We’ve come a long way when it comes to grooming. The old soap-and-flannel routine that served men for generations has, in the past 10 years, been swept away in a torrent of scrubs, masks, moisturisers, serums and balms. Now it might be time to level up again. A meticulous 10-step skincare routine is slowly taking over the world, claiming to keep you looking young well into middle age. Korean skincare, or ‘K-beauty’ as it’s referred to, has been wooing women’s bathroom cabinets for some time, and western men are beginning to cotton on to its efficacious formulas and luxurious routines. At a colossal 10 steps, it requires some effort; it’s a regimen not well suited to guys who wash their face with shower gel and spray deodorant down their trousers. This is dedicated self-care (one of the most Googled terms of 2019, by the way) but one that converts people with unbelievable results.
What Is Korean Skincare?
Korea has long been heralded as the epicentre of skincare science, bringing to light ingredients like green tea, egg white and snail mucus (no really, it’s great for hydration). In fact, there are so many innovations emerging from the eastern state that a typical three-step exfoliate, cleanse and moisturise routine is practically impossible – hence the far more extensive strategy that everybody’s talking about. Not only that, but Koreans believe you can see your future within your face, so many take the time to create the best future possible by ensuring their skin is as healthy as can be. Like any organ, this requires a 360 approach that addresses all concerns – hydration, nourishment and protection being just a few. “Adopting a Korean-inspired skincare regime also helps to change your mindset of taking care of your skin as a chore into it being a pampering session you can look forward to,” says Charlotte Cho, co-founder of Soko Glam, an online marketplace that specialises in Korean products. It’s really a lifestyle movement, a bit like the boom in old-school barbershops a few years ago, just with the added advantage of great skin.
The Complete Korean Skincare Routine
While it might seem excessive, once it’s part of your everyday routine, the traditional 10-step Korean skincare routine is surprisingly easy (and enjoyable). Here are the right products, in the right order, along with the right way to use them all for a face worthy of a K-pop star.
Step 1: Oil Cleanse
Helpfully, the first step in the full Korean skincare regimen has already made its way into the western mindset. As the name suggests, oil cleansers, unlike water-based alternatives, can break down oil-based debris like pollution, sebum and sunscreen. They are often nourishing, hydrating and deeply relaxing, with a natural scent and soothing texture. What It Does: Rids the skin of dirt, debris and bacteria. How To Do It: Morning and night, worked in with a deep massage.
Step 2: Water Cleanser
Dermatologists, aestheticians and facialists have long advocated double cleansing – for almost as long as the Korean’s have. It makes sense; oil dissolves oil, but you still need another cleanser to remove all water-based impurities. Look for gentle cleansers like a milk, which shifts what needs to be sloughed off without stripping the skin. What It Does: Removes any remaining water-based dirt and debris. How To Do It: Morning and night, in gentle circular motions.
Step 3: Exfoliator
By now, most guys know what this step does, but did you know there are several types? Physical exfoliators are abrasive scrubs – with ingredients like walnut, rice or salts – which are tougher on the skin, ideal if you have a beard or suffer from dry skin. For everyone else, stick with a chemical version containing an AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) like glycolic, lactic or mandelic acid for a more thorough removal of dead skin. What It Does: Removes dead skin and allows the following products to absorb more efficiently. How To Do It: Twice a week in the evening, focusing on problem areas.
Step 4: Essence
One of the most hyped aspects of Korean skincare, essences hydrate the deeper levels of the dermis, priming and prepping the skin for the next step in the routine. “These are watery lotions or thin gels that are more concentrated with active ingredients, often formulated with a higher dose of hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and other natural extracts,” explains Cho. What It Does: An active lotion that hydrates and strengthens the skin. How To Do It: Morning and night, use a small amount and pat it on the face and neck.
Step 5: Serums
The heavyweights of the skincare world, serums are the building blocks behind great skin. They contain the highest concentration of active ingredients, capable of addressing everything from hydration to ageing. This is where skincare gets specialised, and you have to figure out what you want. Big pores? Niacinamide. Dull skin? Vitamin C. Wrinkles? Opt for a peptide complex. What It Does: Directly treat problem areas or infuse the whole face with active ingredients. How To Do It: Morning and night, use a small amount and pat it on the face and neck or affected areas.
Step 6: Sheet Masks
Korea is the birthplace of sheet masks, with the tradition dating back hundreds of years using paper. While the principal remains the same – using a barrier to push humectants (ingredients that help bind water to the skin) and other elements into the face – the technology has progressed. Sheet masks now come in tissue, hydrogel and bio-cellulose bodies, each with its own advantages and efficacy. They also make for a killer Instagram selfie. What It Does: Prolonged contact with your skin allows concentrated ingredients to be fully absorbed. How To Do It: Twice a week, smooth onto clean skin and relax for 20 minutes, then pat in the remaining essence.
