This is the second post in my Intro to Asian Skincare series, where I teach you all of the basics for starting your own unique Asian Skincare routine! Check out the first post here: What is Asian Skincare? (And How Is It Different From a US-Style Routine?)
A special thanks to my friend Pamela for taking the time to edit this beast!
So you read the first post, and decided that an Asian-style skincare routine is a good fit for you? Fantastic! Here are the 7 Steps to get you started on your custom skincare journey. Like a recipe, first read the whole thing for a full understanding, then come back and follow the steps.
1.Figure Out Your Skin Type and Conditions
This is the toughest part of the entire process, so hang in there! First, we need to differentiate between a skin type and a skin condition.
Skin type is how your skin is genetically, mostly as it relates to the production of sebum. You can try and balance out the effects, but you can’t really “cure” it using products. Skin types can change slowly over time with age, medication changes, major hormonal shifts like pregnancy and menopause, etc. You only have one skin type at a given time, and some common ones are:
- Normal: Plump, with a healthy color and fine pores. Not too dry or too oily.
- Dry: Lack of oil. Skin can be flaky, sensitive, dull, and even crack.
- Oily: Overproduction of oil. Skin feels greasy and looks shiny, and is traditionally more susceptible to blackheads and other blemishes.
- Combination: Any mixture of the three types above. A common one is an oily T-Zone (forehead and nose), with the rest of the face being dry or normal.
Skin conditions are afflictions affecting your skin, which may or may not be genetic, and may or may not be controlled or cured using products. You can have multiple skin conditions at any given time, and some common ones are:
- Dehydration: Lack of water, usually causing dullness, redness, tightness, and/or large pores
- Psoriasis: Thick, red patches of skin covered with white or silvery scales, caused when your immune system triggers new skin cells to grow too quickly
- Sun Damage: Sunburns, tans, and hyperpigmentation
- Damaged Moisture Barrier: Often caused by overuse of exfoliants and strong chemicals. Can cause dry, sensitive, painful skin that looks shiny and/or “tight.”
- Acne: Overproduction of sebum causes pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, etc. Can leave scarring or dark marks behind even after the original acne is gone.
- Rosacea: A tendency to flush easily, followed by redness on your nose, chin, cheeks, and forehead. It can get redder over time with visible blood vessels. You may have thickened skin, bumps, and pus-filled pimples.
- Eczema: A blanket term for several non-contagious conditions that cause inflamed, red, dry, and itchy skin. Often triggered by irritants, stress, and climate.
- Dermatitis: A blanket term for several conditions that include allergic reactions and eczema.
- Melasma: Tan or brown patches on your cheeks, nose, forehead, and chin. Sometimes called the “pregnancy mask” because it commonly happens in pregnant women, though men can get it, too. Sunlight makes it worse.
And many more. It can be tricky to tell the difference between some of the skin types and conditions until you start trying to treat them. For example, dehydration can be mistaken for either dry skin or oily skin: Some people find dehydration makes their skin feel dry, while others find it makes their skin overproduce oil to compensate for the lack of water.
It can seem overwhelming, but just give it your best guess for now! It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong, we’ll come back to troubleshooting a bit later. You just need a starting point.
2.Pick Some Wish List Ingredients
You probably pay at least some attention to the ingredients in the food you eat, right? You’re aware of additives that may be unhealthy, ingredients that make you feel strong, things you should eat only in moderation, and foods that you’re allergic to.
So why would you just slap random products on your skin, with no clue what ingredients they contain, or how those ingredients might affect you?
Everyone’s skin is different, so just because a blogger or commercial told you that a product is awesome, or it’s so expensive and fancy, does not mean it will work for you. A popular mantra in the skincare world is YMMV, or “Your Mileage May Vary,” because even two people with nearly identical skin can have different reactions to the same product. So in the end, we need to rely on science, not marketing, to make choices.
Here is a slideshow of 50 common ingredients, their uses, and some example products. Write down ingredients that sound like they could address your skin concerns, as well as any you know or suspect you might be sensitive or allergic to.
(Navigate using arrows at the bottom left of the slide show, or check it out on Google Drive if you prefer)
3.Pick Your First 4 Products
Yes, you heard me, FOUR, and only four. Forget the idea of a “ten-step routine” for now. Your first four products form the foundation for everything else, and can work as a safe, basic routine to scale back to if you ever need. So it’s important to get them right before moving on.
