Complete Asian/Korean Skincare Routine Guide

101 Guide to Asian/Korean Skincare Routine and Products Layering Technique

I wrote this based on my years of experience researching, studying, and using multiple skincare products, especially Korean skincare products. As such, I want to share these with you guys who are still new to the beauty world, to sort of clear your confusion and doubts on some of these products and how to use them.

Let's join me to demystify the ever-confusing Asian/Korean skincare regime and products layering technique, and hopefully by the end of this chapter, you'll be able to gain some insight on various skincare products category and how to build your own skincare regime.

Why Asian/Korean Routine?

Asian, in particular Korean, are taught to take care of their skin since young ages. We are taught to avoid the sun, put on skincare products and properly remove our makeup before going to bed. Of course, this is also related to Asian culture where flawless and fair complexion is preferred over darker and troubled ones. In fact, Evolutionary Psychology also teaches us that clearer skin complexion often signifies great physical health which leads one to prefer clearer skin complexion over bacteria-ridden ones.

Due to that, Asian tends to have a wide range of skincare products, targeting specific concerns, with Korean (i.e. Innisfree, Skinfood etc.) and Taiwanese (i.e. Naruko, Neogence) remain the most competitive ones in term of quality and innovation.

Asian skincare routine is far more comprehensive and well-developed, from cleansing oil, treatment essence to sleeping mask. It is also gentler, cheaper and entertaining to use. As such, my skincare routine is more Asian than Western.

Should I use products from the same brand and same range?

Not necessary. Skincare is a highly subjective and confusing thing. You can put on 10-20 products on your face, or you can also do just fine with 4-5. It really depends on which products you are using, and how.

Besides, not all brands can afford coming out with 100 products with different texture and functions, so what if you like the toner of brand A but dislike its lotion or cream? In fact, after analyzing over 100 different products, I notice that most skincare products have more or less similar skeleton so I don't think mixing up brands would really harm your skin in anyway, unless if you have really sensitive skin or you practice stern brand loyalty.

I have tried sticking to only one brand as well as mixing products from different brands. I do feel that mixing products from different brands works better than sticking to only one brand. Of course, I am not asking you to randomly mixing up products, but I am just telling you that it is OK to mix up products, because not every products in the same brand are made equal or will always suit your skin needs.

How long should I stick to one product or a set of routine?

Another frequently-asked but highly subjective question that I often receive. Your skin changes with your age, mood, environment, lifestyle and diet. So, I never use the same products every day and night. I usually have 3-5 products from each category and use them alternatively as and when necessary. I also have products designed for drier skin days, oilier skin days, period days, breakouts day, and even lazy days. You can refer to my Instagram for more routine story. So, be flexible.

The Bottom line:

It all boils down to how much you understand your skin, as well as your products, when choosing the routine that fits you best. Sometimes, a highly-raved product might not work out well on you (i.e. Aromatica Rose Absolute Serum is too oily and dehydrating for me); sometimes you'll find treasure strove in the most unexpected places.

Always take skincare reviews with a grain of salt. Try to check the texture, application, and scent properly instead of just the performance of a product before making any buying choice. If a product has undesirable texture and scent, no matter how well it might work on your skin, applying it wouldn't be a fun and pleasurable experience.

And don’t move on simply because something doesn’t work miraculously or immediately. Exercise and proper diet take time, so does skincare. Wait at least 28 days, unless if a product break you out badly. You can read this awesome article on how to differentiate breakout and purging.

Read your ingredients list, but always remember that ingredients list only account for 50% of products perform. Formulation and technology matter the other 50%. Consult your doctor if you are pregnant or have troubled skin.

That's all I want to say, good luck finding your best skincare regime! Let's move straight to the product categories!

Step 1: Cleansing

Cleansing is a very important step in skincare. Properly cleanse your skin is the building stone to healthy-looking skin and better makeup application. There are many schools of thoughts in cleansing. The basic one is a foam cleanser and a cleansing toner, which is a common practice in Western countries. In fact, if you study Western skincare brands, you'll notice that they often don't have any cleansing oil or makeup remover, just normal cleanser. Their toner is also the harsher astringent type with makeup-removing properties. American brand Kiehl's, for instance, doesn't have any cleansing oil or makeup remover, just creamy/milky/gel-type foam cleansers.

