Asian Skincare Skincare

Real Talk about Korean Skincare: the True Truths and the Mostly Bullshit

First, I want to get out of the way that, in case you couldn’t tell by my photos, I am not Korean. I don’t live in Korea, I don’t have many close friends who are Korean, and I’ve been to Korea a whopping one time, and even then, I didn’t venture outside of Seoul.

So consider this your American Black girl talks about some shit she only knows anything about based on limited personal experiences.

It needs to be said that skincare is big business in Korea. Which, if you’re anything like me, you’re gonna think about that and you’re gonna be like, “Yeah, well, now I’m skeptical.” And you’re right to be skeptical. Because that will make you better at paying attention to what actually works for you, what you enjoy, and what you really want to spend your money on versus simply buying into whatever new thing everybody is on about right now which might just be hype.

Perspective: Beauty in Korea Is Big Business

Exploring the streets of Seoul.

Skincare, makeup, and beauty stores line streets all over Seoul.

When I was in Seoul, I spent more time than I want to admit shopping for skincare and makeup with my daughter. I went to Seoul kind of expecting that there would be one part of town that catered to beauty junkies, and we’d spend a day there. But what I didn’t realize was that skincare and beauty stores would be EVERYWHERE. You can’t avoid them. They’re on every street, on every corner, popping up out of nowhere. And so that $45 jar of ginseng creme you talked yourself out of buying yesterday? There it is again, and now you’ve had several beers and maybe some soju and now your defenses are down and you walk out of there with a jar of ginseng creme, ten sheet masks, a rejuvenating serum and a bag full of samples.

That’s how they get you.

My point is this: while there are many reasons skincare in Korea became a thing, you cannot discount the importance of availability and commercialism. As you and I well know, when you are bombarded with images, you come to believe those images–whatever they may be–are normal. Corporations want your money, and if they can introduce an entire new step in the routine–not just a new product, but a whole new category of product–you better believe they’re gonna do it. And with so much availability and diversity, the Korean skincare routine as we know it will probably only get crazier before it gets simpler.

If that floats your boat, I have it on good authority that “first oils” are about to be a thing for us mid-lifers.

If you’re going, “EFF THAT!” Well, I hear you. And I’m hear to say: you don’t have to buy into it. The elaborateness of it is mostly bullshit in terms of necessity. Though if it’s your hobby, your thing that you enjoy, well…

…I’m writing this blog, after all.

The 19 Million Step Korean Beauty Routine

Dr. Jart storefront

Geeking out at the Dr. Jart storefront in Garousu-gil.

My personal routine is heavily influenced by Korean skincare, even when I use non-Asian products and even though I may skip steps. I trust and believe in the fundamental ideas of K-beauty: your skin has unique needs, and no single product can adequately address those needs. Any skincare routine will work better when you custom tailor it to address the specific areas or concerns you want to target. Instead of trying to create One-Size Miracle Products, K-beauty brands tend to make individual products that target one goal. So if you want to target dryness and redness, for example, you would choose two different products to create a skincare routine with no waste and laser-focused results.

The second fundamental aspect of K-beauty I subscribe to is the notion that caring for your skin feels good and should lift your spirits. The routine itself should be healing and fulfilling rather than a chore. If it it begins to feel like drudgery, it might be time to reevaluate what you’re doing and why.

My nightly routine looks something like this:

  • Remove makeup
  • Double cleanse
  • First essence
  • Hydrating toner
  • Tretinoin + sometimes AHA treatment
  • Essence
  • Ceramide serum
  • Hydrating/anti-aging serum
  • Moisturizer
  • Oil
  • Occlusive

That’s a lot of steps, and it leaves out occasional treats like sheet masks, wash off masks, multiple serums and oils, lip treatments, eye creams etc. This routine is pretty extensive, and pretty heavily based on the Korean skincare regimen. But is it all a requirement?

Corporations want your money, and if they can introduce an entire new step in the routine–not just a new product, but a whole new category of product–you better believe they’re gonna do it.


Just like your makeup routine may not include foundation, concealer, lashes, liner, etc. every single day, your skincare routine will change based on needs, time, and how you feel that day. It should be enjoyable. It should be affordable. And it should suit your particular lifestyle.

More importantly, if your skincare goals don’t require all those different products, don’t go out and buy them just because someone trying to sell you something wants to convince you that you need all 12 (or however many) steps. You don’t. Chances are you need more than one step, but the power of K-beauty skincare is that it is highly customizable to you.

That said…

There’s a Reason I Cannot Answer the Question, “What One Product Has Made the Biggest Difference in Your Skin?”

As I mentioned above, there’s no One-Size Miracle Product. The truth is, none of my products, all by themselves, would give me the results I want. Yes, my prescription tretinoin has smoothed out my skin, but taken on its own would make me dry and scaly. My first essence makes my skin more absorbent, but by itself doesn’t add a ton of hydration. The products that I have chosen work together to create the effects I look for in a successful skincare routine. This is one of the fundamental properties of Korean skincare: it’s a system, and the individual elements work together to be greater than the sum of their parts.  So yes, you can skip steps. Yes, you can pare down your routine to the things that feel good and useful to you. But the products you choose need to work together in harmony toward your goals.

Korean Skincare is Fun. It’s Diverse. But It Won’t Change Your Genes

One f the attractive things about Korean skincare is the array or products to choose from: first essences, essence, serums, ampoules, masks, etc. It’s a wonderful game of mix and match with endless combinations, and I love that.

But it breaks my heart a little when I see people point to Korean celebrities and say, “See? Her skin is flawless.  I want my skin to look like that.”

Chances are really good she’d have great skin even without an extensive regimen. Because she probably just inherited great skin.

So please don’t go into Korean beauty thinking you’ll walk out with crystal clear skin like a doll’s. Please don’t think that if you can just find the right serum, you’ll erase those crows feet, or all those sun spots, or your loss of collagen. It just doesn’t work that way. Be smart. Keep your expectations in line, and have fun.

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