Multi-Step Korean Skincare Routine: Winter/Spring 2015

You may have heard about the multi-step skincare routine popular in Asia, particularly where women (or men, for that matter) can use anywhere from 10-20 products in a single day.

This is a really challenging concept for westerners, because we are taught not to overload our skin, that excess products are actually harmful, less is more, etc.  Indeed, you might look at this image of all the products I potentially might use in a day, and be horrified:

Behold the fearsome product line-up of my Winter/Spring 2015 routine! (Click image for large size)
Before you panic or decide I am crazy, there are two things to keep in mind: 1. the key word here is "potentially" meaning I don't use them all at once, and 2. the Asian skincare philosophy is all about customization.
My daily routine is actually quite simple (I promise) but I have a huge range of products I may potentially add in depending on the weather, what I'm going to be doing that day, but most importantly, what my skin feels like it needs.

In this post:

Visuals of my current products/their order of use

Sometimes pictures are worth a thousand words, so for Part II, I've taken pictures of everything in the above massive lineup photo and broken them down into:
  • What step they belong to
  • When I use them
  • What order they go in, if they were all to be used (spoilers: they aren't)
  • Why they are in that order
  • Why I use them
I find visual routines easier to follow than text-only, so that's why I've organized it that way.  I've included the photos from Part II as visual reference for their respective steps, but the details will be in the second half of this megapost, otherwise it would be ... huge.  Too huge.  Photos ahoy!

My actual base routine

Spoilers: I don't actually use that huge lineup of products every day, AM and PM both, on my poor face.  I would ruin my skin!  Here is my 'base' routine of products I do use daily:

Who would have thought a 7 step routine would look so minimalist in comparison?
That's it.  Yep, seriously, that's it.  Quite a bit of a difference from the huge, 30+ product lineup earlier, no?

From left to right, in the order I use them:
  1. Cleanser: Su:m37 Miracle Rose Cleansing Stick [review]
  2. Toner: Mizon AHA/BHA Daily Clean Toner [comparison review]
  3. Active: OST C20 Original Pure Vitamin C20 Serum (used only 1x a day)
  4. Active: Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
  5. Active: Cosrx Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol
  6. Hydrator: Leejiham (LJH) Tea Tree 90 Essence
  7. Occlusive: Beauty of Joseon Dynasty Cream [review]
So how do I get from this short little routine to this sprawling mess that required an entire weekend to figure out how to photograph all at once:

Short answer:  I mix and match products depending on how my skin feels that day.

Longer answer: I have both an AM and a PM routine that don't necessarily use the same products/steps, although the base routine is the same in both with the exception of the OST C20 Vit C, which is just once a day.

You can see my current routine (AM and PM both) in my spreadsheet [link] as it is an ever-changing, shifting, expanding and contracting organic lineup to accommodate my skin.  That's the next point to make:

How I add in optional steps

As you may know if you're a regular reader, I have Dehydrated, Combo-Oily skin in a very arid climate.  (You can read more about it here: Skin Type & History)  Because my skin is dehydrated and oily and dry (in places), it's a nightmare to try to accommodate all the (diametrically, at times) opposing needs of the various areas of my face.

Every morning as I brush my teeth, I take a minute to ... meditate on how my skin is feeling.  As silly as that sounds, I try to focus on how it feels in today's weather.  Is it feeling dried out?  Tight?  Oily?  Hydrated?  Irritated?  All of the above?  By the time I am done brushing my teeth, I have determined what products I am going to use, and where on my face I am going to use them.   (You can read more about strategic product layering in my post on Layering Multiple Products.)

Same with my PM routine; if I have worn makeup or sunscreen, after my 1st and 2nd cleanse, while my pH-adjusting toner is chilling on my skin to buy me some time, I again take a minute to just focus on how my skin feels.  I then choose to do, or not do, various steps and use products based off how it feels.  This is the heart of the Asian skincare philosophy: customize your routine to suit your skin.  My skin is at the mercy of the weather and changes dramatically from day to day, so I need to be ready to swap things in and out as my skin needs.

So how do I stay organized and consistent?  You could use a spreadsheet:

Yes, this is a screencap of the Routine tab from my spreadsheet [link]
But even I don't rely on my spreadsheet to organize my daily routine(s), just my Stash and Testing Schedule.

Honestly, the real answer is a lot more simple: The steps never change, only the products do.  Once you figure out the steps, you can easily swap, mix, and alternate your products as your skin needs.

