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10-Step Korean Skincare Routine

Hands holding skincare serum bottle

This centuries-old routine developed by Korean women stems from the belief that caring for your overall well being includes protecting your skin.

The emphasis is on products that layer – each step prepares skin for the next – ensuring that multiple benefits are delivered.

There’s a double cleanse, hydration, toning and more. Korean skincare has always been about gentleness, based on natural ingredients proven to beautify skin through generations of use. 

You will be familiar with some of the steps, others may be new. But do not be afraid! The steps aren’t onerous – and you can tailor them to your needs. You don’t even need to do all ten. 

The only real requirement is using luxurious and natural products to ensure skin is thoroughly cleansed, hydrated and protected.  Products that you can find here at Sharon Lee’s BEST.  



The 10-Steps:

Step 1: Makeup Removal/Oil Cleanse

The first step is to cleanse skin with an oil-based cleanser to gently remove make-up and natural oil/sebum that builds up during the day. Oil will dissolve oil, emulsify and rinse off clean. Either a cleansing oil or solid oil balm will work - both glide on so easily that you don’t need to tug at your skin, which can cause irritation. 


Step 2: Water-based Cleanser

The second step is another cleanse, but with a water-based product to wash away all traces of oil as well as dirt or product residue left behind by the first cleanse. Together, these steps are known as a “double cleanse”, a popular practice which began in Asian countries, but now widely adopted by global skincare brands. A double cleanse thoroughly yet gently removes all traces of make-up, dirt and toxins from the environment and skin sebum-build up. A double cleanse is not necessary in the morning, which your skin is relatively clean, but is essential in the evening to literally take off the day!

For your second cleanse, look for water-based cleansers that have a pH level close to 5.5, or slightly acidic, which mimics the pH level of your skin’s natural, protective barrier. Some skincare brands boast that their cleansers make skin “squeaky clean”. Beware squeaky clean skin! Your skin has natural oils and emollients that a cleanser shouldn’t strip away. A gentle, water-based cleanser with a pH level around 5.5 is best.


Step 3: Toner

Toning is the third step, and is an area where Korean skincare truly excels. The purpose of a toner is to replenish the skin with hydration after cleansing and to further balance skin’s pH levels. Korean toners are copied globally for their innovative combination of natural ingredients, like floral or herbal extracts, which hydrate and soothe skin. Many of us think of toners as a way to prevent acne, with drying ingredients like alcohol. Remember Sea Breeze? Yikes!!

Effective toners do NOT dry out skin, but rather hydrate and re-set skin’s natural balance. You can literally feel your skin become more comfortable. Toners are also available for all skin types, to replenish dry, sensitive, normal, or even oily skin. Down with drying toners! They will not help your skin.


Step 4: Exfoliant (once or twice a week)

Exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells and other debris from your skin to encourage cell turnover and reveal new skin beneath. It should only be done once or twice a week, and after the toning step.

Exfoliation used to available only in spas and esthetician’s offices, but now there are many excellent exfoliation products you can use at home.

There are two main types of exfoliants – physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants use granular ingredients to literally buff away impurities, while chemical exfoliants use gentle, organic compounds like alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs) and other acidic compounds to gently dissolve impurities. Exfoliation really makes a positive difference to your skin. But don’t overdo it - otherwise you will damage your skin by weakening the skin barrier. Even though Korean exfoliants are gentle, you should only use them as directed, generally once or twice a week. Follow with your hydrating essence, serum and moisturizing steps to nourish newly revealed skin. 


Step 5: Essence 

My fave step! Essences are full of hydrating, soothing and plumping ingredients that provide deep hydration and literally prep skin for additional benefits that follow from serums, treatments and moisturizers. Essences  often include fermented ingredients from plants and botanicals, like mugwort, rice and soy. Fermentation reduces the molecular structure of liquids, so they can penetrate more deeply into skin’s layers. This deep hydration literally helps your skin glow from within!

