Article: Face First

It all started with BB Cream.

Actually, no–let’s rewind a few months.

It was an average evening. I was about to start doing the assigned reading for one of my classes (read: wasting my time on YouTube), when I came across the music video for “Gee” by Girl’s Generation (hyperlink: With cringe-worthy memories of the “Oppan Gangnam Style” craze, I pressed play. Flawless coordination and catchy lyrics aside, what intrigued me most about the video was that every one of the 12 members of the girl group had flawless, natural skin. Two years and a brief K-Pop obsession later, one of the magazines I was subscribed to, and unfortunately I can’t remember which, had an entire page lauding the benefits of this “revolutionary” and “scientific” new product, BB cream. A quick trip to the drug store and I was holding in my hands a box that would, in a year’s time, inspire a complete upheaval of everything I knew about skincare.

While BB cream, or “Beauty Balm,” was actually created in the 60s, it only recently hit American markets. BB cream has its largest consumer base in South Korea, where this magical combination of foundation, moisturizer and sunblock first gained mass popularity. While I’m not sure when it began, South Korean women (and increasingly men) prize their skincare routines above all other beauty rituals, sometimes going as far as to go through 12 layering steps in both the morning and the night. “The biggest difference between Korean cosmetics and Western cosmetics is that where Western cosmetics are more about painting the face, Korean cosmetics are more about maintaining clear, healthy, glowing skin,” wrote beauty blogger OMG! Your Makeup, and it’s true: the easiest way to a more flawless complexion isn’t to cover up your face with heavy concealer and foundation, which are a temporary fix that compounds your problem by creating clogged pores, irritation, and acne. The solution is to start from scratch, to let your skin breathe, and slowly introduce it to a skincare routine that’s natural, moisturizing, and unique to your skin’s needs.  

Before I was introduced to the results that a multi-step face routine can give, my knowledge of skincare was basically: 1) Wash your face. All products pretty much do the same thing, you’re paying for branding. 2) I guess exfoliate occasionally? I mean, some people do that. 3) Lotion makes my face greasy, which I’m sure is what gives me acne. My face is supposed to feel tight after I wash it! 4) I have a huge pimple. I’m going to pop it and then cover up the redness. That’s much less noticeable, right?

Now, it’s easy to see how horribly, horribly wrong I was, and how much I was hurting my skin by my naive negligence. While the 12-step or even 10-step full Korean routine is very intimidating, what I’m going to teach you is how to start incorporating Korean techniques into your normal skincare and start undoing any damage you might not even know you’re doing to your own skin. Most of you reading this will be in your late teens to mid twenties, which is the perfect time to start doing things that will keep your skin young and healthy for years to come. When you’re 50 and your skin looks 30, you’ll be thanking me.


Let’s start with the essentials. Just like here, Korea has about a hundred different beauty brands, each with their own unique consumer base and personality. Here’s a short list of what brands you’re going to encounter, what their specialties are, and what they have to offer you.

TonyMoly is one of the larger Korean skincare brands; you’ve probably already seen it on the shelves of Urban Outfitter’s regrettably small beauty section. TonyMoly is all about it’s cute packaging, and it’s really easy to tell which products are by TonyMoly just by glancing at them. If it evokes the likeness of an ultra-cute animal or fruit, it’s TonyMoly. On a recent ship to NYC, I made it my mission to find their flagship store in Manhattan. Suffice to say, it’s probably the closest I’ve ever been to Candy Land.

Another great company is called SKINFOOD. Their specialty is using the power of seemingly everyday foods to create incredible and natural face products. While SKINFOOD does not have a sore on Manhattan, I was able to find my favorite products in the hands-down cutest pop-up shop, The Mask Bar. With products like their Peach Sake Toner, Black Sugar Mask, and Egg White Pore Foam, it’s easy to see they’re committed to the ‘food’ part of their title. And, as a long time user, I can assure you they’re committed to the ‘skin’ part as well.

For something a little more Lancome and a little less L’Oreal, I’d recommend any Missha product in their Time Revolution line. Etude House is another mid-range brand with some seriously cult-worthy products, like their Wonder Pore Toner and Moistfull Collagen Creme. If you want to foray into killer lip stains and mascaras, Peripera is the brand you’re looking for. THEFACESHOP is another nature-based company that makes a killer Rice Water Cleansing Oil and Foam set for those who prefer the double-cleanse method (hyperlink:  

On to the most important part of Korean skin care – the multi-step method. There can be a lot of confusion when you’re just starting on your K-beauty journey because of the different terminology (What is an ampoule? Do I have sebum? Are emulsions and essences the same thing? Do whitening products actually make me paler? Does that gel say it’s made of snail mucin?) so I’m going to go through each step you’re going to need when you’re starting from scratch.

