Multiple Skincare Steps: Neither Vanity nor Virtue

I've had a lot of thoughts percolating around in the last week about skincare and the relative virtues of a minimal, or maximized, skincare routine.  I'm not sure why people are getting caught up in debunking a multi-step routine lately, but sometimes it takes on an odd tone.  I think it's understandable that we are so quick to assign virtue (or vanity) to skincare, especially in those groups who have been influenced by a "skincare first, makeup second" philosophy, which is a key concept in K-Beauty.

It's not surprising that things veer into subconscious bias pretty quickly-- cosmetics are pretty intrinsically linked to vanity, and that gets caught up in societal constructs around attractiveness, worth, and virtue.

Sometimes skincare is just skincare, though, and I don't think we need all the baggage with it.

Example of minimal and maximized Korean skincare routines
Neither of these routines are a measure of virtue or vanity.  They're just skincare.
To this day, we repeat tales of Cleopatra's supposed cosmetic excesses as the pinnacle of legendary vanity, even as we add sheet masks with donkey milk and honey essences to our carts because hey, if donkey milk and honey were a favourite of hers, it's worth checking out?  As a counterpoint to makeup, which has always had connotations on the virtuousness of the wearer, skincare falls on a wide spectrum between the most basic of hygiene to the most expensive of indulgences, ensuring there's always going to be a sweet spot for everyone.

In this post:

  • Skincare first, makeup second: K-Beauty influence in western makeup
  • The 10+ step routine myth - it doesn't matter, let it go
  • Self-care, treat choself, and mindful spending

It seems as complex skincare routines become more common, what was once a necessary chore has achieved the same infamy as its cosmetic cousin, with judgements about vain excess and the backlash of virtuous minimalism cropping up beyond just makeup.

Skincare first, makeup second: K-Beauty influence in western makeup

Post-Hallyu wave influence, western skincare is evolving from basic hygiene/something you do if you have glaring skin issues (acne or aging) into something that's a form of socialization (mask selfies and hashtag events) and amusement (skincaretainment) and learning about things you never imagined you'd be interested in.  I certainly never imagined becoming so fascinated by chemistry!  I feel like the collective interest in beauty products in the west is pretty robust when it comes to makeup, hair, and nails, but skincare has been comparatively lacking from mainstream discussions about cosmetics.

Screencap of Jung Saem Mool's youtube tutorials
K-Beauty style youtube tutorials: when skincare is just as emphasized as base and point makeup.
Screencap from Jung Saem Mool's youtube channel.
With a flurry of recent articles about the "Asian-ification" of western beauty, there's an emerging shift toward makeup looks that emphasize beautiful skin as a feature, and it may be gaining ground as an alternative to the heavily made up Instagram look.  For example, Glossier is famously pushing what I've seen called the "French cool girl" aesthetic, which ironically seems to be heavily borrowing from K-Beauty with the launch of their recent line of serums with an intro that could be ripped from any K-Beauty blog or article:
You’re not just a “skin type.” Your needs are constantly changing, so we created three super potent serums to refill skin’s deficiencies and strengthen it over time. Feeling dry? Use Super Bounce. Feeling stressed? Use Super Pure. Feeling...meh? Use Super Glow. Think of them as supplements for your face—together, they’re part of a well-balanced skincare routine.
Hmm, constantly changing needs?  Switching it up daily?  Same product type, different functions, so you can layer, mix, or skip as needed?  Different products for different skin concerns?   Emphasis on balance?  Sounds familiar, no?   In fact, Glossier's slogans of "skin first" and "skincare as makeup" seem like they could be straight out of an episode of Korean beauty talk show Get It Beauty.

I find it ironic that Glossier is marketing a minimalist beauty even as they expand into a multi-step skincare routine.

The 10+ step routine myth - it doesn't matter, let it go

I've heard so much about this, both for and against.  Yes, the 10/15/20/whatever step routine is partially a myth perpetuated by shops looking to maximize the size of your cart, but lately I've seen some backlash against it as if having an ultra-minimal routine is a sign of virtuousness.   There's also the opposite, where people feel their 15+ step routine is the pinnacle of skincare sophistication, or feel guilty because they've skipped steps or product types, even if their skin was fine without.  (This last one was 100% me this summer, with my 2.5 step routine. and paroxysms of guilt as I dodged requests for an updated summer routine post.)