The more advanced cleansing ritual is double-cleansing, which is a common practice among Asian women. I have been doing this since I start using skincare products without realizing that this is called double-cleansing. I grew up learning that you need to use a cleanser with makeup-removing properties for makeup and then wash it off with a normal cleanser. Almost everyone around me, except for guys is doing this double cleansing thing. It's debating whether or not you need a makeup-removing-cleanser for sunscreen, but my advise is if the sunscreen doesn't claim that it can be removed by a normal face wash, they you should at least use a micellar cleansing water.

Third school of thoughts involves exfoliation and pores-cleansing. There are two different types of exfoliation: physical and chemical exfoliations. Physical exfoliation refers to the use of scrub or gommage peel to physically remove dead skin cells on your skin surface. Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, relies on acid treatments such as vitamin C, AHA, BHA, PHA, and so on to accelerate cellular renewal and break away dead skin cells using chemical reaction. AHA tends to work on dead skin cells on your skin surface whereas BHA tends to help getting rid of those inside your pores. There is also a "physical way" of pores cleansing that do not involve chemical exfoliants, which is deep-cleansing mask. These masks use kaolin, charcoal, bentonite, mud, and so on to "suck out" sebum within your pores. Although it is controversial whether or not clay mask can suck out sebum within your pores, but it is a good absorbent and can temporarily remove anything on your skin surface to make it appears clearer and cleaner.

In short, no matter which schools of thought you adopt, the point is to clean your face thoroughly but gently. Normal to dry skin like myself prefers using a micellar cleansing water, a foam cleanser; and on weekly basis, clay mask, physical scrubs, AHA, and BHA. My friend who is a minimalist sensitive combination skin uses a milky cleanser (e.g. Cetaphil Daily facial cleanser), a gentle astringent toner and wash-off masks. My mom who used to think that a foam cleanser can remove everything realizes that her skin becomes dewier with lesser breakouts ever since she starts using a cleansing balm/oil (e.g. Banila Co Clean it Zero) to remove her makeup, and then follow by a foam cleanser. Occasionally she would treat herself with some clay mask and physical scrub. My bf with oily, acne-prone and dehydrated skin now uses clay mask, foam cleanser and BHA to keep his cystic acne at bay. These are some examples of how to mix and match cleansing steps that best suit your needs. Just think of cleanser like sweeping and mopping your room. No matter how you clean your room, it will always be full of dust and dirt in a few days because not only does your environment change, your skin also produces metabolic waste itself. Hence, even if want to skip everything else, cleanser is something you should never skip everyday. Be thorough, but most importantly gentle as well.

  • Points Makeup Remover is a makeup remover designed specifically for waterproof makeup on your delicate eyes and lips area
  • Cleansing Oil is a oil-based, runny liquid makeup remover to remove most makeup traces; first step in your double cleansing ritual
  • Cleansing Balm, also known as Sherbet Cleanser is a solid soft balm makeup remover that will dissolve and emulsify all traces of makeup and dirt on your face; first step in your double cleansing ritual
  • Cleansing Milk/Gel is a gentler form of foam cleanser which can also be used as a makeup remover. It has both foaming and non-foaming formulas and is more suitable for drier skin
  • Cleansing Water, or micellar water is a watery liquid makeup remover to remove lighter makeup; first step in your double cleansing ritual
  • Foam Cleanser is the most common type of cleanser that will remove most dirt and dust except waterproof and oil-soluble makeup; second step in your double cleansing ritual; this also includes Cleansing Stick and Mousse Cleanser
  • Cleansing Toner or Astringent Toner is more common in Western countries that utilizes alcohol or witch hazel extract to wipe away makeup residues and dead skin cells on a cotton pad. Astringent Toner is relatively drying and harsher on the skin especially for drier skin types. Astringent Toner should not be confused with Asian hydrating toner that has lesser cleansing power but is gentler and more hydrating on the skin.
  • Deep Cleansing Mask uses kaolin, mud, bentonite, charcoal and so on to whisk away impurities on your skin surface. Its pores-cleansing properties for those without visible pores (i.e. beyond its reach) are controversial.
  • Physical Exfoliators refers to the use of physical scrub to manually remove dead skin cells on your skin surface.
  • Chemical Exfoliators refers to the use of acids and actives (aka. vitamin C, vitamin A, AHA, BHA, PHA) to clear away impurities both on the skin surface and beneath (i.e. pores)

