[WHY] In the world of skincare, how many steps are too many steps?

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[WHY] In the world of skincare, how many steps are too many steps?

Packaging of cleansing foam, cleansing oil, essence, serum, ampoule and cream. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Packaging of cleansing foam, cleansing oil, essence, serum, ampoule and cream. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Kim Kardashian may have been a latecomer to the Korean skincare trend when she jumped on the bandwagon earlier this year, but she was so mesmerized by the multi-step routine that she based her own skincare brand, SKKN by Kim, on it.  
From cleansers, creams, mists and masks — Koreans’ over-the-top skincare has drastically changed how women around the world tend to their skin, convincing millions that they need to invest time and money to achieve perfect skin; and that if they do invest, they’ll be rewarded.  
Over the past decade, K-skincare has become widely known for its strict 10-step regimen that women must stick to every single day and night.  
Kim Kardashian's nine-step skincare line released in July called SKKN by Kim [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Kim Kardashian's nine-step skincare line released in July called SKKN by Kim [SCREEN CAPTURE]

For years, Korean celebrities and influencers shared lengthy skincare routines involving different types of cleansers, toners, serums, ampoules, creams and sheet masks. Some actors even bragged about how they spend 10 minutes just cleansing their faces and another 20 minutes applying each product with special equipment.  
Though the fad saw its peak in the mid-2010s, the Kardashian’s newest cosmetics brand has reignited global interest in how Korean women take care of their skin.
While influencers around the globe claim that the Korean method is the answer to flawless skin, some might wonder do Korean women actually use 10 different products as part of their daily skincare routines? And if they do, why?  
Do Korean women really go through 10 steps of a skincare routine twice every day?  
Yes and no. Ten steps may be an exaggeration, but multi-step care is a distinctly defining characteristic of everyday skincare for Korean women.  
The famous 10-step regimen is more of a symbolic term than a literal one.  
Locals use an average of 5.37 skin care products in one routine, plus sunscreen and cleanser. That’s at least two more products compared to the U.S. average of 3.24, according to the 2022 Beauty Trend Report by a local data company Opensurvey. The 10 most-used skincare items include toner, cream, essence or serum, lotion or emulsion, sheet masks and eye-wrinkle care.  
Example of steps involved in the 10-step skincare.

Example of steps involved in the 10-step skincare.

Although people don’t necessarily use 10 different products in one routine, it is widely accepted that multiple steps in a skincare routine are beneficial.
“The local atmosphere surrounding skin care encourages users to be very active, aware and open,” said Lee Seong-ung, a researcher at local cosmetics manufacturer Cosmax.  
“If one thing doesn’t work, consumers have dozens more new products to try. You can’t define Korean skin care with aspects such as ingredients, techniques or types of products because they are endless. It’s more of an approach to skin care products and routine.”  
Why are Koreans so obsessed with good skin?  
The simple answer is that many Koreans are obsessed with looks and good skin is a prerequisite to beauty.  
Men, even male celebrities, often express that they want their ideal lovers to have good skin and value white and flawless skin over other elements, like personality. Apps that let users compare the prices of dermatologists and plastic surgeries around the country are seeing increased revenue as more people seek to find the answer to perfect skin.  
According to Opensurvey research, 98.1 percent of Korean women said they were regularly accessing information about beauty. The survey also showed that Koreans actively access an average of 3.5 channels for beauty information while Americans use two channels. The most commonly accessed channels for Koreans were Instagram (80.3 percent) and YouTube (76.6 percent).  
In addition to the obvious visual outcome, having good skin — or at least the process that is associated with having good skin — is connected with the idea of productivity to which people aspire.
Called godsaeng or “God life,” the followers of this trend strive to live a model, productive life filled with routines and habits.  
Similar concepts such as the Miracle Morning routine exist in the West, but the Korean version goes beyond waking up early, exercising and reading a book.  
Maintaining a certain weight, walking at least 5,000 steps a day and taking care of one’s skin are just some of the must-dos.  
“Korea is a small country that is very densely populated so people are sensitive to each other’s accomplishments and feel a certain amount of pressure to live productively,” said Lee Kyeong-min, a psychiatrist and CEO of Mindroute Leadership Lab, explaining the country’s draw to strenuous routines. “Lengthy skin care routines, like any other godsaeng routine, can fulfill people’s need to feel efficacious at all times.”
Does the 10-step routine really promote good skin?
Not really. Ten products won’t hurt the skin, but they don’t guarantee your skin will become ten times better, either.
You could cut out three or four products and get similar results, experts say.  
“Even just 20 years ago, there were many bacteria and mold-related skin issues from lack of hygiene,” said Chung Hae-shin, a dermatologist and author of the book “K-Beauty: The Facts.” “But within the past 10 years, people began to use five to six products and excessively cleanse their faces, which has led to an increase in cases of dermatitis and various other skin allergies.  
“Washing your face twice a day and then applying toner, moisturizing cream and sunblock during the day is enough for the skin. Then, according to your skin type, you can use a mask or an exfoliator once a week.”
“Products tend to be divided into many categories in Korea and each of them serves a specific purpose rather than being an all-in-one solution,” said Lee of Cosmax. “The idea is that consumers can pick and choose what they want to use according to their skin condition of the day.”
Where did the 10-step routine come from?  
Over-the-top skincare routines have existed for decades in Korea, but it’s the spread of Korean content in the global market, along with marketing strategies from local cosmetics brands, that has triggered the global popularity of the 10-step regime.  
Korean beauty companies have been using the most popular female stars as their models to attract female consumers as well as catchy slogans to entice consumers to hand over their cash for ten different products.  
The first reference to 10-step care can be found in a 16-year-old slogan that was initially created by local skincare brand Skinfood.
Actor Lee Min-jung in a TV commercial for local skincare brand Skinfood in 2009 [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Actor Lee Min-jung in a TV commercial for local skincare brand Skinfood in 2009 [SCREEN CAPTURE]

