The Korean Skincare Guide


Whether it’s the infamous "10-step beauty routine" or buzz over sheet masks and bee venom infused moisturizers, Korean skincare has made its mark on the cosmetics industry. While good skincare isn’t inherent to any region on Earth—both good and bad products are sold anywhere you look—the Korean beauty routine does have its differences.

At its core, the Korean skincare regimen is about taking a multi-step approach, sometimes upwards of 10+ steps in a routine. Rather than all-in-one formulas, there is a greater emphasis on separate and distinct targeted treatment steps for your skin concerns, followed by strict daily sunscreen use (without exception).

While the number of treatment steps in a Korean skincare routine can seem overwhelming, we’re willing to bet there are more similarities than differences to the products you already use. For example, if you use a makeup remover, cleanser, toner, exfoliant, serum and moisturizer, you’re already on the path. In many instances, the products used in Korean skincare routines are simply variations of those treatments you’re already familiar with, with some differences in delivery systems or textures.

We’ll take a closer look at the more common steps in the Korean skincare routine to help you decide which may be worth considering for your concerns. (And which steps or products you can ignore.)

The Korean Skincare Guide

When it comes to the Korean skincare regimen, there is no one-size fits all approach to a routine—some may incorporate 10 or 12 products, while other routines may include close to 20 steps. It depends on how targeted you want to be in treating your concerns, as well as your skin type.

While the below steps are just the basics, the order that they are applied can vary depending on your preferences. Generally, the best approach is to follow the lightest-to-thickest texture "rule," i.e. the thinnest products are applied first, working your way up to the richest.

Oh, and it should be understood (but we’ll say it anyway) that you should check the ingredient list of every skincare product you consider adding to your routine to ensure it is fragrance and irritant free. Such ingredients are universally bad for your skin, which is why we never include them in any Paula’s Choice product.

Step 1: Cleanser
Cleansing is often a two-stage process in the Korean skincare routine. Often referred to as "double cleansing," this begins with an oil-cleanser to do the heavy lifting of dissolving layers of makeup, sunscreen, etc. Next is a traditional foaming cleanser, which removes the residue from the oil step and any other debris remaining on your face.

Should you consider it? Whether referred to as a double-cleanse or not, this isn’t much different than using a makeup remover before your traditional cleanser. If you find your usual water-soluble cleanser of choice doesn’t do the job, this approach is certainly worth considering, and you can even try a plain, non-fragranced oil before your cleanser (grapeseed or olive oil, for example) to see how it works for you.

Step 2: Toner
Toners aren’t a new concept, but in the Korean skincare routine, they’re emphasized as treatments loaded with soothing and antioxidant ingredients. Some brands claim a toner is necessary to balance your skin’s pH after cleansing, which is a misnomer, as a toner can't reverse the damage done from using an alkaline (re: high pH) cleanser. Fortunately, the fact is that most modern water-soluble cleansers are pH balanced and it's actually difficult to make an alkaline (re: high pH) cleanser that isn't a bar soap (which, in general, should be avoided). The takeaway? As long as you stick to water-soluble formulas, your skin doesn’t need to be "balanced" afterwards.

Should you consider it? This is a step that we’re all for, obviously, as Paula’s Choice has been rocking toners for 10+ years. A well-formulated toner is a very good step towards reducing irritation and supplying skin with skin-identical ingredients that are lost during the cleansing process.

Step 3: Exfoliate
This may come in the form of a scrub or a leave-on exfoliant (i.e. beta hydroxy acid or alpha hydroxy acid), with the goal being to smooth dry spots and correct an uneven skin tone. Scrubs, when finely milled and gentle, are helpful as an extra-cleansing step. However, they fall short on treating concerns like sun damage or acne—they just can’t penetrate skin or perform the type of exfoliate needed to improve such conditions. That’s where a good, gentle daily leave-on AHA or BHA exfoliant comes in to save the day—these have an abundance of research demonstrating their ability to treat such concerns.

Should you consider it? Absolutely! Without question, a well-formulated leave-on AHA or BHA is a daily necessity for healthy, younger-looking skin. Such formulas are designed for daily use, and range in concentrations to address specific needs. Find out which type is right for your concerns in our "How AHA Exfoliants Work" or "How BHA Exfoliants Work" articles.

