Over the past few years, I’ve fallen in love with Korean skincare. It’s inexpensive, customizable, and gentle. Most importantly, it’s improved my skin ten-fold.

The only problem is I’ve never been able to find a Korean skincare routine that works for me. Most of the Korean skincare routines I’ve found online are intense. They often take several hours and involve 20+ products.

So over the years, through a lot of trial and error, I’ve developed my own super simple Korean skincare routine.


My Korean skincare journey

Two years ago, my skin was the worst it’s ever been. I had closed comedones all over my forehead, painful cystic acne on my chin and jaw, and blemishes… everywhere. It was not pretty.

Desperate for a solution, I discovered the Asian Beauty subreddit and started ordering Korean products.

Korean Skincare Routine Before and After

I discovered Korean skincare and brow pencil, apparently

The Korean products I ordered were so different than the products I had been using. They didn’t burn. They didn’t ‘tingle’. They didn’t leave my skin squeaky clean. They were effective but gentle.

Since using Korean products, my skin has gone from oily and acne-ridden (uhhh see above) to dewy and clear. While I still get hormonal acne from time to time, I now have much clearer skin.

Here’s how you can create your own Korean skincare routine. And you won’t find any super expensive products here – in fact all the products cost less than $20!

Note – these are the products that work for my skin type – you may have different needs. For reference, I have acne-prone combination skin. 

Step 1 (Morning): Cleanse with a low-pH foaming cleanser

Favorite low-pH cleanser: Hada Labo Hyaluronic Acid Cleansing Foam ($10)

Every morning, I cleanse with a low-pH foaming cleanser.

Why does a low pH matter in a cleanser?

As we learned in seventh grade, the pH scale goes from 0-14, 0 being the most acidic and 14 being the most alkaline.

The skin’s thin, protective coating (called the acid mantle) has a pH level of 4.5-5.5, which is slightly acidic.

Most western cleansers are highly alkaline (i.e. have a pH of 9 or more). This is problematic because alkaline cleansers strip the acid mantle, which can lead to dryness, tightness, excessive oil, acne, and sensitivity.

TL;DR – it’s important to use a low-pH cleanser (like this one) with a pH of 4-5 because it maintains the natural pH of the skin.

Tip – You can test your cleanser’s pH level with pH indicator strips.


Step 2 (Morning): Tone with an AHA or BHA toner

Favorite AHA toner: Cosrx AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid ($15)

Favorite BHA toner: Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner ($15)

Like cleansers, Korean toners are gentler than most western toners. As an added benefit, many Korean toners have (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) or BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid) exfoliants. AHAs and BHAs are both acids that serve different purposes. But it basically boils down to this:

If you have aging, sun-damaged, or dry skin, use an AHA toner.

If you have oily, acne-prone skin and want to treat blackheads and whiteheads, use a BHA toner. (That’s what I use.)

Korean Skincare Routine AHAs vs BHAs

Step 3 (Morning): Moisturize

Favorite Korean moisturizer: Benton Snail Bee High Content Steam Cream ($16)

Next, I moisturize my face, neck, and décolletage. Moisturizing is important for both hydration and anti-aging.

I’ve tried a LOT of Korean moisturizers, but the Benton Snail Bee High Content Steam Cream is by far my favorite. It’s plumping, hydrating, and improves my skin’s texture.

This moisturizer contains snail extract (which is super popular in K Beauty, by the way). Snail extract firms and plumps the skin because they contain elastins, proteins, hyaluronic acid, and glycolic acid.

Just try not to think too much about the fact that you’re putting snail goo on your face.

Step 4 (Morning): Apply sunscreen with SPF of at least 30

Favorite sunscreenBiore Aqua Rich Sunscreen with SPF 50 ($10)

After moisturizing, I apply sunscreen. This step is SO important for anti-aging. I advise using a sunscreen with SPF 30 or more that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

Step 5 (Evening): Cleanse with an oil cleanser

Favorite oil cleanser – Skinfood Black Sugar Perfect Cleansing Oil ($15)

In the evening, I use an oil cleanser to cleanse my face and remove my makeup. Oil cleansers do both wonderfully.

Surprisingly, oil cleansers are fine for people with combination/oily skin – they don’t make me break out at all.

If you need additional help removing eye makeup, try the Banila Clean It Zero Sherbert Cleanser ($16).


Step 6 (Evening): Apply toner

Favorite AHA toner: Cosrx AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid ($15)

Favorite BHA toner: Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner ($15)

After I take off my makeup, I apply toner. This preps the skin for moisturizer by making it easier to penetrate.


Step 7 (Evening): Moisturize with a heavy moisturizer

Korean Skincare Routine Yu-Be Moisturizer

Favorite heavy moisturizer – Yu-Be Moisturizing Skin Cream for Dry Skin ($16). – Technically Japanese, but works amazingly well!

In the evening, I use a heavy moisturizer to moisturize the skin as much as possible during the night. This one is glycerin-based and is very heavy-duty.


