How the 10-step Korean skin care routine changed American skin care

The 10-step Korean skin care routine is dead. But Korean skin care lives on.

In the age we live in, everything we love most feels like it’s just seconds away from being shared with millions. Love burns bright and fast now. Songs of summer can morph into omnipresent earworms that make you want to dig into your ear canal to make it all stop. Foods of the moment — cronuts, ramen burgers, cupcakes, sushirritos — quickly materialize in suburban neighborhoods as ghosts of gastro foolishness. Cultish workouts like spinning and boxing start off as flings, bloom into obsessions, and then become relegated to private conversations between participants. 

The same applies to the hurtling speed of beauty, and not even the biggest trend in recent memory, the indomitable Korean skin care regimen, is immune. 

For beauty insiders, Korean suggestions of smearing the likes of snail slime and bee venom on your face to plump skin and vanish blemishes are, at this point, foundational. Since Korean skin care was introduced to Americans in 2011, the movement has become so ubiquitous and successful that you can find Korean beauty products at CVS, in the same vicinity as Revlon and Maybelline as well as Coca-Cola, Kleenex, and Kit-Kats. The craze has been well-documented, spurring think pieces that touch on how skin care reflects South Korean geopolitical policy, how Korean skin care became an educational experience for skin care enthusiasts, or how skin care in general became a psychological coping mechanism in the age of chaos in American politics. 

Korean skin care is so successful that Western brands have created mimics of the Korean products in an attempt to cash in. Like the butterflies that take advantage of a monarch’s appearance, these products look like and seem like their Korean originators and enjoy the advantages.

They benefit from association, whether or not they deliver the same results. The problem therein is that all these products run the risk of oversaturating the market and watering down the original concept, turning the Korean 10-step skin care routine into another cronut, cupcake, or CrossFit— a fad whose popularity ended up ruining it. 

Why Korean skin care became so popular 

Understanding the popularity of Korean skin care is understanding the relative lack of skin care options available to American consumers before 2011. The market was often divided by price point. Options at Sephora and department stores were expensive; the products available at drugstores were cheaper but not exactly enticing. 

“Korean skin care products tended to be more affordable than what one can buy at Sephora while seeming cooler than drugstore products available anywhere,” Tracy E. Robey, a journalist who writes about and reviews Korean skin care products on fanserviced-B, a K-Beauty blog, told me. “In part, K-beauty was tied to a desire for distinction: having the taste and resources necessary for having something special.”

She adds, “These days, Korean skin care is so easily available that it no longer confers the same distinction it once did” (more on this in a bit). 

What Robey refers to as “special” are products containing ingredients that have been found to clear, refine, exfoliate, or smooth skin. Skin care brands have always made these promises, but K-beauty offered the results in a way that was accessible by price and by way of education while also giving consumers a cool product.

In 2012, the price difference between items you’d find at a site like Soko Glam, a site that curates and sells Korean skin care products, and department store counters and Sephora was stark. And to this day, products like CosRX’s $11 cleanser and Klairs’s $23 vitamin C serum give consumers results for less money. Though, because of Korean skin care’s popularity, Sephora today now carries a range of Korean skin care products at myriad price points (see: Amore Pacific’s $195 age defense cream and Laneige’s $35 moisturizer). 

Taxonomically speaking, when skin care gurus refer to Korean skin care, they’re referring in general to the savvily marketed 10-step Korean beauty routine. That routine is filled with both distinctly Korean products — like essences and ampoules — and general cornerstones of skin care like moisturizers and cleansers. It goes a bit like this: a balm or oil cleanser (1), a foaming cleanser (2), an exfoliant (3), a toner (4), an essence (5), an ampoule or serum (6), a sheet mask (7), an eye cream (8), a moisturizer (9), and then either a thicker night cream or sleeping mask or an SPF (10). 

