Beauty & Wellness

I’m Convinced That These Are the K-Beauty Products You Actually Need

Best K-Beauty Skincare Products

The most MTV Cribs aspect of my apartment would be my bathroom’s medicine cabinet. It’s a Fantasia apothecary of tubes, vials, and bottles containing no less than 100 skincare products (it’s very big) that easily amount to over $5,000. My skincare routine and subsequently, my very well cared for skin, is the kind of occupational perk as a beauty editor that people build social media personas around. But before all that, back when I was trying to figure out what to do about my dry-yet-congested skin that was prone to pigmentation, K-beauty was first gaining traction in the U.S. amongst skincare bloggers before “influencer” was but a twinkle in Instagram’s algorithmic eye.

Seven years and billions of dollars of economic growth later, skincare dominates the beauty industry—I like to think in tandem with the rising popularity of K-beauty and its skin-focused agenda. Even though my career in beauty editorial has granted me access to some of the most luxurious of skincare brands and treatments, I always reserve space for some of the same Korean skincare products that got me hyped up on skincare to begin with.

To simplify an often overwhelming concept, the tenets of K-beauty skincare follow the mantra of Derek Zoolander’s merman. You can never be too moist. Got a skin issue? Hydrate it. Doesn’t work? Then try a more targeted approach. That whole K-beauty 10-step routine thing was designed to be a multi-layered approach to hydration—getting it, trapping it, protecting it. They have their benefits, but I don’t think 10 whole steps are absolutely necessary for healthy skin, in my experience. But for the overachievers who will accept no less than their skin’s dewiest, bounciest, and most radiant performance, K-beauty is all about that, and so am I. I’m not suggesting that you transition your entire skincare routine to K-beauty products, but here are some concepts to consider and the K-beauty skincare champs that have been pillars and building blocks to my skincare routine now.

Double-Cleansing Is the Best Thing to Happen to Your Pores and Pillowcases

Cleansing is arguably the most important skincare step. —it resets your whole slate so the rest of your products can work at peak efficacy. I’m not exaggerating when I say that double-cleansing before bed changed my life. All the scrubbing I’d previously entrusted to a cotton pad soaked with some bi-phase liquid to remove makeup would always claim eyelash casualties, clog pores, and still sometimes leave mascara or eyeliner residue on my eyes. Double-cleansing’s initial oil-based cleansers (usually a balm or a liquid) are made to be massaged on your dry face to smudge the hell out of any makeup and oil on your skin and then emulsify with water to politely leave your face when you rinse. Follow that with a water-based cleanser to remove any remaining residue and you will never leave mascara marks on your pillowcase again. This whole process takes but two minutes—the mildest imposition on your time for its infinite benefits. Banila Co Clean It Zero 3-in-1 Cleansing Balm has been a popular crowd-pleasing cleansing balm for years— for how it can get anything off your face with just a gentle touch. Hanskin Pore Cleansing Oil is a great pick if you’re breakout-prone with the addition of PHA, a gentle chemical exfoliator (also the 10 oz bottle lasted me ages). Then I Met You’s Living Cleansing Balm is a bit pricier, but you really feel it in its premium ingredients—it’s like a fancy facial oil that changed careers to become a cleanser instead and it just took to its new job like a duck to water.

Toner Is a Life-Changer

It took a while for me to untangle my brain’s wiring that associated toner with the super astringent Sea Breeze and Noxema that I grew up with. K-beauty relies on toners as the wingman to your skincare routine, making sure to prep your skin to better absorb your following treatment products. Perhaps you’re familiar with the sponge analogy and how it’s easier for a sponge to absorb things when it’s moist as opposed to when it’s totally dry and hard. Toner is that moisture link. It helps to sweep any excess residue your cleanser didn’t catch and contains other helpful ingredients—chemical exfoliators, fermented botanicals, or hydrators themselves. My absolute favorite is the Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Cleansing Toner. Incredibly lightweight in texture, it’s made quick work of pigmentation marks while hydrating and brightening my skin in a matter of days. Isntree’s Hyaluronic Acid Toner is that bitch when it comes to immediate, wholesale hydration. Its texture is like a thick liquid but once you pat it on… it is the hydration equivalent of Hilary Duff’s “Come Clean” music video.