There's a ... judgey undertone to the former, which often manifests in the shopping equivalent of slut shaming, and a smugness in the belief that they've outgrown the excess of the K-Beauty philosophy.  That bugs me, because the concepts of balance, nurturing your skin, listening to your skin's needs and adapting to them, and evaluating the health of the skin rather than just the absence of acne and wrinkles-- those concepts apply to anyone, with any number of steps, with products from anywhere.

I spent an entire summer with an ultra-minimal routine that was a mix of western and Asian products because that's what my skin needed.  There's no way I would have been able to pull that off before learning about the Asian skincare philosophies; I would have been stuck trying to use my same all-purpose products year-round and getting frustrated as they overwhelmed my summer skin.

Here's an example of the aforementioned 2.5 step routine with cleanser, moisturizing BHA, and intermittent sheet mask, vs. a 10+ step routine "because my face was thirstier than teenagers at band camp" example:

Example of minimal and maximized Korean skincare routines
Click for huge size
On the left, I have the 2.5 step routine: cleanser, a gentle, hydrating BHA exfoliant, and a sheet mask for those occasions where I'd chill one in the fridge to cool my face down in the summer heat.

On the right, I have a 10+ step routine1st and 2nd cleanser for double cleansing, a pH-adjusting cleansing toner, a BHA exfoliant (normally I'd use the boosting toner with the Cosrx BHA, not the Paula's Choice one pictured here, but I'd already used the Cosrx on the left!) an AHA for spot treatment, a BHA body spray, a hydrating toner, a first essence, doublefisted sheet masks, a serum, a cream, a lip balm, a sunscreen, and a sleeping pack,

Neither of these routines are 'superior' to the other, they're both doing exactly what they should be: meeting the needs of my skin at the time.

It is possible to reject the artifice of an XYZ-numbered routine while embracing the underlying concepts.   Yes, it's a myth, and you know what?  If your 13 step routine gives you joy, then you just carry on doing it!  If it works for you, whether it's a minimal or maximized routine, then it's the right number of steps.

I also see people getting a bit dogmatic about what steps should be in a multi-step routine, what order they should go in, etc. to the point where things become arguments for/against practices and guides.  The thing is, most of those guides and best practices worth their salt will state, possibly several times, that ultimately people should do what's right for them.  They're guides, not carved-stone rules.  If putting creams before your sheet masks, skipping toners, and reversing your acids works better for you, then by golly, do it!

Self-care, treat choself, and mindful spending

It can be a tricky balance.  It's so easy to become caught up in the hype, and recently I read an article on "attentional bias" which argued that the more that one focuses one's attention on an item (or hobby) the more deluded one becomes that the specific item will have a tremendous positive impact on one's life.  The more attention paid to the item, researching it, thinking about it, dwelling on it, the more positive reinforcement it receives and negative traits are dismissed.

On the one hand, I think that the emotionally charged pressure of skin struggles, combined with the endless stream of enticing products designed to be in multi-step routines, creates a perfect storm for over-the-top consumerism.  Reckless spending, shopping addictions, hoarding-- I've seen all of these in action in the international K-Beauty community.  On the other hand, I've also seen that investing in self-care, when done mindfully, can have a tremendous positive impact on one's mental health.

Screencap of article featuring Tiffany of TiffanyandLupus & Soul to Seoul
Article in Folks featuring @Tiffanyandlupus of blog Soul to Seoul, who often reminds us to take the time for self-care even in the face of tremendous challenges.
I also think the article on attentional bias misses a point that should be made about this kind of hobby; yes, it's ostensibly about consumable things, but I firmly believe that "the journey is more important than the destination" when it comes to K-Beauty.  I know not everyone puts as much time into researching and learning as I do, but part of the attraction of K-Beauty is its capacity for complexity and the long learning curve that can keep you engrossed every night for weeks-- without buying anything.  If you find yourself falling into the wallet trap of filling and checking out too many shopping carts, take a look at some of the resources out there on mindful shopping and responsible hauling, like adoredee's How to Beauty Haul responsibly.

