Our Ultimate Guide to Korean Skincare and Makeup: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know
We're a little bashful to admit this, because we consider ourselves makeup obsessives of the highest order, but... Korean skincare was a game-changer for us.
The odd ingredients, the expansive routine, the new cosmetics—it completely recreated our understanding of skincare and makeup.
So it's fair to say: we're big fans.
With that said... it can all seem like a little much, can’t it?
There's just so much to know, and learning about each new cosmetic—and every step in the skincare routine—takes sooooooooooooo much time.
If you're curious about Korean skincare and beauty, but it all seems a little overwhelming—well, you're not alone!
So to get everyone up to speed, we've put together this "Ultimate Guide" to Korean makeup and skincare. It goes over literally everything you need to know to start using—and falling in love with!—Korean cosmetics, from the philosophy behind the products, to the multi-step skincare routine, to usage on different types of skin (oily, dry, combination, etc.), to the oft-confused BB, CC, DD, and even EE creams.
We'll start at the beginning, and by the time we're through, you'll have a very good idea of what all the hype is about.
Let's start with the reason behind it all:
The Korean Skincare Philosophy
To understand what makes Korean skincare so unique, it’s important to understand the philosophies that underlies it.
Layers of Hydration
The goal of Korean skincare is to leave the skin youthful and bouncy, which relies on a ton of hydration. The skin is made up of layers, with certain skincare products meant to penetrate a bit deeper than other skincare products meant to sit on the surface, acting as protectants. In K-beauty, the goal is to saturate those layers of skin with as much moisture as possible by applying skin care products in layers.
This is how the Korean multi-step routine—came to be. In this routine, products with thinner, more penetrative textures are applied to the skin first, followed by thicker products that stay closer to the surface of the skin.
The thinner products are made with a ton of water or water-based extracts and humectants which is a class of hydrating ingredients that help pull water into the skin. They include glycerin, butylene glycol, hyaluronic acid, honey, beta-glucan, and panthenol. A few of the more unusual K-beauty ingredients, like snail mucin and probiotic ferments, also seem to work as humectants although their mechanism of action isn’t totally clear.
The thicker products are made with moisture-locking ingredients known as occlusives, which include thick oils and silicones, as well as emollient ingredients that help to smooth and reinforce the top layers of skin like ceramides, fatty acids, and light botanical oils.
There is also the Korean 7 skin method, which also relies on applying multiple layers though in this instance the layers are of the same hydrating toner or essence, which is finally sealed in by a moisturizer.
Gentle, Innovative, and Effective
Korean skincare is often more gentle than products produced in North America, though it is still made to be effective. Some say that part of the reason for this is that Koreans have more access to dermatological procedures and prescription-strength products, which their regular, gentle skincare routine supports, while others say that it’s a simple belief in “slow and steady wins the race”—either way, it’s impossible to deny that despite being gentle, Korean cosmetics work really well.
Whereas anti-aging, skin brightening, and acne-fighting products in the West are often made with strong actives like retinol or benzoyl peroxide, in Korea there is a preference for ingredients that work as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, or mild chemical exfoliants to soothe, renew, and protect the skin without the risk of irritation.
Korea has also been just as taken with the green beauty obsession as the rest of the world, so their industry is putting in a lot of research to prove the effectiveness of both gentle and natural ingredients. Finally, there’s very little fear of unusual natural ingredients, which means that when you put snail slime on your face, you can know that someone actually checked that it’s helpful!
The Fun Factor!
A lot of Korean cosmetic products are just a lot of fun! For many K-beauty fans outside of Korea, skincare is as much a hobby as it is a hygiene and skin health practice, and the fun factor is a big part of that. Since the routines are so long and ritual-based, products often come in cute or innovative packaging, with unique textures and gorgeous scents, which makes the entire process more enjoyable.
This does have a small downside. All of the fragrance-rich products can be problematic for those with reactive skin or sensitivity to scents, while the constant introduction of new textures is often less about functionality and more about creating something new to generate excitement, which makes putting together a routine a little challenging for beginners. No worries, though, we’ve put this guide together to help explain!
The Korean Multi-Step Routine
The idea that a Korean skin care routine has to consist of 7 or 10 steps is a bit of a myth, but it certainly differs from the old-school Western routine of only using cleanser, toner, or moisturizer.
