The Essential K-Beauty Skincare Kit for Newbies
Intimidated by 10-steps? Not sure where to start? Let’s just take it slow. Contributing editor Coco Park breaks it down for newbies with the essential K-beauty skincare kit.
You’re ready. You’ve been reading up about this whole K-beauty thing, you’ve got your favorite K-beauty blogs bookmarked, you’ve got products you want to try pinned to a Pinterest board, and you’ve subscribed to a reddit K-beauty group. Now what?
The K-beauty world is as overwhelming as it is wonderful. There are thousands of products, each more intriguing as the last, so it’s more than understandable that you’d be struck with panic trying to suss out what to buy and how to use them.
Because Korean beauty is so customizable and individualistic, I unfortunately can’t tell you exactly what products you should buy, but I can give you a good starting point and some loose guidelines so you’re not going into this blind. Here, take this flashlight and notebook — we’re going exploring, and we’re going to learn some basics.
Take it slow
First thing’s first. Here’s what we want to avoid: overwhelming your skin with 10 steps all at once. First of all, if you do this and have a bad reaction to a product, you’ll have no idea who the culprit was. Second of all, your skin could very easily freak out from being so hastily shifted into change, and that might lead you to believe that a certain product that actually does work for you is no good. So let’s take this slow.
Ten steps at once? Nope. I don’t even know who started that “10-step” narrative, but it’s not the ultimate goal. You may need as little as four products or you may want to use as many as 15. Remember, customizable is the game, and great skin is the goal, and none of us arrive there using the exact same path. You can add, subtract, whatever you need to do. The right combination is out there.
But first, sunscreen
I’m going to assume if you’ve come this far you’re already washing your face regularly, probably using some type of moisturizer, and possibly a makeup remover. I’d like to believe you’re a faithful sunscreen devotee, but I know far too many aren’t, so I’m not going to assume.
Before we begin, please find a sunscreen that works for you, and use it every single day. There is no point in undertaking this self-care journey if you’re just going to undo all the work with sun damage and expose your precious skin to cancerous rays. I know I sound like an alarmist but I’m not. I had a cancerous spot removed some years ago, and it was horrible. Save yourself from the same fate. Buy several sunscreens and test each for at least a week to find one that you enjoy. With Korean beauty there are so many amazing options I am positive you’ll find your holy grail sooner than soon. (Editor at large Jude Chao tested a dozen before finding her fave.)
Face Wash: This is where we’re going to start, and this could potentially be a huge game changer for you. Now maybe your current foaming facial wash is low pH, but I’m willing to bet it’s probably not unless you’re a Cerave user. So the first thing we’re going to do is ditch your current cleanser and replace it with a low pH cleanser (you can read why this is so important here), but for now, just trust me on this one.
Now, adding to this, we’re going to turn your one-step cleansing into two steps. We’re going to bring a little oil cleansing into the mix. There are a couple of different ways to oil cleanse: either through, well, an oil, or a sherbet style cleanser. There’s also a stick cleanser that’s a cult classic. Whichever path you choose, keep trying until you find one that you really enjoy using. It’s to be noted that your oil cleanser should be your first step in cleansing, and it’s only to be used when removing makeup or sunscreen — you don’t need it all the time. You always follow it up with your water-based foaming cleanser. It may sound like a lot, but it’ll become second nature to you in no time. After introducing your two new cleansers and getting into the swing of double cleansing for two weeks, let’s move on to adding another product.
Follow up with toner
A Korean toner is not like a North American toner, which is why it’s often not called that. You might hear it called a softener, because that’s exactly what it does: softens and prepares the skin for treatment. Think of it as a layer of weightless hydration — yes, layer, because eventually you will be adding to it. Unless you have an unsavory reaction to it or it burns your skin on contact, try it for at least one week before switching to another if you don’t like it. We’re trying to minimize skin freakouts, and slow and steady is the name of the game. Once you’ve found a toner you really like, keep at it for another week before moving onto adding the next step.
Can’t forget essence!
Essence, serum, ampoule: This step goes by many different names, but they’re all the same thing (sort of). For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to categorize these all under the same umbrella for the time being.
The essence step is where things really start to take on the highly customizable, highly individual role. Depending on what skin issue you want to address, there’s a serum out there for it. You may want to address multiple issues, which is usually why the K-beauty routine blossoms into five to 15 steps. But for right now, let’s just keep it at one essence. Finding a good multipurpose one isn’t all that hard. There are some favorites that you’ll see mentioned over and over again; if the people sharing your same skin issues recommend it, chances are it’s a good one. But be on the lookout for allergic reactions or irritation and discontinue at once if they pop up and move onto finding a better match. Again, continue for two weeks before adding anything else new.
If you’re already using a moisturizer that you like, feel free to keep using it during this long and drawn out testing period. It’s best to stick to something you know you have no issues with while introducing new products. If you do want to try a new one, the same rules apply: two weeks before new introductions.
In Korean beauty, moisturizers can be broken down into two categories: emulsion or lotion and creams. Now, that is oversimplifying it, but I’m trying to be as basic as possible right now. If you have very dry skin and think your skin would really benefit from an emulsion or lotion in addition to your regular cream, feel free to add it with all the same caveats and warnings I’ve mentioned above. Keep in mind that emulsions and lotions come before your face cream application. A good rule of thumb is to apply your products in order of consistency, the thinnest first and working your way up to the thickest.
I say fun, but I don’t mean frivolous. These fun extras offer a real benefit and are an amazing addition to your routine.
Once you’ve sussed out your Korean beauty lineup, done all the proper testing, and have been using it constantly with no problems, it’s time to add some bells and whistles. Sheet masks are everyone’s favorite skincare accessories. Use these after your toner step. Depending on the formulation and what your aim is, a sheet mask can either be used as your essence step or in addition to. (I always like “in addition to” because I am an unapologetic maximalist sensualist when it comes to skincare, drag me.) Sheet masks are a great way to pamper yourself, and in my opinion, are better than a glass of wine to unwind.
Sleeping masks or sleeping packs (they’re the same thing) are another great add-on. Why I really, really love sleeping packs is because they build up your best friend, the moisture barrier, while you sleep. What in the hell else in your life works while you sleep? Nothing. (Unless you’ve got some sweet house gnomes that clean while your sleep, and in that case, gimme.) Simply smear a thin layer of product over your face and go to bed. That’s it. Highly effective simplicity. It’s like the Swedish, but for your face.
So there you have it! This is your bare bones introduction. And you never know, this might be all you ever need, product-wise. Remember to do what works for you, and don’t worry about what someone trying to sell you something tells you! The results will always speak for themselves.
Now, go forth with confidence, ’cause you’ve got this!
How did you first get into K-beauty? What is in your essential K-beauty skincare kit?