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. As a result, my morning routine is pretty much just sunscreen followed by makeup on busy days, or a brief cleansing if I feel my skin is really in need.
- CosRX Low pH Good Morning Milk Gel Cleanser
Why I use it: It’s pH-balanced, and is meant to do the job of both a cleansing balm (for makeup and sunscreen removal) and cleanser. I find it a little less intensive than my evening cleanser, which is perfect since I don’t moisturize as much in the morning and am usually trying to get out the door.
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. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t foam up much! Let sit for 30 seconds. Rinse off with cool water.
Where to buy: You can purchase this in select Aland locations that sell skincare. I can confirm that the COEX Mall location carries the full CosRX line! The only bummer is that this product is only available in Korea at the moment, so if you’re an international reader, you might have to order from Korea directly or wait a bit until international retailers start carrying it. But it should be coming soon, and I’ll update the link to the US site instead of the Korean one once it’s available. In Korea, it retails for ₩17,000.
- Dr. Jart+ Every Sun Day UV Sun Screen (SPF 50) or Sun Fluid (SPF 30)
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 tried a few different sunscreens and have finally settled on this line. It’s one of the few brands that doesn’t give me milia flare ups! They also have versions for oily skin and sensitive skin, so I’d recommend checking out the whole line and finding which one best suits your skin.
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 after it has fully absorbed.
Where to buy: Any Olive Young, Lalabla (Watson’s), Chicor, or LOHB should carry Dr. Jart products. They were retailing at Sephora, but they recently changed their packaging. I think at the time of me updating this post, it’s temporarily out of stock while they change out the products, but keep an eye out for it there soon! Each sunscreen retails between ₩23,000 and ₩26,000, depending on the type.
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 Moisturizing, Radiance (brightening), and Resveratrol (anti-aging). All three have been great for me, and I don’t have a particular preference. I use this product to loosen and remove my makeup, so if I’m not wearing any makeup, I 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 + Cleansing Tool*
Why I use it: It’s pH-balanced, so it doesn’t totally strip my skin, but I feel like 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 if you don’t have a cleansing tool*. (A little bit goes a long way!) Let sit for 30 seconds. Rinse off with cool water.
*See 3A and 3B for cleansing tool recommendations!
Where to buy: You can purchase this in select Aland locations that carry skincare products. It’s also usually available at Olive Young locations. It’s super affordable, too, at only ₩8,500!
- (A) CosRX Blackhead Silk Finger Ball (on a budget)
Why I use it: I use these silk worm cocoons for some gentle exfoliation. They’re great because they won’t create micro-tears in your skin, and are reusable!
How I apply them: Run warm water around and inside the cocoon for one minute to soften. Splash water on face to dampen, and place cocoon on finger. Apply cleanser to either face or cocoon, and massage around skin in small, circular motions for 1-2 minutes. Rinse off with cool water.
Where to buy: The cocoons can also be purchased at Aland locations that stock skincare, online at the Korean CosRX site, or occasionally at Olive Young. They retail at ₩3,500 for a pack of 12, and I use each one for about two weeks before tossing it.
(B) Foreo Luna Mini 2 (save up and splurge)
Why I use it: This tool changed my life!!! I saw this at Chicor, did a quick Google search for reviews, and I’ll admit that it was a total impulse buy. Even with just one use, though, my skin immediately felt different. I’ve even converted some guy friends into washing their faces and taking better care of their skin by letting them try it! It’s made out of antibacterial and antimicrobial silicone. Unlike cleansing brushes, you don’t need to buy additional parts or replace it every month to keep it clean. Cleansing brushes with plastic fibers in their brush heads can also create micro-tears in your skin, which can make you more prone to acne, infections and irritation. The silicone of this device is soft and gentle, but vibrates for exfoliation. It’s also perfect for traveling: one charge also lasts for up to five months. I use mine daily and have found that this does in fact hold true! Seriously, I cannot stress enough how great of an investment this product was.
How I use it: Run warm water over the Luna and splash water on your face to dampen. Apply your cleanser to the Luna, and turn it on. The Luna will pulse once every 15 seconds, and three times every minute. It will turn off automatically after 3 minutes to avoid using up the battery, but you only need to massage your cleanser around your face for 1-2 minutes. Rinse off with cool water.
Where to buy: This can be purchased in Chicor, but it’s quite overpriced at ₩220,000. You can also purchase it directly from Foreo or Sephora for $139.00, but beware customs and taxes if you live in Korea! Anything over $150.00 USD in value inclusive of shipping costs will get you hit with import taxes. I’d recommend having a friend send it to you, or getting in while traveling in another Asian country that has Sephoras, like Malaysia.
- [OPTIONAL] CosRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid + Innisfree Volcanic Pore Clay Mask
Why I use it: So there are actually two versions of the clay 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 work nicely together, but I only use this 1-2 times a month because the AHA has a glycolic acid level of 7%, and my skin simply doesn’t need it anymore. If you have oilier skin or issues with acne, doing this one a week may really benefit your skin.
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 over face. Avoid eye area. Give AHA about one minute to soak into skin before applying clay mask over it 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: You can get the AHA at Alands that sell skincare products, or on the CosRX website. 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. 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, even when applying weekly.
