Breaking down Korean Skincare 101

Last Saturday, armed with my huge cup of caffeine and trusty notebook, I set down to start my journey on the world of korean beauty and skincare. I wasn't expecting much because I had some previous knowledge from researching certain products Laneige had sent me. However, I feel like whatever I know about skincare has been challenged irrevocably and/or thrown out the window. My weekend was spend in a midst of blur while I opened up google page after another to counter-check facts and reviews. 

The blog I got most obsessed with is Snow White and the Asian Pear (hereby known as SWAP or Cat cause her username is so long) I think I clocked in 8 hours of reading and note-taking. I think its because our skin type sounds rather similar. I've always thought skin type came in 4 basic types - normal, dry, oily, combi. With the research at hand, I've come to realize dehydrated skin is highly different from dry skin. This is just the tip of the ice-berg. I have tried to rearrange my notes and I am gonna try to churn out one long fluid coherent post on what I've learnt so u girls can read about it too. I am not k-beauty blogger. I am barely a blogger by any means. I just really like beauty talks and rambles so here goes. A lot of it are summary of what I have read off her blog and I am also personally referring to this post as a note to myself so I can look back and read. 

Motto: Know your skin type and what it needs

I avoided the Korean-beauty scene for so long because of 

  1. a bad skin reaction with a korean-brand bb cream
  2. its too bloody complicated with the number of steps and products

While I have gotten over the skin reaction, the second reason was still standing. It wasn't only till my initial research that I came to realize that the purpose and order of products make so much more sense than its Western counterparts. The reason for the number of products is really not meant to scare you off. 

Know your skin and your skin goals before carting out a product. Raving reviews and actresses on posters should not be the deciding factor (but I'm still a sucker for those lah). It can persuade u to buy, but if it doesn't work, then no choice lah. If u don't know what the product does, research before u get it to see if ur skin needs it. 

If I have normal skin, I would be more willing to try a wider range of stuff and explore more but sadly, my skin will defo go bonkers if I do that. So I stick to trying out stuff that I know my skin will want/need. 

Just an example - my skin goals currently are:

  • skin to stay hydrated (not be a flaky mess) 
  • keep blackheads/clogged pores at bay 
  • even out my skintone. 

My scars are not something a product can take away so that's not gonna be one of my skin goals. 

So with that in mind, I use the products I need and if I wanna get anything new, I see if it fits into the checklist and if it seemed like a possible good fit, then I'll get it. Again, there's stuff that performed wonders for others & have done crap for me so it is a trial and error and making sure u r using the products correctly.

Listening to your skin and figuring out what it's needs and wants are will benefit you in the long-run. Our collagen production, hydration abilities and everything else needed for good skin will decrease with age, but with proper care and maintenance, it is really possible to get great skin. 

Before I delve in, I will state a few facts needed to allow better comprehension of the post. I will be talking about pH levels and whatever I took away from my research on it so I thought it'd be good if I go back to the basics.

Skin type 

I grouped whatever I have researched off SWAP's blog and Google.

  • Normal: balanced, neither Dry nor Oily.
  • Oily: excessive production of sebum, resulting in large pores, sebaceous filaments, blackheads, and acne
  • Combination: a combination of the above types on different areas of the skin
  • Dry: lacking in sebum
  • Dehydrated: Feels dry and oily at the same time, tend to have flakes, clogged pores and blemishes. 

Imagine my surprise to find the hidden skin type - dehydrated and relating to it! My cheeks can get really dry but oily at the same time and i never realized it needed water, and not oil. THE HORRORS OF IT ALL. 

pH of skin

The most I know about pH level is really that my AHA and BHA are definitely only gonna work if its in the low range, hence the name 'acid'. Oh boy, was I about to by mind-blown. 

The scale of pH measures acidity to alkalinity and it goes from 1-14. Water has a pH of 7 and our skin has a pH level of 5.5, which makes it slightly acidic. Yes, healthy skin's pH is slightly acidic which makes it harder for bacteria to thrive in the environment. 

This is an important point cause I'll be mentioning pH of different products further down. 


This is where the Asian/Korean beauty scene defers from the Westies (though that is changing). I grew up on the Western routine so I know that very well. It is more often than not, a 3-step simple routine. I was taught from Cleo and Magazines that if u have dry skin, just make sure you pick up a heavy cream-based product. That, tbh, has never really worked for me. It just made my face oily and feeling gross. Think natural oil mixing it up with thick gooey moisturizer. Not cool. 

