I Followed a K-Beauty Skin-Care Routine For a Month — and Let's Just Say I'm a Fan
The beauty market is now so robust, you could try an entirely new skin-care product every day and still never run out of options. But where building out a regimented routine is concerned, looking to the 10 steps used in Korean beauty remains an intriguing, albeit intimidating, idea. I may be one of the few beauty writer's who's held out trying the trend for this long, but I finally decided to engage in the hyped-up quest for "glass skin."
In the middle of a breakout flare-up after a short stint of almost clear skin, I decided to test the infamously lengthy 10-step routine day and night for a full month, using products from Glow Recipe, Peach & Lily, Peach Slices, AHC, The Crème Shop, and more. While I do use the word, "routine," I've actually come to think of K-beauty as more of a philosophy or lifestyle. Truly, diving into this abundance of product on a daily basis created a different relationship between me and my skin.
My interpretation is that it's not so much about the 10 steps. To my understanding — and understandably — many people end up trashing the steps they deem unnecessary for their personal needs. Instead, it's about the commitment to nurture your skin, feed it moisture rather than strip it away (as people with semioily to oily skin like myself have been taught to do), and be kinder to it with gentler products.
If you're curious to see how my month-long K-beauty experiment went, I'm outlining the 10 steps I followed, the products I used, and my progress report along the way ahead. Should you try this at home, I'm willing to bet you'll end up with at least a few products you'll want to keep using. And, if you're anything like me, maybe you'll adopt a bit more discipline than you had before, too.
I'm not sure what magical potion I thought K-beauty products were made with, but my expectations weren't just a little high. I mean, the 10-step skin-care routine is hyped up as the best system to follow for skin-care enthusiasts.
Prior to day one of my experiment, I was at a place where the appearance of my skin was beginning to weigh on me. A few months before, I had finally gotten what felt like several steps closer to the perfect cleanser-meets-vitamin C-meets-moisturizer combination. After falling out of sync with that routine, however, my skin seemed to relapse into a worse state than where it began. (Not to mention it was still recovering from failed run-ins with a few other moisturizers and serums.)
My breakouts were minimal, so my main hope for this experiment was tackling my dark spots from past breakouts, along with doing away with the texture you can see in my photos. I was a bit unclear on the role each of the products ahead were meant to play in this process, but I certainly got a better idea along the way.
Step 1: Double Cleanse, Starting With an Oil-Based Cleanser
Double cleansing is one of the hallmarks of a Korean-beauty skin-care routine. The idea is that both cleansers (first oil-based, then water-based), well, cleanse your face, but each will rid your skin of different impurities. While I'm a self-proclaimed oil-cleansing advocate (I historically do so with a mix of castor oil and sunflower-seed oil), I personally didn't see the need to double cleanse twice a day. Instead, I only went in with the Peach Slices Pudding Makeup Cleanser ($10) nightly.
Let the record show that I only wore makeup twice this entire 27 day period (which is unlike me — I blame COVID), but found this effective in removing other oily products from the day such as my essence and sunscreen. Plus, it starts off your routine with a buttery-textured bang.
Step 2: Complete Double Cleanse With Water-Based Cleanser
Even as a beauty writer — and despite the fact that I just welcomed a slew of K-beauty products into my life — I'm over-the-top afraid of switching up my skin care. I have extremely sensitive skin that tends to become quickly irritated by heavy products. Prior to this Grandidier Darjeeling Black-Tea Sugar Cleansing Serum ($38) (which has "serum" in the name, but truly is a cleanser), I was married to my Drunk Elephant Jelly Cleanser. I tried Grandidier's cleanser even before my K-beauty mission (it's actually what inspired this experiment), and it's the similarities to my original jelly cleanser that attracted me — it's extremely mild and lightweight on the skin.
Step 3: Prep Your Skin With a Toner
Toners and I haven't historically made the world's best duo. I've trial tested a number of options that have only seemed to irritate my skin. But the fact of the matter is, toner is an essential step in a K-beauty routine, prepping your skin to effectively absorb all the hydrating products to come. That said, would it be dramatic of me to say that the Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA +BHA Pore-Tight Toner ($34) came into my life like a literal angel? Potentially, but that's just where I am with it. Where many western toners are often formulated to work like an astringent (using ingredients such as alcohol or witch hazel), Korean toners tend to instead emphasize hydrating, skin-soothing ingredients. Basically, it's the sensitive skin's champion.
Step 4: Hydrate With an Essence
If I'm being frank, here is where the K-beauty routine starts to get loosely redundant (not to say I didn't enjoy it). Enter: essences, another K-beauty must have. In general, they aim to provide a lot of the same benefits as a serum, but are typically lighter in weight. I'm 100 percent hooked on the Grandidier Darjeeling Black-Tea Brightening Essence ($64) though, another product I tested out prior to this experiment. Upon my first time using it, I can honestly say my skin had never felt softer.