There might some slight tweaking to include another essence or serum, but the general idea is that after cleansing, you want to go with the lightest formula and finish with the thickest. Each routine is made up of these 10 or so parts, and each part can refer to a range of elixirs, each one promising to give you the best skin of your life. 

“Back in 2014, I was interviewed by Elle about how Korean women use a multi-step skin care routine,” Charlotte Cho, the founder of Soko Glam, told me. “As I was sharing the many steps, I coined the term ‘10 step Korean skin care routine’ because I explained that there are 10 different steps/products you can use in your routine. It doesn’t mean you need to use 10 steps all at one time, but it is just a way to educate others on the different steps and how to incorporate them into a routine.” 

Cho, a licensed esthetician, is largely credited with bringing this routine stateside. But what she did was more than simply telling people about a fad. Her site, along with rivals like Peach & Lily and Glow Recipe (Cho and these two sites have since launched their own skin care brands), educated interested skin care neophytes about the best products on the market and which ingredients — like vitamin C for brightening or hyaluronic acid for moisturizing — to look for in products. Soko Glam’s appeal was that it was a shop Cho curated herself and it provided extensive information about each product in a way that a visit to a department store or Sephora couldn’t. 

Cho and her fellow K-beauty enthusiasts made what has traditionally been a complicated and intimidating process blazingly simple. 

“When Soko Glam started, no one knew what Korean beauty was,” Cho told me. “Then with our curation and dedication to content and education on skin care, we’ve been able to grow K-beauty into a mainstream category in the US.” 

Since 2015, Korean beauty sales have grown 300 percent, estimates Slice Intelligence, a firm that analyzes e-commerce trends. And according to the NPD Group, another marketing and research firm, 2017 saw an American resurgence in skin care sales. While the data doesn’t outright cite Korean skin care, the products mentioned factor into the Korean skin care regimen. 

“Reaching $5.6 billion in sales, growth has stemmed from smaller segments including masks (+32 percent), facial exfoliators (+12 percent) and cleansers (+6 percent), and other face products (+39 percent) which, among other items, includes emerging formats, essences, and facial sprays,” the NPD group stated.

That growth and popularity of Korean skin care has made Cho into a beauty industry celebrity (she has more than 70,000 followers on Instagram) — I visited her Soko Glam pop-up last February, and the line snaked around a block in SoHo. It’s also responsible for the abundance of Korean skin care options you can find at Sephora and even in drugstores like CVS. Logic would conclude that Korean skin care’s popularity and market momentum would equal longevity, but that might not be the case.

Korean skin care is so popular that it will ruin Korean skin care 

The most visible effect of Korean skin care’s success is how Western brands have begun copying Korean brands, and how many brands that aren’t from Korea are doing their best to be lumped into the Korean skin care umbrella — that’s not even mentioning the retail giant Sephora’s clumsy effort in lumping Asian skin care brands like Tatcha as Korean even if they’re not. 

Ju Rhyu, a Korean beauty expert and consultant, told me that there’s copycatting of Korean products, like Belif’s True Cream Aqua and Moisture Bombs — moisturizers that put thought into the texture and weight of the creams. In 2017, Garnier came out with its “Moisture Bomb,” while fellow Western brands like Peter Thomas Roth came out with its “Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Cream” as well as GlamGlow and its “Waterburst Hydrated Cream.” Down to marketing, these brands are mimicking Belif’s moves. 

Brands copying other brands isn’t some new revolution. And when I was introduced to Korean skin care, it was through a brand called Missha whose products were considered duplications (or dupes in beauty parlance) of brands like SK-II but at a cheaper price point. But there’s a difference between brands duping Korean skin care brands and brands using Korean skin care marketing to benefit themselves without actually offering the same results. 

Ingredients in beauty products are usually listed on the back of the packaging or on the website in descending order — if a product is mostly made of water, then water is the first ingredient listed. While Garnier’s product has the same name and shares some main ingredients (water, glycerin, dimethicone), Belif’s ingredient list contains various leaf and root extracts that don’t appear in Garnier’s list. Though, to be sure, because we don’t know exactly how much of each ingredient is in each product and how wildly skin differs from person to person, the product could be a strikingly similar duplication for some or markedly different.