With K-skincare, I learnt that layering stuff actually aids in preventing moisture from beneath your epidermis layer to completely evaporate away. It is also really important to layer from the lightest to the heaviest product. This builds hydration BEFORE you seal it all in with the heavy one. If u have dehydrated skin lacking of water and you add a heavy product on top, no moisture is escaping, sure, but no water is entering too. This eventually leads to oil production and clogged pores. 

If at this point, you already think i am mad, hahaha pls don't continue reading cause it is gonna get longer. But if you are still interested and not scared away yet, then i hope my next part is gonna be useful.


I liked how SWAP categorized hers so I decided to use her categorization but adding in my own opinions, experiences and explanations. She is really very in-depth and if you're really not a beginner for kbeauty and don't need this post, u can go straight to her site hahaha 

  1. Cleansers
  2. Actives
  3. Hydrators
  4. Occlusives
  5. Protection

1. Cleansers

Think of it this way - what goes up, must come down. What goes on your face, must be taken down at night. I get plenty of questions regarding sunblock and yes, pls use a proper remover to remove ur sunblock at night. Sunblock and makeup are made up of a whole bunch of ingredientss that cannot be 'digested' by your body. It will just clog up pores overtime.

Double-cleansing has been practiced by the Asian beauty scene since I can remember and it's for a reason. Your facial cleanser might not be sufficient enough to remove all the dirt and debris (hahaha i find myself hilarious). If the dirt and all are still present, your skincare products are NOT gonna work. It will just swirl around in the midst of dirt and ewww, lets not go there.

Double-cleansing involves using a first cleanser such as micellar water, makeup remover, oil-cleanser, oil to remove the first layer of gunk before moving onto another cleanser to cleanse your face. I personally am a huge fan of micellar water. I have emptied out close to 5 bottles ever since I started using them. After trying out the BioDerm and Garnier one, I find that the latter is more comfortable, works as well, cheaper and actually doesn't irritate my skin. The BioDerm one stinks my eyes sooo bad. 

I do the traditional method of OCM once every 2 weeks or when I feel like giving myself an extra face massage that day. I use jojoba oil and I drop a few drops all over and gently (GENTLY) massage. You want to stimulate blood flow, not burst capillaries. This is a personal thing but I like to use a soaked cotton pad with micellar water to remove the dirty oily residue first. I tried it without and went straight to cleansing once and my face just didn't feel clean. 

If you wanna try the traditional OCM method, pls do ur research carefully because it has been shown that some people with more sensitive skin might not tolerate olive oil, coconut oil etc that well. I did my research and jojoba oil's properties resembles human sebum the most so I figured that would harm the least. So far, so good. 

I use a pretty gentle cleanser - Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Cleansers that has no surfactant and its perfect for double-cleansing. I will pair it with my Foreo mini (only at night) to make sure my base is clean. Gentle cleansers are great when used for double-cleansing so nothing is too harsh on ur skin.

I haven't tried this working theory out but I just learnt about pH of cleansers and now I am in a debate with myself if shopping-me should just get the pH strips from Amazon already......How else would i know the pH of my cleansers??? *pulls at hair frantically. 

The skin on our face is naturally acidic and if u wash it with a high-pH cleanser, it will create an environment for bacteria to thrive. An acidic skin brings about tons of benefits such as prevent loss of water and resist bacteria and the likes of it. Sounds good to me!

A high pH cleanser will inevitably raise the pH of your skin, meaning that instead of remaining acidic, your skin is now more alkaline which can promote bacteria-growth. Like, eww okay no no I don't want. I think of those DIY face masks I used to pin on pinterest using baking soda. Omg, my poor poor skin. I'm sorry I mistreated you. 

I am currently on a lookout for a nice low-pH cleanser that's easily available here but I will stick to my Neutrogena in the meantime. If it isn't broken, why fix it right? It hasn't caused me any issues since i started on it 4 bottles ago. 

I have a post on cleansing here

2. Actives

Actives are basically to group products that contain active ingredients that truly has effect on skin condition like BHA, AHA, PHA, Vit C etc. These will be the products u use to target issues specifically such as clogged pores or pigmentation etc. 

You have seen plenty of products especially toners or first essences, out there that states that you should apply them directly after cleansing. That''s fine if u dont use actives in your routine. Actives are pH-dependent and if you use them on top of other products, the acidity is affected and you don't get the full benefits. The little hydration molecules in these toners and first essences are gonna mess with the pH of the acids and lessen the efficacy. 

