You’ve heard about it for years. You’ve seen it in the news, in magazines like Marie Claire, on websites like Refinery29 and The Cut. You’ve eyed the products on the shelves at Sephora, ogled the shelfies and the skin care routines on Instagram. But if you haven’t yet jumped into the world of K-beauty, you may still feel overwhelmed and confused. All those steps (10, according to some), all those products—where does a K-beauty newbie even begin?
Here. That’s where you begin.
What Is K-Beauty (and What Is K-Beauty Not?)
K-beauty is Korean beauty: beauty products manufactured in Korea by Korean brands. K-beauty is also, depending on who you ask, an aesthetic—clear, fresh, and radiant skin, often paired with sheer but vibrant cheek and lip color for a dreamy, glowing look—or a skin care philosophy. For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll focus on the skin care philosophy, which creates that clear, fresh, and radiant skin.
K-beauty is a skin care philosophy that creates clear, fresh, and radiant skin for a dreamy, glowing look.
At the core of the K-beauty skin care philosophy are layers. Instead of attempting to do everything with just a basic cleanse-tone-moisturize routine, K-beauty enables users to layer multiple hydrating and targeted products in a single routine, maximizing both the improvement of various skin conditions and skin’s overall moisture levels. All that healing and all that moisture lead to often remarkable changes in skin condition and appearance. That’s why so many people are hooked. All the possible products you can layer in your routine can be bewildering, though. We’ll walk you through the basics here.
Before we get into the toners and essences and serums and ampoules, though, a word of caution about what K-beauty is not.
K-beauty is not inherently better to any other kind of beauty; being made in Korea or by a Korean brand is not an automatic guarantee of superiority. As in any other industry in any other region, there’s a spectrum of quality and a spectrum of innovation.
Individual differences in skin will affect how products work for you, too. The real magic of K-beauty isn’t in any particular product or brand. It’s in the incredible selection of products, which allows you to curate exactly the routine your individual skin will respond to the best. But to do that, you’ll need to understand each possible step of the routine.
I’m presenting the steps below in the order in which they’re usually applied, but please note that apart from cleansing always taking place at the beginning of the skin care routine, the order of product application isn’t set in stone. Generally, applying products from thinnest to thickest works best for efficient absorption, no matter what the product is called.
1. Double Cleansing
What it is: Generally done at night, double cleansing is a two-step process in which you remove makeup and sunscreen with an oil-based first cleanser, then fully clean skin with a water-based (usually gel or foaming) second cleanser. In theory, this gets skin perfectly clean and ready for skin care without stripping away skin’s vital natural moisture.
Who needs it: People who wear makeup and/or sunscreen, particularly long-wearing or water-resistant products.
Tip: While the oil-based first cleansing step can be done with a simple carrier oil, like mineral oil or olive oil, it’s generally preferable to use an emulsifying cleansing oil made for this purpose. Carrier oils are messier and more difficult to thoroughly remove without a very harsh second cleanser, while cleansing oils are formulated to emulsify with water and rinse away more easily. For your second cleanser, look for a gentle product at pH of 7 or lower to prevent damage to your skin’s moisture barrier.
2. Hydrating Toner
What it is: A light, water-based product, intended to quickly add hydration into skin for a softer texture and a plumper, more radiant appearance.
Who needs it: People whose skin lacks water, either due to age or to a compromised moisture barrier that has caused dehydrated skin. You can generally gauge the hydration levels of your skin by whether it looks dull and deflated, feels tight or itchy, and/or fails to bounce back quickly from a pinch or finger press.
Tip: If your skin is very dehydrated, try applying multiple layers of your hydrating toner. You can also soak cotton pads with hydrating toner and apply to dehydrated zones as a DIY mask.
What it is: Essences are typically hybrid hydrating and treatment products. More watery and less concentrated than serums, they are generally marketed as having some specific effect on skin beyond increasing moisture levels.
Who needs it: People who want to add an extra layer of hydration into their routine and who are looking for general skin improvements like overall brightening or free radical damage prevention.
Tip: Essences and “first essences” are different. A “first essence” is very thin and watery, typically made from a rice ferment ingredient, and is meant to be applied immediately after cleansing.
What it is: Serums and ampoules are thicker and ostensibly more concentrated treatment products that claim very specific and intensive effects on skin.
Who needs it: People who are looking for targeted treatment of specific skin issues, like acne, dark spots, or existing signs of skin aging.
Tip: Confused by the difference between a serum and an ampoule? Don’t overthink it too much. While ampoules technically should refer to exceptionally concentrated treatments packaged for use over a short period of time, many brands use the terms interchangeably.
5. Sheet Mask
What it is: A thin cloth or paper mask cut to fit the face and soaked with a hydrating or moisturizing essence that generally also claims some additional effects.
Who needs it: Anyone who wants to add an extra layer of hydration or moisture to their skin, whether regularly or just occasionally.
Tip: Don’t overspend on sheet masks. In general, the most significant benefit you’ll get from one is the hydration or moisture component, and hydration and moisture will benefit your skin most if you’re able to use masks more consistently rather than as one-off treatments. While exceptions exist, most high-end sheet masks won’t do much that a more affordable variety can’t.
6. Sleeping Pack
What it is: A nighttime moisturizer marketed as also having targeted, overnight effects comparable to other kinds of face masks. Moisturizer will go in this step during the day.
Who needs it: Anyone who’d like their nighttime moisturizer to provide special effects the next day.
Tip: Sleeping packs go in the slot that moisturizer would take up during the day, and realistically, the distinction between a sleeping pack and a moisturizer is often simply marketing. There are many moisturizing creams capable of providing quick improvements in skin texture or glow and many sleeping packs that don’t do much besides moisturize. Which ones work for you will depend on your individual skin. If you want to find the perfect one for you, find ways to sample different products before committing to any one.
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What it is: Essential to long-term skin health and youthful appearance, and truly a standout product category compared to Western equivalents. K-beauty produces a huge variety of high-protection sunscreens with superior cosmetic elegance, thanks to more advanced filters and formulations.
Who needs it: Everyone, really.
Tip: In order to receive the full protection advertised on any sunscreen product, you must use it generously and evenly. A pea-sized dab won’t do. Most sources estimate that ¼ tsp of sunscreen for face and a similar amount for neck and upper chest is optimal. I’ve long used my “three fingers” technique to measure it out in the morning, but you can also grab a measuring spoon to see how much ¼ tsp looks to you, then eyeball it once you know.
The most important aspect of K-beauty isn’t the number of steps you choose to add to your routine. It’s the result of mixing and matching products that you choose for your individual needs—so don’t be too tempted by prefab K-beauty routines or the routines of your favorite K-beauty influencers. Take your time to figure out which products your skin truly needs and go from there. The results will be worth the effort!