Step 4: Essence
The essence step isn’t that different from what many consider a serum, but then again, some essences are much more like milky toners. (Marketing wise, many brands use these terms interchangeably.) The main idea? These thin, lightweight textures supply skin with any number of antioxidants, anti-irritants and other repairing ingredients.

Should you consider it? Here is where things get tricky. If the serum you use is loaded with the ingredients that treat your skin concerns, then an essence isn’t a necessary step—you don’t need both. But, if you haven’t found a serum whose texture you like, an essence may be worth considering—or, you may want to experiment with using a milky toner instead. (Our Resist Advanced Replenishing Toner is a perfect example.)

Step 5: The Sheet Mask
Individually packaged, the sheet mask is a single-use delivery system that’s pre-soaked in a serum-like treatment. You lay the sheet over your face; it has an opening for your eyes, nose and mouth (think hockey mask) and wait for 15 or 20 minutes. Snapping a selfie is optional. Then, remove and pat your skin dry—no rinsing. Sheet masks can have any number of purposes, as their formulas may be designed to moisturize, others to treat discolorations, and on and on. Think of sheet masks as "boosters" to your routine that come in single-serving applications.

Should you consider it? If you find the needs of your skincare change from time to time, such as seasonally dry skin or uneven skin tone, such single-use treatments may be worth occasional consideration. However, if you find that your current routine treats these concerns, you can consider this an extra step that isn’t necessary (although, it certainly can be a relaxing treatment).

Step 6: Serum
Serums are usually associated with anti-aging—a retinol serum, for example. You could say that the serum is virtually indistinguishable from the sheet mask or essence steps, except for the fact their individual formulas may be marketed as products that are targeted to a specific concern. For example, the approach may be "this essence is to treat redness," followed by the "sheet mask to treat discolorations," and next, "the serum to treat signs of aging."

Should you consider it? A well-formulated serum is an excellent multi-tasking anti-aging treatment, but whether you need one depends on the products existing in your routine and skincare goals. See our article, "How Paula’s Choice Serums Work" for more info!

Step 7: Eye Cream
It’s a moisturizer for your eye area.

Should you consider it? You don’t technically need a separate eye cream, as your facial moisturizer can do the job. However, if you want more intense moisture—beyond what your go-to facial formula provides—a separate eye cream, gel or serum may be a helpful addition.

Step 8 + 9: Moisturizer (+ Facial Oil)
Whether it’s called an emulsion or night cream, this stage is all about keeping skin well moisturized—none of the previous products are considered "moisturizers," despite the fact that serums, toners or essences can absolutely moisturize skin.

Should you consider it? If your skin isn’t getting enough moisture from your other products, adding on a separate moisturizer (and/or facial oil) can make the difference in repairing dry to very dry skin. For those with oily to combination skin, this may be an unnecessary step if your serum and/or toner already provides the hydration you need.

Step 10: Sunscreen
Considered a non-negotiable finishing touch to your morning skincare routine, a broad-spectrum sunscreen will shield your skin from UV exposure (the 1# cause of wrinkles, brown spots and skin cancer).

Should you consider it? Absolutely! If you skip sunscreen, nothing else you do will matter—even the best anti-aging treatments are no match for the damage doled out by UV rays.

Is the Korean Beauty Routine the Answer?

To be clear, you do not need a ten-step routine to take good care of your skin (in fact, three or four steps will work for many). The takeaway is that the Korean skincare routine builds on the basic, essential products (cleanser, exfoliant and AM/PM moisturizer) to include more targeted treatment products that address more complex skin concerns.

If you aren’t seeing the results you want, consider adding a more targeted additional step or two (OK, for some, three). While the tradeoff is an extra few minutes to your AM or PM beauty regimen, the benefits for concerns such as breakouts, discolorations or advanced signs of aging can be far greater.

One more consideration: Many find alternating their routines—such as applying only the essentials in the morning and reserving their extra treatments for the evening—an excellent balance that saves time (yet doesn’t compromise their results).

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The Best Skin of Your Life Starts Here: The same type of in-depth scientific research used to create this article is also used to formulate Paula’s Choice Skincare products. You’ll find products for all skin types and a range of concerns, from acne and sensitive skin to wrinkles, pores, and sun damage. With Paula’s Choice Skincare, you can get (and keep) the best skin of your life! Learn more at Shop Paula's Choice.

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and helping you solve your skincare frustrations with research-supported expert advice—so you'll have the facts you need to take the best possible care of your skin.

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