Think 'steps', not 'products' 

My routine, no matter how flexible and transient it may be, can be summarized down to these basic steps, in this order:
  1. Cleansers
  2. Actives
  3. Hydrators
  4. Occlusives
  5. Treatments/Protection
All Asian skincare routines follow this outline, in my experience. I would say that the 'Active' steps are more of a Western-hybrid step, but they also exist in Asian routines as I'm using Korean products designed for that step.  For that reason, I'm counting them as part of an Asian routine but they're more commonly seen in Western/hybrid routines.

A quick note on hybrid routines;

The Asian philosophy is about customization, and using the right product for the right purpose.  This is about using a steak knife for steak, sewing shears for fabric, and a chainsaw for cutting trees, not one-size-fits all.  For that reason, there is no reason why you have to stick to just Asian products to have an Asian routine; if you have a product that fulfils a certain function best, roll with it.  You'll see I have a few Western products mixed into my routine myself!

My current product lineup for each step

1. Cleansers

The double cleanse is a mainstay of the multi-step Asian skincare routine.  You can read more about the double cleanse here: Cleansing Megapost: Double Cleansing, Cleanser Types, Tools, & Techniques.  In a nutshell, the double cleanse is makeup/sunscreen removal + regular skin cleanse, not actually cleaning your face twice.

On days I don't wear sunscreen or makeup, I don't double cleanse since I have nothing to remove.

Here are my current cleanser options:

Note: I will at most use one 1st cleanser, one 2nd cleanser, and the Mizon cleansing toner at a time.
For a breakdown of what each of these are, and when/why/what I use them for, click here for Part II.

2. Actives

My skin is very congested, develops new clogs easily, and is acne-prone.  I also have issues with Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH) from old acne, as well as some serious sun damage manifesting in both darkened areas and also wrinkles.  I also have huge pores from years of congestion, but those are a lost cause. *sobs into wineglass*

So I use 'actives' daily, which means they contain active ingredients with a scientifically proven effect on skin conditions such as pigmentation, acne, and aging.  You can read more about adding actives to your routine, and where to put them, here: Putting your products in order, including pH dependent acids

Here are my current active options:

Note: You'd never actually use all these in a single day, but if you did, this would be the order they'd be in.
For a breakdown of what each of these are, and when/why/what I use them for, click here for Part II.

3. Hydrators

This is where we deviate from Western routines, and Asian routines really shine.  Asian routines are aware that your skin needs to have a balance of both water and oil to be healthy.  Dehydrated skin lacks water, not oil, whereas Dry skin lacks oil.  This is why your skin might have felt 'dry' but the more you slathered on rich, heavy creams, the more your skin suffered from breakouts, oiliness, and even continued to have dry flakes.

Imagine your skin as a sponge.  If the sponge is dried out, shrunken, and hard, are you going to turn it back into a plump, soft, bouncy state by coating it with butter?  Of course not.  You want to soak it in water, although if you do rehydrate it and then leave it alone, it will just dry out again, right?  You would need to wrap up the sponge in an airtight seal to keep the water from evaporating back into the air. That's why Asian routines also include the next step, occlusives.

But first, hydrators, aka my favourite things:

Not only do I use sheet masks every day, sometimes I use them twice a day!
For a breakdown of what each of these are, and when/why/what I use them for, click here for Part II.

4. Occlusives

'Occlusive' is kind of  a misnomer, because technically it means something that forms an impassable barrier.  In cosmetics, it means something that 'seals' things in, or out, after being layered on the skin.  Vaseline is a common example.  Any product that has a lot of lipids (oils/fats/emollients/etc) will have some measure of occluding effect; think back to the sponge example.  If you rehydrated the sponge and then coated it in vaseline, it would slow down the evaporation of the water back into the air, although it would also become really gross.  Thankfully our analogy ends there!

So, applying a 'cream' type product will not only help add oil to your skin (if you have dry skin) but also help 'seal in' your hydrating products.  They will also turn your skin into a clogged, greasy mess if you overuse them or layer them over already dehydrated skin.

Here are my current occlusive options:

Korean Packaging; making your routine a pleasure to do, day after day.
For a breakdown of what each of these are, and when/why/what I use them for, click here for Part II.

5. Treatments/Protection

This is where AM and PM routines deviate sharply.  In the AM, your final 'skincare' step (meaning before makeup) should be sunscreen, and a full-spectrum one at that.  This is especially true if you are using chemical exfoliants, as I do.  Some of them are photosensitizing and you not only undo all the good effects, but make things worse if you are not protecting your extra-vulnerable skin from sun damage.

AM Protection:

The last sample of the IOPE left from the pack I purchased; I have the full size en route from Avecko.
Note: Although I have a cushion pictured here, that is makeup, not sun protection.  I have included it because I do wear it semi-regularly, and also to show that it occurs after sunscreen.

For a breakdown of what each of these are, and when/why/what I use them for, click here for Part II.

