The Korean Skin Care Routine

By Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Oil-Based Cleansers

The Korean approach to everything skin is to be gentle, and cleansing is no different. The double cleansing technique not only helps remove impurities and grime from your skin; it does so very gently. That means that the natural skin barrier isn't compromised with harsh cleansing and that skin isn't stripped dry of all oils, including the good, beneficial oils that help protect skin and keep it balanced. Gentle cleansing means that skin is cleansed while also being nourished, balanced, and hydrated, which helps prevent skin from being irritated or becoming sensitized. Oil-based cleansers get at oil-based impurities, like makeup, sunscreen, and excess sebum, and they do so gently without disrupting the oil balance in skin. Oil-based cleansers are a good alternative to makeup removers that can often be drying because the oil in an oil-based cleanser does a few things it goes deep into pores and draws out all the trapped gunk; it dissolves and breaks down makeup, sometimes even stubborn, waterproof makeup; and it sweeps away any excess sebum. It doesn't stop there, though an oil- based cleanser also hydrates and softens skin, and it won't strip your skin of the beneficial oils that keep your skin healthy and your sebum production balanced.

Water-Based Cleansers

A water-based cleanser helps cleanse the impurities that oil-based cleansers can't and following up an oil-based cleanser with a water-based one also helps sweep away any remaining residue from the oil-based cleanser. The two cleansers combined thoroughly cleanse skin. A key element to keep in mind is that water- based cleansers have a bit of a reputation of being drying and stripping and that's typically due to the high pH and sulfates in these cleansers. The key is to use gentle, hydrating, low pH water-based cleanser so that your skin gets the cleanse it needs without disrupting the skin barrier.


When we talk about toners in the Korean skincare routine, though, we're talking about Korean toners, which are different from Western toners. They're milder, gently formulated as Korean skincare tends to go, and they provide that first layer of hydration in a skincare routine. They're not astringent, alcohol- laden toners. They're intended to balance and hydrate not dry skin like an astringent would. Principally, though, toners are formulated to do one thing: to balance the pH level in your skin. Our skin's first layer of protection is the acid mantle, which is an invisible chemical barrier and this acid mantle likes to be slightly acidic at a pH of 5. 5 to best keep moisture in the skin and harmful bacteria out of the skin. Korean toners, however, don't typically just stop there. ishonest founder and licensed esthetician, Alicia Yoon, tells us that, when it comes to Korean toners, they tend to be a bit milder and are designed not only to balance skin's pH, but also to help skincare ingredients sink deeper into skin by drenching skin with hydrators. In other words, toners help prep skin for the next steps that follow in your skincare routine!


Essences have long been an essential part of the Korean beauty routine since what feels like time immemorial many of us remember using essences before we even learned why; we just did because our moms told us to. They've been a source of confusion in the West, even among skincare aficionados. So, what is an essence? The primary purpose of an essence is to flood skin with hydration. Why is this such a vital step in a skincare routine? Think about a sponge. When a sponge is dry, its ability to absorb things is seriously diminished. If you have a spill on a counter, running a dry sponge over it is mostly just going to move the spill around on the counter. However, when you hydrate the sponge by running it under a faucet or letting it sit in a bowl of water, and then try to mop up the spill with that hydrated, plumped-up sponge, it will work much more effectively because it's been sufficiently hydrated and can now actually absorb the spill. Skin works in a similar way. When you first prep skin with an essence, the essence drenches your skin with hydration, maximizing your skin's ability to absorb all the goodness from the rest of your skincare routine. While we're on the sponge analogy, think about how shriveled up a dry sponge is. Then think about how it gets visibly plumper and brighter once it's been sufficiently hydrated. Skin works similarly, too when it's dehydrated, it's more prone to becoming irritated or more susceptible to visible signs of premature aging. Flooding skin with hydration after cleansing and toning, morning and night, helps keep skin healthy and balanced.

Serums & Ampoules

Serums tend to be more concentrated in its active ingredients, these emollient gel-like substances often feature heavy-hitting ingredients meant to really target and treat skin issues like dark spots, wrinkles and dullness. Usually, serums have a more viscous texture than essences. Ampoules are considered to be more concentrated version of a serum, think of it as a booster shot. They often contain a higher concentration of active ingredients and are used for a finite amount of time. For example, you may want to use a weekly ampoule pack so you can get big results before a big event or after a major skin crisis. You may often see them in smaller vials or dropper bottles as a little goes a long way here.