Instead, the K-beauty routine is customizable, so you can pick and choose the steps that you think your skin will need from a more varied selection of product categories and textures. Not every single one of these products is mandatory, but by understanding what each Korean skin care product does and how it works, you can select the ones that’ll be best for you.
Night: Oil or Balm Cleanser
Oil cleansing is the first step in double cleansing. It used to be a common practice with theatrical actors wearing heavy makeup, and has gone on to be popular in Japan. However, it is through K-beauty that oil cleansing has had a recent international resurgence.
The coolest thing about the modern iteration of oil and balm cleansers is that they are made with a mixture of oils and surfactants, so the oil in them breaks down makeup, oils, sunscreen, and debris without irritating or drying out the skin, and then the surfactants make it easy to rinse everything away with water.
Gel or Foam Cleanser
Using a gel or foam cleanser is the first step of the Korean beauty routine in the morning or its second step in the evening. These types of cleansers lather up and they can be a little harsh when left in contact with the skin for too long (like the amount of time it takes them to break down makeup), but when used for a quick cleanse they’re perfect for refreshing the skin as well as for removing any residue of the oil cleanser.
The best foaming cleansers are gentle, with a pH below 6 that won’t throw the skin off balance, and with a formula that cleanses lightly without leaving the skin feeling dry, tight, or stripped of moisture.
Toners are not mandatory in K-beauty, and they are very interchangeable with essences which are a hydrating step, although they usually have a lighter and more liquid-like texture.
In other cases, Korean toners can be made to function as chemical exfoliants. Many of them are made with acids that help dislodge dead skin cells, and substitute for harsher physical scrubs which are not unheard of in K-beauty but are also not too popular. In that case, they are only used a few times a week instead of every day.
Essences are thick liquids with formulas meant to seriously hydrate and soothe the skin. Sometimes they come in mist bottles, which makes for a very luxurious experience and also makes them easier to apply.
Because they’re so thin, they penetrate into the skin readily, and are usually very rich in humectants that pull water into the skin from the air. They’re not greasy at all and include few occlusives, so they’re suitable for all skin types and are especially effective in humid climates.
Serums and Ampoules
Then come serums and ampoules, which are thicker than essences with a flowy texture like honey but without the stickiness. They still have some excellent hydrating effects, but they also include more potent active ingredients to give more specific effects, like brightening, soothing, anti-aging, or fighting acne.
Ampoules are often considered to be more concentrated than serums, but it’s not always true. Choose a serum or ampoule that will directly aid your specific skin concerns.
Seemingly last is the moisturizer! Korean moisturizers come in a wide range of textures, from light and milky, to gel-like, to thick and creamy, and they are meant to moisturize the skin just like their international counterparts. Because they are thicker than the products preceding them, they remain closer to the surface of the skin, helping to seal everything in, although for those with hyper-dry skin they might not be enough.
In the daytime, sunscreen is essential to the K-beauty routine because it’s so important for keeping the skin looking clear, youthful, and fair. On a more health-conscious level, regular sunscreen use is super important for preventing skin cancer.
Korean sunscreens are usually formulated a lot like moisturizers with hydrating and skin-nourishing ingredients, although matte options for those with oily skin also exist, which usually help keep the skin from getting shiny or greasy throughout the day. They rarely leave a white cast on the skin, and are exceptionally lightweight and non-sticky, partially because they can include SPF ingredients that haven’t been approved for use in the US yet.
In addition to listing SPF (which is almost always very high), Korean sunscreens will also include a PA rating, which is the Japanese-designed system of determining the level of UVA protection a sunscreen offers. This is great because UVA radiation, which isn’t thoroughly measured through the SPF system, is responsible for things like hyperpigmentation and premature aging and is also a partial contributor to skin cancer.
Night: Facial Oil
Facial oils are a newer addition to the multi-step routine, but they can be very lovely. They are usually made with antioxidant-rich plant oils, and they help nourish the skin with an emollient layer that helps to smooth the top level of skin and lock in a bit of moisture. They are not as heavy as balms, and can make for a nice beauty routine addition especially for those with dry skin.
