You have probably heard of the 10 step Korean skincare routine; to some, it's a godsend; to others, a massive waste of time.
As a skincare addict, I can personally attest to its effectiveness, but the problem for many seems to lie within the name; the fact that the routine has ten specific steps can seem off-putting or even somewhat overwhelming – especially if you're a skincare virgin – but most skin care aficionados will tell you ten steps doesn't really take long, and not all steps have to be followed every day; there is a tiny bit of wiggle room.
So, read on, because I’m breaking down this infamous routine and addressing another massive issue within not just K-beauty, but the beauty and cosmetics industry in general: cruelty-free beauty.
Let’s address the massive pink elephant in the K-beauty room: its stance on animal testing. It’s been announced that by 2018, testing on animals will be made illegal in Korea; but even considering this, it’s still hard to find cruelty-free Korean beauty brands.
It’s not that Korea is mad into animal testing particularly, but it can be difficult to find clarity on the issue. Firstly, there is the issue with China: any beauty or cosmetic products sold in China are required by law to test on animals. Secondly, most of this information is written in Korean so it’s difficult to find out whether they use products derived from animals (e.g. snail secretion filtrate which is harvested ethically), or whether they do test on animals.
The battle for cruelty-free Korean brands did just get a little better with the announcement that major company Outin Futures and their brands RE:P, Code9 and Neogen have been certified Cruelty-Free and have even given the Leaping Bunny certification; so as well as a breaking down the Korean 10 step process, to be safe, I have only listed Korean brands that have been confirmed as cruelty-free or vegan, and to fill in the gaps I’ve added cruelty-free and vegan brands from around the world.
Since we’re talking about the process rather than just the products, you can interchange some of your favourite western products – but please keep in mind you should tailor products to your specific skin type and problem areas.
1. Makeup Remover/Oil Cleanser
One of the fundamental differences with the Korean routine is the double cleanse. I know cleaning your face twice may sound like overkill, but trust me: truly cleaning your skin is probably the most important piece of skincare advice you can get. Remember you are cleaning a multitude of things – makeup, dirt and pollution.
Firstly, using an oil cleanser – which also doubles up as a makeup remover massage. Sometimes in the West, we are taught that if your skin is oily/acne prone then to avoid oil, but nothing is further from the truth: the oil cleansers are particularly good at removing oil based products like makeup and sunscreen, and even remove extra sebum. Simply rub the oil all over your face, maybe even throw in a quick facial massage, then add a little hot/warm water to your face which will emulsify, turning it milky white. Then finally, rinse off.
2. Water based cleanser
Once your first cleanse is done, move on to the water based step. On a damp face work the cleanser into your skin and rinse when finished. This can be a foam cleanser – or not – and for this step you can use cold water if you prefer.
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3. The Exfoliator
Most people are pretty familiar with exfoliators, and good news this is a step that, depending on your skin type, does not need to be done every day. People vary; personally, with normal skin I don't tend to exfoliate more than once a week, but in colder months I will increase to twice a week. When exfoliating, try to focus on the nose and any areas that have dry patches. Exfoliation is a key step that shouldn't be overlooked to make sure your skincare products really penetrate, as there is no point applying them onto dry and dead skin.
4. The Toner
Now one of the big differences in K-beauty toners is that they are never astringent toners, and rather than strip the skin, drying it out, they are basically resetting your pH balance through hydration. A good toner should hydrate and nourish rather than dry out, so that stinging feeling that some people enjoy when using toners is not a good thing. I repeat: if it stings, don't use it. To use, either place on a cotton pad and wipe gently over the face, or since many toners now come in spray bottles, just spritz on the face and gently pat in with your fingers. To be honest if you haven't tried toner in a spritz bottle you have not lived; you can top up throughout the day for an added refresher.
5. The Essence
There is just something magic about Korean essences in particular, maybe because it was invented in Korea. Some people consider the essence to be the heart of the skincare routine, and to be honest, it is pretty hard to find this in Western skincare brands. Used after you tone, just simply take a small amount and gently pat onto skin.