Eye Creams

While eye creams are slightly different than moisturizers in that they also typically active ingredients to target various concerns for the eye area, a major role they play is also providing that moisturizing and sealing effect for the delicate eye area. Applying an eye cream before or after moisturizer is OK whatever feels best for your routine based on what moisturizer and eye cream you're using. Having said that, we typically recommend applying an eye cream before your moisturizer so that the eye area is treated prior to your moisturizer which you may apply over your eye area as well, if that's your preference for your particular moisturizer.

Moisturizers / Oils

Hydrating is basically about giving skin the water it needs to be, well, hydrated. The thing about skin, though, is that it's porous, meaning that, if the environment you're in is super dry or if you've compromised your skin barrier, all that hydration you just layered in? All that is going to evaporate into the air, leaving your skin dry, possibly even drier than when you started all this layering and hydrating. That process is called transepidermal water loss, and moisturizers help prevent it. Moisturizers do introduce more hydration into your skin, but it's important to note that moisturizers come last, after super-hydrating products like essences and serums and oils, because many moisturizers contain these things called occlusives. Occlusives are ingredients that create a hydrophobic film on the surface of skin, which is a fancy way of saying that they create a seal by forming a thin layer of oil that prevents water from evaporating out of your skin. In other words, occlusives help prevent transepidermal water loss. But what's the difference between a moisturizer and a facial oil? Creams are better at penetrating skin because they are partly water-based, and can deliver ingredients that improve the ability of skin to maintain moisture, and are thus more of a humectant, meaning they can draw water in, says board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD. So, after you cleanse your skin and apply your a. m. or p. m. serums, slather on a moisturizer packed with ingredients like hyaluronic acid and ceramides, which your pores will drink right up. Then comes time for your oil. Oils are really better at sealing in moisture due to their occlusive naturethey prevent the evaporation of hydration from skin to the environment, explains Dr. Nazarian. Thanks to the fact that oils are emollients, they'll create a barrier on your skin to lock in all that hydrating goodness from your moisturizer.


There are two types of exfoliators physical and chemical. A physical exfoliator is a textured substance or tool that sloughs away the topmost layer of skin; we're talking things like sugar scrubs, cleansing towels, peeling gels, amongst others that, well, physically exfoliate. When done properly, physical exfoliators give you immediate results baby-soft, smooth skin you can feel right away. Physical exfoliators, however, only work on the surface level of skin, and they're not recommended for sensitive skin types or skin that's prone to irritation. That doesn't mean you should write off physical exfoliators altogether; there is a time and place for them; and, like pretty much all things skin, the key is to listen to your skin and its needs. You might have a day when your skin is feeling really dull and rough, and it might benefit from a physical exfoliant. You might have oily or acne-prone skin that might regularly want some physical sloughing. Chemical exfoliators, on the other hand, are made up primarily of acids, and there are three common types: AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs we'll explain each very shortly. The word acid might be intimidating, but we promise that it doesn't have to be! To put it simply, a chemical exfoliator helps slough away your dead skin cells and encourage cell turnover in your skin. A chemical exfoliator doesn't just work on the surface level; it also sinks into the deeper layers of your skin and exfoliates from deep within. You can often use the different kinds of acids together because, as you'll soon learn, they each work in slightly different ways, and you can look for the type of acid that best suits your skin needs.

Sheet Masks / Sleeping Masks

Sheet masks do two main things: they flood your skin with hydration and other active, beneficial ingredients, and they create a barrier over your skin so that those active, beneficial ingredients can better sink into your skin. Most often soaked in an essence, the sheet mask itself prevents all the hydration packed into that essence from simply evaporating away into the air. Instead, because of that barrier, the essence ideally has nowhere to go but into your skin. Sleep masks are a great multipurpose way to get the skin-of-your-dreams while you snooze. They can be used in lieu of your moisturizer which is the final step of your nighttime routine, or in combination based on your skin condition and needs. Depending on the type of mask, they can be used either on daily or a couple of times a week. Hydrating masks can be used daily to give skin a whopping dose of moisture whereas clarifying masks should be used only a couple of times as it can be too drying if used daily.


Sunscreen formulations fall into two camps or, really, three: mineral sunscreens, chemical sunscreens, and hybrid sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens are also called physical sunscreens, and there are only two mineral sunscreen ingredients: titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide. On the other hand, there are many more chemical sunscreen ingredients, roughly 30, and they work in different ways. Mineral sunscreens reflect away UV rays, essentially repelling them away, while chemical sunscreens will take the UV rays, convert them into heat, and prevent them from doing damage. Neither mineral nor chemical sunscreens are inherently better than the other. They're equally protective, and it really kind of comes down to what you're looking for.

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