How It All Started
My skin care journey began much later than most. As a teen, I managed to somehow miss the puberty-induced acne most of us are forced to battle. Unfortunately, I mistakenly thought this meant I didn’t need to do anything for my skin. My face basically got “washed” when the shower water ran over it. My skin tolerated this for a time, but by my senior year it’d had enough: some product (I suspect a sunscreen, because I didn’t use much else at the time) caused my skin to erupt in a bloom of milia.
If you’ve never heard of milia, it’s because it’s mostly common in newborns and isn’t particularly common in adults. While a milium cyst looks similar to a whitehead, they are often the same color as your skin and stick out less from the surface. While whiteheads are pores blocked by dead skin cells, oils, and bacteria, milia are actually cause when keratin proteins are trapped under the skin because your skin cannot shed or exfoliate normally. They look more like texture under the skin and are easy to miss…until there are so many of them clustered together, they’ve made your skin look like this:
I panicked. My dismissal of skin care and lack of any routine allowed the milia to develop unchecked until it was far too late. I actually thought I had caught some sort of rash because of how suddenly it seemed to have sprung up. It hadn’t, of course, but not paying my skin any attention led to it spiraling completely out of control.
Getting Things Under Control
I began seeing an aesthetician in the USA for facials. The gunk inside milia is more firm than the stuff in whiteheads because of the keratin protein. Milia need to be extracted by hand and it can be quite painful. This meant paying $120 to sweat (literally) in pain for an hour as they were professionally pinched out of my face. One by one.
Regardless of what product had caused it, this milia outbreak set my skin down a path of exfoliating issues. Skin sheds naturally every day as new skin cells replenish old ones, but mine was struggling. Along with the facials, I needed to figure out what would actually stop (or at least slow) this cycle. I started using cleansers and moisturizers with glycolic acid (an AHA), but it wasn’t until I came to Korea and started building an entire daily routine that my skin really began to see lasting changes. I still get facials about twice a year at Woo & Hann Skin Clinic in Seoul as I have one milium a month or so that pops up, but my skin looks pretty amazing now!
Where to Start
Developing a skin care routine is a process, and one that is going to be unique to you and your skin. Products that are amazing for me might not work for you, just as I’ve discovered plenty of products that others recommended weren’t great for me. I’ll be explaining what I use, how and when I apply it, and why I use it in my routine. I would describe my skin as:
- Combination, but leaning towards dry in winter
- Sensitive and bad at naturally exfoliating itself (milia)
- Very fair with warm undertones
I had tried everything from super basic routines to organic methods to oil cleansing, and these were my biggest “complaints” while experimenting:
- Cleansers leaving residue on my skin
- Toners drying my skin out
- Moisturizers feeling like they left my skin greasy, or not fully soaking in.
- Still getting milia.
If any of those skin descriptors or product complaints sound like challenges you’ve faced, then some of these products might be very helpful. But as mentioned before, everyone’s skin is unique. It’s going to take time to build up a routine that works for you and your skin. Mine took two years, and I still tweak it!
Note: I live in Korea, so all of the information on how/where to purchase is going to be for those living in Korea. If you don’t live in Korea, most of these products can be bought online through popular K-beauty retailers like SokoGlam.com, or Amazon.com.
The Morning Routine
Uh, I’ll be honest. I’m not really a morning person, and I don’t really have much of a morning routine on work days, haha. I still often skip on washing my face because I don’t wear makeup to work…and frankly just can’t be bothered. But here’s what my morning routine
usually should consist of when I’m not being terrible to myself:
- CosRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser
Why I use it: It’s pH-balanced so it doesn’t totally strip my skin, but I feel it really pulls all the gunk and grime off of my face. Leaves a clean slate for application of other products.
How I apply it: Splash water on face to dampen. Use a medium to large pea-sized amount of cleanser and massage into face with fingertips for one minute. (A little bit goes a long way!) Let sit for 30-60 seconds. Rinse off with cool water.
Where to buy: You can purchase this in select Aland locations. I can confirm that COEX Mall and the Sinchon UPLEX locations carry it. Also usually available at Olive Young locations. It’s super affordable too at only ₩8,500!
- Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum
Why I use it: Okay, I actually haven’t used this yet as it’s on it’s way in the mail, but I’ve heard it does amazing things to help even out your complexion. The company is also famous for avoiding toxic ingredients and is very transparent about what they put in their products.
How I apply it: On a clean face, apply evenly and lightly with finger tips. Follow with sunscreen.
Where to buy: You can order this online via Sephora if you live in Korea. Unfortunately it’s quite pricey at $80.00, but it’s so popular that there are numerous beauty blogs recommending dupes!
- DiorSnow Brightening UV Protection Fluid Luminous Finish (SPF 50)
Why I use it: I was using the Bioré Watery Essence sunscreen previously, but I felt like it was contributing to my lingering milia. The company also changed their formula this year, so I can’t get the product I was originally using anyway. I was actually given this product as a present, and since my skin doesn’t hate it I’m going to continue using it at least until it runs out.