Lastly, there's the double-edged sword of "treat choself" which can end up enabling too much retail therapy.  I find having a spreadsheet to track my stash helps me avoid purchases I'll regret later, and helps me let go of guilt about buying things that 1. I can afford 2. actually use, and 3. really interest me.  Is it under my budget?  Is there a gap/room in my routine for that product type?  Do I like it enough to bump something else on my testing schedule?  And here's where I disagree with the author in regards to dwelling on something for a long time being a negative: the dwelling is as much a part of the process as the acquisition of it.  I want to spend hours reading reviews and looking up the benefits of ingredients.  That's part of the appeal.  Does it matter if it doesn't fix all my skin issues?  Honestly, no, because I'm also very aware of the limitations of skincare-- there's a good reason why I call actives the workhorses of my routine.

I think you can have balance in your shopping, and in your skin, if you pause to practice a little mindfulness.

Have you come to a place of balance with your skincare routine, regardless of the number of steps?  Feeling the pressure to minimize or maximize your routine? Hit me up on Facebook or Twitter and let me know!

Have something you'd like to share with me in general?  Snap a pic and tag me on Instagram at @snowwhiteandtheasianpear because I'd love to see it!

All the best,


  1. I've gotten to where I don't experiment too much, but I do change up my routine from summer to winter.

    My skin gets really dry in spots from my Curology prescription, but it's still pretty acne-prone, so a lot of light layers with few ingredients is much less likely to make me break out than a few heavier layers. It's a decision unique to my skin. Sometimes I really wish I wasn't acne-prone, and could just slather on a heavy moisturizer and be done with it. But I'm much happier since having clear skin, and don't regret having a lot of steps even though sometimes it feels like a hassle.

    1. I feel this; I had to back off of drying actives during the summer out of photosensitivity concerns + not being able to replenish my skin after. Not fun!

  2. I agree with your idea about "listening to your skin" so much. This summer sometimes it was so hot and tired that I skipped everything in my routine, just go with 2 cleaning steps (because I wear sunscreen everyday, I'm actually thinking about adding a tinted sunscreen on top of my everyday one because it is freaking sunny and hot where I live) and I super duper nourishing and moisturizing sleeping pack. And I think getting a bit extra time to rest was what keeping my skin healthy, because clearly my routine doesn't really deliver as many layers of moisture as it should. With that being said, I'm definitely on the train of "doing whatever you feel comfortable with".
    Just a quick questions, do you have a list of sheet mask brands that have machine-folded sheet masks? I'm looking for evidences everywhere on the internet, but it's no where to be found.
    Thanks a lot, my dear dear friend Cat.

    1. Listening to your skin is definitely the way to go! On the mask brands, there's a spreadsheet with responses from the brands who replied:

  3. I really liked this post! It's interesting to hear how people treat K-/Asian beauty skincare the way people treat Western makeup, as if choosing to use 10 steps is the same as choosing to contour and use false eyelashes and setting spray every day. (I'm a makeup lover and opinions on the latter are strongly divided for the stupidest reasons.) My struggle with acne has been LONG, frightful, and outright depressing, so my skincare is mandatory. K-/Asian beauty taught me to add 'soft' steps (aka hydration and soothing) and calm down the 'hard' ones (no more daily scrubs followed by daily clay masks followed by daily acids, inevitably followed by tears). 10 steps of comfort and fun is WAY preferable to 3 steps of burning and heat that will 'kill' the acne.

    1. I love everything about this comment. ♥ The makeup analogy is so dead-on, I love it! I keep trying to respond to individual parts of it, but I agree with every point so it's impossible for me to separate them. Well said.

  4. K-Beauty has pretty much saved my skin and my emotional health. I've been stalking your blog for about a year now and actively researching products and ingredients to help suit my needs. It's also how I found that I had dehydrated-combination skin. For the past 10 years I thought I just had oily skin and, thus, used these harsh products on my face like everything told me to. I too agree with the idea of listening to your skin, it's the only way I've gotten this far :)
    My skin isn't flawless but I'm so happy with how it looks like now. Acne goes away fast, my face is plump and hydrated, it GLOWS, and it's so soft (I touch it a lot :x)
    A year ago I wouldn't be caught dead without makeup covering my awful skin, now I find makeup to get in the way of that natural glow :3

  5. I absolutely loved reading this and I really valued your points about listening to your skin and making mindful choices.

