Asian Skincare Guide: The Korean Skincare Routine
[Updated: May 11, 2014] Since I began writing about Korean skincare products on this blog, I’ve received an increasing number of inquiries about Asian skincare and what makes it so unique. I have a deep appreciation for Korean products – they have some really unique qualities that set them apart from Western skincare. However, Asian skincare isn’t just about the products; it’s about a core philosophy that our skin comes first, an emphasis on hydrating layers, targeted treatments, a dedication to UV protection, and a culture that celebrates experimentation and cutting edge discoveries. I’ve put together this starter guide to give people an introduction to the Asian skincare routine, and provide some resources for getting started with your own regimen. This guide is primarily focused on Korean skincare, but I’ve included a few Japanese products and shopping resources as well. I’ll be working on a seperate guide specific to Japanese skincare at a later date.
This guide is divided into four parts: The major differences between Asian and Western skincare culture, details about products and routine steps, shopping resources, and blogs where you can find more Asian skincare product reviews.
Part 1: Five Major Differences Between Asian & Western Skincare
Part 2: The Asian Skincare Routine – Products & Layering
Part 3: Where to Buy: Shopping & Resources for Asian Skincare Products
Part 4: Asian Cosmetics & Skincare Blogs
Part 1: Five Major Differences Between Asian & Western Skincare
Here in the US, cosmetics make up the majority of beauty purchases. Not the case in Korea and Japan, where women prefer to spend their money on skincare products. In fact, Hope in a Blog cites one statistic that says 89% of Korean women spend more money on skincare products than makeup. The philosophy is that beauty begins with great skin, and that healthy skin means you need less makeup.
2. Focal Points
Asian people take UV protection very seriously. As a result, they have some of the best sunscreens in the world, as well as a much wider selection.
Coinciding with the sunscreen obsession is the fact that fair skin is very highly valued in Asia. There are a ton of whitening products in the Korean and Japanese skincare markets, and many of the multi-functioning products tout whitening properties as one of the major attributes.
These products aren’t actually turning anyone’s face white- the majority of them are just brightening products meant to fade dark marks and even out skin tone. However, there are some products that aim to actually lighten the skin, but the effects of the skin lightening are mostly temporary.
Cutting Edge Ingredients
Experts say that Korea is around 10 years ahead of us in terms of skincare technology. This is largely due to the fact that there is less red tape when it comes to bringing new skincare ingredients to market. Skin care actives such as snail mucin, bee venom, and Syn-ake – a synthetic compound that mimics the effects of viper venom on wrinkles, are commonly seen in Korean skincare products right now. Those trends are always changing, but some of them are effective enough that they wind up sticking around. Snail slime has been big there for a few years now, for example. For more information on some of the current Korean skincare ingredient trends, see my post here.
We have some really amazing quality skincare products here in the US. Some of my baseline skincare routine is, in fact, comprised of Western products that I’m extremely pleased with. But the market for skincare in Asia is extremely competitive, and one of the benefits of that phenomenon is higher quality products, even at lower price points. There are many low to mid-range products that are found in Japanese drug stores or Korean road shops that are right on par with our mid to high-end department store brands in the West.
4. Number of Products
Most of us are used to a 3-step skincare system that includes cleansing, toning, and moisturizing. In Asia, an average skincare routine includes anywhere from 5-10 steps, including cleansing oil, foaming cleanser, booster, essence/serum, emulsion, cream, eye cream, and sunscreen. Additionally, many women regularly include sheet masks and sleeping packs in their routine.
In order to get the most benefit from all these products, Asian women use a layering technique to apply them. The layering technique involves gently patting or massaging the products in the in a specific order, usually from the lightest in consistency to the heaviest.
Part 2: The Asian Skincare Routine – Products & Layering
There are anywhere from 5-10 steps in a Korean or Japanese skincare routine. Each of these products is applied by patting it gently into the skin with your fingers. Some people like to use a light massage technique, which stimulates the circulation in your face. The nice thing about this layering technique is that you are not obligated to use Asian skincare products to do it. You can use whatever you have at home, or whatever is most accessible in your geographic location. I personally tend to use a mix of Korean, Japanese, American, and French products. Here’s a quick look at the order of the Asian skincare steps, a general description of the product types, and some Asian product recommendations:
Step 1: Oil Cleanser or Cleansing Balm
This is a cleanser designed to remove makeup, and is often referred to here as “pre-cleansing.” Sometimes a cream cleanser is used in place of an oil cleanser, but the oil cleansers do a pretty bang-up job at removing makeup.
