Korean Skin Care Routines: The 10-Step K-Beauty Routine (Complete With Green Alternatives)
If you’re interested in exploring the notorious 10-step Korean beauty routine, whether it’s natural, or even have questions about where to start, you’ve come to the right place. As an esthetician and the founder of Korean beauty boutique Peach & Lily, I’ve seen firsthand how the K-beauty routine can help people truly see a profound improvement in skin health—whether that be helping to prevent breakouts, helping reduce hyperpigmentation and/or dark spots, or imparting a fresh glow. Believe it or not, devoting the time and energy to taking care of your skin can also boost a feeling of well-being.
Here, I’ll provide a guide for you by each step of the routine and a range of products for each step.
The 10-step Korean skin care routine, explained.
You might have heard about the many steps in the Korean beauty routine. The Korean beauty routine doesn’t necessarily include 10 exact steps, but in general, the Korean beauty routine includes multiple steps and is focused on improving skin gently, through hydrating and nourishing layers, and achieving results that truly last. What I love about the Korean skin care philosophy is that fundamentally, the routine is about respecting your skin. Instead of using harsh ingredients that strip the skin of its natural barrier, it’s about working with your skin’s ecosystem and cleansing, hydrating, nourishing, and protecting it so that your skin can thrive. The results speak for themselves. People who thought that their skin was naturally reactive and sensitive, or people who believed that breakouts could never improve, or people who believed that the signs of UV damage are a part of getting older have seen results with the Korean beauty routine that say otherwise. Ultimately, it’s not about following the 10-step regimen militantly but tailoring the routine to your skin’s needs, your skin type, and your environment and focusing on truly improving the skin from within through a gentle but potent multilayered routine.
That said, many people start off with the 10 steps and then adjust by either paring down (or yes, sometimes increasing!) the steps based on how your skin reacts to them.
K-beauty skin care routine step 1: oil-based cleanser.
The double-cleansing routine has become well-known among K-beauty enthusiasts. The oil-based cleanser is the first of this dual-cleansing step. Oil and water repel each other, so a simple foaming water-based cleanser isn’t going to effectively remove all the oil-based impurities on skin. SPF, makeup, and our own sebum, which can trap impurities, are most effectively removed with an oil-based cleanser. If you have oily skin, I know it could sound counterintuitive, but using an oil cleanser can really help. I have seen a huge difference in my clients who have started oil cleansing as skin begins to thrive when not weighed down with impurities. I love the Shangpree Cleansing Gel for a traditional K-beauty option as it gently removes all makeup and washes off completely with water without leaving behind any greasy residue. It’s perfect for all skin types and leaves skin supple and refreshed.
If you’ve tried oil cleansing before and haven’t loved it, it’s possible you weren’t using the "proper" technique. Check out this super-simple oil-cleansing tutorial and give it a go.
K-beauty skin care routine step 2: water-based cleanser.
Follow up with a hydrating water-based second cleanser to remove remaining residue gently. This two-step cleansing process helps to remove and delayer impurities without stripping skin dry or tugging too hard at the skin. I personally love low-pH cleansers as they’re very gentle and less disruptive for your skin barrier. The Cerave Hydrating Cleanser is a great choice for all skin types. You can mix and match Korean and non-Korean products for a Korean beauty routine!
K-beauty skin care routine step 3: toner.
I am asked often if a toner is really necessary. (Hint: It is, especially if you use face oils!) I am a firm believer in toners as they help balance your skin’s pH, which is vital for skin health, and also help to kick-start hydration. Some of my favorite Korean toners are the Be the Skin toners as they completely drench skin with hydration while balancing the skin’s pH.
To boot, there are Korean toners for each skin type. The Botanical Pore Toner is a favorite for those with oily skin—in fact, this toner won the Peach & Lily Best of K-Beauty Award—as it completely mattifies shine without stripping skin dry and leaves it a balanced, hydrated matte. The Botanical Nutrition Power Toner is incredible for those with dry skin as it’s infused with nourishing and soothing royal jelly. The Botanical Nutrition Toner is perfect for those with combination skin as the formula helps the oilier parts become less oily and the dry parts more hydrated. Finally, the Purifying White Waterful Toner is incredibly hydrating and brightening for those with uneven skin tone or a lack of radiance.
K-beauty skin care routine step 4: essence.
While a toner’s main function is to help balance the skin’s pH, an essence is all about drenching skin with hydration to help create a healthier skin environment (hydration is the key to life!) and to prep skin for the rest of your routine. Think of skin like a sponge. When it’s hydrated and plumped up, it’s less brittle and everything absorbs better. The Eco Your Skin Layering Essences are specifically formulated to sink fast into the deeper layers of skin to quench skin thirst fast. If you’re looking for a green version of an essence, try Biossance's Squalane + Micronutrient Fine Mist or plain rosewater.
K-beauty skin care routine step 5: the treatments—face oils, serums, ampoules.
Step 5 is where the K-beauty routine becomes the most personalized. This treatment step is all about choosing the ingredients that are best for your own personal skin care preferences. Whether you’re focused on correcting hyperpigmentation, calming breakouts, or infusing a youthful boost into dull skin, these products are typically concentrated with active ingredients. You can mix and match different treatments together. The general rule of thumb here, and always, is to apply thinnest texture to thickest texture.
This step of the K-beauty routine is particularly significant because it provides an opportunity for you to really get to know your skin. There are so many great treatment products out there, including, of course, non-Korean beauty products, and when you’ve done the prior steps—cleansed your skin well, toned and applied essence—these products can go even further for you. The Mario Badescu Vitamin C Serum is great for those looking to intensify the skin’s glow or add firmness and hydration. Pai’s Rosehip Seed BioRegenerate Oil, or any rosehip seed oil, is a great way to replenish your lipid barrier while also delivering antioxidants to skin.
