What is it? 10-Step Korean Skincare Routine

As of late, many Asian- especially Korean- beauty brands have been making their way to North America, reaching a global audience. Asian cosmetics and skincare products are trickling into large retailer chains such as Sephora, Target, ULTA, prompting the big wave of Asian beauty and they’re here to stay.

Those who have been slowly receiving exposure to Korean skincare and beauty products will have heard of the 10-Step skincare routine. Are you new to Asian beauty and haven’t heard of it yet? You’re in luck, as I’m going to delve deeply and explain to you what it is. Before we continue, brew a cup of tea and grab a snack because this is going to be a long one!


There’s a book written by Charlotte Cho called “The Little Book of Skin Care: Korean Beauty Secrets for Healthy, Glowing Skin” which was published in 2015. In this book, there’s a page that lays out every step of the Korean skincare routine, as pictured below:

charlotte-cho-book-10-step
Charlotte Cho’s 10-Step Skincare | Photo: Pinterest.com

The skincare routine is as follows:

  1. Makeup remover and/or oil cleanser
  2. Water-based cleanser (in circular motion)
  3. Exfoliator (focus on the nose and cheeks)
  4. Toner (reset pH and hydrate)
  5. Essence (to nourish and renew)
  6. Ampoules a.k.a. boosters and serums
  7. Sheet mask
  8. Eye cream (gently tap in with your pinky fingers)
  9. Moisturizer (and/or sleeping pack- to be used at least once a week on average)
  10. SPF (need I say more?)

One thing to note before proceeding is that this routine is versatile and can be tweaked to fit your particular needs; your skin may not require every single step on a daily basis and that’s the magic of this routine! It’s perfect for assessing your skin daily and seeing what you need. Skin’s looking a little dull? Switch out your ampoule or serum to a brightening one! Dry patches popping up here and there? Amp up the moisture level with moisturizing creams and sheet masks! This routine is a great starter layout for people of all ages, skin types, and genders.

Another thing to note is that all products mentioned are what I use on a regular basis. I have combination skin with an extremely oily t-zone, and am generally oily during the summers. Please keep in mind that what works for me may not work for you.

So, let’s get a closer look at this routine!


1. Makeup remover and/or cleansing oil

Makeup, dirt, and oil build up on the face over the course of the day and by night time, your face is likely looking worse for wear. This is where makeup removers, oil cleansers, and/or balm cleansers come into play here. This step is to ensure most (if not all) of your makeup and dirt is off before proceeding to the water-based cleanser.

Makeup removers come in various forms; there are micellar waters, your good old fashioned makeup remover, makeup-removing wipes, etc. From what I found, this will generally remove about 80-90% of your makeup, but not all. In this case, oil and balm cleansers are much stronger at breaking down makeup and dirt, removing about 90-95%.

Additionally, it may be good to use a separate and gentler makeup remover specifically for the eyes. Eye makeup is tough to remove, and eyes and oil/balm cleansers in my experience, do not go well with each other as the product gets into the eyes easily.

What I use: 

Makeup wipes: Marcelle Make-up Removing Cleansing Cloths

Eye makeup remover: Marcelle Oil-Free Eye Makeup Remover Pads

Cleansing balm: Banila Co. Clean it Zero


2. Water-based cleanser

You might be thinking, “If I use an oil-based cleanser, why is it necessary to cleanse again, this time with a water-based one?” This is called double-cleansing. Generally, after I go in with my oil or balm cleanser, my skin feels a little oily and there’s a slight film over the surface of my skin. This step will ensure that all makeup, dirt, oil AND any leftover film from the first step gets removed.

There are different types of water-based cleansers; some may opt for foaming cleansers, others prefer gel cleansers. Foaming cleansers are sudsier and light, making the skin feel refreshed and cleansed, while gel cleansers produce less foam and feel a little more heavy duty. One thing that you definitely do not want is for your cleanser to strip your skin of moisture, leaving your face feeling tight afterward. If it does, it’s not the end of the world; you can just make sure to increase the level of moisture afterward to make up for the loss.

What I like to do is switch between these two cleansers depending on what my skin is like at the time. If I feel that I am especially prone to breakouts that day, I will make sure to extra-cleanse with my gel cleanser, and on a regular basis (especially in the mornings) use my foaming cleanser.

What I use:

Foaming: NEOGEN Green Tea Foaming Cleanser

Gel: COSRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser


3. Exfoliator

Exfoliation is something that needs to be tweaked depending on your skin. Generally, exfoliating every day is not recommended as it will wear away at your skin deeper than what you want to do, which aims for the very surface layer containing your dead skin cells. Those with oily and combination skin are likelier to handle regular exfoliation, while those with sensitive skin may only be able to handle it once to three times a week.

There are two types of exfoliators:

  • Physical exfoliator: things with exfoliating beads, granular scrubs, etc. are all physical exfoliators. Face brushes, like your Clarisonic are also physical exfoliators. These kinds of exfoliators cannot be used on a daily basis as they may be too rough on the skin.
  • Chemical exfoliator: these contain fruit acids or enzymes that work through the skin without being physically abrasive. Two main types of chemical exfoliators are:
    • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): these are water soluble and are better for normal to dry, sun-damaged skin
      • i.e. acids derived from natural substances (i.e. glycolic acid, lactic acid)
    • Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs): these are oil soluble, meaning they’re better for combination to oily skinned people; these particularly are able to work not only on the skin’s surface but delve deeper and work within the pore lining. Additionally, BHAs have skin-calming properties, making it perfect for sensitive, redness-prone skin
      • i.e. salicylic acid

What I use: 

Physical: Skinfood Black Sugar Honey Wash Off Mask

Chemical: Nip and Fab Glycolic Fix Pads


4. Toner

Toner is an important step as it does a variety of beneficial things for your skin, such as clear out your pores, really make sure all the oil, dirt and makeup are off as well as any debris left behind by your cleanser, soothe and nourish your skin whilst resetting your skin to its natural pH, and finally, prep your skin for maximum absorption of the rest of your skincare routine products. This is usually in the form of a liquid, and are also known as a refresher, lotion, etc. depending on the product. It is usually applied with a cotton round, however, some like to put the product directly on the face and gently pat it in.