    Admittedly, when I first got into k-beauty I went a little overboard because I was so excited that a) I was seeing improvements with my skin health and b) I wanted to try absolutely everything. With time, I've eased back to a routine that works for me with products from everywhere not just Korea.

    Thank you for another amazing article! :)

  6. Replies
    1. Yes, some people get really invested in judging the buying habits of others, when that's not a call they get to make. They also concern themselves with the number of products people use, which isn't their concern either. I totally get that irresponsible spending and shopping addiction is common with beauty products, but I'd rather that people focus on offering helpful suggestions (like adoredee's hauling responsibly post) instead of making disparaging remarks, you know? :(

  7. I've only started my kbeauty journey back in May. I've set up a nice routine that makes me happy at the moment, but I'm very keen on trying out many more things. Not all at once though, I have many things to save for, so I try to haul only when I nearly run out of things rather than buying five face creams and serums at once. None of my friends have any interest in skincare and most of them don't even wear make up. They find my Asian skincare obsession quite odd. I personally love it, after going off birth control pills my skin went mental and I felt hideous. Kbeauty has done wonders for my skin. I used to just cleanse and use moisturiser, but now I really enjoy my skincare rituals. I still get break outs, but much much less, and it goes away quickly without leaving me scarred. Kbeauty has also introduced me to the Kdrama's I now also love, and after researching so many Korean things I've now also developed a love for the country itself and really hope to travel and explore it. I get much enjoyment out of my little hobby, and if that makes people think that I'm vain, well screw them as I'll happily continue!

  8. I had my K-Beauty success moment this past week. I use a combination of Western and Asian products, but have been working on treating my skin well, using specific products for specific issues, and giving my skin what it needs. I also cut way back on my exfoliation, which was counter-intuitive but has done so much to improve my skin texture. And it all paid off last weekend. I went to the doctor on Thursday and the next thing I knew I was in the ER and they were telling me they were admitting me to remove my gallbladder first thing in the morning. So I was in the hospital with literally nothing but the clothes on my back. My husband brought me my toothbrush, but sorting through my skincare was beyond him. As a result, I didn't even wash my face from Thursday morning until I went home on Saturday afternoon. And when I got home, my face felt... not that bad, actually. Don't get me wrong... I was definitely ready to wash my face and slap on a sheet mask. But I didn't have dry, red patches on my cheeks and a t-zone that could rival an oil slick. My face still felt smooth and I had no breakouts brewing under the surface. Everything was pretty much just what it had been a few days prior. That would NOT have been the case even 6 months ago. I really felt like taking care of my skin had paid off by making my skin able to take care of itself when I wasn't able to. I also felt like I really need to get a cleansing water into my skincare wardrobe for future emergencies!

  9. Hi love,

    You R like my guru for skincare and I really need some help. I use COSRX Returning A-sol every other day (and every other I use moisturizing regime) and I really like it. I use low ph cleanser, then COSRX AHA/BHA toner and then COSRX A-Sol, Innisfree Jeju Water essence and La Roche Posay Cicaplast. And I wanted to include COSRX AHA 7. I know I need to use BHA before AHA but A-sol is delicate and % is really low in comparsion to AHA 7. So my question: can I use BHA/AHA toner first, then A-sol and then AHA 7? Or should I change A-sol for COSRX BHA Blackhead liquid? Or use A-sol over AHA 7? Or maybe first toner, then BHA liquid, then AHA 7 and then A-sol? I'm so confused, please, please help me :(

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  11. I was recently reflecting on when to draw the line between vanity and personal skincare, and I'm glad I've found your blog :) I agree that some people judge others by the number of steps and products in their skin care regimen. Your thoughts helped enlighten me that at the end of the day, the individual is free to do which steps he/she finds most comfortable with, free to apply few to as many products as he/she likes if this is what suits his/her needs, and as long as these products fit within his/her budget. Looking forward to your future blogs!