There are also newer formulas made with the same ingredients as a moisturizer or serum, but formulated to have the texture of an oil, as part of the Korean beauty industry’s drive to innovate with textures.
Night: Balm or Overnight Mask
As a final evening step, balms and overnight masks help to finish off and seal-in everything that came before them, kind of like the Western idea of a night cream. Balms are heavy and thick, with a texture similar to Vaseline, and because they are so heavy, they do the best job of creating a protective barrier over the skin to prevent moisture evaporation. They can be especially great in really dry climates, when the skin can become dehydrated overnight.
Overnight masks are better in humid climates, because, while they still have that sealing effect, they also infuse the skin with more moisture. They are often used instead of moisturizers, and have a gel-based formula that also includes film formers, so it sinks into the skin throughout the night but also builds a protective layer that keeps moisture locked-in. They’re light and non-comedogenic, so they’re great for those with oily skin. Some overnight masks include exfoliating acids, in which case they should only be used once or twice a week.
Weekly: Sheet Masks
There are plenty of traditional rinse-off Korean masks, but sheet masks are a real K-beauty innovation. They are usually single-packed masks for one time-use (although we’re starting to see more eco-friendly bulk packed options) that consist of a round sheet of non-woven cotton or cellulose that is saturated with an essence.
Once smoothed over the skin, the sheet acts as a powerful occlusive that ensures a maximal amount of the essence penetrates into the skin to give it a ton of moisture and a dose of active ingredients.
There are also gel masks, which work through a similar principle but are made of a gel material, and there are also targeted masks made only to go around the eyes or around the lips.
Korean Skincare for Each Skin Type
It’s important to keep your skin type in mind when delving into the world of Korean skincare and multi-step routines for the first time, so you can select products that will really work for you:
Despite the large number of products, the K-beauty routine is actually great for oily skin! The focus is on building hydration with water-binding ingredients, which is the best way to keep oily skin strong, moisturized, and reinforced against the inflammation and bacteria that lead to breakouts.
If you have oily skin, you may want to skip the final, heavier steps of a K-beauty routine, like creams, balms, and oils, but those first steps of essences, serums, and gel moisturizers will keep you feeling super nourished but never greasy, while an overnight mask will have just the right texture for bedtime. Oil cleansers are totally fine, especially if you wash them off with a gel cleanser afterwards. You can use a Korean clay mask once or twice a week if your skin feels like it needs a deep clean or a mattifying touch.
The common ingredients in K-beauty that will be best for you, aside from the typical hydrating ones, include oil-controlling niacinamide, soothing centella asiatica, exfoliating and pore unclogging salicylic acid, and pore-tightening tree bark extracts.
The Korean skincare routine is fantastic for those with dry skin because it can give such an intense level of moisture. Those with dry skin are prone to dehydration because their skin doesn’t produce as much water-locking oils, so it’s important to rely on Korean cosmetics to boost both water and oil content.
Build a balanced routine that includes both lighter and heavier steps, and go with as many or as few products as you want. Balms and oils, especially, will give a wonderful boost to your skin. It’s extremely important that you choose a second cleanser that will be extra-gentle on your skin, although if you don’t need heavy duty cleansing your skin could benefit from only using an oil cleanser.
As far as ingredients go, look for hydrating agents, moisture-locking silicones, and emollient plant oils, ceramides and fatty acids. You can also look for ingredients that will help with specific skin concerns, like skin soothers or anti-aging actives.
Normal and Combination Skin
Those with normal and combination skin can really benefit from how customizable the K-beauty routine is. On dry days you can amp up the moisture, and on oily days you can keep things lighter by adding or leaving out steps.
For normal skin, it’s best to stick to a middle-of-the-road routine. One essence or toner can be enough for hydration, while a moisturizer can give all the occlusion necessary. Those with combination skin can slightly adapt their care for different parts of their face, primarily by only applying the final layers of their routine only to the drier parts of the face, while applying the lighter humectant layers all over.
Those with sensitive skin need to be a touch more careful building a Korean beauty routine. Many Korean cosmetics are made with fragrances or essential oils that can irritate sensitive skin, so it’s important to look specifically for fragrance-free options. It’s also important to build the routine slowly, rather than suddenly overwhelming the skin with a bunch of new products in one day.