Since acids are pH-dependent, layering them is another technique in itself. Go from the lowest to the highest pH. Vit C, BHA, AHA. I found out that the CNP Invisible Peeling Boost has a pH of about 3 so that's pretty awesome cause it definitely will work as an acid. 

  • L-Ascorbic Acid: pH 2.5 - 3.5
  • BHA: 3-3.5
  • AHA: 3-4

I didn't quite understand waiting time for skincare products usually because is it really necessary?? After reading SWAP's post explaining that, it made a hell lot more sense to me. Acids need to be at different pH to be effective and the wait time is meant for them to be absorb and work its magic. For your actives to be working at its optimal, it would be best to start out with the right pH. Do you know Vit C has a 15 min effectiveness window? So if u apply your BHA too soon, you won't be getting the full 15 mins' run of the benefits of Vit C. I have deeper explanation of acids here.

Anyways, amongst my research, I also found out that Korean do not allow the sell of products OTC if it contains more than 0.5% of Salicylic acid. Instead, korean products tend to replace Salicylic acid with Betaine Salicylate which is muuuuucccch gentler than Salicylic acid itself. I think this is really the reason why the CosRx BHA liquid failed me so bad! I have a tough hide that is super used to good ol' regular 2% salicylic acid so I guess I gotta stick to the Westerns for BHA products. 

On a sidetone, AHA do cause photosensitivity up to a week and you should definitely 100% be wearing sunblock. Actually, just wear sunblock all the time okay. It's for anti-aging's sake! 

3. Hydrators

Over the weekend of research, I landed on another type of skin type that I had been neglecting - dehydrated. I have always been on the 'use a heavy product if you have dry skin' and I feel like i have wronged so many people out there. 

I feel like majority of the art of layering is all hidden in this step. Here you get your first essence, toners, serums, essences and whatnots. 

 First Essences - like the Missha FTE and SKII FTE, these are to be applied after basic cleansing, or if u use actives, then after actives' wait time. The next one that u can add are hydrating toners. This kinda toners are still watery and are meant to bring back nourishment. Everything else (serums, essences, ampoules, lotions, milk) will be the next few layers and the rule is start from the thinnest to wateriest, in order of increasing thickness/oiliness. This second part was new to me and it kinda made sense. I choose to think of it as something with thicker consistency will have bigger molecules that will block the smaller molecules trying to enter hahaha but pls don't quote me on that. 

Dehydrated skin is not a new term but it never really occurred to me that what my skin needs is just water and not only oil. A Korean routine that has these multi-layer steps adds hydration slowly but surely and allow the skin to soak it up bit by bit till its done! So yes, once your skin feels good, then don't add anymore! If you still feel like it's parched, go on with another serum if it helps. 

4. Occlusives 

These are your typical heavier products that are supposed to seal the water in. However, if you feel that you don't need it, its apparently okay to skip it! I am not that brave yet, even after a sheet mask because Boston's wind is frightening. I imagine teeny water droplets evaporating from my face. The horrors. Occlusives would be better for people with truly dry skin - lacking in oil. 

But according to SWAP, dehydrated skin can afford to skip on the oil and focus more on the water. Dehydrated skin requires a good balance of oil AND water to really stay healthy so it really needs more water and not oil. If you add a cream over dehydrated skin, not only is the skin not getting moisture, it will be over-oily and clog pores. 

You can throw in your oils, creams and heavier stuff here. These will lay on top of ur skin and protect moisture from escaping; provided that you have already laid down the hydration beforehand.

5. Protection

Protection differs here for AM and PM.

AM: Before your makeup goes on, the very last step is protection from the sun so your sunblock! 

PM: Think extra extra goodness like sheet masks, mask packs, sleeping masks 

For me, sheet masks are my current go-to, right along with sleeping masks and capsules. My favorite one ATM being the Laneige White Plus Renew Sleeping Capsule. I am also starting a whole new series - #MaskMonday to review masks I am currently using! Hopefully this will help me pick out HGs and get a better sense of what to buy when I am back in Asia. 

Before this post turns into a full-fledged book, I am just gonna stop right here where it makes sense to. I am really excited about this journey and made a huge buy of Korean products off Amazon. It was major fun! I will continue to update esp. with #MaskMonday and really hope this post helped in the meantime!