That Famous Korean Skin Routine Might Not Be So Great After All

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Thanks to the popularity of BB creams and sheet masks, Americans are suddenly fascinated by Korean beauty routines. And now, everyone’s talking about the 12-step skincare regimen that’s trending on YouTube. While we love the idea of the languid pampering that comes along with such an elaborate routine — and, are even a bit envious of the discipline it requires — the concept is about as far away from American sensibilities as South Korea itself.
We want things to multitask, and be easy and efficient, so we can get to the next thing on our busy schedules. And, anything that's 12 steps long takes a lot of time and work. But, there isn’t a better endorsement for 12-stepping than the immaculate complexions of the ladies who tout the method. Those girls — and those faces — have us second-guessing our simple three-step processes. Are there a few (or a dozen) steps and products standing between us and glowy, petal-soft skin?
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With feelings of wonder, inadequacy, envy, and aspiration, we reviewed each step in the Korean method to see which should make the cut when it comes to optimal (and efficient) skin care. Read on for the essentials.
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Photo: Via Earth Tu Face.
Steps 1 & 2: Double-Cleansing
The first two steps in the famed Korean skin-care regimen? Cleansing and, well, cleansing. Do we really need to cleanse twice? Most of us, yes, says Heather Rogers, MD, a Seattle-based dermatologic surgeon and clinical assistant professor in division of dermatology University of Washington School of Medicine. Here’s why: Over the past decade, the types of cleansers we use have changed. “The number of gentle cleansers on the market that also effectively remove eye makeup is decreasing. It’s tricky to find one cleanser that does both, but isn't too drying,” she says.

Many of us are using non-soap cleansers (like Cetaphil) and gentle foaming cleansers that don’t have enough surfactants to lift dirt or makeup from the face. This is where oil cleansers come in. Sometimes called pre-cleansers, they do a great job of breaking down makeup and collecting oils that have developed on the face during the day. But, because residuals from oils can block the absorption of serums and other active ingredients (applied later in your regimen) that are designed to penetrate deep into the skin, it’s important to wash your face again with a gentle cleanser, according to Dr. Rogers.

If you don’t want to invest in two facial cleansers, Dr. Rogers offers this budget-friendly beauty hack: Pick up a cheap tub of cold cream, and use it to remove makeup and other impurities before you cleanse. “It works great to take the day’s dirt off,” she says.

While two cleansers may be necessary to remove makeup and dirt, and prime the face to receive anti-aging active ingredients, Dr. Rogers says the hyped practice of massaging a cleanser into your skin for minutes at a time “isn’t something I think you need to worry about." While the self-care aspect of the four-minute face-washing process can be relaxing for some, it doesn’t equate to better skin care when it comes to double-cleansing.

Earth Tu Face Gentle + Pure / Palma Rosa + Aloe Face Wash, $28, available at Earth Tu Face.
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Photo: Via Diptyque.
Step 3: Exfoliation
Derms agree exfoliation is important. As Dr. Rogers points out, “there is clear data showing it can help your skin look brighter and improve the penetration of antioxidants in the products you apply after.” Exfoliating also helps those with dry skin to shed dead skin cells, and people with oily skin to unclog pores.

But, here’s the thing — we don’t need to exfoliate every single day. “It’s possible to overdo it with this step,” says Dr. Rogers, who explains that over-exfoliating can strip the skin of oils and trigger irritation. That goes for cleansing brushes, too. Dr. Rogers recommends you exfoliate no more than three times a week, regardless of whether you’re using a gentle scrub, glycolic cream, or cleansing brush.

Diptyque Multi-Use Exfoliating Clay, $65, available at Diptyque.
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Photo: Via Darphin.
Step 4: Refreshing
What we refer to as “toners” are often called “refreshers” in Korean skin care. Toners used to be a skin-care staple in the U.S. because they helped rebalance our skins' pH levels after cleansing with astringent soaps. Because those soaps raised the pH of our skin, according to Dr. Rogers, toners would help bring the pH back down to its natural acidic range.

Nowadays, though, cleansers are so gentle that a spike in pH doesn’t typically occur — so pH-balancing toners are largely unnecessary, Dr. Rogers says. Some newer toning products are marketed as containing anti-aging ingredients like vitamin C. But, if you use an anti-aging product later in your routine (a serum or retinoid, for example), she says, you don’t need an anti-aging toner, too — applying twice the amount of anti-aging ingredients doesn’t mean your skin will absorb more.

If you’re worried your facial cleanser might be messing with your skin’s pH balance, try a micellar water instead. It attracts and lifts oil, makeup, and dirt from the skin without affecting pH.