In the PM, Asian routines feature extra skin-nourishing steps and treatments that aren't meant to be worn out of the house, like sheet masks, mask packs, sleeping masks, and visible acne treatments.  These are the steps that terrify your spouse when you come to bed wearing them.  Not that I've done that every night.

So no matter what products I happen to be using- what weather, climate, skin condition, AM, or PM, my routine will always follow these basic steps.  It just becomes a matter of which products will fulfil that step.

PM Treatments:

Hydrocolloid bandages, I love you so.
For a breakdown of what each of these are, and when/why/what I use them for, click here for Part II.

Things to take away from Part I:

Skin is moody, at least my skin is.  It can swing from oily in the morning to dry at night, or vice versa, is highly reactive to my environment, and holds grudges for weeks.   I need to stay on my toes and be attentive to my skin if I want to keep it happy.  Here are the key concepts from Part I:
  • Cleanse > Actives > Hydrate > Occlusives > Protect/Spot Treat
  • Customize, customize, customize
  • Listen to your skin, and only give it as much (or as little) as it wants
Let me stress that last part again: listen to your skin.  If your skin tells you not to even think about using actives more than twice a week total, listen to it.  If your skin wants a water cleanse in the AM and a single moisturizer, listen to it.  But keep in mind that you need to be very aware of how your skin reacts, and what it reacts to, to be able to pinpoint what effects your product have, which means you need to have a comfortable base routine and introduce products slowly.  If you throw everything at your skin, you'll have no idea what caused what effects, good or bad.

It's why I introduce new things one at time, two weeks apart, and use things for a month as a general rule; that way if my skin flips out (or becomes happy) I'll know what caused the change.

 That brings us to the end of Part I, let's head over to Part II!

*Disclaimer: All products mentioned are 100% purchased with my own money, with the exception of the Sunkiller sunscreen which was a Christmas gift from a friend, and my opinions are entirely my own.  This blog contains  both affiliate and non-affiliate links, and clicking the former before you shop means that this blog may receive a small commission to assist in this blog supporting itself.  Please see my Contact Info & Disclaimer policy for more information.


  1. Fabulous. So incredibly fabulous. Thank you for this breakdown!

    1. Thank you, I am so glad it was helpful! :D

  2. Hi Cat!

    I wonder, what frequency of use would you suggest for someone who is adding actives in their routine for the first time? I'm looking into adding the OST Vitamin C serum as well as COSRX Blackhead Power Liquid in my routine and following the order you have on here.

    Thanks! :)

    1. Hi there :)

      I would introduce new products 2 weeks apart to confirm reactions. I would start slowly, with 2-3x a week for the first week, and then increasing only in the second week if your skin seems ready to handle more. Keep in mind you may have to decrease use of one when you introduce the next one, to strike a balance between using both but not overexfoliating your skin. :)

  3. hello! I love your blog. Could I ask for help with my products and routine? I am new to all this and am totally overwhelmed. I have dry, dehydrated skin, I do not get pimples but am fighting ageing and wrinkles.
    Products I own:
    Oily face wash
    foaming face wash
    asap aha bha gel
    tretin and also I have obaji retnol
    mizon snail repair intensive ampoule
    marula face oil
    consonant hydrextreme serum
    night cream (sukin brand- the first ingredient is water, then sesame oil so not sure if this is fat or lean)
    hyaluronic acid vitamin c serum (oz naturals)

    I'm totally confused about the ampoules and serums. I can't decide which are going on when!
    Any help would be much appreciated.
    I will say that my skin is already loads better, just from my feeble attempts to get it right!

    1. Hi Tauret,

      Aw, I am sorry to hear that you are feeling overwhelmed; I know that it can feel like there is so much information out there that it's hard to tell where to start.

      As for your questions about what products I recommend you purchase and use for your skin concerns, I appreciate your email and your consideration of me, but I am unable to answer your question- for more information see this post:

      I can, however, answer your question about ampoules and serums. If it's a smaller/expensive ampoule (such as the LJH vita ampoule) it's meant as a booster that you add to other products (just a few drops) rather than something you liberally apply by itself. If it's a larger bottle, like a serum, (such as the Mizon ampoules) those are pretty much serums and can be used like a serum.

      I hope that helps, and good luck on your skincare journey! ^^

  4. Hi Cat, I used to take skincare for granted, and now -- even though I'm just 23 y.o. -- I feel like I've started paying for it. My skin has never been in a worse condition: dehydrated combo-oily skin with frequent breakouts and hyper-pigmentation afterwards.

    Your posts have opened my eyes, so thanks a lot for your in-depth explanation and reviews!

    I have a quick question. Where do products such as eye cream and night/sleeping pack come into play in your routine?