Side note: You might be wondering what the difference is between serums and ampoules. They’re very similar in that they’re concentrated formulas designed to help combat a specific skin care concern. Typically, though, ampoules are a bit more concentrated and, therefore, potent than serums.
K-beauty skin care routine step 6: eye cream.
The eye area is the most delicate area on your face with the thinnest skin, similar to the neck area. This means moisture loss happens the fastest, and that’s why we start to see wrinkles and fine lines around the eyes before other areas of the face. Keeping the eye area well-hydrated is key to keeping the eye area healthy. One recommendation is that heavier isn’t always better for the eye area. Sometimes, the eye area can also form milia (pesky white bumps) more easily if an eye cream is too occlusive and heavy. I’ve seen good results from eye creams spiked with vitamins and antioxidants and with a lighter but still protective and hydrating sealing effect. The Dermalogica Multivitamin Power Firm eye cream is a personal favorite for these reasons. For a more natural version, try Kahina Giving Beauty’s Prickly Pear Seed Oil Rollerball or Tata Harper’s Restorative Eye Crème. Check out our other favorite eye creams.
K-beauty skin care routine step 7: moisturizer.
Sealing it all in to lock in moisture and all the good stuff you just applied is the finishing touch. In this step, it’s great to opt for a moisturizer that’s right for your skin type. For drier skin types, moisturizers that are a bit heavier with a little bit of oil blended in are a great choice. For oilier skin types, more gel-based moisturizers are great. Having said that, beauty R&D has come a super long way, and now even some gel-based moisturizers are incredibly hydrating and protective and great for dry skin types, too. It’s the best of both worlds—not heavy at all but incredibly hydrating. Moisturizers containing hyaluronic acid help with redness and tend to be a great option for all different skin types—this 100 percent hyaluronic acid is a great option on its own for lighter days or to add to your moisturizer of choice for heavier days. Drunk Elephant’s Lala Retro whipped cream is another great option for drier skin.
K-beauty skin care routine step 8: SPF.
This is the single most important step in protecting your skin. Rain or shine, every morning, SPF, always—safety first! And if you’re out and about in the sun, remember to reapply every few hours. We all know SPF is so important, but it’s always a bit of a hassle to apply because of the white cast or the greasy, heavy feeling. I get it, but your skin will thank you when you find a good SPF that you like, and then get into the habit of never leaving home without protection. As an esthetician, I’ve seen this one simple habit be the difference between people whose skin aged prematurely (think age spots; dull, lackluster skin) and people who were able to maintain such incredible skin health. Daily habits add up for appearance but also help for protection against preventable skin cancer.
SPF is a big part of the Korean beauty culture. Growing up, I remember my mom teaching me how to brush my teeth as a toddler…and also how to apply SPF. Protecting your skin from the sun is seen as a foundational part of self-care, and I truly appreciate this little tidbit of self-care that was passed down to me from my mom. So I try to pay it forward and am constantly hunting for the best SPFs that people will actually enjoy using since otherwise, it’s not going to happen. Out of a lot that I’ve tested, I love the Elta MD SPF because it’s lightweight, doesn’t leave a cast, and wears well under makeup. It’s a pretty good natural option, too! Or see our selects for best mineral SPFs for the face, here.
K-beauty skin care routine step 9: exfoliation.
Depending on the exfoliator, you might exfoliate daily or a few times a week. And typically, this step comes after cleansing and before toning. Exfoliation is an important step to include in your skin care routine as your cell turnover process slows down as you get older, and the dead skin cells can cause problems that eventually lead to potential breakouts, less luminous skin, and less absorption of your products. I love the Eco Your Skin Lavender Bedside Mask that includes a little bit of salicylic acid, but combined with soothing and hydrating ingredients, this mask is amazing for all skin types, even those with sensitive skin (like me! I have severe eczema, and this is totally fine for me). It’s also super easy. Instead of your night cream, you apply this as the last step of your p.m. routine and go to sleep. A few other great natural options like this include REN Clear Skincare’s Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic as well as Drunk Elephant’s Framboos Glycolic Night Serum. Then, you wake up, and voilà, you’re glowing. Apply a few times a week and you’re all set.
K-beauty skin care routine step 10: masks.
Sheet masks are especially great because they’re easy to use, no wash-off is necessary, and they flood your skin with hydration. You would use a sheet mask after cleansing and toning and then seal it in with a moisturizer. In Korea, sheet masks are even used daily accompanied by selfies and hashtags proudly stating that this is a part of one’s daily routine. If you’re trying to reset finicky skin, get hydrated fast, or prep for a big event, one hack I love is to use a sheet mask daily for five days straight. Your skin is luminous and plumped up by the fifth day, and it’s all without harsh peels. The award-winning Peach & Lily sheet masks are formulated gently enough without alcohol or synthetic fragrances, so they’re great for daily use.
While this might seem like too many steps, this whole routine takes less than a few minutes once you get the hang of it (yes, I timed it!), and if you’re looking for that elusive, healthy, bouncy glow, a K-beauty skin care routine that layers on one hydrating and nourishing step at a time could truly transform your skin.
Alicia Yoon is a Korean skin care expert and the founder of Peach & Lily, a leading source and retailer for all things K-beauty. She studied philosophy at Columbia University before receiving her MBA from Harvard Business School. She travels regularly between New York City and Seoul to find the best products and new, innovative skin care, and she has helped make Korean beauty the phenomenon it is in the United States today. She's an esthetician certified by spas in Korea and licensed in New York. She's also on WWD's 25 Most Innovative Beauty Executives list and serves on the Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW) board of governors.