So Just What The Hell is a Serum? An Intro into Korean Skincare

This post is long as fuck. Grab a snack and get settled.

Given all of the cosmetic stores and endless options for skincare in Korea, is it any surprise that many Korean women typically use up to 14-18 different products DAILY on their skin? When it comes to skincare, less is definitely not more. It’s none of this, “I just use a face wipe and that’s it.” business. So what are all the different products that women use? How do they use them? What do they do?! And how do I apply them? Well, I’m here to give you the biz-nass.


A typical Korean (and now my) skincare routine goes a bit like this (and yes, night and day usually require different products):

1. Cleanse: Remove makeup and cleanse the skin. In Korea, double cleansing is the key. First, you have to remove your makeup with a cream/oil based cleanser, then cleanse again with a gentle cream/foaming cleanser.  I actually use coconut oil to remove my makeup, and Aesop’s Amazing Face Cleanser for my second cleansing. I just changed my cleanser in anticipation for the warmer months ahead. Double cleansing is especially important if you wear makeup and BB cream, as both are stubborn to remove with just one wash. If you’re looking for a Korean brand, I recommend Innisfree Real Olive Cleansing Oil, followed by Innisfree Jeju Volcanic Cleansing Foam.

1.5: Exfoliate: Exfoliation is typically not done everyday, hence the 1.5. I’m a huge, HUGE, HUGEEEE fan of exfoliating. There’s really nothing more rewarding than scrubbing away dead skin…or maybe that’s just me. A classic Korean favorite is SkinFood’s Black Sugar Scrub. I currently use Aesop’s Tea Tree exfoliant. It’s a dry powder that you can mix into your regular cleanser and it’s a miracle. My skin was been shining bright like a diamond since I’ve started using it. Most people recommend exfoliating 3 times a week, but I usually do it 4 times. I’ve found that with regular exfoliation, my skin stays super soft, my pores are less visible, and my makeup looks smoother. Wins all around.

2. Tone: Using a toner is incredibly important. Some people think it’s not necessary, but given all of the pollution and the less than stellar air quality in Seoul (and the surrounding areas), it’s pretty much a necessity. Not only does it remove the remaining dirt, grime, makeup, and pollution from your skin, it also preps your face so your serums and moisturizers can be better penetrated into your skin. They also tighten pores and leave your skin nice and refreshed. I recommend (as always) the Etude House Wonder Pore Freshner. I switch between that and my Lush Eau Roma Water, depending on how I feel.

2.5 Mask: After toning your skin, you may opt to use a paper/hydro gel face mask. I’ve talked about Korean face masks here. Face masks provide intense active ingredients that can solve a host of problems, including large pores, discoloration, acne, and dry skin. If you don’t want to use a mask, you can skip to step 3.

3. Serum and/or Essence: After your skin is nice and clean, you apply a serum and or an essence. These DO NOT replace your moisturizer. The easiest way to tell the difference between an essence and a serum is that an essence is typically used in the day, as it is a lighter consistency, and a serum is used at night, as it is usually a heavier consistency. So exactly what IS a serum? On a basic level, a serum addresses very specific problems that your normal moisturizer can’t. This may be anti-aging, brightening, skin discoloration, firming, etc. There is a higher concentration of active ingredients in a serum, and this is why they are typically more expensive than moisturizer. The molecules in a serum are smaller than the ones in a moisturizer, which allow the product to sink into the skin more efficiently. A popular serum is the SkinFood Peach Sake Pore Serum.

4. Moisturizer: So now that you’ve cleansed, exfoliated, possibly used a face mask, or used your serum, it’s finally time to moisturize your skin. I cannot tell you how important it is to properly moisturize your skin. Every single skin type benefits from moisturizing. If you have oily skin that is properly moisturized, your skin actually produces LESS oil over time. So, just go ahead and splurge on a great moisturizer that really works for your skin. You’ll thank me later. Personally, I’ve found that using oil free moisturizers are incredibly drying for my skin. I definitely have combo skin (dry forehead, oily nose and cheeks, oily chin), and I’ve found that legit using OIL on my skin at night is the best thing in the entire world. When I bought my cleanser at the Aesop counter, the saleswoman gave me a 2 week supply of Aesop’s Fabulous Face Oil and my whole life has changed. I produce significantly less oil, and when I wake up in the morning, my skin is baby soft and looks like I’ve been asleep for at least 30 hours. Like the article says, it’s expensive as fuck, but since you only use maybe 3/4 drops at a time, it can easily last at least a year. I can get 2 uses out of one sample packet! Those looking for cheaper option can use a a bit of coconut oil. And if you’re still scared to convert to oil (just do it, trust me), I still really love the Etude House Shea Butter Sleeping Pack.

WHEW. So, you’re finally finished with your nighttime routine. And yes, it is a bit intense, but it really only takes maximum 30 minutes, and that’s if you’re including a 15/20 minute face mask. It’s really therapeutic for me to go through all of these steps at night. It’s my little ritual. Taking the time to really and truly take care of your skin makes all the difference in the world.

So, what do you do in the daytime? A daytime routine is typically the same as your nighttime routine, just using different, lighter products.

1. Cleanse using a gentle foaming or cream cleanser.

2. Tone

3. Apply essence (optional)

4. Apply sunscreen. EVERYONE should be applying sunscreen. If you don’t apply a separate sunscreen, make sure that your BB cream or moisturizer contains some SPF. There’s a myth that dark skinned people don’t need sunscreen and that is a lie. If you don’t want to look like a wrinkled carrot when you are forty, use sunscreen. Most of the facial sunscreens in Korea are tinted, so sadly I can’t use them, but, I make sure that my moisturizer contains SPF.

EDIT: So, I received an email from one of my lovely readers asking for sources on why you should apply sunscreen before moisturizer, as SkinCancer.Org recommends that it goes on after. This source is a great position for why it should go on before. I’m not a skincare professional or a doctor, so make whatever decision you’d like based on your research!

4. Apply moisturizer. Your daytime moisturizer is usually lighter than your nighttime moisturizer. I used to use Avene, but they stopped carrying it with SPF, so I’ve been using Uriage Aqua Precis Protective Fluid with SPF 20. I also use Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Oil-Free Gel Cream. Both are really light, yet moisturizing, and great for use under makeup as they dry quickly.

5. Apply primer: If you don’t want your makeup sliding off of your face by noon, a primer is a must. I love Innisfree No Sebum Mineral Primer.

6. Apply BB cream or foundation

7. Apply the rest of your makeup


As you can see, you easily can use up to 18 different products a day. It’s so important to take the time to really care for your skin. I saw vast improvements in my skin when I actually took the time to cleanse and moisturize properly. For me, face wipes just don’t cut it.  Even if you don’t use a bajillion different products, making sure that you are cleansing your face at night EVERYDAY and applying moisturizer is just something that is absolutely necessary. If you aren’t sure where you should start/what type of products to use, remember that in Korea there is a sample for just about everything, even in department stores. Don’t be shy! For example, I’ll go into Innisfree or whatever store, find something that sounds interesting, write it down, and go home to read reviews. If it sounds promising, I ask for a sample. If I like it, I buy the full product. Easy-peasy!

Do you have anything to add? Any questions? Ask away in the comments!

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