Step 6 (Before bed): Apply Retin-A

After moisturizing, I apply a pea-sized amount of Retin-A (Tretinoin).

Retin-A is an over-the-counter cream known as the best anti-aging product on the market. Retin-A is derived from vitamin A, which increases the retention of collagen. Collagen is what keeps your skin elastic and young-looking.

Because Vitamin A dramatically improves cell turnover, it also fights acne, improve skin texture, and fades dark spots.

One downside? Retin-A can be difficult to use. If over-used, it can make the skin dry and irritated. But I’ve found that I don’t experience irritation if I always apply it moisturizer beforehand and only use a pea-sized amount.

If you’re interested in trying Retin-A, talk to your dermatologist.

And if you’re using Retin-A, you must wear sunscreen, as Retin-A makes the skin much more sensitive to sunlight.


Step 9 (Evening): Use eye cream

Favorite (inexpensive) eye cream: Mizon Snail Repair Eye Cream $6

Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about eye cream. What’s the point if you’re already using a thick moisturizer?

But for those who use eye cream, the Mizon eye cream is inexpensive and contains snail extract. I also use the Shiseido one regularly.


Spot treat (optional)

Favorite spot treatment: Cosrx Acne Pimple Master Patch ($5)

If I have a blemish, I spot treat with these acne patches. They are similar to hydrocolloid bandages, meaning they suck all of the fluid out of your blemish. I simply apply a patch on the blemish before bed and take it off in the morning.

Favorite masks

Are masks necessary for good skin? Not really. Are they fun and relaxing? Yep. I use masks to unwind after work. Here are some of my favorites.

Skinfood Rice Mask ($7) – a nourishing rice mask.

Skinfood Black Sugar Strawberry Mask ($7) – an exfoliating strawberry mask that smells amazing.

Elizavecca Milky Piggy Carbonated Bubble Clay Mask ($9) – a mask that bubbles up and makes you look like the moon emoji. See this video.

TONY MOLY sheet masks ($11 for 11 masks) – Sheet masks that come in wacky flavors (avocado, broccoli, red wine). You can also buy them at Sephora. (Though be careful – you may unwittingly terrify your roommate/boyfriend/significant other.)

A few things to note about Korean skincare:

Not all are Korean products are good. Some are gimmicky but useless, i.e. this adorable snail moisturizer that does nothing.

Check for whitening agents. Some Korean skincare products contain bleaching agents that whiten the skin. Check for bleaching agents before buying.


Some general skincare advice:

Avoid the sun and wear sunscreen. Nothing ages the skin faster than the sun, so stay out of it as much as possible. And wear sunscreen with SPF 30 every day.

The numbers next to ‘SPF’ mean something – they’re fractions. SPF 15 allows 1/15 UVB rays to pass, SPF 30 allows 1/30 UVB rays to pass, and so on. That’s why there isn’t a big difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50 – the former protects you against 97% of UVB rays, the latter against 98%.

Don’t rely on makeup for sun protection. To best protect your skin, apply sunscreen and then makeup. See this article for more information.

Topical products don’t do much for hormonal acne. Hormonal acne is the painful cystic acne that appears on the chin and jaw.  Many women combat cystic acne by taking birth control, spironolactone, or antibiotics.

What has worked best for me is changing my diet. I avoid both dairy and peanuts because they can affect testosterone levels which leads to cystic acne. Even though I miss peanut butter, I’ve found sunflower butter to be a good substitute.

Don’t squeeze ‘blackheads’. You know those gross black pores on your nose? They’re (usually) not blackheads! They’re sebaceous filaments and their size is based on genetics like your pores. Don’t squeeze them or you could end up with burst capillaries. Oh and don’t use pore strips either!

Don’t use moisturizer that comes in a tub. If you have acne-prone skin, don’t use moisturizer that comes in a tub. Because your fingers come in contact with the tub, it’s easy to spread bacteria.

DO NOT PUT LEMON OR SUGAR OR BAKING SODA ON YOUR FACE. Just because something is natural does not mean it belongs on your face.

Lemon juice has a pH of two which is highly acidic. Plus, citrus oils are phototoxic, meaning that they put you at risk for chemical burns if you go in the sun.

Sugar is also terrible for your skin. The uneven, jagged edges of sugar crystals tears your skin cells and disrupt your lipid barrier. Avoid.

And finally, baking soda has a pH of nine, which is WAY too alkaline for your skin. Rule of thumb – if you can use it to clean your toilet, don’t put it on your face.


Other resources

Asian Beauty – A super useful Asian beauty forum on Reddit.

Fifty Shades of Snail – My favorite Korean skincare blog.

Skincare Addiction – An incredible Reddit forum with tons of useful skincare advice.

. . . . . . . . . . .

So there you have it! Everything I know about implementing a Korean skincare routine.

Tell me about your skincare routine! Have you tried using a Korean skincare routine?

This blog is NOT a substitute for any advice given to you by your dermatologist. Some of these links are affiliate links and I will receive a small commission if you purchase through them at no additional cost to you. Thanks for keeping Ashley Abroad afloat!

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Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.