Your first four products should be purchased and introduced to your routine in the following order:
- 2nd Cleanser
- Oil Cleanser
I’ll explain why this is the correct order and how to introduce them in Step 4.
To pick these four products, figure out what your important criteria are. Some questions that could help you choose between products are:
- What is your budget?
- Which wish list ingredients are you prioritizing?
- Which specific skin concerns are you targeting?
- Where do you prefer to buy products? (Is it easy to repurchase?)
- Do you have any allergies/sensitivities?
- Do you prefer a certain packaging aesthetic?
- Do you have any ethical concerns? (ex: vegan, cruelty-free)
- Do you prefer a longer routine or a short one? (Will this product need to sit on your face for a while? Will one moisturizer need to accomplish a lot of different goals?)
Now is the time to window shop! Read and watch lots of reviews by people with similar skin types (sometimes called “skin twins”, though your skin may not have the exact same reaction!), and browse skincare forums and shops.
Most importantly, make sure you’re hitting at least a few of your top wish list ingredients (the rest can be added if you expand your routine later), and avoiding any known allergens and irritants. My favorite site to check is CosDNA, where you can either look up a product and see its ingredients, or search for an ingredient and find products that contain it.
You can tentatively plan out your wish list for your entire routine if you want (as a matter of strategizing which ingredients will be in which product or step of your routine), but ONLY actually buy these four products at most in your first order. It may seem like you can save money or time by ordering everything at once, but I’ll explain why that’s not the case.
As I mentioned in the first “Intro to Asian Skincare” post, you need to be cautious of people trying to scam you. Just because a product is “exotic” (ships from Asia or contains an ingredient that’s not common in your country) does not mean it has to be expensive. Beware of markups, and when possible, look up how much a product should cost on the original retailer’s site.
My favorite place to buy skincare is surprisingly Amazon. It’s usually cheap, I can often buy from the original retailer, and I get most of my products in two days with Prime! If you’re at a brick and mortar store that seems to be overcharging, try and price match. For example, you should be able to price match the $38 Mizon Snail Repair Cream at Target down to match the $14 price on Amazon, just by asking at the register! (Prices at time of writing.)
Don’t worry if importing Asian products is too expensive or troublesome for you. As I mentioned in the first post in this series, you don’t need to use Asian brands to have an Asian-style skincare routine. It’s about the method, not the nationality of the companies producing your products. As long as you follow the same process for selecting and using products, items from your local drugstore are totally fine.
Another tip is to generally avoid the full skincare sets sold by many retailers (except maybe as cute gift sets). Some are entire skincare lines of one company’s product, others are designed to help certain skin types or conditions. As discussed in my original post, one of the main pros of an Asian-style skincare routine is that it’s completely customized to your unique skin. So why buy a set unless you’re 100% sure each and every product in it is the best choice for your skin?
Plus, it’s always best to add products one at a time, and see how your skin reacts or improves after each one. You may discover that one product is amazing and completely cures one skin condition, rendering the others you bought redundant. On the flip side, you may try a product and discover a new allergy. There is a lot of overlap in the popular ingredients for different skin conditions and types, so, for example, discovering an allergy to bee products or to snail could render an entire pre-made “dry skin” set useless.
Therefore, even though it may seem convenient and frugal to buy products in a set or in a single large order, it’s likely to end up just being wasteful. Save the bulk purchases for when you have your routine fully tested and are just repurchasing.
Finally, some retailers offer samples of their products. For the more responsive companies, you can try emailing and see if they’ll send you some for free. Otherwise, it’s usually pretty easy to find sample or travel sizes on online retail sites (again, including Amazon). There are lots of sample swap communities too, like /r/asianbeautyexchange, /r/ABsampleswap, and Facebook groups. This is an especially good option if you have sensitive skin that reacts to lot of products.
5.Finally Time to Start! Avoiding Allergies and Testing Your Basic Routine
Introduce each of your four initial products one by one in the order mentioned in Step 3: moisturizer, 2nd cleanser, oil cleanser, and sunscreen. Most skincare experts suggest patch testing, in which you try a product for a few days to a week on your arm, then for a few more days on an inconspicuous part of your face, then finally on your whole face.
However, it is consistently a top skincare confession that people are too impatient and excited to actually patch test, so don’t feel bad if you don’t either. (I admit that I don’t, even with sensitive skin, though it’s truly a gamble that it won’t accidentally cause a nasty full-face reaction).
