We’ve all fallen prey to the 10-step (sometimes even 14, if you’ve really got a lot of time in the morning) Korean skincare system, for many reasons: one, Koreans and their glowing skin; two, the affordability of Korean skincare products versus the mind-numbing prices on American or even European beauty brands; and three, it makes logical sense. Every single step, after figuring out the difference between an essence and ampoule, is completely necessary to an overall improvement in your skin.
However, this famous Korean skincare routine was created by and for Koreans, which means that, although we’re undeniably thankful for the similar properties of our Asian skin, the weather and temperature of a chilly Seoul versus that of a sunny Manila make all the difference.
The 10-step Korean skincare routine, in essence (yes, a pun), uses a variety of products, but as every guide online will tell you, the exact number of steps and products used really depends on the skin type and needs of your skin. While some women benefit from the full 10 steps, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we all have to follow the 10-step routine every day.
This is best explained, I think, with a consultation I had with some specialists from Biologique Recherche at the height of my Korean skincare obsession. Biologique Recherche facials are coveted by French women, no matter what arrondissement they reside in; they’re available locally exclusively at CHI Spa at EDSA Shangri-La Hotel. As such, they provide a very European perspective on skin: focusing on its long-term health, versus instant gratification.
During my Biologique Recherche facial, I was told that my skin hydration levels had fallen below 1%. They immediately advised me to stop exfoliating, at the risk of irreversible damage in the future, particularly from the sun. (For the record, the French do not turn their nose up at skincare. In fact, I came away after with a whole system, including serums to inject into my face.) (Which I haven’t used because, yes, needles.)
At that point, of course, I was exfoliating every day, dedicating an hour in the morning to an expansive Korean skincare routine. I immediately stopped, and although it’s been harder to achieve the Kpop glow, I’ve found that small tweaks in the K-skincare system actually make it more effective.
Step 1 and 2: Cleansers
For example: focusing on cleansing more than any of the other steps. Dr. Sheila Acosta, a physician with the Belo Medical Group, explains, “For someone who has a city lifestyle in Manila, accumulated oil, dirt, and make up of the day warrant the first 2 steps [of the Korean routine]. Double cleansing is recommended: Oil cleanser takes away the debris from make up and environmental elements that stayed on the skin, followed by a foam cleanser to further remove the dirt and grime that stayed deep-seated even after oil cleansing.”
Our Beauty Editor Cindy Go has also whispered of her skincare secret to cleanse rather than moisturize. There’s no proof, really, other than the fact that her skin is incredibly healthy, and she looks like a 25-year-old, still. Don’t overdo it, though. As Acosta explains, “Twice a day cleansing is sufficient to clear the skin of these elements. It is not advisable to over cleanse, as this would remove the protective barrier of the skin, which can lead to irritation and flare up.
“The skin actively repairs and regenerates overnight and secretes oils and sweat, therefore thorough cleansing in the morning before applying any skin care regimen is essential. It is even more important to clean the skin at night before bedtime to allow the skin to ‘breathe’ from accumulated make-up, dirt, and excess oils of the day. Cleansing will support the natural process of repair and regeneration of the skin that actively happens at night. Overall, cleansing the skin will prevent acne breakouts, skin irritation and will keep skin looking healthier particularly when in a tropical climate.”
For oily skin, cleansers that have salicylic acid or AHA like Belo’s glycolic soap, or those that have microbeads like Oilacleanse of ZO Skin Health are ideal. For normal to dry skin, it’s okay to pick a gentle cleanser, like Cetaphil or ZO Skin Health’s Normacleanse.
Steps 3 and 4: Exfoliator and toner
The middle steps are much more optional, according to Acosta. Exfoliate one to three times a week to slough of a layer of dead skin; if you have sensitive skin, or easily irritated skin, best to skip it altogether.
While toners help in preparing the skin for better absorption of the products that will be applied subsequently, Acosta emphasizes that “if the skin has acne or pigmentations or dry, certain toners are medicated to treat skin conditions and prevent them from worsening.”
Step 5 and 6: Essences and serums
The crown glory of Korean skincare are the application of essence, and serums/boosters/ampoules, which people usually recommend you go wild on. Go ahead with that essence, but let your skin breathe if you have no immediate skin concerns, or if you’re not targeting pigmentation. Kiehl’s Pure Vitality Renewing Cream, for example, is made exactly for people like that– the lucky few with skin that just needs maintenance and prevention.
Steps 7, 8, 9: Moisturizers and masks
While many people have strong opinions on moisturizer (even Kris Aquino doesn’t use it every day), it really all depends on skin type and condition. Moisturizers containing hyaluronic acid, AHA, peptides, and glycerin most effectively hydrate the skin. They may be used once or twice daily, but Acosta warns, “Step may be skipped if the skin has active acne breakouts or when there is excessive secretion of sebum.”
Eye creams help improve the fine lines, skin laxity, puffiness, and dark circles. It may be used nighty around the eye area. Pro-con lists for eye cream are aplenty, but ignore them: they aren’t living under intense tropical heat,
If you want to mask, do it only once a week. For dry and dull skin, hydrating masks leave the skin supple and moisturized. Brightening masks provide lightening of the skin while oil control masks are recommended for oily or acne prone skin.
Step 10: Sunscreen
The most important step, however, is sunscreen. Why it’s taken Glossier this long to make one is beyond us, but for tropical girls, it’s the one step you should never skip, no matter how lazy you are. It’s not just a gag—“Sunscreen is what could actually help give your skin that youthful glow, or to keep it blemish free,” Acosta concludes.
Paranoid about sun protection? Get informed in part 2 of this series.