How I apply it: After cleansing and applying any serums, apply a small amount to fingertips and evenly pat over face. A little bit goes a long way! Follow with makeup.
Where to buy: You can buy this in-person at most Lotte Department Stores and some Shinsegae Department Store locations. I don’t know what it retails for in Korea, but a little digging online shows prices range from ₩55,000 to ₩100,000.
The Night Routine
This is the big one. I do have some products that I only use once a week or if my skin really needs them. I’ll mark these by putting [OPTIONAL] before the product name so you know they aren’t necessarily a part of my daily routine. I promise it isn’t as time-consuming as you’d think!
Note: Active acids (AHAs and BHAs) need time to work and must be used one at a time. I’ve specified times in the “How I apply it” sections below but will underline them in red for extra emphasis.
- Banila Clean It Zero in Radiance or Resveratrol
Why I use it: So I’ve actually never tried the original version of this cleanser, but I’ve tried the Purity (sensitive skin), Radiance (brightening), and Resveratrol (anti-aging). The Purity version left a residue on my skin and I disliked it, but I really like both the Radiance and Resveratrol variations. I usually alternate between the two when I finish a container just to change up my routine, but they both pretty much do the same thing. I use this product to loosen and remove my makeup, so if I’m not wearing any makeup and am tired, I often skip it.
How I apply it: Splash water on face to dampen. Scoop out a thumbnail-sized chunk using the provided spoon and massage around areas with makeup. Rinse off with tepid/warm water.
Where to buy: You can purchase this in person at Banila Co. stores for ₩22,000. (The original version is 18,000 if you want to save a few bucks.)
- CosRX Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser + Blackhead Silk Finger Ball
Why I use it: Obviously this is the same cleanser mentioned in my morning routine, but in the evening I often apply it with the silk worm cocoons for some gentle exfoliation.
How I apply them: Splash water on face to dampen. Run warm water over and in the cocoon for one minute to soften.
Where to buy: See above for info on the cleanser. The cocoons can also be purchased at the aforementioned Aland locations, online at the Korean CosRX site, or at Olive Young. They retail at ₩3,500 for a pack of 12, and I use each one for a month before tossing it.
- [OPTIONAL] CosRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid + Innisfree Volcanic Pore Clay Mask
Why I use it: So there are actually two versions of this mask available in Korea: the regular and “Super”. The Super version has a higher concentration of AHAs in it, so since I pair this with my CosRX AHA, I actually just buy the regular version. They pair really well together, but I only use this once a week because the AHA has a glycolic acid level of 7%
How I apply them: Immediately after cleansing, pat face dry. Pump AHA once into fingers (Careful! It’s watery!) and use fingertips to evenly apply into skin by patting. Avoid eyelids. Give AHA about one minute to soak into skin before applying clay mask with fingers. Do not apply too close to eyes or over eyebrows. (I also avoid applying it over my lips.) Let sit for 15min or until clay mask is completely dry. Wash off with tepid/warm water.
Where to buy: Olive Young doesn’t sell this AHA, but the two aforementioned Aland locations do! It retails for ₩15,600. I buy the mask directly from Innisfree stores for₩12,000, but they also sell a larger size for around ₩25,000 that I usually buy. If you don’t want to use a separate AHA underneath it, the Super version only costs a buck or two more. Both products last quite a long time since I only apply them 2~4 times a month.
- CosRX Natural BHA Skin-Returning A-Sol
Why I use it: My skin is pretty sensitive to BHAs, so I have to use them in pretty low concentrations. This product contains only 1% betaine salicylate and lactic acid respectively, so it’s great for daily use. I also noticed a really dramatic improvement in the quality of my skin when I paired this with the other CosRX chemical peeler in the next step, so I’d strongly recommend using them together!
How I apply it: CosRX recommend using a cotton pad to apply this, but since it’s so watery I feel I lose too much product to the cotton pad. Apply a pump and a half of product to finger tips and pat evenly into skin. Avoid going too close to the eyes. Let sit for 10~15min!
Where to buy: Previously mentioned Aland locations or the Korean CosRX site. Retails for ₩14,800.
- CosRX Natural BHA Skin-Returning Emulsion
Why I use it: I actually added this to my routine kind of arbitrarily after skimming through a CosRX product pamphlet. They recommended pairing it with the chemical peeler in the previous step, but I kept it in my routine because I noticed an immediate difference in my skin’s texture when I used them back to back. While the A-Sol has a more watery consistency, the Emulsion is more of a gel.
How I apply it: Apply a pump to a pump and a half to a texturized cotton pad. Dab product onto forehead, cheeks, nose, and chin to distribute evenly. Using a small circular motion, lightly work product into all areas of face. Avoid the eyelids and going too close to the lower lash line. Let sit for 10~15min!
Where to buy: Previously mentioned Aland locations or the Korean CosRX site. Retails for ₩15,800.
- SkinFood Black Sugar Perfect First Serum 2X Essential
Why I use it: I use this product to remove any active acids still on my face and give it a clean slate before applying any toners, serums, or essences.
