As well as glass skin (a gleaming complexion) and slugging (slathering your skin in petroleum jelly to trap in moisture for plumpness), you might have heard of the 10-step routine. Thanks to magazines and social media, we've been led to believe that Korean women rigorously apply 10 or more skincare products each morning and night. This usually consists of two cleansers (one oil and another water-based), exfoliator, toner, essence (a light pre-serum), treatments (ampoules and serums), sheet masks, eye cream, moisturizer and sunscreen.
But according to Brian Oh, CEO and cofounder of new Korean-American scientific skincare brand, VENN (landing at Net-A-Porter later this month), the whole 10-step skincare routine is a total myth perpetuated by American marketing companies. He says that if anything, Koreans are actually stripping back the number of skincare products they use – and their skin looks better for it.
"In the past five years, minimalism in skincare has become very popular in South Korea," he said. "With access to more information, people now understand that using multiple products is not always good for the skin, or even necessary." Sarah Lee and Christine Chang, founders of cult skincare brand Glow Recipe, agree. "The 10-15-step skincare routine is definitely one of those myths, maintaining the idea that the K-Beauty routine is very complicated," Chang notes. "From our perspective, this doesn’t represent the approach of women in Korea."
Chang continues: "For Korean women, a skincare routine is about listening to your skin and caring for it accordingly, similar to the way you would with your body. If your skin is dehydrated, you'd use a hydrating mask. If it looks tired, you’d use an energizing serum (such as vitamin C) and so on. That type of customization and personalization is very common and it’s about having a skincare wardrobe to pick and choose from depending on how your skin feels."
This is the ultimate Korean skincare routine, according to experts
So how many steps is enough? Maree Kinder, British-Korean founder of online boutique Beauty & Seoul explains: "I only take 4-5 steps in my morning and evening routine. Ten-step skincare is to show people that these are the 10 products you can have at your disposal to tackle any concern, but you don't have to use them all at once." This begs the question, which products are Korean women actually using on a regular basis? Cleanser is a must. "Most Korean women would never skip a double cleanse in the evening," Maree notes. "They typically use an oil-based cleanser to effectively remove any makeup, sunscreen and excess sebum thoroughly from the skin, followed by a water-based foam cleanser to remove any leftover residue."
Authors of The Korean Skincare Bible, Lilin Yang, Leah Ganse and Sara Jiménez second this and recommend following cleansing with moisturizer and sunscreen in the morning. From that point on, you’d start adding steps to your routine little by little to see what your skin needs. "Some steps you won’t do every day, like exfoliate, while you can use a sheet mask or a sleeping pack two to three times a week."
When it comes to other popular ingredients, you can forget snail mucus, another so-called K-Beauty export. "It’s one of those 'exotic' ingredients that aren’t as popular in Korea as people think," says Chang. "If you look at a typical routine, Koreans take a very measured approach, incorporating proven actives such as hyaluronic acid, gentle AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic and lactic acid) and PHAs," – acids which exfoliate gently.
Of course, a non-negotiable is SPF, especially if you are using acids. "We grew up with our mothers and grandmothers telling us to wear sun block every day," Lee says. "Whether it rains or it's gloomy, you’re always exposed to UV rays. There has been a new wave of sunscreens in Korea that are very lightweight, so you can reapply them when needed." Try Skin79 Water Wrapping Non-Chemical Sun Block SPF 50, $33.08.
Korean skincare trends to have on your radar
Once you have your simple yet effective skincare routine nailed, you might then want to add certain products and ingredients, but this all depends on preference and your skin's needs. For example, Oh has noticed a trend towards phytochemicals. "These are very powerful antioxidants," he explains. And the perennially on-trend antioxidant cica (centella asiatica) is showing no signs of slowing down. "I just returned from Seoul on a business trip and it’s clear that it’s still trending," remarks Kinder. "Centella is rich in amino acids and is great for improving skin elasticity as well as boosting antioxidant activity. It’s known as a great ingredient for calming troubled skin as well."
Natural skincare is another key factor, notes Lee. "Koreans have a real love of natural ingredients which have been traditionally used in skincare regimes for generations," she says. "Watermelon is a key ingredient in Glow Recipe [such as the famous Sleeping Mask], which was inspired by how our grandmothers would apply watermelon rind on our skin to reduce heat rash – a very common remedy in Korean families."
Overall, most of the experts we spoke to believe that K-Beauty is all about taking care of and pampering your skin. Finding a routine that suits you may be trial and error, so if your skin is reacting to certain products and ingredients, it might be best to stop using them and to seek help from a qualified dermatologist. And the golden rule: any routine that incorporates AHAs, BHAs and retinol should always include sunscreen.