A few years ago, I was researching how to create a Korean skincare routine. But I quickly grew frustrated. Most Korean skincare routines involve twenty or more products and took several hours (Who has time for that?!). So over the years, I developed my own (much simpler) routine.

I love Korean skincare products because they’re inexpensive, they’re infinitely customizable, and they work.

I want to walk you through my super simple Korean skincare routine. You won’t find any super expensive products here – in fact all the products cost less than $20!

My Korean skincare journey

About 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

Since then, 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 overall have much clearer skin.

Here’s how you can create your own Korean skincare routine. 

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 foaming cleanser: Hada Labo Hyaluronic Acid Cleansing Foam ($9)

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

Why does a low pH matter?

The skin’s acid mantle (the skin’s thin, protective coating) has a pH level of 4-5, which is slightly acidic. In order to maintain the skin’s natural pH level, it’s best to use a cleanser with a similar pH.

The pH scale goes from 0-14. Battery acid has a pH value of 0 (VERY acidic), water has a pH of 7 (neutral), and household ammonia has a pH balance of 11 (alkaline).

If you use a cleanser that is too alkaline, it disrupts the skin’s acid mantle. Symptoms of a disrupted acid mantle include dryness, tightness, excessive oil, and sensitivity.

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)

Korean toners are gentler than most western toners. I use toners that have AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) or BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid).

AHAs and BHAs are both acids that serve different purposes. To learn about the difference between them, see here. It 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 moisturizer: Benton Snail Bee High Content Cream ($16)

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

This moisturizer is unique because it contains snail extract (yes, seriously). Snail products are popular in K-beauty because they pack a punch; snail extract contains elastins, proteins, hyaluronic acid, and glycolic acid, all of which firm and plump the skin.

All I can say is I love this moisturizer. It’s plumping and hydrating, and really makes a difference in my skin.

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

SunscreenBiore Aqua Rich Sunscreen with SPF 50 ($16)

Sunscreen is SO important for anti-aging. And yes, you need it even if you have a fifteen-minute commute and work in an office.

Ever wondered what the numbers attached to SPF mean? 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%.

Tip – if using a sunscreen makes your face greasy, I recommend using setting powder. This one is my all-time favorite.

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 – this one doesn’t make me break out at all.

If you need additional help getting off eye make up, the Banila Clean It Zero Sherbert Cleanser ($16) is excellent.

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 again. Toner preps the skin for moisturizer by making it easier to penetrate.

Step 7: Moisturize

Korean Skincare Routine Yu-Be Moisturizer

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

In the evening, I like to use a heavier moisturizer to moisturize the skin as much as possible during the night. This is the moisturizer climbers use on Everest – it’s incredible.

Step 8: Apply Retin-A

Retin-A is the best anti-aging product on the market. It’s prescription only, and can be very expensive depending on your insurance. It’s basically a cream with vitamin A that makes your skin cells regenerate so quickly they don’t have time to age or create acne.

One of my biggest pet peeves is that many women use products with retinol and think they’re getting all the benefits of prescription Retin-A. They’re not. Retinol has about 1% of the strength of prescription Retin-A, and does next to nothing. (link)

Prescription Retina-A can be difficult to use. It can make the skin extremely dry, if over-used. I use generic Retin-A (Tretinoin) and apply a pea-sized amount right before bed. The trick is to always use moisturizer beforehand and to use a very small amount.

Also, if you’re using a prescription Retin-A, you must wear sunscreen, as Retin-A makes the skin much more sensitive to UVA and UVB rays.

Step 9: Use 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 cheap and contains snail extract. I also use the Shiseido one regularly and like it.

Spot treat (optional)

Cosrx Acne Pimple Master Patch ($5)

If I have a blemish, I use these acne patches. They absorb pus and oil from a pimple site, and work best if you’ve already popped the pimple (gross, I know).

Favorite masks

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

Skinfood Rice Mask ($7) – a nourishing rice mask that moisturizes the skin.

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

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) – I love these sheet masks because they come in tons of wacky flavors (avocado, broccoli, red wine). You can also buy them at Sephora.

A few things to note about Korean skincare:

Not all are Korean products are good. Just because a product is Korean doesn’t mean it’s good. Some are gimmicky but useless, e.g. 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.

A few notes about skincare in general:

The number one thing to prevent premature aging is avoid the sun and wear sunscreen. Nothing ages the skin faster than the sun. So either stay out of it, or apply sunscreen with SPF 30 or more.

Don’t rely on makeup for sun protection. Many women think that if their makeup has SPF 15, they’re covered. Spoiler – they’re not. It would be super expensive to apply foundation the way you should apply sunscreen, as you need a thick layer to see the benefit. See this article for more information.

Topical products won’t do much for cystic acne. Topical products won’t do much for hormonal acne, which manifest in many women as painful cysts on the chin and jaw.  Many women combat cystic acne by taking birth control, spirolactone, or antibiotics.

What has worked best for me is changing my diet. Dairy causes cystic acne because it disrupts your hormones. I also avoid peanuts like the plague. Peanuts contains androgens, a hormone that is similar to testosterone. Peanuts (unfortunately) give me horribly painful cystic acne on the chin and jaw.  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.

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 2. This is highly acidic! Plus, citrus oils are potentially phototoxic, meaning that you’re 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. Just no.

And finally, baking soda has a pH of nine, which is WAY too alkaline for your skin. 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! Do we use any of the same products? Have you tried any Korean ones?

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 expense to you. Thanks for keeping Ashley Abroad afloat!

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An inexpensive Korean skincare routine (and how to start your own!) Korean skincare in nine steps

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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.