10-Step Stairway to Skin Heaven: a K-Beauty Ritual

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Skin care enthusiasts in the West may have looked at medicine cabinets and beauty counters full of exfoliants and retinols and wondered where those extra steps could be coming from and what they could offer.

What is the Korean 10-step skin care routine?

Taiwanese American skin care blogger Jude Chao (aka Fifty Shades of Snail or @fiddysnails) is a convert who discovered K-beauty after dipping her toes into the Skincare Addiction subreddit.

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She explains, “The ‘Korean 10-step skin care routine’ is a shorthand for the concept of the long, multilayered skin care routine that K-beauty popularized all over the world. In contrast to the conventional three-step cleanser- toner-moisturizer routine that many of us grew up with, the ‘10-step skin care routine’ incorporates products like essences, serums, ampoules, and sheet masks into it.”

The flexibility of the concept is what’s so great for so many people.

While there are some variations, the 10-step routine follows this order:

  1. oil-based cleanser
  2. foaming or water-based cleanser
  3. exfoliator (only 1 or 2 times a week)
  4. toner
  5. essence
  6. serum or ampoule
  7. sheet mask
  8. eye cream
  9. moisturizer
  10. sun protection, if it’s daytime

Phew.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed there’s a greater focus on hydration than on exfoliation, which is more common in a Western routine. But Chao reminds us that it’s not one-size-fits-all.

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“What any one person’s skin care routine emphasizes is very dependent on the person. The flexibility of the concept is what’s so great for so many people. Personally, I do front-load my routine with some AHA, BHA, and tretinoin. Then the hydrating and nourishing steps follow — they’ve helped a ton in preventing or mitigating side effects like dryness and irritation that can often result from using strong actives. My routine, like many others’, is a hybrid of both Asian and Western products.”

You don’t have to stick strictly to 10 steps to follow this routine, either. The many-layered approach may be just what your skin has been waiting for, or it could be too much and clog your pores.

As long as you move slowly and take things literally one step at a time, you should be able to decode the signs your skin is sending when you implement new steps.

“I’ve always advised people to add only one new product to their routine at a time and use it for at least a couple of weeks before adding anything else,” Chao adds. “That way they can see whether their skin responds well to the product and whether they’ll really feel the need for any more.”

“In terms of steps alone, people need to pay attention to whether their skin is actually even absorbing all the product.” Chao says. “If they’re getting to a point in their routine where the products are just sitting on top of their skin even after waiting around for a while, it becomes clear that that’s quite enough for them.”

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As long as you move slowly and take things literally one step at a time, you should be able to decode the signs your skin is sending when you implement new steps.

Q&A about the experience

We did a lightning round of questions with Chao about her experience and knowledge of this routine.

Do you have to use Korean brands only?

No, but Korean brands could be better prepared for the job.

“I’m still seeing the majority of Western options suitable to a K-beauty type routine at midrange and high-end price points rather than in the drugstore. Korean brands have… plenty of products to choose from at any budget,” says Chao.

Who won’t benefit from the routine, and what are the risks?

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“The main risk is simply that people will use products unsuitable for their needs. A lot of vendors sell prefab skin care routine kits, claiming that they’ve curated routines perfect for various skin types or issues, but it’s not that simple or that one-size-fits-all. Again, it’s best for people to curate their routine one step at a time. That way they can stop at the right point for their own skin.”

Do you have to use all 10 steps morning and night?

“Those of us who do use a long routine generally reserve it for night, when we have the time! Morning routines tend to be much more streamlined and focused on the basics of moisture and sun protection.”

Will the 10-step routine help me achieve glass/honey/dewy skin?

“That’s [the goal of] a long, multilayered routine. Packing layers of hydration into skin will plump it up, resulting in a smoother texture, and the increased water content in skin catches light differently, providing that glassy glow we love!”

What results should I expect, and how long will it take?

“Results really depend on the individual, what products they’re using, and what their skin is like to begin with, but people who take the time to put together a good routine for their skin and who stick with it generally see a huge improvement in the radiance and texture of their skin!”

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“Hydration and moisture show results quite quickly, within a couple of weeks to a month, while products that aim to improve the structure and function of skin (like vitamin C, retinoids, and anything that targets hyperpigmentation or collagen production) will take a few months.”

OK, still interested? Here we go into the (removal of the) gritty details.

Step 1: Oil cleanser

Purpose and benefits

This is step one of the double cleansing method made famous by K-beauty. Believe it or not, oils can act as a powerful cleanser. They’ll draw out and dissolve excess oil, dirt, makeup, and anything else that might be on your face.