  1. Remove your eye makeup. The best way to do this is to use a makeup removing wipe, like TonyMoly’s Fresh Cleansing Tissue or Innisfree’s Olive Real Cleansing Tissue. A close American alternative is Burt’s Bees White Tea Facial Cleansing Towlettes and the Yes To Blueberries Face Wipe. Be sure to get all your mascara off, but be gentle with the delicate skin around your eyes.
  2. Wash your face! Pick a product that’s going to do the most for your skin type while treating your skin gently. I use a combination of TonyMoly Shiny Skin Soap duo most days, and Skinfood’s Egg White Pore Foam when I’m going to be exfoliating and using a sheet mask. Both contain albumin-rich egg whites that diminish the appearance of pores over time, as well as brightening my complexion. An important part of this step is massaging the product onto your skin with gentle circular motions, which helps jumpstart circulation.
  3. Exfoliate with a natural product like Skinfood’s Black Sugar Honey Mask. You only need to exfoliate once a week, because over exfoliation can lead to irritation and dryness. Sugar is my favorite exfoliant because it’s a natural humectant, naturally contains glycolic acid, and naturally aids cell turnover. Honey is great for your skin as well, so this wash off mask is a double hitter. Be wary of anything that has ‘microbeads,’ because those tiny pieces of plastic are also known as polyethylene, which can transport bacteria and create microscopic tears in your skin. What’s more, they’re both insoluble and too tiny to be caught by most sewage filtration systems, meaning these plastic beads are escaping back into the oceans and our water supplies. Some states have already banned the sale of beauty products that contain microbeads, so it’s best to steer clear.
  4. Toner is a very important and easy part of the process, and essential in restoring your skin’s natural pH. Choose something that does not list alcohol high in it’s ingredient list, as alcohol is incredibly drying. I’m a loyal user of Etude House’s Wonder Pore Toner.
  5. Here’s where the multi-step process gets interesting. Now, you’re going to apply a thin layer of essence to your cleaned and toned skin. Essence resembles toner in a lot of ways, but contains a higher concentration of active ingredients and anti-aging benefits. For many, the essence is just that–the heart of their skincare routine. And, to quote Derek Zoolander, “Water is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty.” A few high-end American brands have created their own versions of essence, but these tend to be incredibly pricy. If you’re thinking of incorporating essence into your routine, MISSHA’s Time Revoluion First Treatment Essence is the best on the market.
  6. The step after applying your essence is applying an ampoule, which I’ve yet to include in my routine. An ampoules is essentially a serum, which delivers even more anti-aging power. For more information on ampoules and which is right for you, I’d reccommend checking out SOKOGLAM!, a Korean beauty blog-cum-shop that’s written and run by Charlotte Cho, the internet’s resident K-beauty expert.
  7. The next step is my absolute favorite – the sheet mask. Sheet masks are thin layers of cotton that are soaked in all sorts of great things for your skin. There are a million types of masks on the market and each mask is a little different, so finding your favorite is a fun and moisture-rich journey. Sheet masks should be applied once a week when you have an extra 30 minutes before bed to pamper yourself. My favorite masks are TonyMoly’s I’m REAL Sheet Masks, which come in 12 different flavors and can usually be bought as a bundle for less than buying each individual mask.
  8. Finally, apply an eye cream and a moisturizer. Some people even include a gel layer after they moisturize, which is the next step I’m personally going to incorporate into my routine. If it’s morning, choose a light collagen-based daily moisturizer like Etude House’s Moistfull Collagen Creme or, for a local take, St. Ives’ Collagen Elastin Moisturizer. If it’s night, try a night cream like Laneige’s Water Sleeping Pack so your skin can soak up the good stuff while you sleep, no work involved. This step can be broken up into two or even three steps, depending on what products your face needs.


Just like that, you’re on your way to keeping your skin young, bright, clean, healthy, and happy. For the more adventurous, there are always new products being created every day, with exotic ingredients like snail mucus (which is incredibly popular in Korea), caviar, and vegetable placenta. Additionally, a lot of American retailers are starting to carry popular Korean lines, to the relief of many K-beauty stans. If you don’t have the time to go to Little Korea in NYC like I did or the confidence to order from overseas vendors like KoreaDepart, you can find TonyMoly at Urban Outfitters, AMOREPACIFIC at Sephora, and Laneige at Target. Peach and Lily, Glow Recipe, and my personal favorite, SOKOGLAM! are all blog-cum-shops that are based in America and I highly recommend for beauty beginners.

The best part of buying from Korean beauty stores, both online and IRL, is that they always load you up with free samples of their newest products. For those who already have a Korean beauty basis, Memebox is a fantastic service that’s almost like getting those test-tube free samples delivered right to you, but in their full sizes. And, although I have yet to try t out, Amazon now has a Korean beauty specific section ( of it’s larger beauty department. And so, with the world of Korean skincare hopefully demystified, I’ll leave you with these final tips: make sure you’re drinking enough water, never pick your pimples, and great skin is a process. It’s not going to happen overnight, but by taking care of it starting today, you can begin a mutually beneficial relationship with the skin you live in.


Written and Directed by Haley Fox



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