As a fan of Korean skin care products, I wanted to see if some rival products were comparable. 

Having tried GlamGlow products and being an ardent fan of their masks, I purchased the company’s Waterburst cream — a product seemingly inspired by and sold like (it’s sold as a “weightless water cream” that “bursts” with hydration on contact) the gel moisturizers popularized in Korean skin care. 

I have the superhuman ability to manifest an eagle-shaped layer of oil on my face at a moment’s notice, so oil-free moisturizers like the Belif Aqua Bomb are a blessing since they can hydrate without slicking my face. I wish I could say the same for the Waterburst, a product touted like the Aqua Bomb but laid on top of my face like a thick, slippery mask. It smelled like bubble gum and I’m not sure it hydrated my skin as much as it lacquered it up. It was a disappointment compared to the products that inspired it (the ingredients list was wildly different from Aqua Bomb’s). 

Korean skin care essentially gave people the language and ways to talk about skin care products that promote hydration, light feel, texture, and weight. And the Waterburst moisturizer is an example of that influence, using Korean skin care terms to sell itself, but it didn’t deliver close to the results of its Korean peers. 

This has happened in the beauty industry before. 

Back in 2011 and peaking in 2013, the hot K-beauty export was BB cream, or blemish balm cream (it went by many names, including beauty balm). BB cream was actually created in the 1950s in Germany, but Korean brands began tweaking and changing the formulas to give consumers a soothing and protecting, SPF-laced alternative to complexion products like foundation. Each brand touted that its BB cream wouldn’t just cover your blemishes but also revitalize your skin with various kinds of vitamins and antioxidants added. 

“No other beauty product has made waves this year like BB creams did,” the Huffington Post wrote at the end of 2012. That same year, Fashionista dubbed the cream the “hottest new product to hit the beauty aisle” and British GQ referred to it as the “Swiss Army knife” of grooming. T Magazine touted that BB cream could “tackle just about every skin concern you can imagine.” It was also called a “miracle cream.” 

BB cream’s white-hot popularity spurred similar products like color-correcting cream (CC cream) and dynamic do-all creams (DD creams) from Korean and Asian brands and then American and Western brands trying to cash in on the momentum. While they all have different names and some have different distinctions, BB, CC, and DD creams are all interchangeable terms now. Whatever made the initial product so innovative has been watered down to the point where you can seemingly call any tinted moisturizer a BB cream, and it’s hard to tell any of these products apart.

“It started with BB cream and then they came out with a CC cream, then they came out with a VV cream,” Rhyu said. “They came out with every letter possible.”

Without any singular defining characteristic, BB creams today have fallen off in popularity. 

As Stephanie Saltzman, a BB cream loyalist, wrote for Fashionista this January, the popularity of BB cream peaked in 2013. The market has since shifted toward light-coverage tinted moisturizers called “skin tints,” and she intimates that her use of the BB cream makes her more of an outlier, a dinosaur perhaps, than someone on trend. 

Western brands copying proven Korean brands is only one part of the equation. 

Because Korean brands don’t make the effort to market and educate American consumers on their own terms, they lose out on opportunity, marketing experts like Rhyu say. Having a snail mask or bee venom in a store isn’t going to woo customers unless those customers know what they’re looking for. The reason Cho and sites like her Soko Glam are so successful is because they come with education, but also clients trust Cho’s discerning eye. If there’s something on Soko Glam, that product has a certain stamp of approval. 

When it comes to Sephora or even CVS, there’s no strong guidance other than there are Korean products in the Korean beauty section of the store. 