Step 2: Replenishing

You can also call this the toning or hydrating step. A lot of products like essence, lotion, toner, mist, treatment essence, first serum and so on fall under this step. This is the step where you inject lost moisture after cleansing into your skin with watery and light-weighted nutrition. Asian skincare routine focuses heavily on this step, but Western might just jump right into the 3rd treatment step. It is like the first glass of water you drink after you got off your bed, which stimulates blood circulation and pumps goods stuffs into your skin cells to kick start your day.

  • Treatment Essence is a watery, runny and clear treatment in liquid form. Its primary function is to renew, regenerate and gently exfoliate the skin to give the Asian dewy and glowing skin look. First regeneration SK-II Pitera Essence works better at cell renewal whereas its dupes like Missha First Treatment Essence, Kiehl's Iris Extract Activating Treatment Essence, Innisfree Soybean Energy Essence, and so on have other added skincare benefits like brightening, moisturizing, lifting and anti-aging without the powerful cell renewing properties of the SK-II Pitera Essence
  • First Serum is a light-weighted, less intensive but skin-awakening activating step you apply after the treatment essence if you do apply a treatment essence. Their primary function is skin activating, nourishing, treating and moisturizing. You can see my detailed explanation on the skincare category here.
  • Hydrating Toner is a staple in Asian skincare. Almost every Asian skincare brand carries at least one hydrating toner in their line. In fact, Asian women's thinner moisture barrier may speak their preference for gentler and more hydrating products. Unlike astringent toner, hydrating toner focuses on supplying loss moisture from the skin, prepping and softening it to serve as a channel for better absorption of treatment products that follow. Also known as lotion in Japan and skin/softener in Korea
  • Mist is a convenient, simple, portable hydrating tool for Asian women. It is especially helpful for women who travel a lot of those who stay in the office the whole day. It does only one simple thing - to supply hydration for the skin without having to mess up with your makeup especially when you are outdoor or are away from all your skincare essentials

Step 3: Treatment

This is another broad but highly important skincare category. Perhaps the most expensive one too. A lot of products fall under this category, such as eye cream, eye mask, dark-spot treatment, essence (not treatment essence), ampoule, serum, acne treatment, and even sheet mask. These are more targeted and highly concentrated products meant to treat and correct any skin imperfections you have, such as hyperpigmentation, dryness, flakiness, acne, blemishes, dark circles, wrinkles and so on. In addition to cleansing away all the unwanted metabolism by-products and dirt on our skin, and then supplying them with nutrition and hydration, now we want something potent and powerful to treat our skin damage. All skin treatment is categorized according to three major functions: moisturizing, brightening and anti-aging.

  • Eye Serum / Eye Cream is usually something I apply immediately after a watery toner or treatment essence. I think it is much more important and effective to allow these powerful ingredients to reach my delicate eyes area before it is prevented or diluted by my facial moisturizers
  • Ampoule is the most potent and powerful form of serum. It is so potent that it will melt immediately once it touches your skin. Some ampoule even comes in an individual sachets so that need to apply immediately after popping it out to prevent oxidation.
  • Essence here refers to the light-weighted form of serum that is targeting a specific skin concern. It is not the treatment essence we have discussed previously, but rather a more concentrated, less watery form of fluid that is designed for a light-weighted treatment experience
  • Serum is normally something I apply after ampoule and essence if I were to use all three forms of skin treatment together. It is the most common type of skin treatment available on the market.
  • Spot Treatment refers to any kind of skin treatment targeting a specific area of the skin such as freckles, dark spot, sun spot, age spots, acne scarring, blemishes and even dark circles. It normally comes in a form of long tube to make it convenient for application.
  • Sheet Mask belongs to the treatment step because it is meant to form a moisture trap on the skin and force feeding it with nutrition so that it will absorb them in a more efficient way than just normally apply it on hand. There is a saying that using 1 sheet mask is equivalent to applying 3 days worth of serum. Despite its efficacy, applying sheet mask everyday could be quite costly and time-consuming than just using it as a weekly treatment, hence I personally prefer to let my skin work its natural metabolism process out than to fattening it with excessive hydration and nutrition