With these warnings in mind, there are also a lot of benefits to Korean cosmetics for sensitive skin. The formulas are often made with extremely soothing ingredients like centella asiatica, niacinamide, licorice root extract, allantoin, and green tea extract, not to mention that plain old hydration can also calm sensitive skin.
We also want to mention exfoliation real quick, though not everyone with sensitive skin needs to exfoliate their skin. If it is something you’re interested in, poly-hydroxy acid (PHA) is an amazing chemical exfoliant that removes dead skin cells very gently, and is a great option for sensitive skin that is very common in K-beauty.
The K-Beauty Aesthetic: What Makes Korean Makeup Different?
Makeup trends vary from country to country, although just as globalization and communication technology have been able to transcend borders, so have certain ideas about beauty. Despite this, there are a few things that stand out when it comes to Korean makeup techniques and styles (as well as in other East Asian countries).
There are a lot of ways in which discussions of beauty standards can become political (as they often should), and they can also pave the way for incorrect sociological conclusions. Before really getting into things, it merits mentioning that there is a laudable movement in Korea right now that rejects certain (or all) parts of Korean beauty standards which are seen as oppressive to women.
However, we’re aiming to keep things light here and to focus on the ways in which Korean makeup styles are a lot of fun and can offer a nice change of pace. Korean beauty often focuses on creating a cute, youthful look, as opposed to the more seductive and glamorous styles that we often favor in the US or Europe.
This translates into all kinds of things: soft and dewy foundation that mimics real skin, softer contouring, eye-magnifying techniques, and a lot of blush tones, for example A few things are a little less clear—Koreans generally favor very straight, soft-looking eyebrows, without sharp arches or defined edges. The same applies to the lips, with the most common lipstick technique giving diffused color without a sharp lip line, for a just-kissed look.
There is also a cute element called the “aegyo sal” which translates to mean “charming fat.” The aegyo sal is a little deposit of fat directly under the lower lash line, close to the tear-duct, that can give the illusion of youth, cheerfulness, or makes the eyes look bigger depending on who you ask. Many people use makeup to mimic or emphasize that area.
The cool thing about Korean makeup is that there’s room to mix and match, as you will also see if you watch a few K-pop music videos. It’s okay to incorporate a Korean-style just-kissed lip with a smoky eye and lots of bronzer.
If you’d like to get more ideas and inspiration, we highly recommend watching music videos from Korean pop groups like Blackpink and Twice, and following Korean beauty gurus like Pony.
Unique Korean Makeup Products
Korean cosmetics are highly innovative and very unique, so we put together an explanation of the Korean makeup products that are the most unusual:
BB creams are the products that first started the K-beauty craze in 2011, long before we knew anything about essences or multi-step routines. They’re marketed as all-in-one skincare and makeup, replacing your moisturizer, primer, and foundation all in one go… supposedly. Most people use them along with their usual skincare routine.
Cushion compacts are more of a packaging innovation than they are a cosmetic innovation, but at this point, they have become the most popular way to apply complexion makeup in Korea. A cushion compact can be filled with BB cream, foundation, or tinted moisturizer. The compact consists of a bottom sponge that is saturated with product, keeping it aerated, a lid, and an antibacterial top sponge for the application. Cushion compacts are popular thanks to the airy and light texture they give to foundations, as well as because they are super convenient on the go.
In recent years, color correctors have become extra popular in Korea. We’re not talking about CC creams, but about concealers or primers that are tinted with a color like lavender, mint, or pink. These colors are meant to work as neutralizers or brighteners since lavender neutralizes yellow, mint neutralizes red, and pink has an overall brightening effect. In primer form, they are applied all over the face before foundation or BB cream, while as concealers they are applied only to specific areas where the skin is a little dull or sallow. They are not unique to Korea, but what does stand out is the specific color correctors chosen, since in the West peach and yellow color correctors are more common.
Jelly and liquid lip tints are very popular in Korea—much more so than the supersaturated and matte lip products we’re familiar with. These products have very thin formulas, so they sink into the lips, imparting a very long-lasting stain. They make the lips look tinted from within, so they’re great for creating that “just kissed” look. They can also double as cheek tints, giving the same natural, flushed effect.