What I use:

Etude House Wonder Pore Freshner (500 mL)


5. Essence + 6. Ampoule/Serum

Now, this part may be a bit more confusing as this two steps are rather similar to each other. The only difference there really is between essences and ampoules/serums is the consistency, but even then they serve the same purpose: to add nutrition and moisture to your skin. In my experience, essences tend to be a thinner consistency, allowing you to build up a very thin moisturizing layer prepping the skin for the next step, whereas ampoules are thicker, creamier/stickier, allowing you to add whatever nutrition your skin needs. This step of your routine is where you take a step back and examine your needs; for example, if you have a combo-oily skin, it might be best to look into essences that also have oil-control elements.

Once again, ampoules and essences are essentially the same, but ampoules offer a little more bang, as they contain higher concentrations of active ingredients to target a particular skin issue. There are ampoules to brighten, nourish, hydrate, etc. and often come in dropper bottles.

What I use: 

Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence (Rose Edition)

it’S SKIN Green Tea Watery Serum


7. Sheet Mask

Sheet masks are not a mandatory part of your skincare routine because- heck- it could get expensive! Some just don’t have the time nor patience for it, as it does require the user to wear a cold, thin, drenched cotton sheet of ampoules and essences. That being said, it is a great extra step in your skincare to give your skin an extra boost of moisture and nutrients. Even better, different sheet masks prioritize different areas of need.

My favourites are:

Jayjun Real Water Brightening Mask

Papa Recipe Bombee Honey Mask

Mediheal N.M.F Aquaring Ampoule Mask


8. Eye cream

The skin and the area around your eyes are the most fragile parts of your entire face, thus it requires extra attention and care. They are also the first parts of your face to dry out and show fatigue, so it’s recommended that you give the eyes (specifically the area around your eyes) a boost to combat and preemptively protect against that from happening. Generally, eye creams tend to be thicker and extremely moisturizing, and as the skin around the eyes is fragile, they’re to be lightly tapped into the skin with the pads of your pinky and ring fingers until fully absorbed.

What I use:

Philosophy Renewed Hope in a Jar Eye cream (deluxe-sized)

Olay Age Defying Anti-Wrinkle Eye Cream

Olay Total Effects Anti-Aging Eye Treatment


9. Moisturizer (and/or Sleeping Pack)

The choice of moisturizer is wholly dependent what time of the day it is, what type of skin you have, what issues you have, what you’d like to target. Moisturizers come in many forms, like gel, mousse, lotions, and cream. Generally, people like to wear two different moisturizers for the two different times of day: morning and night. Moisturizers for during the day are mainly less thick, moisturizing but with some mattifying elements, and often in gel and runny/watery lotions for a thin layer of moisture and to seal in all the benefits from the skincare steps before this. Nighttime moisturizers offer a thicker, heavier texture with amped-up moisture levels and act as an even stronger sealant and a layer of moisture and protection over your skin, letting your skin work at its maximum overnight.

Sleeping packs (also known as sleeping masks) are the last step in your nighttime skincare routine that helps deliver last-minute any actives, extra boost of moisture, and prevent moisture loss you may experience overnight. They make sure to maximize the effectiveness of everything else you put on before this step!

What I use: 

COSRX Ultimate Nourishing Rice Overnight Spa Mask

Skinfood Beauty Recipe Avocado Soup Sleeping Pack


10. SPF

Lastly, protection from the sun and its harmful UV rays are very important, as they age your skin more than you think. The damage from the sun is not only skin-deep but start from the very inner layers of the skin, so the damage done is not always apparent. It’s been emphasized especially in the last decade the utmost importance of sunscreen and sun protection, as signs of aging often appeared faster and more prominently in those who neglected to use SPF in their daily routine, compared to those who applied SPF diligently.

Obviously, this is a step that would not really be observed in your nighttime skincare routine (and would be detrimental to your skin if applied before bed). On another note, it is important to apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 30+ at least, and with broad spectrum protection! There are two kinds of sun rays that you would want to protect against, which are UVA and UVB. UVAs are the ones that are the longer-wave UV (ultraviolet radiation) rays that cause lasting skin damage and skin aging, while UVBs are the shorter-waved UV rays that sunburns, skin damage. Both rays could potentially cause skin cancer. Thus it is important to protect against both by ensuring you have a broad spectrum sunscreen!

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), people only really use about “25-50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen”. The recommended amount is one ounce of sunscreen, which is considered enough to cover all exposed areas of the body (not only the face)- that’s a full shot glass! Re-applying sunscreen every two hours or after sweating/swimming is also recommended by dermatologists and doctors. Be sure to read the instructions that come with your sunscreen and follow them to receive maximum protection!

What I use:

Missha All Around Safe Block SOFT FINISH Sun Milk SPF 50+ PA++++


This 10-step skincare routine might sound a little over the top and too much work almost, but the magic is that this can be tailored to fit your particular needs and skin types. You can choose to omit some steps from your routine- having all 10 is not required at all! I personally go through 7 steps for my nighttime skincare routine, and just cleanse, tone, moisturize and put on SPF in the mornings.

I hope this was informative and answered any questions you may have had about the 10 -Step Korean skincare routine!

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