Oil cleansers and balms I like:
• DHC Deep Cleansing Oil ($26)
• Banila Co. Clean-it Zero Cleansing Balm/Sherbet ($20)
Step 2: Foaming, Milky, or Gel Cleanser
The purpose of this step is to thoroughly clean skin once all makeup has been removed. As with all cleansers, it’s important to ensure you select a cleanser with a pH below 7 since high pH cleansers can damage the skin’s protective barrier. I personally like my cleansers to have a pH between 5 and 6.
Cleansers I like:
Step 3: Toner/Skin/Booster
This is where we really start deviating from the Western routine. An Asian toner is not the same as a Western toner. Western toners are designed to provide additional cleansing and tend to have astringent properties. An Asian toner is designed to add moisture to the skin that might be stripped during the cleansing process, and to increase the penetration of additional skincare products. Some brands have separate toners and boosters, in which case the booster is applied first to prepare the skin for more products, followed by the toner, which is designed to soften the skin. However, in many skincare lines, the toner and booster are the same product.
You have to be quick applying a toner/booster product – once you dry your face, it’s optimal to apply this within 2 seconds. I almost never make the buzzer myself, though, and my face hasn’t fallen off yet.
Toners I like:
Step 4: Eye Cream (optional)
If you’re an eye cream fan, you’ll be happy to know that there are a ton of Asian eye creams on the market. Different skincare lines have different suggestions for when to apply the eye cream, but I’ve noticed a lot of them have you apply the eye cream just after your toner/booster.
Eye creams I like:
Step 5: Sheet Mask (optional, nighttime only)
Sheet masks are thin cotton sheets soaked in a treatment essence designed to target particular skin problems. There are a huge variety of these available, and they are generally inexpensive. They can do a number of things – some of them are moisturizing, some are exfoliating, some are whitening and some are nourishing. Most sheet masks are meant to be applied after the toner/booster step, and for some people, they replace the essence/serum step. After leaving the mask on the face for 10-15 minutes, gently pat the remaining essence into the skin and then finish your skincare routine as you normally would. Most like to use sheet masks a few times a week, but some people prefer to use them daily.
Sheet masks I like:
Step 6: Essence/Serum/Ampoule
An essence is very similar to what we commonly refer to as a serum in the US. In some cases, they’re the same, but usually a serum has a higher concentration of beneficial ingredients. An “ampoule” is generally used to describe a serum-like product with an even denser concentration of beneficial ingredients than a serum, but again, sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. It’s not uncommon to have an essence, serum, and ampoule in a routine, or more than one of any one of the individual product types. They are generally designed to target specific issues, such as hyperpigmentation, dullness, signs of aging, or acne. There are a few lines that have you apply the essence after the emulsion, but in most cases, the essence comes first.
Essences/serums/ampoules I like:
Step 7: Emulsion
An emulsion is a moisturizing treatment, which usually has a lotion like consistency. It is meant to moisturize, but also often has a lesser concentration of some of the same actives in the essence. For those with oily skin, or who live in a humid climate, this is the only moisturizing step in the routine. People with drier skin will also apply a cream later.
Emulsions I like:
Step 8: Spot Treatment (optional)
A spot treatment can be a number of things – acne treatment, whitening serum, wrinkle filler, etc. For reference, if you use any kind of retinoid, that would fall into this category, as would any type of benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid.
Spot treatments I like:
Step 9: Cream (optional)
Creams are meant to provide additional moisture. They are generally thicker than emulsions and come in a jar rather then a pump bottle. Many people skip this step, particularly in the morning, but people with drier skin like myself like to include it.
Step 10: Sleeping Pack (optional, nighttime only)
A sleeping pack, sometimes called a sleeping mask, is a skin treatment that usually comes in a tub or a tube. It’s designed to be applied over the face at night to provide moisture and skincare benefits while you sleep.
Sleeping packs I like:
Step 11: Sunscreen (morning only)
As previously mentioned, Asian women go above and beyond when it comes to protecting their skin from UV damage. You’d be hard pressed to find an Asian sunscreen that provides less than SPF 30 protection, with most of them providing SPF 45-50. The thing I like best about both Japanese and Korean sunscreen formulas is how elegant they are. Asian formulas offer high, broad-spectrum UV protection without a heavy, greasy finish, and many of them also avoid the white cast commonly seen in high SPF sunscreens.