That being said, even if you accept that risk, please do yourself a favor and only introduce one new product to your face at a time, and only once every two weeks or so if possible. That way, if your face reacts badly to something, you know exactly which product caused it. If you don’t do this, you have to guess, possibly remove all of the new products, and you won’t have learned which ingredient to avoid (wasting more money and time).
It’s like a science experiment. You need to control as many factors as possible, and only change the one specific thing you’re testing.
When you are ready to start implementing your new routine, you can either go cold turkey removing all of your old products (if you had any), or you can swap the old products out for any new replacements as you go. Either is fine!
- A Moisturizer/Hydrator gets introduced first because it can stay on your skin and doesn’t need to be washed off. You need to make sure you have introduced a moisturizer so your skin doesn’t get dried out and irritated (and then produce more oil in some cases) when you move to step 2. I’ll explain the difference between hydrators and moisturizers later on, but for this product, it may be a good idea to look for something medium consistency that’s a little of both. Your routine at this point will be:
(Tip: If you have really dry or dehydrated skin, you can usually do multiple layers of this single product to hold you over until you can introduce additional moisturizing/hydrating layers down the road.)
- A “2nd cleanser”, which is usually a foam or gel cleanser. 2nd cleansers are water-based, and clean the surface of your skin. It’s not a requirement, but most people look for cleansers that are close to 5.5 pH (about the same as skin’s natural pH), which has the benefit of being gentle on skin. Once you introduce this, your routine will be:
AM: 2nd Cleanser (optional)
PM: 2nd Cleanser
(Tip: When cleansing, use lukewarm or cool water, not very hot or very cold. Washcloths tend to be too abrasive, so try and either just use your hands and splash water, or use gentle tools like a konjac sponge or microfiber cloth. Don’t rub your face dry, but pat it gently.)
- An oil cleanser gets introduced 3rd. As the name suggests, oil cleansers are oil-based, and clean deeper clogs, makeup, sunscreen, etc.; you need to wash off the leftover residue from the oil cleanser using a 2nd cleanser to prevent it from clogging or irritating your skin. You don’t usually need an oil cleanser in the mornings because you shouldn’t wear makeup or sunscreen overnight. Once you introduce this, your routine will be:
AM: 2nd Cleanser (optional)
PM: Oil Cleanser
(Lingo: The process of using an oil cleanser followed by a 2nd cleanser is called “double cleansing”)
- Finally, sunscreen is introduced 4th, because you need both cleansers to effectively remove all of the sunscreen. Despite being introduced last, this is actually the most important step, because it is SO MUCH EASIER to prevent sun damage and signs of aging than it is to reverse them. As an American, I originally cringed at the thought of slathering our thick, greasy sunscreen on my face every day, but getting a well-formulated, face-specific sunscreen makes all of the difference. (So far, sunscreen is the one product that I feel that Korea and Japan do far better than 99% of their western counterparts).
Ideally, sunscreens should be SPF 50 or above (to protect from UVB rays) and PA++++ (to protect from UVA rays). FOUNDATION/ MAKEUP/ MOISTURIZERS DO NOT COUNT AS SUNSCREEN.You need a dedicated, single-purpose sunscreen. Makeup or moisturizers with SPF only provide an extra level of mild protection. Now, your entire basic routine will be:
AM: 2nd Cleanser (optional)
PM: Oil Cleanser
If at any point your face reacts badly to something, pause the process and roll back a step. Stick with the safe products you’ve already tested, and stop using the product that caused the reaction. Once your face recovers, you can move on again.
Not sure if it was the product you introduced that caused a reaction, or a random, ill-timed breakout? See if removing that product helps, and you can always try introducing it again later to test if you have the same reaction. Another common sign (not a hard rule, but a possible hint) is that if you break out someplace that’s abnormal for you, it’s likely an allergic reaction. For example, my stress or food-related breakouts are usually only on my chin, but when I tried a product I was allergic to, I broke out on my forehead and cheeks too.
To narrow down the actual ingredient that caused it and try and prevent similar problems in the future (or wasting more money on more products that harm your skin), compare the ingredients list to those of the other “safe” and “unsafe” products you have tried.
If an ingredient is in the product that made you react, but also in a non-reactive product, it’s likely safe. Look for shared ingredients in the products that make you break out to flag as potentially unsafe.