Step 5: Lock In Hydration With an Emulsion
The best way to describe how the AHC Aqualuronic Emulsion ($21, originally $27) feels upon application is to say it felt like a moisturizing pillow for the face. Though creamy like a moisturizer, it's more lightweight than most. Similar to toner, it serves as an aide in absorbing the forthcoming beauty products and helps lock in moisture, which I obviously want.
Step 6: Layer On a Serum
ICYMI, part of the big deal about K-beauty is achieving a "glass skin" look. You know, ultrasmooth, dewy skin with so much of a glow from within that you almost appear shiny, but not in a greasy way. Considering that, the Peach & Lily Glass Skin Refining Serum ($39) had me at the name alone. Truthfully though, when you're diving head first into this many hydrating, glow-promoting products at once, it's hard to decipher which is doing the most legwork, but they do appear to work well as a team.
Step 7: Relax and Let a Hydrating Sheet Mask Soak In For 10-15 Minutes
Honesty hour: until now, I wasn't a sheet-mask enthusiast. My first thought was "Is this necessary?" when Google told me I needed to add a 10 to 15 minute step smack in the middle of an already 10-step long routine. In the end, it was beyond worth it. Not only is it insanely soothing taking a moment to lie down with just my The Crème Shop Bulgarian Rose Water Face Mask ($3) and meditation music, but I feel I can attribute much of my skin's newfound plumpness to this deep hydration. I also experimented with Korean-beauty brand 107 Beauty's Essence-Soaked Sheet Mask, and am equally into both options.
Step 8: Gently Dab On Eye Cream
Many western skin-care routines are no stranger to eye cream. The cool thing about the AHC Eye Cream For Face ($29) is, as the name suggests, it can be applied to the entire face. In my opinion, eye creams are typically products that take longer than most to see results from, but applying this day and night is said to eventually leave you with brighter under eyes and less noticeable fine lines.
Step 9: Add One Last Round of Hydration With Moisturizer
Before moving on to sunscreen, the ninth step in the K-beauty routine is good ol', plain ol' moisturizer. The Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Pink Juice ($39) in particular is just the formula I needed for my sensitive skin. I wish I was exaggerating when I say my skin has only ever agreed with two moisturizers in my adult years (crazy, right?), and this is one of them. (The other is the Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Gel.)
Step 10: End Your Morning Routine With a Sunscreen — Yes, Even Indoors
Sunscreen in-and-of itself isn't groundbreaking, but the K-beauty industry is known to have a more rigorous vetting process when it comes to protecting your skin from damaging sun rays. In comparison to the SPF sunscreen rating in the US, Korean beauty uses a PPD and PA rating system, which measures the amount of UVA radiation one can be exposed to without tanning. For me, having zero white cast is my biggest concern in choosing a sunscreen, and I'm glad to report the Rootree Mobitherapy UV Sun Shield ($23) hits the mark.
At the halfway mark, I wasn't feeling too confident in achieving noticeable results by the finish line of my month-long experiment. As you can see here, certain spots of my skin were essentially darker and more raised than on day one, but that may be attributed to my skin adjusting. Overall, my skin did appear a bit brighter by this point, and I was of course enjoying the feat of my newfound dewiness from my many new sources of hydration (though this photo was taken before applying any products for the day).
Alas, there was light at the end of the tunnel, literally — many of my dark spots lightened significantly, though not fully. But what I learned altogether is that the K-beauty regime is very much geared toward hydration. On the flip side, this conclusion is, of course derivative of the specific products I used — I imagine you can absolutely find alternative Korean products on the market to target your very specific needs.
While I have a ways to go before I've hit peak skin goals (I'm talking Yara Shahidi and Jhene Aiko level), I've landed on some new products during this journey that I'll be restocking when the time comes: Grandidier's essence, Glow Recipe's toner and moisturizer, Rootree's sunscreen, and both The Creme Shop and 107 Beauty's sheet masks. I'll be swapping out my cleanser (what can I say, I'm missing the Drunk Elephant), serum, and eye cream to test other options — after all, I am still a curious beauty writer. I'll likely do away with the emulsion step altogether. I'm just not quite sold on it.
The shocker? I've actually been swayed from my miniature skin-care routine of three. At first glance, the extensiveness of the 10-step ordeal was more than intimidating. In the end, it's not as intense as it sounds. Plus, the art of product layering is proving useful, i.e., I think I may be near achieving this perceived "glass skin" thing?
If nothing else, I actually found these extended moments of patting my face in my bathroom mirror kind of therapeutic, and who can't use that these days? Hello, self-care.