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?).
Based on my experience as an esthetician who trained in Korea (also licensed in the United States), founder of and curator of Peach & Lily, and a K-beauty expert, I’ll share everything I know about the background, beginnings, and story behind Korean beauty below.
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.
Korean beauty ingredients are innovative and inspired by nature.
Whether it’s a serum incorporating ingredients like snail mucin to ampoules that include microneedles made of marine solids, Korean beauty innovates with unique ingredients you often won't find in other skin care.
Korean beauty history.
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.
Korean 10-step skin care routine
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, and if you want a more in-depth explanation, please see our full 10-step skin care routine guide.
- Double cleanse, part one, oil cleanser: Use an oil-based cleanser to remove all oil-based impurities.
- Double cleanse, part two, water cleanser: Follow your oil cleanse with a gentle, non-stripping water-based cleanser.
- Exfoliator: This is an extra and doesn't have to be every day—it's based on whatever your skin needs.
- Hydrating toner: Use a hydrating toner to balance pH and kick-start hydration.
- Essence: Essence is primarily geared toward amping up hydration.
- 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.
- Masks: This could be sheet masks or other hydrating masks but doesn't have to be every day.
- Eye cream: Eye cream comes next.
- Moisturizer: Then seal it all in with a moisturizer.
- 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?
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.
What are some common K-beauty misconceptions?
You need to do all 10 steps to achieve radiant, glowy skin.
You really don’t need to do all 10 steps. You can do five, or you can do more. It’s all about what your skin needs and what’s right for you. The most important thing in K-beauty is consistency. Again, it’s like working out. Some people really only want to work out for half an hour a few times a week to maintain their desired level of fitness while others really want to put more work in. So get to know your skin and see what’s right for you.
I personally have more than 10 steps in my routine, but I've got it down pat, so it takes only a few minutes each morning and evening. So a multilayered routine doesn’t have to take a long time and/or be disruptive to your day! It’s my "me time" and a soothing moment for me to bookend each day. Other than keeping my skin healthy, it’s a part of my day I love and look forward to.
Korean beauty products are only for Asian skin.
This is totally false! Skin is skin. Like any other skin care product, look for products for your skin type (dry, sensitive, acne-prone, oily, etc.), and you’ll be all set when it comes to Korean skin care products. Koreans deal with all the same issues as people from all backgrounds when it comes to skin—acne, oily skin, dehydrated skin, redness, wrinkles, etc.—so the skin care products are formulated to help keep skin healthy and address these universal skin care concerns.
Using "anti-aging" products too early in life will make you age faster.
This isn’t true, at all. It’s true that using ingredients that are too harsh can be more damaging than helpful to skin, but this truth isn’t relegated to just anti-aging products. This could be true of acne products made for teens, for example. As long as you’re not using products that are too harsh for your skin type, starting a skin care routine early that is about preventing premature aging and UV damage goes far in keeping skin at its best. It’s so much easier to keep skin healthy than to reverse damage.
Men and women have to use different Korean skin care products.
Good news—Korean skin care products are for everybody, no matter your gender! Skin type is more of a factor than anything. My husband has dry skin like mine, and we definitely have products that overlap, and we both love and see amazing results from those same products.
SPF is needed only on sunny days.
SPF is healthy for your skin everyday! I often hear people say that it’s cloudy out or they’ll be at work all day, so they’ll skip their SPF. Unfortunately, the sun’s rays penetrate through clouds, and if you’re sitting by a window, you’re getting sun exposure. Sun damage is a real thing, and not protecting ourselves from the sun can be potentially the single most destructive thing we can do to our skin. So rain or shine, a habit of applying daily SPF before heading out the door will make a world of difference come five, 10, 20 years later.
Back home in Korea, our family has a family facialist we have been going to for as long as I can remember. She’s now in her 60s (though she looks like she is maybe in her late 30s—seriously), and she has clients she’s been seeing now for decades. As a fellow esthetician, she tells me the real-life differences of her clients who have instilled this one healthy habit in their skin care routine and those who haven’t. When we’re in our 20s and 30s, it’s hard to think about the damage that accumulates, but it does. So let’s do ourselves the favor and find that one SPF that we won’t mind using and stick to it. Here’s to healthy skin and keeping it that way!
Korean skin care is really seen as a form of self-care, protecting the skin, an organ, from damage and keeping it healthy. At its core, Korean beauty is less about looking pretty and more about taking care of your skin as a way of taking care of yourself, overall.
Korean skin trends: Honey, dumpling & glass skin
Not only are there K-beauty skin care methods, K-beauty has also introduced several types of aesthetics that are something of a makeup-skin care hybrid.
This is the most well-known and refers to skin so smooth and clear, it has a near transparent affect. This is due to the delicate mix of spot treating concealer and mega-watt highlight, which gives the illusion of a plane of glass. Learn how to do it, here, with mbg's guide to glass skin.
Dumpling skin focuses on supple, moist skin rather than looking luminous and reflective. Learn to recreate it with mbg's guide to dumpling skin.
Think of the supple texture of honey rather than the radiance of glass or the three-dimensional feel of a dumpling. It's one that emphasizes the sheen of a dollop of honey, not necessarily the golden color of the nectar. Again, a hydrated texture is the goal here. Achieve it with mbg's guide to honey skin.
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Alicia Yoon is a Korean skin care expert and the founder of Peach & Lily, a leading source and retailer for all things K-beauty. She studied philosophy at Columbia University before receiving her MBA from Harvard Business School. She travels regularly between New York City and Seoul to find the best products and new, innovative skin care, and she has helped make Korean beauty the phenomenon it is in the United States today. She's an esthetician certified by spas in Korea and licensed in New York. She's also on WWD's 25 Most Innovative Beauty Executives list and serves on the Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW) board of governors.