- 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 step 6, so I’d strongly recommend using them one after the other!
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 fingers and pat evenly into skin. Avoid going too close to the eyes. Let sit for 10~15min!
Where to buy: Aland locations with skincare, 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 liquid-gel.
How I apply it: Apply a pump to a pump and a half to a texturized cotton pad or fingers. Dab product onto forehead, cheeks, nose, and chin to distribute evenly. Using a small circular motion, lightly work product into all areas of face if you’re using a cotton pad, or smooth it around with your finger tips. Avoid the eyelids and going too close to the lower lash line. Let sit for 10~15min!
Where to buy: Aland locations with skincare, 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. SkinFood unfortunately went bankrupt at the end of 2018, so I’m currently stocked up on this while I wait to see what happens–there are rumors that the company will return as an online-only retailer. If they don’t, I’ll have to find an alternative product. Fingers crossed!
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/absorb before proceeding to the next step.
Where to buy: Purchase in person at SkinFood stores or online through their Korean site. The serum + cotton pad 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–they sell textured ones there that I’ve kind of grown to prefer!
- 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, without touching your face, 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 it, but it turns out that galactomyces is a kind of fungus/fungal byproduct that is left over when brewing Japanese sake. You can read a bit more from an equally confused blogger here, but it basically helps with keratin reduction–perfect for my milia problem! Before I even really knew what this product did, though, I liked using it because of how quickly and thoroughly 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, Aland locations with skincare products or the Korean CosRX site. Retails for ₩18,500.
- [OPTIONAL] MediHeal R:NA Proatin Masks
Why I use them: My routine actually keeps my skin pretty well-moisturized, but if I go to the jjimjilbang (Korean spa) or the weather is dry, 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 and narrow face, and this brand happens to fit me nicely. Normally I haven’t ever felt too strongly about sheet masks, but MediHeal’s new R:NA line has had me absolutely sold. They’re packed with product and really moisturize my skin well.
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. Bonus tip: keep them in the fridge for a cooling effect. Especially good for sunburns!
Where to buy: I get mine from Olive Young, but MediHeal is so popular that any LOHB, Watsons, or similar shop will carry them. MediHeal masks retail for ₩2,000 to ₩4,000 each, depending on what kind you choose, but the stores often have 1+1 or discounted sales. Best to wait for a sale and buy in bulk!
- Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum or Skin Ceuticals CE Ferulic Serum
Why I use it: Vitamin C is hugely helpful for repairing and preventing skin damage! Both of these products have 15% L-ascorbic acid (that’s the technical term for vitamin C) and are actually quite similar. My mother and her friends both swear by the Skin Ceuticals one, but I’ve also used and liked the Drunk Elephant version. I’ve also heard people recommend the Klair’s one, but haven’t tried it myself. If you’re outside of Korea, CosRX also makes a great vitamin C serum that actually isn’t eve available in Korea!
How I apply it: On a clean face, apply evenly and lightly with finger tips. Follow with sunscreen. Use immediately after opening and store it in the fridge. Don’t stock up on it either, as vitamin C products gradually loses potency over time, especially once they’ve been exposed to air and light.
Where to buy: You can order the Drunk Elephant serum online via Sephora if you live in Korea, or get it directly from their website. Unfortunately it’s quite pricey at $80.00, but I feel like you get what you pay for in terms of its effectiveness. The Skin Ceuticals serum is even more expensive at $166.00, but can often be found on sale for $120-130.00. I have my mom ship this to me in care packages, so please see the Skin Ceuticals website for authorized retailers near you. Personally, this is the one skincare item I splurge on and feel like it’s money well spent.
- Innisfree Jeju Orchid Eye Cream
Why I use it: I bought this after doing a lot of research on /r/skincareaddition and /r/Koreanbeauty, and have been really happy with my results. It doesn’t irritate my skin or eyes at all, and I really do feel like it’s helped moisturize the skin under my eyes and reduce fine lines.
How I apply it: Get a small amount of product on your ring finger, and massage the tips of your two ring fingers together to distribute product evenly. Apply product from the inner corners of your eyes outward and upward–Korean women say to “never pull downward,” as it “encourages sagging.”
Where to buy: I pick this up at Innisfree locations around Korea. If you don’t have a retailer near you, check your local Homeplus or Emart as they often have makeup and skincare kiosks there! Retails for ₩25,000.
- 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, bee propolis is always good stuff, so that was reason enough for me to buy and try 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 the mixing helps make it a “lighter” application. Etude House does sell a regular version, though, if the Deep version is too thick 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 or Aland locations with skincare products for ₩23,500.
Huh. I guess my routine really is 10 steps, if you include the optional ones. 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.
Believe it or not, I can knock out the entire evening routine in about 30~40min. The only daily steps that require me to sit around and wait are the two active acids in steps 5 and 6, so I normally just watch an episode of my current Netflix binge. My iPad found its true calling in K-Beauty, too: I holler at Siri to set all of my 10~15min timers because I’m a terrible person with zero self-discipline who can’t keep an eye on the clock. Also because she can hear me from across the room, so I don’t have to get up…
More Skin Stuff!?
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.