“CVS put up this big K-beauty section, but the average customer goes there and [says], ‘I don’t know K-beauty. I don’t know what to buy. I don’t know any of these brands. Are they trustworthy? Are they interesting? Are they effective?’” Rhyu explained. “I think that’s part of the problem of being lumped into a K-beauty category.” 

The problem with not standing out is that it makes it difficult to stake territory, especially when it comes to innovation. As Robey pointed out on her website, L’Oréal, Garnier’s parent company, trademarked the name “moisture bomb”: 

The thing that set me off about this particular filing is the fact that belif had launched at Sephora in the US before L’Oréal registered the trademark. They filed July 9, 2015. belif launched at Sephora in April 2015. It’s possible that L’Oréal could have seen the launch at Sephora, minimally changed the name of one of the most successful and famous K-beauty products in the game, and registered that trademark a few months later. I’m not claiming this is true, but to me, the timeline is suspect as hell, and it’s bullshit that if LG/belif wants to challenge this, they’d have to pay out a ton of money in legal fees.

As a result, they become just another name in a crowded field, rather than the name in the crowd. Another effect of this ineffectiveness is Korean skin care curators like Cho (who came out with her own line of cleansers) as well as rival sites like Peach & Lily and Glow Recipe making their own products to capitalize on the gulf between consumer and Korean brands. 

Another way to think about this is how we think of American beauty and skin care. There’s no section of Sephora that’s just labeled “American skin care.” And when people think of skin care stateside, it’s usually dominated by which brands they use and are loyal to. There are a slew of brands — Tom Ford Beauty, Clinique, La Mer — owned by the American Company Estée Lauder, but there’s a distinct identity to each one. And we don’t try to lump them together under an umbrella of “American skin care.”

Even though products like Son & Park’s Beauty Water or Laneige’s Water Sleeping Mask have cult followings, no Korean brand has really distinguished itself from the others. 

“I think what will happen or what is happening is not that individual brands are going to become the next Clinique or Esteé Lauder or whatnot,” Rhyu said. “I think K-beauty and Korean skin care will always be looked at for innovation and for inspiration, and that’s where a lot of the Western brands will be leveraging information for their own products.” 

It cannot go without saying how big the Korean skin care community and the skin care community in general is part of the appeal. As Cheryl Wischhover pointed out in her story about beauty “holy grail” products, the appeal of these brands and products is in large part about consumers sharing discovery and the joy of tackling something as chaotic as skin with other people. That community connection with brands and consumers sharing said brands with others is why people want to see brands or their products do well. 

“If you get too emotionally attached to something, it’s going to get discontinued. It’s like fate. You have to keep moving or else you’re going to get your heart broken,” Robey told Wischhover about the turnover of certain products and the loyalty we pledge to brands. 

Robey’s insight fittingly applies to the Korean skin care trend too — that people have already moved on. 

When it comes to theories about fads and trends, the one unavoidable constant is the tipping point — a limit where the trend has become so popular that it breaks. With big Western brands like Nivea, which announced an incubator program for K-beauty entrepreneurs in Seoul, and Avon, which is launching a K-beauty collection in early 2019, it feels like we’ve sailed long past that point. Further, sites like Soko Glam are now selling a five-step alternative to the 10-step Korean skin care routine and promoting “skip-care,” a kind of skin care regimen in which you only keep the most essential steps and “skip” the rest. 

“The 10-step routine was bound for collapse because most skin doesn’t need that much stuff on it to feel and look great — it was only a matter of time before K-beauty fans gained the skin care knowledge needed to pare down their routines to exactly what they need and no more in order to save time and money,” Robey told me. 

There’s still money to be made in Korean skin care, as Nivea and Avon’s actions indicate — calculations from 2018 still haven’t come in, but Korea Customs Service reported that K-beauty exports totaled $2.64 billion in 2017. But there may be less focus on buying (and, for brands, selling) the “Korean 10-step routine,” and purchasing individual products instead as emphasized in abridged versions of the 10-step. 

By Alex Abad-Santos


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