Essence: Crucial or Confusing?

Why not both! Do you absolutely need it? It’s not a must. But does it have its benefits? Absolutely. Essence is basically a toner/serum hybrid. They have the lightweight liquid texture of a toner with the concentrated ingredients of a serum. So if you want to incorporate one K-beauty product into your skincare routine but aren’t sure where to start, an essence will be an excellent amuse-bouche. In fact, Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence (a well-lauded dupe for the $$$ SKII Essence) got me on the K-beauty train in the first place. Benton’s Snail Bee High Content Essence is much cheaper however and also very effective, especially when dealing with breakouts and picking scars, in my experience.


Serums aren’t a proprietary K-beauty product but they are another vehicle for Moisture™’s henchmen, so you’d better believe they got ’‘em and how. Serums tend to be an expensive skincare category in general because of their concentrated ingredients (and, you know, marketing), but some of my favorite ones have been from K-beauty brands that work just as well as the fancy expensive western brands for a fraction of the price. Missha’s Time Revolution Night Repair Probio Ampoule is one such serum (and another more affordable dupe for Estée Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair Serum). Klairs Freshly Juiced Vitamin C Drop is a brightening powerhouse and Benton’s Snail Bee Ultimate Serum has been amazing at balancing out my dehydrated skin barrier and swapping my former dull skin texture for the plump, smooth, and even-toned skin that only snails and bees can offer.

Sun Protection Is Non-negotiable

Did you know that you should be wearing sunscreen every single day, even when it’s cloudy? If not, now you do, and you cannot unknow this information. K-beauty upholds cleansing and sun protection as its two pillars of healthy skin—think of your skincare routine like a sandwich and cleansing and SPF are the bread. What you put in between them is interchangeable, but a sandwich ain’t a sandwich without bread (miss me with that open-faced business!). Because of this very tactical approach to sun protection, K-beauty innovates the crap out of their sunscreens’ feel and performance, and tend to stuff even more beneficial skin-enhancing ingredients in them. They’re the least sunscreen-feeling sunscreens I’ve ever worn. In the day time, you can top your SPF over your moisturizer or just find yourself a moisturizing sunscreen that you like. Some standbys I love are Purito’s Unscented Centella Green Level SPF 50 — very moisturizing and calming while being a lightweight, easy smear. Goodal Mild Protect Watery Sun Cream SPF 30 has been a really nice, everyday summer sunscreen for me since its gel-liquid texture is really hydrating but feels weightless. And same goes for COSRX Shield Fit Snail Essence Sun SPF 50, which gives you more snail goodness. Snails will save us all.

The Konclusion: Just dew you

A K-beauty skincare routine can seem overwhelming due to its inclusion of unique product categories, but I don’t think you need to follow a super- involved routine for results. It might be controversial but honestly…I don’t really care for sheet masks. I think they’re a great way to prep your skin when you want to really juice your complexion up for an event. But as something to regularly incorporate into a regular skincare routine? I mean, if you really want to, go ahead.

The path to dewy, glass skin is layered with lightweight veils of hydration, an occasional sweep of dead skin and debris with chemical exfoliators, and then more hydration. Sometimes changing your approach to skincare is enough to get results you’re after, and K-beauty has been an eye-opener for me. Even just incorporating one new step into your skincare routine can do a lot, and then you can build from there if you want to. Can a person have too many skincare products? Yes. But can a person be too moist? I daresay not.

Sable Yong

Sable Yong

Sable is a New York City-based writer. A former beauty editor and now a freelance narcissist, you can find her work on Allure, GQ, Vogue (Teen and regular), Nylon, New York Magazine, Man Repeller (obviously), and sometimes the packaging of beauty products. Like every millennial writer who came of age in the era of analog feelings, she has a newsletter.

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