Eyeshadows and Blushes
Korean eyeshadow and blush formulas are slightly different from Western ones. They tend to have slightly lower pigmentation since in Korea makeup is meant to go on like a soft wash rather than a fully-saturated layer.
For shadow, there is a stronger preference towards smaller palettes with 4-6 shades, as opposed to the massive palettes we might be used to in North America. All colors can be worn, but pinks, peaches, and earthy browns or taupes are by far the most popular because they give a soft and slightly tearful look to the eye that is considered very fetching.
In addition to powders, cream and liquid shadows and blush are extremely popular because of their natural, slightly dewy appearance and how easy they are to blend into the skin.
How to Apply Makeup Korean-Style
There is a lot of room to play around and experiment with Korean makeup techniques, but to get started you can use this guide to learn the basics:
Prepping the skin well is super important in K-beauty, so load up on moisture and make sure to finish with a strong sunscreen;
If you’d like, smooth on a very thin layer of primer, starting at the center of the face and using your fingers to blend it outwards; and finally...
Despite the obsession with dewy skin, it’s still okay to use a mattifying or pore-filling primer if your skin is very oily, while you can opt for a color-correcting or strobing one if you’d like to brighten your skin.
For color correcting specific spots of discoloration, use either your finger or a flat concealer brush to smooth on a very thin layer of a tinted concealer. Make sure to blend out the edges well;
Next, it’s time for BB cream or foundation. A brush, a damp sponge, the enclosed applicator, or even your fingers are all acceptable applicators, and all you’ll need to start out is a pea-sized amount of product;
To achieve a very natural look, make sure to apply a very thin layer of the foundation by combining a bouncing motion with a dragging motion. This will allow you to both apply and blend the product at the same time;
Once your face is covered with a very thin layer, you can slowly build up the coverage only on the parts of your face that need it, using either the same foundation or a skin tone concealer. In order to not disturb the makeup underneath, apply this second layer with tapping motions using whatever tool you like, and then carefully blend out the edges with even more tapping;
If you use a cream or liquid blush, gently dot it over the apples of your cheeks with your fingers, and then diffuse outwards towards your hairline. Keep tapping over it with your finger or sponge to blend it out so it looks like a natural flush;
You can skip using a setting powder if your skin is dry or if your foundation is self-setting, but if your skin is more oily and you find that foundation tends to wear away after a few hours then it might be necessary; and finally...
Make sure not to over apply powder since the overly matte look doesn’t fit with K-beauty. To keep things light, use a very fluffy brush and dip it in your powder. Then tap off the excess into a tissue, and lightly tap the brush over your skin, starting with the areas of your face where foundation usually wears away first. Afterward, with whatever remains on the brush and without reloading it with powder, you can lightly set other parts of your face.
Eyeshadow usually leans a little more simple and diffused, but even so, if you’ll be using powder-based eyeshadow it’s better to apply a thin layer of shadow primer or concealer first to prevent creasing. If you’re using a cream or liquid eyeshadow it won’t be necessary;
Two eyeshadow colors can be ideal for a typical Korean eye makeup look, but you can opt for more colors if you like. You should have at least one highlighting shade that will be lighter and more shimmery, and one lid shade that can be about the same level of darkness as your skin tone or a shade or two darker. Peaches, pinks, and shimmery bronzes or coppers are all very popular;
Start by applying the lid shade, concentrating on your lid and smudging it outwards towards the crease and outer corner of your eye. You don’t need to pack it on—a thin dusting with a fluffy brush will give you a natural, diffused dusting of shadow;
If you’re going for a slightly darker look, you can add a deeper shade near the outer corner of the eye. Draw it on in a little-V shape at the outer corner with a pencil brush, and then smudge it outward with a fluffier brush;
Now for the highlighting, which is the most important part. Apply the highlighting eyeshadow shade to the inner corner of your eye, and pull it down a bit into the area under your lower lash line;
If you’d like to experiment with an “aegyo sal” you can actually draw a little line of highlighter from the inner corner out to the center of your bottom lash line, which will make that area a little puffy-looking;
Now to line the eyes! You can use a pencil, a liquid eyeliner, or even a bit of dark eyeshadow on an angle brush. To start, just line your eyes by pulling gently on your lid to reveal the space directly above your lash line (otherwise you can end up with “floating eyeliner”), and apply your eyeliner as close to the lashes as possible in a very thin line;
Next, finish off your eyeliner with your eyes open, focusing on perfecting the line that’s above your lashes, and saving the wing for last. You can just clean up the top part of it, or you can thicken it out which is also acceptable;
For a while, downturned “puppy” eyeliner was very popular in Korea, but these days it’s more common to draw on a wing that extends out on a very slight diagonal, pulling the eye a little upwards but mostly outwards;
For the lower lash line, it’s common to keep things a little more natural by using a brown eyeshadow to just lightly emphasize the lower lashline and to make the eyes look bigger. Apply a smoky line of shadow either as close to the lower lash line as possible, or a couple of millimeters below it, without connecting it to the upper lash line;
You can really play with the shape of the eye by slightly changing up the thickness of the bottom and top eyeliner, making them look rounder, more almond-shaped, or even teardrop-shaped depending on your mood;
You can also use that eyeshadow as a contour to emphasize the “aegyo sal.” Apply a very soft dusting of that darker shade directly below where you drew on the “aegyo sal” with a highlighter, and this will give the illusion of a small wrinkle and puffier “charming fat”; and finally...