    Also, can you share with us if you've found the perfect low-pH foaming cleanser for yourself? I live in Indonesia, and we unfortunately don't have that many readily available range of Korean skincare products to choose from. So, finding low-pH cleanser is definitely a challenge!

    If I can share with you, this is the routine I'm going to try, as soon as they come:
    - HolikaHolika Soda Pore BB Deep Cleansing Oil (PM)
    - Sulwhasoo Herbal Bar Soap (AM+PM)
    - Mizon Snail Repair Hydro Mist (AM) / Missha First Treatment Essence (PM)
    - Skinfood Tomato Whitening Toner (AM)
    - Mizon Snail Repair Intensive Ampoule (AM+PM)
    - Mizon Snail Recovery Gel Cream (AM+PM)

    Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my skincare dilemma (hopefully, haha) and I hope you keep writing! (;

    Love from Jakarta xx

    1. Hi Marsha,

      For my favourite low pH cleansers, check out this recent post:

      As for sleeping packs, they'd go at the very end of your skincare. Eye creams can go just about anywhere in the moisturizing steps.

      Take care! :)

  5. i feel so bad for my skin because for the past 3 days i forgot the cycle and using my AHA first after facewash and waiting for 20 minutes then BHA. and i never skipped it (too excited when the BHA comes to my hand 3 days ago). this is the karma of my laziness for not reread your blog. i have pimples (about 4-5) in different places T^T... I hope i can fix my face as soon as possible.
    may i ask something? I like having physical peeling using peeling gel or scrubbing. since i have my BHA and AHA, do you think i still can do the physical peeling? or i should stop and focus on chemical peeling?

    Thanks :)

    1. Hmm, I can't really give you specific advice for your skin as I am not a medical professional, but I personally find that physical exfoliants are just too much for my skin now that I use chemical exfoliants. You may be fine with it, but I'd be cautious.

      Take care!

  6. Hi Cat, do I have to wait for 20 minutes after applying my pH-adjusting toner before the applying BHA? and do I have have to wait another 20 minutes after BHA before applying my serum?

    Thanks. Stephanie.

    1. Thankfully, the pH adjusting toner means that it lets you skip the wait time between cleansers and actives. I like to give my actives a good 20 min to chill with my skin, but ymmv. :)

  7. I love how you organize the routine, but I guess I'm confused on Occlusives and Hydrators. I'm assuming that my essence, hyaluronic acid, and snail ampoule would count as hydrators, but I have dry skin, so I generally use an emulsion in the day and a cream at night and add a few drops of oil to them to act as an occlusive. But, do the emulsion and cream count as occlusives? I always just viewed them as moisturizers, which might be the same thing in the long run, like, same step, but if they aren't acting as occlusives the way the face oil does, it feels odd to call them that. I've hijacked your spreadsheet to help me keep track of things while I figure out my full routine (testing is hard and Trello wasn't as smart as I thought it would be) and love how it's set up, but am wondering if I need to add in a section for moisturizers or not.

    1. Occlusives tend to be things that 'seal' in the water from your hydrating products, so you are going to have to base it off how your products feel. If you aren't sure, I would go by watery-to-oily to be safe. :)

  8. So we would spot treat after everything? I always thought we would want to put it first so it will touch the pimple head on?

    And the BHA retina-sol would be the last step in the actives? So I can cleanse > tone > BHA > AHA > BHA retina-sol > essence > ampoule > sheet mask > emulsion > eye cream > night cream > sleeping pack??

    1. Unfortunately I can't comment on the BHA retina-sol as I'm not familiar with that product. I use my prescription cream as the only active in my routine right now, and place it after my cleanser (and pH toner as my skin misses it when I skip it, even if I don't really need it) and before the rest of my routine. For a more specific answer that covers your products and skin, I would seek out the advice of a medical professional. :)

  9. Oh thats very informative.From last 6 months I would love to add anti wrinkle moisturizer cream by Revitol in my daily routine and its results are very effective for my skin.But, you inspire me to do some serious changes in my skin care routine.Thanks for your help...

  10. Hello! How long do you wait in between applying multiple actives?
    Thank you :)

  11. many thanks for the informative post :)

  12. hi , i am new for korean skincare/cosmetics ..and i really love to read your blog , i observe you don't use any eye cream,actually i have read it is very essential ,can you tell me the reason behind it ( why you don't recommend any)
    Thank you.

    1. I've read too many claims that eye creams aren't more effective than regular old moisturizers. :) Plus, I like the Joseon cream more as an eye cream than any other eye creams I have tried, so that's what I use. :)

  13. Hi cat, is it okay to use bha/aha products with ost vit C serum? 'cause I ever read that it will cause over exfoliation.