6. Ampoules, Booster & Serums
This step is listed as ampoules, boosters and serums, but no, this doesn’t mean three more products. Within the world of K-beauty you would say ‘ampoule’ but in Western lines, these products can be referred to as ‘booster’ or ‘serums’. Generally, they are of a thicker consistency than the essence and tend to be used to target specific issues like anti ageing. Again, like the essence, taking a small amount, you gently pat onto skin. If your skin isn’t too problematic many people skip this step in their morning routine, but it is a must at night.
7. Sheet Mask
The sheet mask is one of the massive revolutionary products from the K-beauty world, and I have to admit I am a bit of a sheet mask addict. Let’s face, it placing a mask in one fell swoop onto your face is so much faster than a traditional face mask, and I swear to god, the second you take off your first sheet mask you will be completely convinced these babies really live up to their hype.
Also, good news, a sheet mask is not necessarily a step you must do every single day: depending on your skin type you can go for a few times a week, or even just once a week. Most importantly, make sure the mask is going onto clean skin, so follow the earlier steps before unfolding the mask and placing it on your face. Pro tip – don't waste the extra essence in the packet, just rub it everywhere so you don't lose any of the moisturising goodness. Then, sit back and relax for around 20-30 minutes for most masks; times can vary, but a good rule of thumb is to make sure the mask is off your face before it dries out. Once the mask is off, gently pat the leftover essence on your face, don't wash it off, but once sunk in you should complete the rest of your skincare steps.
8. The Eye Cream
Eye cream is such an important skincare step. When you’re young, or look young, it's hard to feel the benefit and to be honest I used to totally forgo eye cream, but it is deathly important to hold back the hands of time: once the signs of ageing start happening it's almost too late and you are just delaying the inevitable. The skin around your eye is very sensitive, that's why it can age so badly, so eye cream is a step never to be missed, day or night; the old you will really thank you for this. Bonus point, eye cream can also lessen dark circles and puffiness. To apply, use your ring or pinkie finger and gently tap the product around your eye, think orbital bone area. No need to go closer as the cream will migrate up on its own.
9. The Moisturiser
The basic fundamental idea behind all Korean skincare is hydration and moisture. Hydration will nourish and protect the skin, keeping its natural moisture barrier and the outer layer of epidermis healthy. This will prevent your skin from developing skin irritations, disorders or even letting bacteria in. Ultimately it will protect your skin from life's wear and tear, as well as reducing ageing. While moisturising is extremely important all the time, it's essential before bed, particularly if you have dry skin because while you sleep, your skin will work on restoring any damage done throughout the day. I don't think I need to explain how to put on moisturiser, I'm sure you know. Rub it all over your goddam face.
You can also add in a sleeping pack once a week instead of night time moisturising. Sleeping packs are another K-beauty innovation and are kind of trippy to get your head around. Putting it on like a lotion, you spread a thin layer all over your face but you don't pat it in, instead, you just leave it and go to sleep. I know what you’re thinking – doesn't it just wipe all onto your pillow? But no, it magically goes a little tacky and doesn't wipe off, and in the morning you simply rinse it off with warm water. Look I may have lost you at sleeping packs, but I was sceptical until I used one – it’s witchcraft okay?
Now I have to admit here that I hate the sun, but that aside, sunscreen is crazy important – like, all the time. In the UK as we don't see the sun much, we tend to overdo our exposure to it. It has been suggested that the biggest difference between ageing in West versus the East is sun damage.
Any dermatologist will tell you that the worst thing you can do to your skin is to not wear any sun protection. Now, Korean women can take it to a very extreme – if not iconic – degree, wearing sunscreen if they are sitting near a window or even at a computer. Not suggesting you need to take it that far, but I would say you should not ever leave your house without sunscreen on. Although makeup can provide a tiny bit of protection and most makeup contains a little bit of SPF, it really isn't enough to really protect you.
All images courtesy of Soko Glam