Sunscreens I like:
Part 3: Shopping & Resources for Asian Skincare Products
There are a lot of online shops as well as Amazon and Ebay sellers that carry Korean & Japanese skincare products. Unfortunately, there are also many sellers that are carrying counterfeit Asian beauty products. It’s very important to make sure you are buying from a trusted seller – there is no telling what ingredients are in the fake products!
This is a list of online stores and sellers that I know carry authentic products from Korean and Japanese skincare brands. All of them either ship internationally, or are located here in the US.
W2Beauty – Huge selection of authentic Korean beauty products that ship from Seoul. All products are fresh from their manufacturers. Prices are about the same as they are at Sasa, but W2Beauty shipping is free. For an extra $3 you can get a tracking number. Very friendly customer service. If there’s a product you want but don’t see it on their site, email them.
They will do their best to get it for you! PayPal accepted. If you’re new to W2Beauty, you can get $5 off your first order by entering my sponsor code when registering your new account: 025605
Wishtrend – Wishtrend is one of the first online Korean Beauty retailers to pop up on the scene, and they carry a large array of products from brands that are sometimes hard to find in other places. They ship from Korea, but shipping is fairly quick for being from overseas. Brands include Skin & Lab, ElishaCoy, OST, Klair’s, Tosowoong, Ciracle, and more.
Soko Glam – Soko Glam is a New York based shop that carries a very thoughtfully curated selection of Korean beauty products. Shipping is insanely fast for US customers, and each of the products featured has been personally selected by the founder, Charlotte Cho. The selection includes products from Su:m37, Missha, Clio, TonyMoly, and more.
Beauteque – Beauteque is a New Jersey based shop that carries a selection of popular Korean skincare products and cosmetics. Shipping is fast for US customers, and they frequently have sales. Brands include Lioele, Etude House, The Face Shop, Innisfree, and more.
RoseRoseShop – This is the standalone online store for the same retailer that sells on eBay as Rub Ruby Shop. The selection is HUGE, products are authentic, and the prices are very, very low. However, the shipping costs are one of the highest for overseas retailers, and while the shipping is mostly reliable, I’ve had a couple of instances where my package was returned because it was addressed incorrectly.
Sasa – This is a huge online department store. Sasa has retail stores throughout China, and the website itself ships from Hong Kong. They have a huge selection of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean skincare products. Shipping takes a while – my last order took a little over two weeks – but the shipping prices are fair. PayPal accepted.
Adam Beauty – Large selection of Japanese skincare and beauty products from brands such as Shiseido, Kose, RMK, Rhoto, and more.
Imomoko – Huge selection of Japanese skincare and beauty products from a wide range of brands, including SK-II, Shiseido, Albion, Canmake, Kanebo, and more.
Korea Depart – This website has the largest selection of Korean beauty products available to US shoppers. All products ship from Seoul. Their prices are really low – right on par with what you would pay if you were actually shopping for them in Korea. However, the shipping is very expensive – if you order from here, it would be wise to go in on a huge order with friends to make the shipping cost worth it.
Pretty & Cute – Pretty & Cute has a website that sells a variety of well known Korean brand skincare and cosmetics, including Etude House, Elisha Coy, and My Beauty Diary. They also have a retail store in Portland, OR, and I’m extremely jealous of everyone who lives near it.
RubyRubyShop on Ebay – This seller has a HUGE assortment of fairly priced Korean skincare and cosmetic products from brands such as Missha, Skin79, Holika Holika, TonyMoly, Laneige, and more. This seller ships worldwide from South Korea.
F2Plus1 on Ebay – Tons of Korean products from all the major brands. This particular seller is really good about carrying new collections as soon as they hit the market. All products ship from Korea. Definitely worth checking out!
I Am Love Shop – Huge selection of Korean skincare products from most of the major brands, such as Etude House, Lioele, Missha, OST, Aritaum, Innisfree, Ciracle, and many others.
Sing Sing Girl – Large selection of Korean skincare products from major brands such as Dr.Jart, BRTC, Mizon, The Face Shop, Skinfood, and others.
Bello-Girl on Ebay – Great selection of products from lots of major Korean brands. All products ship from Korea. Prices are very reasonable and shipping is free!
For the Fairest Sophia on Ebay – This shop carries a lot of higher end Korean brands, such as Hera, Ohui, Sulwhasoo, and History of Whoo. Her prices are great, and she includes a lovely handwritten note and a gift with your order. My last gift was an adorable lace headband.
A-poly on Amazon – This is an Amazon Marketplace seller I’ve purchased products from and can confirm the authenticity of the shop’s products. They ship from Korea. Shipping prices are reasonable and I thought it was pretty fast.
