stimulate circulation and new cell growth; remove dead, dull skin; and enable other treatments to penetrate better. Frequency of this step will depend on factors like product strength, your skin type, and whether you’re using other potentially exfoliating products like tretinoin (Retin-A), a glycolic treatment, or a face cream with AHAs.
One advantage to a physical exfoliator is that you can easily gauge and control buffing intensity. Simply apply it using more or less pressure, according to the way your skin feels and responds. If you begin to see signs of irritation, skip the scrub until your skin has returned to normal. Then switch to something less abrasive or less often.
When selecting a product, there are a couple physical-exfoliant ingredients that everyone should avoid. Crushed walnut shells can act like tiny blades, creating microtears in your skin that can lead to irritation and infection. And please never use any products with synthetic microbeads; they’re an environmental horror show.
Safe for your skin and the environment, CSI’s Exfoliation Scrub helps clear pores and loosen dead cells using micro-sifted bamboo particles and natural clay that warms on application. SkinCeuticals Micro Exfoliating Scrub buffs your skin with naturally occurring, hydrated silica.
If your complexion doesn’t appreciate friction, combine step 2 and 3 by using a face wash with a healthy chemical exfoliant instead. CSI offers two face washes that feature glycolic acid — an alpha hydroxy acid famous for its rejuvenating properties — as well as antioxidants like green tea and vitamins: Glycolic Gentle Cleanser (5% glycolic) and Glycolic Elite Cleanser (10% glycolic). Or try Revercel’s Papaya Cleanser, which exfoliates with salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid) and natural fruit enzymes.
Step 4: Toner
Now that your skin is clean, use a toner to prepare for treatments. Most people choose a toner that is too harsh. However, bear in mind that the objective is not to make skin feel stripped or tight, but to gently remove any residues and reset pH. Opt for a product that is both alcohol free and skin-type appropriate. Adjust frequency of use as needed.
Oily skin tends to benefit the most from a toner. Obagi CRX C-Balancing Toner uses witch hazel and aloe to cut through surface oil, improving oilier skin’s receptiveness to the steps to come. Obagi’s Nu-Derm Toner features the same actives, but with a milder formulation for dry to oily skin. If you have dry, combination or sensitive skin, choose an extra-mild pH regulator like SkinCeuticals Equalizing Toner with fruit acids and calming botanicals.
Step 5: Essence or Tonic
This is the step that raises the most American eyebrows. Yet, Korean women swear by essence for skin that’s chok chok — fresh, plump and dewy. The idea is that this is the first and thinnest layer of actives you build up on your skin. It’s normally watery, or at least very thin and oil free, to enhance and not block absorption of subsequent products. Essence contains ingredients meant to hydrate skin or otherwise boost vibrancy, like botanicals, antioxidants, ferments and more trendy, questionable ingredients like snail secretion filtrate (slime!).
Essences usually come in splash-on form or as a spray like CSI Soothing Green Tea Mist with chamomile, comfrey, panthenol and vitamin C. (Warning: face misting can be addictive!)
Step 6: Treatment
This step builds richness, feeding your skin with another, more potent layer of actives. The treatment usually comes as a serum, booster or ampule that targets specific concerns such as fine lines, acne or hyperpigmentation. It should also contain rejuvenating ingredients, like antioxidants, peptides, hyaluronic acid or other dermal conditioners for a dewy K-beauty look.
The treatment world gives you a wide array of choices, full of exciting ingredients. Retinols are extremely popular actives for helping skin look fresher, plumper and more even, and they’re featured in CSI’s Retinol Smoothing Serum 3x and Retinol Smoothing Serum 10x. Like retinols, powerful antioxidant vitamin C helps even out skin tone, plus it can provide added environmental protection underneath your sunscreen. You’ll find it in SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF with Ferulic Acid (at 10%), and it’s in CSI Vitamin C Brightening Serum along with free radical fighter, superoxide dismutase. SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum gently lightens unwanted coloration with phenylethyl resorcinol, marine ferments, and phytic and tranexamic acids. If what you really need is a moisture boost, treatments known to relieve dry skin nicely are the CSI Pure Hydrating Serum and SkinCeuticals Resveratrol B E.
