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K-Beauty: Everything You Wanted To Know About Korean Beauty, Explained

By now, you probably have already heard about Korean beauty, known as "K-beauty" for short, and might even be a fan of Korean beauty products and/or the infamous multistep Korean skin care regimen. No matter how much experience you've had with Korean beauty, there's a solid chance you still have questions about it, whether you're curious about what sets K-beauty apart from other products or are interested in simply getting the facts straight (e.g., do I really need to do all 10 steps?).

What is Korean beauty, or K-beauty?
At a fundamental and basic level, Korean beauty products are ones that originate and are made in Korea. The products are typically created with the Korean beauty philosophy in mind. Here's what that entails.

Korean beauty products and regimens are designed to work long-term.
Sure, there are products that might claim peel your skin overnight or quickly neutralize redness. However, when skin care is approached with overnight results in mind, there’s an understanding that at best, results may not last, and at worst, the products can actually damage the skin—which is worse than not having any effect, in my book!
Instead, there’s an emphasis on gently nurturing the skin toward your desired results, whatever they may be, with consistency and a highly personalized skin care routine. I often liken to it working out. A crash diet might "work," but the results typically are hard to keep, or worse, this kind of dieting could have harmful effects on the body. Instead, a consistently healthy diet and a consistent workout plan give you results that are yours to keep and are safe ways to access well-being. What’s also interesting is that this long-term, gentle approach is what really helps skin get that lit-from-within glow that truly beams with the signature K-beauty healthy, hydrated, bouncy look. What does this mean as far as products go? There are products like essences, serums, ampoules, and all kinds of masks to choose from so that hydration and nourishment can be absorbed one gentle, thin layer at a time.

Korean beauty is all about customization.
Everyone’s skin is unique, and truly understanding your own skin is a big focus of the Korean beauty philosophy. It doesn't have to be complicated! Take stock of what you’re using, and if you ever have an allergic or negative reaction to a product, see what ingredients were in the products. Then take a product that works well for you and see what ingredients are in that product. Over time, paying attention to ingredients helps you identify patterns—ingredients your skin dislikes and those it loves.
Some products are designed to be flexible and buildable, because not everyone will need or want the same amount of hydration. Essences are a great example, which are meant to be used after cleansing and toning. If your skin needs only one sip of refreshing hydration, apply one layer of the essence onto clean skin. Just got off a flight or you’re fighting off a cold and your skin is needing extra love? Layer on as many layers of essence as you need—even a dozen layers is good. Staying on top of your skin care game means understanding what works for you and understanding what your skin is craving each day. It can go such a long way toward helping your skin be at its best.

How did Korean beauty become a modern skin care trend?
I spoke with historians and visited museums in Korea, where I'm from, to understand the rich beauty legacy and traditions passed down through the generations, shaping it into what it is today. Thousands of years ago, Korea was largely an agricultural society. Most everyone was outside under the harsh rays of the sun. Searching for ways to heal sun damage has since been embraced by Korean beauty.
During these times, natural ingredients like camellia, mung bean, and rice were popular for the rich antioxidant benefits and hydrating properties, and they would be kept in small celadon tubs in tiny amounts as preservatives weren’t used as much back then. It's amazing that this history of time-tested natural ingredients has been passed down and is still incorporated into today’s beauty formulas.
Then, in the 1940s and onward as Korea’s economy began to grow exponentially, the beauty companies that started the modern K-beauty movement (many are still around today) set up shop. Saengreen was established in 1987 and was one of the first natural-ingredients-focused beauty companies. Amore Pacific, founded earlier in 1945, has seen slow and steady growth into the company it is today. Shangpree, famous for its well-loved eyepad masks, was started in the 1990s. Each of these companies is still thriving today. As Korean beauty reach and development continued to progress, there were so many new formulas, ingredients, and types of products that became a reality (skin lotions, essences, serums, and more).

I remember as a toddler living in Korea, my mother would teach me how to brush my teeth...and how to pat on moisturizer! Just like brushing my teeth is a way of taking care of my health, I always grew up thinking that skin care was a form of self-care, too.

When did the Korean 10-step skin care routine become popular?
Contrary to what the media might have you believe, the Korean routine isn’t necessarily 10 steps long. It can be five steps long or even 15 steps long. The 10-step routine really indicates the multilayered nature of the routine going back to the gentle and long-term focus. Here's how this multilayered routine typically goes:
  1. Double cleanse, part one, oil cleanser: Use an oil-based cleanser to remove all oil-based impurities.
  2. Double cleanse, part two, water cleanser: Follow your oil cleanse with a gentle, non-stripping water-based cleanser.
  3. Exfoliator: This is an extra and doesn't have to be every day—it's based on whatever your skin needs.
  4. Hydrating toner: Use a hydrating toner to balance pH and kick-start hydration.
  5. Essence: Essence is primarily geared toward amping up hydration.
  6. Face oils, serums, ampoules: These are the most personalized steps of your routine, which is all about targeting the specific issues you want to address.
  7. Masks: This could be sheet masks or other hydrating masks but doesn't have to be every day.
  8. Eye cream: Eye cream comes next.
  9. Moisturizer: Then seal it all in with a moisturizer.
  10. In the mornings, always finish up with SPF.
This multilayered approach to skin care has been popular in Korea since around the 1960s. It’s actually changing a bit now as beauty brands are another leap forward with multitasking products that are just as effective as two separate steps, like combining a serum and moisturizer in one.

What are some key steps that are special to the Korean beauty routine?

K-beauty essences.

A couple of key steps come to mind. First, essences! I’m a huge believer in essences. While toners have the main job in helping to balance pH, essences are really for delivering hydration to skin with humectant-rich (water-binding) ingredients that are formulated to deeply hydrate. Other watery products like micellar waters and hydrosols are different from essences—the former is a cleansing water, and the latter is a water produced as a by-product of distilling botanicals and is a "flower water" of sorts. K-beauty essences come in a wide range of watery to more viscous textures. They’re used directly after cleansing and toning, and the primary job of an essence is to truly drench skin with hydration, which helps keep it healthy.

K-beauty sheet masks and rubber masks.
The second unique step is sheet masks and rubber masks! After cleansing and toning, apply a sheet mask, then pat in remaining essence and seal it all in with a moisturizer. This is like an easy mini-facial at home and can really help create that dewy, glowy skin relatively quickly. It’s also an easy way to see if you like new ingredients, as sheet masks are usually affordable and give you a way to sample different formulas/ingredients. Sheet mask in the mornings, on flights, in cars, when jet-lagged: I find sheet masks to be like multivitamin-boosters that give your skin this extra "oomph" whenever you need it. It works every time, it’s easy, and it’s soothing. A fun tip? If you want a glow fast, try sheet masking daily for just five days straight. You might be surprised what just five days of intense hydration can do for your skin! And now sheet masks come in all kinds of natural and organic varieties.

By Alicia Yoon


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