How I apply it: Use a textured cotton pad and a small, circular motion to lightly apply around the entire face. I also sweep this across my eyelids and lash line to remove any lingering bits of makeup. Let dry before proceeding to the next step.
Where to buy: Purchase in person at SkinFood stores or online through their Korean site. The combo pack that comes with really nicely textured cotton pads retails for₩24,000. Annoyingly, the cotton pads will run out long before the product so check out Olive Young if you need more to tide you over.
- CosRX AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner
Why I use it: This toning mist has only 0.1% of its AHA (glycolic acid) and BHA (betaine salicylate) respectively, so I don’t feel the need to wash it off my skin like the other chemical peelers. It helps prevent additional milia from forming and keeps my skin self-exfoliating properly.
How I apply it: Hold away from face and mist evenly over skin. Let product absorb naturally until completely dry.
Where to buy: Previously mentioned Aland locations or the Korean CosRX site. Retails for ₩12,600.
- CosRX Galactomyces 95 Whitening Power Essence
Why I use it: I literally thought this product name was completely made up when I first started using this, but it turns out that galactomyces is a kind of fungus/fungus product that is left over when brewing Japanese sake. You can read a bit more from an equally confused blogger here, but it helps with keratin reduction–perfect for my milia! Before I even really knew what this product did though, I liked using it because of how quickly and deeply it absorbs into my skin. It has a gel-like consistency that becomes slightly tacky as it absorbs. My skin really soaks it up!
How to apply it: Apply a single pump to fingertips and quickly pat evenly over face. Safe to apply around eyes. Allow to fully absorb.
Where to buy: Once again, previously mentioned Aland locations or the Korean CosRX site. Retails for ₩18,500.
- [OPTIONAL] MediHeal Sheet Mask
Why I use them: My routine actually keeps my skin pretty well-moisturized, but if I go to the jjimjilbang (Korean spa) or am treating myself at home, this is the point where I’ll toss on a sheet mask. I prefer the MediHeal brand ones, but obviously there are tons of choose from. I have a pretty small face and this brand just happens to fit me nicely.
How I apply it: Unfold sheet mask and apply over face. Leave on for 15~20min. Remove mask and use fingers to pat remaining product into skin.
Where to buy: I get mine from Olive Young, but MediHeal is so popular that any LOHB, Watsons, or similar shop will carry them. They retail for ₩2,000 to ₩4,000 each, depending on what’s in them, but the stores often have 1+1 or discounted sales. Best to wait for a sale and buy in bulk!
- Etude House Moistfull Collagen Deep Cream + [OPTIONAL] CosRX Propolis Light Ampoule
Why I use it: Alright, so Etude House probably isn’t on most people’s radars when it comes to skin care, but this is hands-down the deepest-penetrating, zero-grease moisturizer I’ve ever used. I think I discovered it because I bought makeup from Etude House and they gave me a sample, but I immediately stopped using my American glycolic acid moisturizer and started using this. Even CosRX’s moisturizers haven’t been able to top it for me! As for the ampoule, uh, bee propolis is good stuff, so that was reason enough for me to buy this. This is sort of an optional add-on to help thin out the moisturizer in the summer for me. The “Deep” version of the moisturizer is quite thick, so I sometimes this helps make it a lighter application. Etude House does sell a regular version, though, if the Deep is too much for your skin.
How I apply it: Use the back of your nail or the provided spoon to scoop out a fingernail-sized amount of product. Spread evenly over fingertips and pat/massage into face for full absorption. Add 1-2 drops of the ampoule to thin out the consistency if desired.
Where to buy: Purchase at Etude House store locations. Retails for ₩17,000. Ampoule can be purchased online at the Korean CosRX site for ₩23,500.
Huh. I guess my routine really is 10 steps, if you include the optional ones. Also, if you use an eye cream you would apply this between steps 9 and 10, but I haven’t found a product I’m in love with yet. As you can see, Korean skin care products (especially–ahem–CosRX) have really taken over my routine. While I’ve sort of expanded and swapped a few products over the last three years, the core parts of this routine have stayed pretty much the same.
Surprisingly, I can knock out this entire routine in about 30~40min. The only daily steps that require me to sit around and wait are the two active acids in steps 4 and 5, so I normally put on an episode of whatever show I’m currently watching on Netflix. The overpriced iPad I bought last year found its true calling in K-Beauty, too: I use Siri to set all of my 10~15min timers because I’m a terrible person with zero self-discipline. Also because she can hear me from across the room, so I don’t have to get up…
More Skin Stuff!
Alright, this article has already gotten quite long, so I’ll cut it off here. If you’d like to know how I condense this routine and pack it for traveling, what makeup I use in Korea, or the other miscellaneous skin/body care products I’ve discovered here over the years, keep an eye below for links to those posts! [COMING SOON]
This is NOT a sponsored post!
The purpose of this post is purely to share my own personal experience and provide relevant links to others interested in similar products.