Step 7: Eye Cream
Another common step in the west, eye creams target the fragile periorbital area (that’s the bit directly around your peepers) to deliver skin-strengthening proteins like peptides. Within the category, there are eye gels (ideal for younger skin or those looking to address puffiness) or eye creams (ideal for older skin looking to tone, tighten and lift). Dark circles are, sadly, a fairly genetic trait but a brightening eye gel can help illuminate the region. What It Does: Hydrates and brightens the eye area. How To Do It: Morning and night, use your ring finger to gently tap it around the entire orbital bone.
Step 8: Emulsion
Never heard of it? Don’t worry, you probably aren’t alone. Emulsions are lightweight moisturisers that suit male skin in particular, but can also be favoured by people in more humid climates that don’t want the occlusive nature of a heavy cream. Just like moisturisers, an emulsion seals in the goodness of the last seven steps while adding its own brand of humectants, vitamins and actives. However, unlike moisturisers, they’re able to get down to the deeper levels of the skin due to a typically smaller molecular structure. Science, eh? What It Does: Nourishes and binds moisture to the skin. How To Do It: Morning and night, pat into the face and neck.
Step 9: Moisturiser
Moisturisers come in many forms – gels, creams, oils – the function of which is to lock up the last nine steps. Moisturisers were popularised as they maintained the skin’s levels of hydration, sealing the water in the dermis so it couldn’t evaporate. Over time, skincare’s most popular category has become infused with all sorts, mostly focusing on dry, dehydrated and ageing complexions. What It Does: Seals in moisture to smooth and plump the skin. How To Do It: Morning and night, pat into the face and neck.
Step 10: SPF
To complete the last nine steps and skip the 10th is almost sacrilegious in Korean skincare. Sun damage is the primary cause of all external skin concerns, from pigmentation and dehydration to premature ageing. In Korea, where they value an almost ‘cloudless’ appearance, the sun is treated as the enemy. They bring out all weapons to protect against it; visors, sunglasses, gloves, but most importantly, SPF. What It Does: Protects the skin from UVA and UVB damage. How To Do It: Reapply throughout the day on the face, neck, shoulders and ears.
The (Simplified) Korean Skin Care Routine
As great as the full 10-step Korean skincare routine is, finding the time (and pennies) to complete it all is sometimes unrealistic. That doesn’t mean you should give up entirely, though. Fortunately, there are still face-based rewards to reap when you bring it down to just five.
Step 1: Double Cleanse
Even with fewer steps, double cleansing is a non-negotiable, whether you wear make-up, sunscreen or just have bare skin. For city boys, it is particularly important to double up as they are exposed to high levels of pollution, which can get right into your pores and deep into the dermis.
Step 2: Exfoliate
Men’s skin is around 30 per cent thicker than women’s, which means that it can produce a lot more natural oil and sebum. To combat this, go in with a BHA (beta hydroxy acid) like salicylic acid to dissolve oil and leave your pores clean and complexion clear.
Step 3: Essence
Think of your skin like a sponge; a wet one is able to absorb everything, while a dry, brittle one just can’t. An essence is the product that wets your skin and allows you to get the most out of your serums.
Step 4: Serum
You’ve cleansed, primed and prepped – now it’s time for the good stuff. Koreans take time with their serums, making sure the skin has absorbed the most active of all 10 steps fully before moving on. Feel free to mix and match, tailoring your assortment to whatever skin condition you need.
Step 5: SPF Moisturiser
One of the easiest ways to simplify your skincare routine is to look for ways to double up. Moisturisers pre-loaded with SPF have come on the market in recent years, and while they don’t have the same dexterity as their counterparts without protection, they are still ideal for a quick on-the-go routine.
5 Korean Skin Care Brands To Add To Your Bathroom
Founded in 2014, COSRX has been one of the few Korean skincare institutions to gain commercial success in the west, which might be due to the calming, hydrating and barrier-restore properties they pack into every product. Even though soothing skincare is their strength, the brand has a dynamic Vitamin C serum (with an incredible 20 per cent active level) that is so good you’ll want to use it in all ten steps.
One of the foremost names in Korean skincare, Hanskin created and popularised the very first BB cream in the early 2000s. Known for its science-based, pharmaceutical approach to formulating products, its essence holds a multi-molecular hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin. The cleansing oil is not to be ignored though; it’s one of the few cleansers with ingredients that both exfoliate and nourish.
Co-founded by a dermatologist and an architect — can you think of a better team for building a handsome face? — Dr Jart has become synonymous with clever complexes and Instagram-worthy packaging. The brand is famous for its sheet masks, with a wide range covering everything from blemishes to pigmentation.
Another lab-based company, Neogen focuses on the enzymes and microbiome existing in all-natural ingredients to treat the skin in a holistic but efficacious way. Its products are all sleek, simple and backed by some serious science (almost all patented, FYI). Koreans are not big fans of heavy exfoliation, so the brands Gentle Green Tea Pads are gentle; perfect for sensitive skin.
Son & Park
Created by artists, Son & Park is famous in The Land of the Morning Calm for its Beauty Water. The product is one of those skincare products that fit into almost every category, simultaneously cleansing, toning, exfoliating and hydrating in one go. After a few uses, it’s clear why it’s cult.