“Don’t eat it, yield it to your skin,” whispers actor and member of 90s girl group Fin.K.L Sung Yu-ri during the 2006 commercial for Skinfood’s moisturizing and whitening cream made with extract of green apple.  
The slogan is still considered one of the most iconic phrases encompassing the locals’ understanding that skin needs just as many nutrients directly fed to it as the stomach.  
What’s the latest trend in skincare in Korea?  
A minimalist approach to skincare is becoming popular — skinimalism.  
Covid-19 has not only streamlined people’s makeup routines, but their skincare routines, too.  
Some backlash to the 10-step routine had always existed since its boom in 2016 from those that saw the method as convoluted. That criticism gained momentum when the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year. As people were forced to stay inside, it was the perfect time to undertake a more minimalist lifestyle.  
Skinimalism — a portmanteau of “skin” and “minimalism” — began to trend on platforms such as Tiktok and Reddit, and then made it onto the 2021 Trend Report by Pinterest as “the biggest skin care trend of the year.”  
Local companies are taking this trend into consideration and have released products that combine two or three steps of the 10-step care such as Laneige’s Cream Skin which combines qualities of skin essence and moisture cream. Isoi’s Moisture Doctor Cream is advertised as a cream that can “solve all skin care problems,” by promising better skin barrier, moisturizing effects and relief.
Actor Kim Yoo-jung is promoting Laneige's Cream Skin, which is said to have combined essence and moisturizing cream into one product [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Actor Kim Yoo-jung is promoting Laneige's Cream Skin, which is said to have combined essence and moisturizing cream into one product [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Does that mean that the 10-step routine is a thing of the past?
Not necessarily. In fact, many people are still sticking to their time-consuming routines rather than embracing the newest fads.  
Thirty-year-old Jang Min-seo allocates at least 20 minutes before bedtime for her nightly skin routine which usually includes one cleanser, one toner, two serums and one night cream. 
“The routine can be overwhelming at times because it is time-consuming,” she said. “But I still do it because it makes me feel productive and less stressed. I find that as I become busier, it becomes more important to take time to solely take care of myself.”
“The popularity of 10-step care arose around 2016 and 2017 globally, but for Korea, the idea of applying various different skin care products in generous amounts has existed for decades,” said dermatology specialist Park So-eun who works at a skin care clinic in Seongnam, Gyeonggi. “Consequently, people have a harder time quickly crossing over to a routine that is nearly completely opposite of the one that they have been practicing for so long.”
In fact, Koreans grew up watching their parents and grandparents applying all sorts of things to their faces  — like yogurt, honey and smashed cucumbers.  
The practice can be best observed in local public bathrooms.    
Part of the highlights of steamy public baths is sipping a chilled drink while waist-deep in a 40-degree-celsius pool. An especially popular beverage on the stands of these public baths is milk, and it isn’t just for drinking.  
After taking a couple of sips, Koreans splash the cold milk onto their faces and their bodies, believing that the liquid makes their skin smoother and brighter.  
“It will take time for the idea to settle in the country as a whole, but it is likely that it will happen eventually as the younger generations are better at using the internet and value facts more. I see it as a matter time until Koreans drop a few products in their routine,” Park said.  

BY LEE JIAN, YOON SO-YEON [lee.jian@joongang.co.kr]
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