Reader question: The intricacies of Korean skincare

Hi Miss Liz! I've been using Korean products for a while now. I stick to my cleanse-tone-moisturize routine. But every time I go into their stores, I get confused from the items in one skin care line. Can you differentiate and list the order how asian skin care goes? I've heard that there are routines that have up to 12 different products. So from 1. Cleanser (facial wash/cleansing oil); 2. Toner; 3. Moisturizer; which should I apply next: essence, emulsion, cream, serum? Also is there a difference if it's labeled 'lotion' instead of moisturizer?

This baffles me a lot. I thank you in advance :) - Patsy

Photo via Timeless Confection

Hi Patsy! Thanks for your question. I was also a bit confused initially, but as a general rule you can swatch the product first and then guess from there. If it foams, it's for washing. If it's watery, it's a toner. If it's a cream or gel in a normal-sized container, it's a moisturizer. If it's in a smaller bottle and gel-like and/or oily with a dense texture, it's an essence or serum. 

The cleanse-tone-moisturize routine is basic, but the Asian skincare routine is a lot more thorough! Apparently there are five basic steps which are:

1. Double-cleansing. This involves using an emulsifying cleanser such as an oily or watery makeup remover like the Shu Uemura Cleansing Oil to remove your makeup first. Afterwards, you use a foaming wash to clean the face of all impurities.

2. Facial massage and mask. You massage your face to get the circulation going then wear a mask for the prescribed period (anytime from 10 to 15 minutes). Face masks are useful to softening up skin in a jiffy and for minimizing the appearance of pores.

Face mask

3. Toner. Some Korean brands use the word "lotion" for toner (even Clinique, for that matter). Toners are an extra cleansing step to rid your skin of any remaining oil or makeup.

4. Essence or serum. Serums are meant to improve the absorption of your moisturizer, and they are full of benefits as well. They're usually a more concentrated form of skincare for certain concerns.

5. Moisturizer. Finally! They're usually in cream or gel form. Use a cream one if you have dry and flaky skin; gel for oily and acne-prone skin. 

So yeah, whoa. To be honest I don't get this concept of treating our skin like the enemy, as if it were some unruly child that has to be beaten to submission. Believe it or not, I advise everyone to use only EXACTLY what their skin needs, and only when it is needed. A full line of skincare or a prescribed step-by-step routine rarely works perfectly for anyone because each of us has needs unique to our genetic makeup. 

Some people may need all these steps to cleanse their skin (although how their skin could be that dirty to need them, I can't imagine) while some people don't need anything more than warm water. It depends. So if your skin looks good just with a core skincare routine, just stick to it and don't take the chance of messing it up. ;)