Curl your eyelashes as you normally would, and layer on some mascara. You can use as much or as little mascara as you like since K-beauty trends sometimes prefer more natural-looking lashes and at other times focus on volume. If you like, you can also apply a pair of false lashes;
To fill your eyebrows in, choose a pencil, pomade, or powder that is a shade or two lighter than your hair color, but has the same undertone. If you will use a powder or pomade then you will also need a thin angle brush;
Start by mapping the outline. Start below the brow and lightly fill in the space under your arch in order to make the brow seem more straight. Then follow the natural shape of your brow to fill in the rest of the bottom outline. When doing this, stick to short, connected strokes so that the line doesn’t seem harsh;
When outlining the top part of your brow, follow your natural shape until you hit the arch, at which point extend the top line a little further out, to make it seem as though the arch starts a little further near the temple and as though the tail of your brow is a little shorter;
Connect your arch to the tail of your brow with a straight line going downwards, and then connect the top and bottom lines at the end to make the tail look pointed; and finally...
Fill in your brows within the outline you drew. You can use a powder or pomade with a brush for a more diffused look, or opt for a thin eyebrow pencil in order to mimic individual brow hairs.
Blush, Highlight, and Contour
Before we get into our blush and contour application guide, be aware that even with Korean cosmetics, cream-based makeup products go on the skin first, followed by powders. If you’re using powder-based products to bring color and dimension back into the face, do so after setting your makeup, but if you’re using cream or liquid-based ones, use them before doing so;
Apply your blush starting with the apples of the cheeks, and lightly blend it outwards, using a sponge or fingers for a cream or a fluffy brush for a powder. The blush should be very light and diffused, so you can go over it with a bit of setting powder to tone it down afterward;
When it comes to contouring, a light touch is key. Sweep a bit of contour under the cheekbones, but not too much so as not to make the face appear too angular;
Many women like to contour along their jawlines to give the illusion of a V-shaped face, while others contour the sides of the nose, primarily in order to create the illusion of a higher nose bridge; and finally...
You don’t need to be shy with highlighter! Sweep it along the high-points of your face—especially above the blush placement, over the cupid’s bow, and down the bridge of the nose. It will give the face a bit more dimension without making it seem sharper, and will also add a youthful glow.
Getting that pout right is key for any K-beauty look! It is best to apply lipstick or tint with your fingers or a lip brush in order to properly apply and blend things out;
Start by applying a very small amount of lipstick to the center of your lips, and then gently blend it outwards towards the lip line, so that the color will be most concentrated in the center and more blended towards the edges; and finally...
To ensure longevity, blot your lips with a tissue to remove any excess product, and if you’d like add a touch of gloss for a more shiny look!
There You Have It: You Now Know All the Basics
Thank you for reading! Hopefully that gives you an idea of the general themes of Korean skincare and makeup. There's a lot to know, and if you've made it this far, you've amassed a lot of knowledge on the topic! We hope K-beauty brings you as much joy as it's brought us. Good luck, have fun, and happy makeup!