The global spread of K-beauty has served up a multitude of beauty trends, like just-bitten "blotted" lips and jelly makeup, but South Korea's strongest authority remains in skin care. In addition to buzzwords like glass skin, the fabled 10-step routine is widely considered one of the tenets of K-beauty. Thanks to magazines and social media, we've been led to believe that Korean women rigorously apply nearly a dozen skin-care products morning and night, to the tune 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 co-founder of Korean-American scientific skin-care brand, VENN, the exhaustive skin-care routine is little more than a myth perpetuated by American marketing companies. He says that, if anything, Koreans are actually stripping back the number of skin-care products they use — and their skin looks better for it. "In the past five years, minimalism in skin care has become very popular in South Korea," he says. "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 skin-care brand Glow Recipe, agree. "The 10-to-15-step skincare routine is definitely one of those myths, maintaining the idea that the K-beauty routine is very complicated," Chang says. "From our perspective, this doesn’t represent the approach of women in Korea." For Korean women, she goes on to say, a skin-care routine is about listening to your skin and caring for it accordingly, just as you would your body. "If your skin is dehydrated, you'd use a hydrating mask. If it looks tired, you’d use an energizing serum, and so on," Chang says. "That type of customization and personalization is very common, and it’s about having a skin-care wardrobe to pick and choose from depending on how your skin feels."
How many steps are in the K-beauty skin routine?
So how many steps is enough? Maree Kinder, British-Korean founder of online boutique Beauty & Seoul, says, "I only take 4-5 steps in my morning and evening routine. Ten-step skin care 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? Firstly, cleanser is a must. "Most Korean women would never skip a double cleanse in the evening," Kinder says. "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." MiiN Cosmetics founders and The Korean Skincare Bible authors Lilin Yang, Leah Ganse, and Sara Jiménez second that, 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.
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."
Of course, SPF is always a non-negotiable, especially if you're using acids. "We grew up with our mothers and grandmothers telling us to wear sunblock 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."
What are the K-beauty skin trends to try?
Once you have your simple yet effective skin-care routine nailed, you might then want to add certain products and ingredients — but that 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. Plus, 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," Kinder says. "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 skin care is another key factor, says Lee. "Koreans have a real love of natural ingredients that have been traditionally used in skin-care regimens for generations," she says. "Watermelon is a key ingredient in Glow Recipe products, 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."
At the end of the day, K-beauty is all about pampering your skin and doing what's right for it, not just piling on the products. As with anything, finding the right routine for you might take some trial and error — but putting in the time to track down a few great essentials is a lot easier than applying 10 products morning and night.
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