The first key to understanding the Korean skin care industry is to understand the legacy behind it. Koreans have among the longest documented historical civilized legacies (dating back to 8000 BCE) in the world. Skincare interest has been documented since the earliest Korean writings (700 BCE) and the Dongui Bogam, an ancient Korean medicinal text, has an entire section on preparation and use of herbal ingredients, including for skin concerns.
Korean beauty is a little breath of relaxing joy…this may also stem from the centuries-old tradition of spa and self-care in Korean culture. The Korean spa is also primarily about relaxing with other women and hanging out, rather than just ‘go to the spa, get these things done to you, leave.’ It’s frequently a family affair.
Korean routine is not merely about results (although they are certainly happy about the results). Instead, similar to the Korean spa experience itself, it’s also about the ritual: the precise order of layering; the time necessary to let essence or serum penetrate before the next product can be applied; the special patting motion for the eye cream, etc. This particular form of self-care can be empowering for women.
Korean skincare regimen sounds a bit extreme, but it all boils down to cleansing, exfoliating, treating, intensely moisturizing and applying plenty of SPF during the day. I guess the real differentiating factor between how Koreans take care of their skin and more Western routines is that in Korea, you’re programmed to start early— well before your first training bra—while our more American version of skincare tends to be a sudden mad dash to Nordstrom to buy $100 eye cream, hoping it will reverse some of the teenage UV damage when we hit the age of 30.
Step 1: The Eye Makeup Removal
Remove your eye makeup gently with good makeup remover because expecting a normal cleanser to do a detailed job is what leaves you with week-old mascara on your lashes.
Step 2: The Cleanse
Rule of thumb is, if you’re going to spend 30 minutes putting on your face, you should spend the same amount of time are take the same amount of care when cleaning it off.
Step 3: The Refresher
What we in America think of as “toning’ is an essential step. It’s believed to help remove pollutants along with any residue from your cleansers, while also restoring your skin’s pH balance. It soothes and preps your skin to absorb the next step—the essence. I’ve found Korean toners are less harsh and drying than other kinds that I’ve tried, which is maybe why they’re called “refreshers.”
Step 4: The Essence
Considered the most important step to Korean women, yet still a mystery to many. It affects skin on a cellular level, speeding your cell turnover rate which makes skin smoother and brighter. I’ve had the most noticeable results from adding this this to my regimen.
Step 5: The Ampoule
Ampoules are super-concentrated versions of essences, and are often referred to as serums and boosters out West.
Step 6: The Sheet Mask
Sheet masks are a twice-a-week ritual, or more if your face is very dry. The wet, papery, masks (makes you look like a serial killer), are soaked in ingredients like collagen, which they in turn soak into your skin. The fun is in the variety; some masks contain avocado extracts (containing tons of antioxidants) or Vitamin E (anti-aging). The secret to sheet masks? They force your skin to absorb the nutrients and moisture better than if you just applied a cream or serum—before the product has a chance to evaporate. The immediate effects are addicting, after one use your face is slightly more plump and much brighter due to all the moisture your skin just absorbed.
Step 7: Snail Cream
You can’t skip the snail serum concentrate!! The snail mucus solves a multiple amount of skin issues from anti-aging, acne, to evening out one’s skin.
Step 8: The Eye Cream
This is a self-explanatory product, but take note of the technique. This leads to better absorption of the product, and of course eliminates any of that tugging and pulling.
Step 9: The Moisturizer
Really, another layer? If you haven’t noticed, Korean women are all about layering, to the point you feel your skin has been mummified.
Step 10: The Night Cream
By this point your face feels like a 6-tiered cream cake and your skin has major shine—or as Korean women like to call it, a dewy, “moist glow.” The point is, your skin needs to stay hydrated as you recharge overnight. If it’s morning time skip this step and go with plenty of SPF.
Like I tell all my girlfriends, this routine only takes about 15 minutes out of my evening (sheet masks and exfoliating packs are not really a daily thing), and it’s actually a bit therapeutic to pamper my face as I wind down for the night. The key is daily prevention and nurturing, which eliminates any need for expensive facials. Sure, if you’re stumbling home a bit toasty, barely able to take off your triple-strapped sandals, do yourself a favor and at least wipe off the day’s makeup with some cleansing tissues. Sleeping in your makeup is the universal ultimate skincare sin—whether you’re in California or Seoul.