Is your skin showing acute signs of aging? Now on the market are some new actives creating a lot of buzz. For instance, CSI Cell Target Therapy is made with micrococcus lysate and arabidopsis thaliana. Both supply enzymes that reportedly help repair dermal DNA. And SkinMedica TNS Recovery Complex uses human fibroblast conditioned media (TNS), which have been shown in clinical trials to improve signs of aging.
You may also use this step to further refine skin tone and texture with leave-on exfoliating treatments. Some of the most effective OTC products feature alpha-hydroxy acids, such as glycolic. Start off conservatively in terms of intensity and frequency, especially if you have sensitive skin or are using other exfoliating products too. A wise approach is to start with occasional treatments using something milder, like Obagi Nu-Derm Exfoderm (6% phytic acid). If your skin could take a bump in strength, try building up to a more concentrated formula like Obagi Nu-Derm Exfoderm Forte (6% glycolic acid, 4% lactic acid), or Revercel’s Perfect Glycolic Treatment with 15% or with 25% glycolic acid. Use these products with care, caution and diligent sun protection! For stronger chemical peels, see a professional.
Step 7: Mask
Nothing says “me time” like booking an appointment with yourself to apply a facial mask. And the right one can be heaven for your skin. Select a high-quality mask for your skin type, apply only as often as directed, and adjust according to your skin’s response.
While peel-off and sheet masks are currently beauty-blog superstars — and can be a lot of fun! — they may not make your skin very happy. Many contain unhealthy or irritating additives. Many of the peel-offs use glue-like substances that tug at skin and remove not only dead cells, but healthy ones and vellus hair too. They can leave skin irritated, with tiny lesions and susceptible to infection. (Imagine using heavy-duty leg wax regularly, all over your face!) Also approach charcoal masks with caution, no matter how impressive that black coating might look on Instagram. Most are overly drying!
If you’re going for a “detoxifying,” pore-decongestant effect, try a brush-on mask with natural kaolin or bentonite clay. Great for acneic skin! You can do it either after or instead of the exfoliator in step 3. SkinCeuticals offers the Clarifying Clay Mask, which you can use weekly to soothe, purify and gently exfoliate without parching skin. At the other end of the spectrum, dry, mature and sensitive skin will love dab-off masks that build nourishing ingredients on top of your step-6 treatment. Look for skin-coddling actives including hyaluronic acid, ceramides, omega oils, peptides, and antioxidants like vitamin C, A and E. Colloidal oatmeal and aloe are nice for calming sensitive or reactive skin.
Step 8: Eye Cream
As you know, the skin around your eyes is extremely delicate and susceptible to wrinkling. This step requires a product that addresses your beauty concerns with a good concentration of actives, while keeping the area hydrated and protected. The challenge is to identify a product that also doesn’t weigh down or irritate the area. And be sure to follow the directions — not all eye creams are suitable for your lids.
Lightweight CSI Enriched Retinol Eye Repair Cream is dense with actives including hyaluronic acid, peptides, arnica, caffeine, niacinamide, vitamins K and C, and, of course, retinol to firm up, de-puff and brighten the eye area. If dark circles are your main concern, SkinCeuticals helps diminish them with flavinoids, peptides and optical diffusers in their A.G.E. Eye Complex. SkinMedica’s TNS Eye Repair uses innovative human fibroblast conditioned media (TNS) in addition to vitamins, retinol and peptides to address dry, aging eye-area skin.
Step 9: Face Cream
Face cream is the cornerstone of any effective skincare routine, and the Korean 10-step regimen is no exception. A good moisturizer provides that final layer of nourishment and actives, and also bolsters your dermal barrier to lock in hydration. Some women will take this step further by adding a facial oil to the cream or dabbing oil on top for a boost in richness and extra glow.