Step 4: Moisturization

This is the most subjective category in skincare. It is so preference-based that many different textures have come out and evolved from the primitive emollient-cream type to gel, gel cream, soft cream, lotion and so on. Your preference for a moisturizer also highly dependable on your skin types and weather. I have normal to dry skin but I have a general preference for anything that is light so I always use a gel cream or gel. But I sometimes opt for a cream if it is made with advanced technology that feels like gel cream on the skin. And more interesting, despite my love for lighter moisturizer, I don't really enjoy using lotion or anything with a lot of carbomer inside. It is very important that you find the type of moisturizers you love and be committed to it everyday. After cleansing, replenishing, and treating, it is now for a layer of breathable but moisture-trapping film on your skin to lock and trap all the goodies you put on your skin.

  • Emulsion / Lotion is a milky form of emollient moisturizer. It is light-weighted, runny but has emollient inside to supply moisture for dry skin type
  • Gel is a water-based, oil-free moisturizer that is extremely light-weighted and refreshing for oilier skin type. 
  • Gel Cream is gel and cream hybrid emollient moisturizer with the lightweightness of a gel and moisturizing properties of a cream. It works best for most skin types especially combination/normal skin.
  • Cream is an oil-based emollient or occlusive moisturizer that will protect and moisturize the skin; perfect for drier skin type
  • Oil is a potent ingredient to treat specific skin concerns as well as to supply moisture and nutrition to the skin
  • Sleeping Mask is something I would consider as moisturizer or treatment-in-a-moisturizer than a skin treatment alone. Instead of treating specific skin condition, sleeping mask works more like a cream with nutritious ingredients to protect, moisturizer and treat the skin thorough the night

Step 5: Protection

This is the last step of a complete skincare regime. Skin experts would tell you that this is the most important step in your skincare routine. Without properly protecting your skin from UV radical damages, any skincare products would be obsolete because the damage done would be faster than your restorative and repairing works later. You'll need to apply at least 1/4 teaspoon (approx. 1.23ml) of sun product on your skin, regardless of its texture and SPF level. There are two readings on your sun products, namely SPF and PA. SPF refers to Sun Protection Factor and is usually come in 15, 30 or 50. It refers to how effective can your sun product filter UVB ray, the UV ray that causes sun burn and tanning. Most of the time, SPF30 can block some 90-93% of  UVB rays whereas SPF50 can filter out 97%. Hence, it is not necessary to apply a SPF50 sunscreen as its sun protecting ability would be far less than you expect. Besides, it is UVA that you should be worried about as UVA is the cause of skin aging, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. UVA rays is measured by PA, and we normally see PA+, ++ and +++. I personally prefer light-weighted, non-greasy, and refreshing sun product that I can reapply every 4 hours since I mostly just stay indoor. As such, if I can find a SPF30/PA++ product that fits those criteria I would be more than happy to stick to it than using a SPF50/PA+++ product that is too greasy for me to finish or to apply the required amount.

  • Sunscreen is the most common name for sun products. I refer to all sun products as sunscreen in this blog
  • Sun Gel is a light-weighted and hydrating sun product suitable for oilier skin type and hotter season/weather
  • Sun Essence is a relatively light and moisturizing sun product packed with skin beneficial ingredients
  • Sun Milk is more suitable for sebum-producting oily skin who wants a mattifying finish rather than a dewy one; dry/normal skin should avoid product labelling "sun milk" as it will dry out your skin further
  • Sun Cream normally has heavier consistency and is more suitable for drier skin type and colder weather but many brands have come out with sun cream with lighter consistency nowadays
  • Sun Block normally refers to sun products with waterproof and better sun protection ability but mostly with heavier consistency and more matte finish
  • Sun Cushion / Sun Spray refers to sun product in a cushion compact or spray can that is portable and travel-friendly. More popular in hotter season where reapplication and powdery product is preferred over emollient-creamy one


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