Cleansing is an important part of keeping skin clear and glowing, and you want to start with a clean slate before moving on to your next steps!

Skip if…

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Your skin is too sensitive to double-cleanse or your skin reacts poorly to oils.

Step 2: Foam- or water-based cleanser

Purpose and benefits

This step ensures that your skin is squeaky clean before you move on to the rest of your routine. Check the pH of this cleanser to be sure it won’t strip your skin — that’s the opposite of what we’re aiming to achieve with this routine!

Skip if…

You have ultra-dry skin and you want to use only an oil-based cleanser.

Step 3: Exfoliator

Purpose and benefits

Freeing yourself of dead skin cells once or twice a week can help acne scars fade faster, products absorb better, and your skin feel smoother. If you want to avoid stripping your skin, you might consider replacing one of your cleansers with a gentle facial scrub on days you exfoliate.

Skip if…

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You have sensitive skin, active breakouts, or open skin or you exfoliated the day before.

Step 4: Toner

Purpose and benefits

This will prep your skin for what’s to come. Keep in mind that if you’re shopping Asian brands, many use the word “lotion” to describe what Western brands call “toners.” Don’t be confused!

Skip if…

You’re on a strict budget or running low on time.

Step 5: Essence

Purpose and benefits

The 10-step routine starts with thin products and works up to thicker products, adding layers of nourishment along the way. Your essence is the first step of nourishment as you build up to your moisturizer.

Step 6: Extra-strength treatments (serums vs. ampoules)

Purpose and benefits

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Serums are the secret sauce that will really put you on the path toward the glow you seek. They’re concentrated treatments that can target whatever specific skin concerns you may have. Ampoules are like pumped-up versions of serums.

Skip if…

You used an exfoliating toner. You’ll want to stick to a nourishing, hydrating serum and avoid using any additional chemical exfoliants or peels. Avoid doubling up on harsher ingredients in your routine.

Step 7: Sheet mask

Purpose and benefits

Sheet masks are a unique way to mask because the nature of the application means the maximum amount of product will be pushed into your skin rather than evaporate into the air.

You might notice that the package will have a lot of extra serum at the bottom. Don’t save it for later — apply it to your neck, your chest, and the backs of your hands for maximum glow.

Skip if…

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You’re concerned about the typically single-use nature of the packaging or you’re on a time crunch.

Step 8: Eye cream

Purpose and benefits

While you may not necessarily need a designated eye cream, if you have super- sensitive eyes or very specific goals for your eye area, you may want one to moisturize, de-puff, or minimize signs of aging.

Skip if…

Your moisturizer is safe for the eye area or you don’t have specific goals for your eyes that are separate from your overall skin goals.

Step 9: Moisturizer

Purpose and benefits

Moisturize to keep your skin hydrated and your skin barrier balanced.

Step 10: Sun protection

Purpose and benefits

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The sun is kryptonite to your skin, so you’ll want to protect yourself from it at all costs. Sun exposure can also speed up signs of aging, slow the healing of acne scars, and, ya know, cause skin cancer… so protect your skin, people!

So, who started this trend?

“Over the past few years, different brands and people have claimed they’re the ones who invented the 10-step routine or coined the term, but ultimately it wasn’t any one person’s discovery,” Chao explains. “It was a gradual evolution, driven by the development and marketing of ever more specialized products (and the desire to sell more products to skin care consumers!).”

Though we may not know the exact origins of the 10-step routine, we do know that K-beauty has forever changed the skin care landscape worldwide. Gone is the veil of mystery surrounding what’s in our products. Now we shop by ingredients and formulations that have piqued our interest in an effort to re-create the refreshed image of what skin looks like.

And we may even have the 10-step routine to thank for normalizing “skin care as self-care.” Every step is part of a long, luxurious ritual that lets us relax and treat ourselves after a long day.

Where to shop K-beauty

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While the 10-step routine can be fun and offer great results, it might not be for everybody. Every person’s skin reacts differently to using a lot of products, and time and budget constraints could make it challenging to implement for some. If you’re interested, make sure you have your basics covered, and you can slowly build from there.

K-beauty has become much easier to get your hands on in recent years. You might want to try Soko Glam to get started — the site has a wide selection of curated products and a wealth of information.

Brands like COSRX and Missha, which are easy to find at Ulta or Amazon, might be a good place to start. They’ve been in the game for a long time and have a variety of tried and trusted formulations for all skin types.

Above all, remember that going through these steps is about making the time to care for yourself. So take your time. You deserve it.

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