Note that you can also be irritated by a certain quantity of an ingredient. For example, I’m not totally allergic to alcohol (commonly used to help products dry quickly/matte), but I do need a sunscreen with a reduced amount of it (like food labels, you can tell it’s lower because it’s usually, but not always, further down the ingredients list)
Finally, even if you don’t have a reaction, it’s still good to pay attention to whether ingredients are having the effect you predicted. First, it’ll help you prioritize ingredients for future shopping between “Great, I want more of this ingredient!” and “Meh, doesn’t do anything for me.”
Second, and more importantly, it can help you confirm whether your guesses at your skin type and conditions were correct. For example, if you’ve tried a few varying products with ingredients to help oiliness, and it’s making your skin worse or doing nothing, that could be a sign that your skin type isn’t actually oily, or that’s not the entire problem. Time to try out a product for dehydration!
6.Adding More Products/Actives
Congrats!! If you’ve made it this far and successfully created a routine with a moisturizer, 2nd cleanser, oil cleanser, and sunscreen, you officially have a complete Asian skincare routine!
All products added from here on are optional, and you can introduce them to your routine in whatever order you want, based on your priorities. Here are the steps available, and the order in which you should use them each morning and evening:
- Oil Cleanser- EVENING ONLY. Already a part of your basic 4-step routine.
- 2nd Cleanser– MORNING OPTIONAL, EVENING REQUIRED. Already a part of your basic 4-step routine
- pH-Balancing Toner– only needed if using pH-dependent actives such as AHA and BHA, and if your 2nd cleanser is not low-pH (5.5 or less)
- Vitamin C– TYPICALLY MORNING. An active that helps brighten and even out skin tone, and can help prevent and reduce signs of aging. Usually used in the morning because it has some protective properties against the sun
- Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA)– EITHER MORNING OR EVENING. Usually referring to Salicylic Acid. An active that is usually best for oily, acne-prone skin as it unclogs the skin, helping to clear blackheads, whiteheads, etc.
- Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA)– TYPICALLY EVENING. Usually referring to Glycolic, Lactic, or Mandelic Acids. An active that helps encourage skin turnover, detaching dead skin to reveal newer skin underneath. Prevents and reduces signs of aging and may also help bind moisture to the skin. Try to use this in the evening, and increase your sun protection overall, because it increases sensitivity to the sun (even the next day).
- Light Hydrators/Moisturizers– EITHER OR BOTH. Help the skin compensate for a lack of water and/or oil, improving your skin’s thickness, color, and texture. Includes First Essences (FTE), Hydrating Toners, Essences, Ampoules, Serums, and Sheet Masks. In general, use from thinnest consistency to thickest consistency. Use as many as you want, as long as your skin absorbs them without getting irritated.
- Heavy Hydrators/Moisturizers– EITHER OR BOTH. Help the skin compensate for a lack of water and/or oil, improving your skin’s thickness, color, and texture. Includes emulsions, creams, and oils. Use from thinnest consistency to thickest consistency. Use as many as you want, as long as your skin absorbs them without getting irritated. Many people only use these in the evening, especially if they wear makeup.
- Spot Treatment– EITHER OR BOTH. Used specifically on pimples, hyperpigmentation spots, etc, instead of the whole face.
- Sleeping Pack– USUALLY PM. A thick cream that seals in your thinner ingredients so they don’t evaporate away overnight. Usually only used at night, but you can use them during the day if you want, especially for those with very dry skin. You just have to be careful that they don’t interfere with your makeup or sunscreen. Also sometimes called an occlusive, they usually contain ingredients such as dimethicone, petrolatum, paraffin, and lanolin.
- Sunscreen– MORNING ONLY. This is the most important step, so don’t be lazy and do it even if you don’t think you’ll be going outside. Consider it a part of your everyday skincare, just like a moisturizer or cleanser, not an optional extra step. Already part of your 4-step routine. Consider adding other protective measures too, such as wearing a sun hat or carrying an umbrella.
- Makeup– MORNING ONLY. If applicable. Remember, like goes with like because oil repels water. So if your skincare (particularly your sunscreen) is water-based, make sure your makeup is too. Same goes for oil-based products.Otherwise your makeup will likely smear and slip.
Prescriptions should be used as directed by your dermatologist.
An interesting and frustrating language tip is that there are three types of toners, all usually just called a toner, with no descriptor. So you usually need to read a product description or review to confirm which type it is before buying.
- Astringent Toners are what westerners usually think of as toners, and remove oil and tighten skin. They aren’t really used in Asian Skincare routines.