Dry and mature skin will respond nicely to all the emollients, wrinkle-fighting peptides, antioxidants and other beautifying ingredients in CSI Bio-Therapy Phyto Restorative Cream, SkinCeuticals A.G.E. Interrupter and CSI Fortified Moisturizer. If you need something extra heavy that feels more like a balm, try Obagi Hydrate Luxe Moisture-Rich Cream.
Not only dry skin needs a good face cream to produce that silky finish. You can help plump up all skin types, including sensitive, with CSI Triple Antioxidant Powerhouse, SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore or Revercel Omega 3 Nourishing Facial. Oily skin? CSI offers their Ultra Lite Moisture Dew just for you, and SkinCeuticals Daily Moisture is also a good bet.
Whether due to acne, dull complexion or wrinkles, you may want to use this step as an additional opportunity to exfoliate. There are a number of lightly exfoliating moisturizers on the market with retinol or alpha hydroxy acids that you can try. But for more serious shedding, try something like the antioxidant-packed CSI Glycolic Elite Facial Cream with 15% or with 20% glycolic acid, both with 4.0 pH for optimal results. Make sure you follow the instructions and cautiously work your way up in frequency and concentration. When you start, try diluting with another cream and also hold off on exfoliating elsewhere in your routine until your skin has proven that it can tolerate more. If you really want to get serious about skin peels, schedule treatment by a professional.
Step 10: Sunscreen
K-beauty takes sun protection seriously! After all, it’s crucial to preventing wrinkles and skin discoloration. Always take this step, every day you go outside — not just when you go to the beach. In fact, the sun can age and otherwise damage your skin even when you’re on an airplane or driving around town on an overcast day.
A physical, mineral sunscreen with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and an SPF 30 or higher, will give you the fullest-spectrum UVA/UVB protection. However, go with a chemical sunscreen if you’re more likely to use it religiously. Reapply everywhere often. Don’t forget your hands, neck, chest… and ear lobes! On sunscreen days, you can adjust or even cut some hydrating steps in order to complement your favorite screen.
Revercel makes the chemical sunscreen AM Moisturizing Sunscreen as a morning face cream substitute, and CSI offers the physical sunscreen Sheer SPF 50+ that boosts skin defense with antioxidant green tea polyphenols, resveratrol, vitamins A, C and E, emblica, and CoQ10.
Some sunscreens come tinted for a better blend with your skin color, like matte-finish CSI Physical Tinted BB Cream Sunscreen (50+ SPF). EltaMD makes several sunscreens that also come in a tinted version like UV Daily Broad-Spectrum SPF 40, SPF 41 for extra-sensitive skin, and SPF 46 for skin prone to acne, rosacea or hyperpigmentation. Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-on Sunscreen Shield (SPF 50) is a powder sunscreen that comes in several complexion shades. Apply it over your favorite treatment or face cream, or brush it over a liquid sunscreen for extra blockage and an ultra-matte finish.
Protect your eyes and the surrounding skin with UV-rated sunglasses as well as sunscreen. Mineral products formulated to brighten and protect that delicate, sensitive area include SkinCeuticals Physical Eye UV Defense (SPF 50) and treatment-like Colorescience Total Eye 3-in-1 Renewal Therapy (35 SPF).
Help keep your lips supple and kissable — always wear a sunscreen balm! Some favorites are CSI Essential Lip Therapy (SPF 30) and EltaMD UV Lip Balm SPF 31.
So Is This 10-Step Regimen for You?
This K-beauty routine offers some undeniable positives for your skin, even if you determine that all 10 steps every day is too much for you. First, it can force you to stop, pay attention and really consider what your skin needs. Second, you may discover your skin’s new favorite products, ones you would never have otherwise tried. Third, it encourages you to take more time out for self care — which can help alleviate skin-degrading stress!
Just remember that attentive customization is the key to chok chok success. Ideally, work with a dermatologist to personalize your routine and integrate any aesthetic treatments or prescription products. They can best advise you on the right approach for you to achieve glass skin.