Cosmetic Love on Amazon – This shop has a great variety of Korean cosmetics and skincare products, and the prices are very good. They ship worldwide from South Korea.
Rescue Warrior on Amazon – Pretty decent selection of products from lots of major Korean brands. All products ship from Korea. Prices are very reasonable.
Asian Brands with US Websites
This is just a short list of Korean and Japanese beauty brands with a US web presence. A few of them even have retail stores here!
DHC – Mid-range Japanese skincare and cosmetics. Their cleansing oil is very popular in the US.
Shu Uemura – High-end Japanese skincare and cosmetics. People rave about their cleansing oil as well.
Shiseido – HUGE Japanese brand that’s already pretty popular here. They are sort of like Estée Lauder in the sense that they own many sub-brands, but also have the self-named Shiseido line. In addition to their website, they also have counters in many department stores around the US.
Sulwhasoo – This is a super high-end, Korean, luxury skincare brand with a fantastic reputation. They have a website, but their products are also available at Neiman Marcus, so you can check them out in person if you’re lucky enough to live near one.
Amore Pacific – Amore Pacific is one the larger skincare companies in Korea. They have a US website, but Sephora now carries their products as well! They’re pricy, but not quite as pricy as Sulwhasoo.
Missha – Missha is a highly accessible Korean road house brand that’s famous for their amazing BB creams. They have a huge lineup of skincare products and cosmetics available on their US website, and frequently have 30-50% off sales. I think Missha is a great starting point for someone just getting into Asian skincare.
Skin79 – This is another brand that’s already got some visibility in the US thanks to their BB creams. Their big sellers are their Hot Pink BB Cream and their VIP Gold BB Cream.
Rachel K Cosmetics – Rachel K is a Singapore cosmetics and skincare line that was started by Rachel Hum, a Singapore beauty queen turned entrepreneur. Their flagship product is their CC Cream, which is raved about by many beauty bloggers and vloggers.
Part 4: Asian Cosmetics & Skincare Blogs
The Wanderlust Project – Sheryll is probably my favorite Asian beauty writer right now. Her blog is more than just beauty – in addition to covering Korean skincare products and cosmetics, she also shares photos and stories about her life as an ex-pat from the US living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She also spent a few years working as a school teacher in South Korea.
The Beauty Wolf – This is a newcomer to the beauty blogging scene covering a lot of Korean makeup and skincare products, as well as a few Western products. She also creates some truly stunning collage-style graphics to showcase the products – you might be tempted to print them out and hang them on your wall!
Lin Lin Hime – Great blog, all around awesome lady. Lindsey does comprehensive reviews of a wide range of Korean skincare and beauty products. She also recently added this extremely helpful list of Korean ingredient translations, which is an incredible help for those of us who can’t translate on our own! Lindsey also helps out a lot with ingredient translations for Skin & Tonics.
Sample Hime – I love the conversational tone of this blog, and she covers a really broad range of Asian beauty products. She’s also recently created a great spreadsheet that compares pricing between some of the more popular online Korean beauty sellers.
Han In Beauty Spot – This is a recent discovery for me as well as a fast favorite. This blog is written by Kevin Jang, who is extremely knowledgable about skincare ingredients and generous with his information. He covers a large array of both Japanese and Korean products.
Fan-B – Fan-B is the Korean Beauty focused counterpart to Fanserviced, a site dedicated to Korean pop culture. She provides product reviews and Korean beauty news.
Beautifully Meishenme – Meishenme reviews Korean skincare, makeup, and accessories. She blogs in both English and Turkish, and covers a great variety of product types.
Beauty Junkie – I’m such a fan of Bethany’s blog. She reviews a wide range of Korean beauty items from popular brands such as Etude House, TonyMoly, and Missha. She specializes in affordable beauty products, so if you’re looking to get into some Korean skincare without falling into financial ruin, this is a great resource.
Memorable Days – Lots of Korean product reviews, and some great coverage of new collections and releases from many of the better known Korean brands.
Beautiful Buns – This is a Korean lifestyle blog that has a ton of Korean beauty product reviews. I’ve only discovered her recently, but she’s been blogging for a long time and she quickly became a favorite of mine.
Hope in a Blog – In addition to reviews and press releases for new products, this website has a TON of information about Korean beauty brands, how to navigate your way through GMarket, and lots of details about the Asian skincare routine.
I hope this guide has been helpful. I’ll be updating it regularly as I find new resources!