- pH-adjusting Toners lower the pH of your skin before using actives, and are only needed if the pH of your 2nd cleanser is greater than 5.5.
- Hydrating Toners are a very light hydrating layer, and can help other hydrators absorb better.
You should wait as long as possible to introduce actives like Vitamin C, BHA, and AHA to your routine. One reason is that you want to try and be as gentle as possible with your skin. For example, if your acne is cleared up by less intense measures such as cleansing and moisturizers, you might not need a BHA!
If you do want to introduce actives, you absolutely MUST WAIT until your skin consistently feels plump, moisturized/hydrated, and healthy on a daily basis. Shop smart and make sure it has a pH that’s effective (read reviews or ask the company). To introduce, try one with a low, gentle concentration (%), and start with once or twice a week. If your skin handles it well, you can use it more frequently from there. Keep in mind that you may need to cut back on the use of that original one if you introduce an additional active. If your skin starts to feel tight or painful, you need to cut back on the actives and/or introduce a ceramide-rich product to avoid damaging your skin barrier!
(Sorry to make this sound scary. Actives are actually fantastic! My AHA and Vitamin C are some of my favorite products. But you need to be cautious and remember that you are putting acid on your face. In this case, moderation is key.)
Shifting gears, let’s talk about hydrators and moisturizers. They are actually not the same thing, though most people usually call them all moisturizers. The difference is that hydrators contain humectants (usually Water, Glycerin, Sodium Hyaluronate, Sugars, etc) that help with the absence of water, thus treating dehydration. Moisturizers contain emollients (usually Plant Oils, Mineral Oil, Shea/Cocoa Butter, Lanolin, etc) that help with the absence of oil , which treats dryness. There are many products that mostly focus on one or the other, but a single product can also contain both humectants and emollients.
There is theoretically a specific “order” for using hydrators and moisturizers: a First Essence, then Hydrating Toner, then Essence, then Ampoule, as listed above. That’s an okay rule of thumb to help you with guessing the consistency of a product while shopping, but in general you need to use products from thinnest to thickest, no matter what the name is. If you use a thicker product first, the thinner product may be blocked and have trouble effectively reaching your skin.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with all of these lists and “rules”, take a deep breath. These are just guidelines to help give you a sense of direction and troubleshoot if you get stuck.
One of the fun parts of Asian Skincare is that it is so customizeable. It’s all about you! Basically, do whatever feels good for your skin. If you’re a minimalist and want to stick with just the original 4 products, that’s totally fine. If this is your hobby and you want to try a ton of new things, you can have several of every step of moisturizer/hydrator to pick from. If you wear makeup, maybe your AM routine looks very different than your heavier PM routine. If you’re on a budget or have trouble finding products due to sensitive skin, you can do several layers of a single ampoule that works for you.
This routine is for you, so through trial and error it should eventually reflect your needs, lifestyle, etc.
If you get frustrated, you can always cut back to your original 4. If you want to expand, refer back to Steps 3-5 for the questions to ask yourself while choosing products, shopping tips, and allergy testing info.
7.Staying Flexible and Planning Ahead
At this point, you should be pretty familiar with your skin. You should be able to tell when it’s happy and healthy, and when it’s not. As I mentioned in the first step, a variety of factors can affect your skin, so even once you’ve created your perfect routine, you may still need to tweak it.
For example, maybe you need a heavier moisturizer in the winter, and much lighter products in the summer. Maybe you should keep around a skin-repairing product just in case you get a sunburn or over-exfoliate. You might want different products on your period, or if you get pregnant. Or maybe you should consider having backup options saved on your wish list, since skincare products (especially in Asia) are reformulated and discontinued frequently.
No matter what, congratulate yourself because you now have all of the knowledge and tools you need to continue improving and caring for your skin!
Disclaimer: This guide was not meant to be all-encompassing, as everyone’s situation and skin is different. In some cases, you may still need to consult with a dermatologist regarding any lingering concerns, some of which may be caused by health problems and require a prescription.
However, these are general guidelines that should work for most people, so if you would like any help working through these steps, have any questions, or just want to discuss your routine, let’s chat in the comments or on social media!
Intro to Asian Skincare Series
Part 1: What is Asian Skincare? (And How Is It Different From a US-Style Routine?)
Part 2: How to Create an Asian Skincare Routine in 7 Easy Steps
Also published on Medium.