Sometimes called emulsions, softening lotions or balancing waters, Korean essences have set the bar extremely high - many other global brands are now including essences in their product line. But do yourself a favour and purchase the best. Simply put, a Korean essence will completely change the look and texture of your skin for the better. There is no going back!


Step 6: Serums, ampoules and other targeted treatments

Serums are usually designed to target a particular skin issue, like wrinkles, blemishes, or hyperpigmentation, and will often include “actives” or natural ingredients that have been scientifically proven to alter the structure of skin at a cellular level. For example, natural Vitamin C has been proven to lighten age spots, while hyaluronic acid will bind water to skin to increase hydration. Centella asiatica, or the mugwort plant has been proven to reduce redness and soothe sensitive skin. A serum will include one or more actives that work together to target specific issues, that are unique to every individual. They are meant to be applied after an essence and before a moisturizer, so the essence helps the serum penetrate and a moisturizer locks in its benefits.


Step 7: Eye Cream

Eye cream – to use or not to use? The debate is real! Some experts say that specialized creams are necessary to treat the delicate area under the eyes, to reduce puffiness and dark circles. Others say they are ineffective and a waste of money. Who hasn't bought an insanely expensive, minuscule eye cream that makes no difference to the eye area, or is amazing but unaffordable? Guilty as charged! The Korean 10-step process does include a eye care step, so you can choose whether it works for you. Good eye creams include targeted ingredients like caffeine (to reduce puffiness), fruit extracts (to brighten) and snail mucin (to moisturize and address fine lines and wrinkles). Judge for yourself! Personally, I'm in favour.


Step 8: Sheet Masks/Wash off masks/sleeping masks

To Mask or not to Mask? Is this really a question? Of course not. Skincare masks personify Korean innovation, to pamper and delight. They come in several forms - a sheet mask, which is made of cotton or cellulose-like material that cover your face and infuse your skin with effective ingredients. There are thousands of sheet masks on the market for everything from moisturizing, blemish control to hyperpigmentation and anti-aging. Other types of masks include “wash off” masks you keep on for a certain time before washing off, and “sleeping masks” that you can use over night. I love all three types and you will find some beautiful ones on this website.  Since the ingredients in masks are so concentrated, I suggest using them once or twice a week. I find them most helpful a Sunday night, over night, or when I am in my jammies and with a glass of wine! You can purchase my fave masks here.


Step 9: Moisturizer

This is a familiar step.Moisturizers are creams/lotions that lock in everything that comes before them. They contain emollients, fatty acids/oils to soften skin, humectants, that bind with water molecules to draw in water, and occlusives, that fill cracks in dry skin and prevent water loss. You should experiment with your moisturizers - I use a gel one in the summer when my skin is not so dry, and a heavier one in the winter. I also find I get better results when I use a moisturizer after toner, essence and serum steps, especially in the winter. But everyone is different and you should tailor these steps to what your skin needs. 


Step 10: Sunscreen (daytime)

In Korean skincare, sunscreen is an important, non-negotiable step. It prevents skin damage and premature ageing that occurs when you expose skin to UV rays. Applying sunscreen is the best thing you can do for skin health at any age and should be the last step in your skincare routine every morning. Korean sunscreens are gentle, hydrating, yet effective for UV protection. Trust me. You won't look like you are wearing the zinc ointment of your youth! Skincare companies around the world copy Korean formulations. Wear it every day under makeup, or bare-faced. It is even important to wear indoors - light from devices and that seep through windows can also cause skin damage. 


Do I Have To Do All 10 Steps Each Time?

Nope. You can experiment based on your intuition about what your skin needs. For example, some days your skin may feel hydrated and you may only need to cleanse, tone and moisturize. There is also no real need to double cleanse in the morning if you have double cleansed the night before. I like to cleanse, tone, and apply the essence steps daily because I like how it makes my skin look and feel. And I always wear sunscreen. It is one of the best things you can do to prevent more skin damage and premature ageing. But I don't necessarily use serums every day. So go for it. Experiment!