Darphin Azahar Cleansing Micellar Water, $40, available at Darphin.
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Photo: Via SkinCeuticals.
Steps 5, 6, & 7: Essences, Ampoules, & Serums
Some Eastern skin-care regimens include essences, ampoules, and/or serums as ways to deliver active ingredients in particles tiny enough to penetrate the skin. What’s the difference between the three? Essences are typically light solutions, ampoules are very concentrated, and serums fall in the middle. Choosing the right formula for you can depend on your personal preference and skin type (if you have oily skin, for example, you might like the lighter feel of an essence).

“Ultimately, essences, serums, and ampoules do the same thing, which is to deliver higher concentrations of active ingredients (usually anti-aging ingredients) to the skin,” says Jessica Wu, MD, a dermatologist and author of Feed Your Face. Drs. Wu and Rogers agree that tripling down doesn’t exactly give you three times the results, so they suggest using one product to get the job done.

Dr. Rogers advocates for the use of retinoids and/or serums because both have shown beneficial results in studies. Retinoids have been shown to ramp up collagen production, even skin tone, and decrease dark spots. Studies also show that active ingredients in serums (such as retinoids and antioxidants) can make a difference in fine lines and hyperpigmentation.

While Korean and Japanese markets allow consumers to pick hydration or dark-spot fighting actives, mix them together, and apply them to the skin — as a sort of choose-your-own-adventure approach to skin care — that level of mixology is typically done in the lab with many serums sold in the American market, and most serums sold stateside are already equipped to pack powerful anti-aging properties in a single product. “In my mind, the division between ampoules, essences, and serums doesn’t need to be there,” Dr. Rogers says. “Clearly, there are benefits to applying these types of ingredients — antioxidants can help repair skin, and peptides can hydrate. But, do you need it four different ways? I don’t think so."

SkinCeuticals Resveratrol B E, $145, available at SkinCeuticals.
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Photo: Via Sulwhasoo.
Step 8: Sheet Masks
Think of masks like booster ingredients added to a smoothie. While they serve as a nice add-on, and can offer a way to deliver a new benefit to your skin-care cocktail, they aren’t crucial steps. Work them into your skin-care routine once or twice a week to deliver an active ingredient that your serum or retinoid isn’t already providing — like fermented ginseng, for example, which is designed to brighten the skin.

Dr. Wu suggests using masks twice a week to balance the skin’s reaction to the anti-aging step performed the night before. Say you use a retinoid one night — a hydrating sheet mask can help deliver moisture from residual dry skin. Likewise, vitamin C masks can help with brightening and clay masks with congestion.

Sulwhasoo Snowise EX Brightening Mask, $130, available at Neiman Marcus.
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Photo: Via Cowshed.
Step 9, 10, & 11: Moisturizers, Emulsions, & Night Creams
Eastern skin-care routines sometimes encourage you to layer a night cream over a moisturizer and/or an emulsion (a very light moisturizer stocked with hydrating ingredients like glycerin and propylene glycol) to ensure your skin stays hydrated throughout the night. But, our derms say it’s not necessary to use so many products. “The third or fourth product isn’t likely to even reach your skin,” explains Dr. Wu. Instead, both Dr. Rogers and Dr. Wu recommend you use an anti-aging serum followed by a basic face cream. That’s because active ingredients tend to penetrate the skin better when they’re in a serum formulation as opposed to a heavier cream. According to Dr. Wu, water-soluble ingredients like vitamin C are more stable in serums than creams. “I like my face cream to be really bland and simply serve as a barrier to protect the skin,” Dr. Rogers adds.

Cowshed Rose Replenishing Night Cream, $56, available at Cowshed.
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Photo: Via Tata Harper.
Step 12: Eye Cream
Do you really need a separate cream for the skin around the eyes? While this skin is thinner and more sensitive than on other parts of the face, not everyone needs to use a dedicated eye cream, says Dr. Rogers. If you’re looking to target dark circles or puffiness, then an eye cream formulated to do so (containing vitamin C or licorice, for example) is a great solution.

If you’re looking to simply keep the skin around the eyes hydrated, you may not need a separate product — it all depends on what type of nighttime moisturizer you use. A gentle moisturizer is likely safe to use around the eyes. But, if your moisturizer contains active, medicated, or anti-aging ingredients — all of which can irritate eyes — then you should use a separate, milder moisturizer in the eye area. Most eye creams are formulated with fewer active ingredients because the area is so sensitive.

Tata Harper Restorative Eye Crème, $90, available at Tata Harper.
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