Oil cleansers, water cleansers, essence, ampoules, and sheet masks for lips (true story!), there is a bit of a learning curve with Korean skincare products. But there's also a reason why these products are superstars in the global skincare industry: they are good. Like really good.
If you don't already have your own K Beauty skincare favorites, I've rounded up 20 products that are receiving heaps of praise from Soko Glam to Sephora. Check them out.
10 Popular Products In Order of the 10-Step Korean Skincare Routine
While these products are listed in order of the 10-step skincare routine—which involves a cleansing and a treatment portion—achieving and maintaining healthy, glowing skin doesn't necessarily require all 10 steps; it's very much a choose your own adventure. This overview is designed to introduce some hopefully new and new-to-you products that might be great as supplements to your current routine.
If you prefer to dip your toes in the Korean Beauty market, try one of these subscription beauty boxes for a good introduction to the trend.
Or if you're game to overhaul your whole skincare shebang and do a full-on 10 stepper, I'd love to hear how it goes!
PART I: DOUBLE CLEANSING & EXFOLIATING
Step #1: OIL CLEANSERS
This is the first step in the "double cleansing" process championed in Korean skin care. Oil cleansers are massaged onto a dry face to remove makeup, sebum, and sunscreen (oily stuff). This is an especially important step if you do wear makeup but many non makeup wearers use lightweight oil cleansers to remove non-makeup oil residue.
Try: Clean It Zero
This Soko Glam award-winner is a top-selling oil cleanser with rave reviews for its effectiveness at removing makeup and impurities while leaving skin soft and supple. It goes on solid and dissolves when massaged into the skin.
Step #2: WATER CLEANSERS
A water cleanser is used after an oil cleanser as the second step in double cleansing. Water cleansers are not made to optimally remove oil (from makeup, sunscreen, sebum) but are effective for removing dirt and sweat. This two-step process is gentler than using one harsh cleanser to try and accomplish both makeup removal and cleansing, which often results in stripping the skin of natural oils and causing dryness and/or irritation and breakouts.
Try: SRB Rice Bran Enzyme Powder Wash
This mild foam cleanser, a favorite among South Korean celebrities (according to Leah Park from Choc Choc), comes in rice bran powder form (think brown rice flour) and foams up into a mild exfoliant when mixed with water. It has a mild, earthy scent that, while not perfumy, is not unpleasant. Contains no chemical preservatives and is very gentle, so it's ideal for sensitive skin. (**I have very sensitive skin and have been using this cleanser for the past week and I LOVE it! It leaves my skin feeling soft and clean but not overly dry.)
Step #3: EXFOLIATORS
Korean skincare promotes regular gentle exfoliation for sloughing off dead skin cells and dry patches, thus preparing the skin to more effectively absorb toner.
Try: Mizon's Apple Smoothie Peeling Gel
This mild peel gel has some applaudable qualities as far as exfoliators go—no harsh chemicals or microbeads—and reviews praise the product's usefulness for removing dry, dull skin while still being gentle for sensitive skin.
(IN-BETWEEN PART I & II)
Step #4: TONER
Toner is the step between cleansing and treatments, as it prepares the skin to receive the benefits of the following products. If you live in the U.S., you may associate toner with a product that stings and leaves your face feeling tight and often dry, but Korean toners are a different thing altogether. Many Korean toners (also called refreshers) are designed to add back moisture and prep skin to receive serum and/or moisturizing treatments, to reset the natural PH levels of the skin, and to deliver antioxidants and nutrients.
Try: Son & Park's Beauty Water
Son & Park's award-winning Beauty Water is called a "multi-tasking toner and cleansing water" in one. It won't strip skin of natural oils, so it's useful for pre- makeup application, can be used as a refresher, or after cleansing.
PART II: TREATMENTS
Step #5: ESSENCE
Essence is a silky liquid that is somewhere between a toner and a serum and is patted into the skin after toning as the first step in the "treatment-stage." Essence is designed to hydrate and improve skin at the cellular level; Soko Glam refers to essence as "the heart of the Korean skincare routine."
Try: MISSHA Time Revolution First Treatment Essence
A "Soko Glam Favorite" and a renowned product from Missha, this essence has been called a "miracle water"—ingredients include 80% Fermented Yeast Concentrate, which absorbs into skin and works at the cellular level to repair and improve skin tone and texture.
Step #6: SERUMS & AMPOULES
Serums and ampoules are concentrated essence and they contain high levels of a few key ingredients to address specific skin concerns: brightening, pore-refining, pigmentation, wrinkles, acne, etc.
Try: Klairs Freshly Juiced Vitamin C Serum
Awarded as one of Soko Glam's Best of 2015, this serum contains concentrated levels of Vitamin C in the form of 5% Ascorbic acid, yet reviews state it remains gentle enough for those with sensitive skin. Klairs is also renown for being a Cruelty-free, Paraben-free company.
Step #7: SHEET MASKS
Sheet masks (I'm sure most of you have seen these around if you aren't already using them) are exactly what they sound like: a sheet-style face mask with serum concentrate on it. Masks are placed directly on the face and left on usually for 15-20 minutes while you relax and let the sheet mask magic do its thing. The masks have become wildly popular for their effectiveness in leaving skin instantly softer, brighter, and they have masks for every issue under the sun—pun intended because there are indeed masks specifically to repair sun damage.
Try: Sheet Mask Power Bundle
This particular mask bundle has a mix for most skin needs: calming, brightening, hydrating, and overall rejuvenating. A mask bundle is a great way to see which mask(s) work best for your skin.
We were most curious about these sheet masks, so we asked a bunch of people to try them out and report back to us:
Step #8: EYE CREAMS
Korean eye creams are created to hydrate and protect the delicate area around the eyes. Many of the eye creams on the market have received rave reviews for brightening and de-puffing qualities.
Try: Mizon's Snail Repair Eye Cream
Formulated with 80% snail mucin (the mucus trail snails leave behind them), Mizon's snail repair eye cream has gained a strong following for its effectiveness in diminishing the look of fine lines and brightening up the dark under eye area.
Step #9: MOISTURIZER
Moisturizing is the final treatment step and helps achieve a glowing or dewy complexion. According to the Peach & Lily site, "with its breakneck pace of innovation, the world of Korean moisturizers alone can overwhelm the average skincare shopper." There are indeed lots of "hot" new moisturizers on the market that range from suitable for most skin types to incredibly specific—something for everyone.
Try: belif's The True Aqua Bomb
A lightweight moisturizer that—along with being a cult favorite in Korea—has some A+ selling points in terms of keeping it real: cruelty-free, contains no mineral oil, Parabens, Sulfates, Phthalates, fragrance or synthetic preservatives. Reviews on the Sephora site applaud its effectiveness for sensitive and acne-prone skin.
Step #10: SPF
Sunscreen is the last step in a daily morning skincare routine and is crucial for protecting skin from sun damage.