The Korean Skincare Regime Explained

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Products I use regularly in my skincare regime. Not pictured here: Body lotions, facial wash, cleansing oil, and my Clarisonic.

So in my post about my Korean skincare regime, I gave a general overview of I was doing, as well as general dos and don’ts. However, I neglected to mention what exactly each product within the regime does, which can be terribly confusing if you’re trying out the regime for the first time. (Bad me.) If you’re confused by all the many many products and names on the shelves (or even my list of products in the photograph’s caption), breathe. Here’s a breakdown on all of them.


  • Cleansing oil – an essential step if you want to embark on the two-step cleansing regime. I much prefer using this than to use a makeup wipe; it’s so much gentler, and effective. I used to have raccoon eyes I’d have to scrub off with multiple sheets of makeup wipes, but I’ve never needed to since I started using a cleansing oil. Most people are scared off by the word ‘oil’ and think it’ll leave a gross residue on your face. A good cleansing oil actually emulsifies upon contact with water, and washes off easily, leaving no residue behind. To use, rub gently on the face with clean hands to break down your makeup, then wash off. Also, unlike soap it doesn’t unbalance your facial oil levels.
  • Facial Wash – your cleansing oil gets rid of your makeup, but you still need a facial wash to clean off facial oils, blackheads and other gross things. It also gets rid of any makeup residue still on your face.
  • Toner/Refiner – this is meant to rebalance the pH to your skin after all the cleansing you’ve done. Pick one that doesn’t contain alcohol (or ethanol, I notice innisfree attempting to get away with having alcohol in their toners by calling it ‘natural ethanol’), unless you want to dry your skin out excessively. Apply straight after your shower, while your skin is still slightly damp, preferably by massaging it gently into your skin with your hands.
  • Emulsion – emulsions are like really lightweight creams. Some people use them to substitute for an actual moisturizer, but the staff at Laneige told me it’s meant to prep your skin for all the other products that come in after toning. If toners rebalance the pH to your skin, emulsions rebalance moisture levels, ensuring all the other products will be absorbed in properly.
  • Essence – essences, serums and ampoules have smaller molecules than lotions so can penetrate your skin beyond surface level. They contain ingredients for specific purposes (think of these as vitamins for your skin). They work on moisturizing, whitening, repairing, pore control, anti-aging, etc. Essences are the most diluted form, and also the cheapest.
  • Serum – slightly more expensive than essences, as they have a higher concentration of ingredients. They also tend to be less watery than essences.
  • Ampoule – the most expensive, and with the highest concentration of ingredients. These are meant to penetrate your skin more quickly and deeply, and provide a faster results. Usually these are sold in little vials for one-time use as their ingredients are highly reactive and oxidize in the air. It’s recommended you apply this before other serums and essences. 
  • Eye Creamthe skin under your eye is a very delicate area, and eye creams are a thinner, richer solution to treat it to prevent wrinkles. There’s a lot of debate on whether or not eye creams are really necessary, or if it’s just an additional product the cosmetic industry tries to sell to you. Personally, it’s worked for me; I’ve been using a green tea seed eye cream from innisfree for its anti oxidant properties, and have noticed that the puffiness and discolouration in my under eye area has decreased. If you don’t have any problems in the area, just skip this step.
  • Moisturizer/Cream/Lotion – After all your serums/essences/ampoules, this is the last step to seal off all your products. I’ve read that serums and the like target the skin cell deeper down, while creams and lotions target skin cells at surface level. Creams do tend to be a little heavier than lotions, so you might want that for night-time application or if you have drier skin.
  • Sleeping Pack – This is applied as the last step on a regime, so like a ‘mask’ you put on before you sleep. Some people think that sleeping packs are just moisturizers, but I think sleeping packs are formulated with a lot more properties in mind. The Laneige Water Sleeping Pack for instance, has anti-oxidant and skin softening effects.
  • Sheet Masks – These are like cotton pads soaked in essences that you apply on your face and leave on for 15-20 minutes. I like to think of it as a pick-me-up to treat a specific problem for my skin at the end of the week. So if I’m tired, I might pick a red ginseng mask for its energizing properties. If I’ve been in air conditioning all day and my face is feeling a little dry, I’ll choose a strawberry or honey mask. Use 2-3 times a week, no more for maximum effectiveness.
  • Clay Mask – Clay masks basically work by sticking on your face and as it dries and you wash it off, pulls off dead skin and excess dirt and sebum with it. Note, most women leave it on ‘til it gets all dry and crackly but that’s too long, and it would have sucked out some of the moisture on your skin by that point. Remove it just as it gets dry. I recommend washing them off by the fifteen minute mark. A lot of people say that clay masks are able to act as a sponge and soap up your impurities, and so deep cleanse your skin. I’m gonna go with this dermatologist who says they only work for the surface, and therefore only remove surface level impurities. Their minerals may work in making your skin looking lighter and brighter, they won’t affect your cystic acne, unfortunately. I find that it does help with pimples and blackheads, especially those with minerals that have anti-inflammatory properties; my skin definitely looks clearer at the end of each use. Clay masks work very well with oily and combination skin, and using this means that I cut down on exfoliating my skin with a scrub. I like to use it at least once a week.
  • Mist – this is liquid in a spray on bottle with cooling properties, with very light moisturizing properties. Personally, I’m not convinced these do anything for your skin apart from the obvious cooling effect, as you don’t rub them into the skin or anything. If you do use it, make sure you spray it on after your toner, not after you’re done with your lotions and stuff.

Do note that you shouldn’t be layering too many products into your skin. At a certain point, your skin’s not going to be able to absorb all that stuff. You’ll be wasting your expensive products and you risk getting clogged pores. I don’t go more than five steps each time. You can layer more lightweight things like essences and serums, but don’t layer lotions. 

I hope all this has been a comprehensive read about skincare! If you’re interested in finding out more, here’s some more literature!

The Fashionista article that started all this: Here’s What Happened when I Tried The 12-Step Korean Skin Care Regime
Elle’s Writeup on the Korean Skincare Regime
Skincare Mistakes
Skincare Ingrediant Combinations to Avoid
Korean Skincare: The Differences Between Serums, Essences & Ampoules

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6 Responses to The Korean Skincare Regime Explained

  1. Elese Dowden says:

    This is brilliant – there’s something of a lack of info on Korean skincare 101 posts (in English) this thorough out there and I really liked yours! I’m currently using the green tea version of your Innisfree face wash & it is wonderful (along with their apple juicy lip & eye remover + etude house wonder pore freshner + Lush’s Gorgeous moisturiser). Need to get a good serum + emulsion and I’ll be sorted, just using up heaps of samples at the moment! xx

    • natziwang says:

      I’m so glad this was helpful for you! (I finished writing it, wondered why I felt so drained then realised it was a 2k essay I had just churned out on skincare. Won’t my teachers be proud.) Do you have your eye on any serums in particular? I’m a big fan of the innisfree green tea seed one, and the ecoscience serum is expensive so worth it IMO.

      • Elese Dowden says:

        I love Innisfree so was definitely looking at that one! I’ve just finished the Benton Snail Bee Essence & was using that for a while instead of a serum but there’s a Missha snail one I had a tester of and looooved – Super Aqua maybe? xx

      • natziwang says:

        Oh man. I’ve yet to try any snail slime products, definitely need to give that a go.

  2. Juvy says:

    Super helpful! I need to save this on my email, and share the love too! 🙂

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