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Irving Penn
Photography Irving Penn, 1996

How my 10-step Korean skincare routine became an act of feminist self-care

A beginner's guide to skincare

There is an argument to be had that the commodification of feminism means that some of us are side-eyeing current advertising which tells us that we have to buy certain products to care for ourselves sufficiently.  Indeed, the popularity of the multi-step Korean skincare routine means we’re being told we must layer all these products in the right order to love ourselves. In recent years the beauty industry is growing at an alarming rate, including elective surgeries and injectables. The line between caring for yourself and becoming a crazed beauty junky is becoming increasingly thin. I think about all this while I gently tap a snail-based serum around my eyelids.

The skincare market has grown so rapidly recently that we are flooded with information about our skin, and then given so many options to choose from that it can make many of us feel intimidated by something that should be an optional act of self-care.

I don’t take it lightly to say that mental health is truly entwined with skincare. When I had angry, painful cysts along my jaw, cheeks and even neck, I’d be much less likely to step outside, even with layers of make-up on. Waking up and seeing glowing, clear skin in the bathroom mirror makes my life easier. Not only that but sweeping, patting and massaging while gazing at your own reflection morning and night builds a bond with yourself. The commitment I have to doing some kind of skincare twice a day means I unapologetically require a few minutes to myself, for myself, regularly.

To me, being a feminist means strengthening the bond I have with myself, and the love and appreciation I feel for my body in order to fight for myself and others in countless other ways. We live in a world which tells us that if you have acne, wrinkles, a crooked nose, you aren’t loveable. You don’t matter. It can feel like a skincare routine is a way to fix ‘problems’. But your relationship to cosmetics and grooming are truly dictated by how you see yourself. Are you trying to fix your “flaws” or nurture yourself? Our need to ‘fix’ our appearance is something we need to be critical of, we need to check in with ourselves and attempt balance, just as we need to with watching too much TV to relax or having too many drinks.

“I’ve finally understood that there are certain products that work for (almost) everyone, that skincare doesn’t need to cost as much as rent, and that it really is about your mental well-being”

Being as obsessed with cosmetics as I am, means I have researched skincare ingredients, fascinated, filling up my online basket at all hours of the night, using my own face to test not just new products, but combinations of products and methods of applying them. After years of trial and, of course, humiliating error I began seeing real change in my skin. Excited, I shared products with friends and family, inspecting their skin at regular intervals and dictating exactly how they use their skincare. I’ve finally understood that there are certain products that work for (almost) everyone, that skincare doesn’t need to cost as much as rent and that it really is about your mental well-being.

I stick to mostly Korean products for my skincare because their industry is ahead of the West’s in terms of highly effective ingredients being available at a high street price points. Retailers like Boots and Selfridges have started stocking some popular high street Korean skincare, but I like to order direct from Korea to get the best prices and the biggest range to choose from. So here’s my beginner’s skincare list.

This kind of routine will balance out any skin type and you should see visible changes in your skin within a couple of weeks. This is a great place to start, and as you become more familiar with your skin you’ll be able to see what it needs. You’ll touch your skin, look at it and know that maybe you need more hydration, you’ve been over exfoliating, or that you really just need to clean your skin more thoroughly. It goes without saying, you will know your skin best, so many of the items listed are about preference, if you know certain ingredients don’t work for you, trust that and look at other options.

Step One: The oil cleanser

Trust me, double cleansing will change your skin. The concept is to remove surface gunk like sunscreen, pollution and make-up with something oily and then to actually clean your skin with a second, gentle cleanser. Harsh detergents aren’t necessary to clean your skin, we need to strike that beautiful balance where your skin is thoroughly clean, but you aren’t compromising your natural acid mantle which protects your skin from contaminants. Traditional harsh foaming cleansers totally destroy the acid mantle, meaning your squeaky clean skin is also vulnerable to all kinds of bacteria, and your pores start producing excess oils in an effort to protect your vulnerable skin. First step, try the Face Shop Rice Oil Cleanser Rich: Don’t let the word ‘rich’ steer you away from this magic cleanser if you’re oily. It will take off your make-up and sunscreen in one fell swoop. It rinses off without a trace of oil left on the skin, and it’s a first cleanse so your second cleanse will calm your fear of residual dirt and oils sitting in your pores.

Step Two: The gentle foaming cleanser

Holika Holika Aloe Cleansing Foam: Rinse away any leftover dirt with your second cleanser. This one is nice because it has soothing aloe, it foams up and spreads quickly, without making your mouth taste weird (am I the only one who hates that?). The major key is that this works to cleanse without SLS or SLES, ingredients commonly used to make cleaning agents like laundry detergents break up oils and dirt, harming that precious acid mantle.

Step Three: The exfoliator

Neogen Peeling Pads: Available in various ‘flavours’ like lemon, wine and green tea, this gentle but highly effective exfoliator provides the satisfaction of scrubbing your face without actually scraping away at your skin. Smooth out your skin by using the rougher side to buff away dead skin manually while the acidic juices break down dead skin chemically. Finish by sweeping the pillowy side all over and rinsing your face. You will feel unbelievably soft. Use as needed. Some people exfoliate every other day, some once a week. You can also use these on areas where you get bumps or ingrown hairs on your body.

Step Four: The toner

Klairs Supple Preparation Toner (also available in unscented): This toner is a game changer. It is best applied with the palms, sweeping then patting it into the skin. This toner creates the perfect, slightly acidic PH for your skin to absorb your next layers of skincare and fight off unwanted bacteria while it soothes and seals in hydration. The Korean skincare cult tells us that you must tone your skin and lock in hydration by not allowing your skin to get bone dry after cleansing. So pat this into damp skin. Layer it up to increase its effects. Klairs as a brand is vegan and cruelty-free, and is very careful about unnecessary ingredients like fragrance. The fragrance in this toner is purely thanks to essential oils. For those of you with very sensitive skin, the unscented version has no essential oils. I personally find the original scented version has a nicer texture.

Step Five: The essence

Cosrx Snail Essence: You might have heard of snail mucin as a trendy ingredient in Asian skincare and thought you’d rather die than rub snail juice on your face. The reason is, and bear with me, snail mucin is extremely healing, hydrating and soothing, meaning it is effective in fighting acne, dehydration, scarring, dryness and visible signs of ageing. It really is a powerhouse ingredient. It doesn’t smell of anything either. Pat this into the skin, and as Cosrx advises, tap into the eye area as if you are playing piano. If your skin is still crawling at the idea of using anything like this, fine, skip this step.

Step Six: The Serum

Klairs Rich Moist Soothing Serum: This serum locks in tons of hydration, balancing your skin’s water:oil content ratio. This balancing act is the key to plump, glowy, but never greasy skin. This also cools the skin, making it a great after sun exposure or irritation. This is also available as a sheet mask for when you really want to treat your skin.

Step Seven: The vitamin

Klairs Freshly Juiced Vitamin Drop: This little miracle product goes on like a thin oil and quickly sinks in without the smell or stinging sensation of other vitamin C products. You can use this morning and evening to fight hyperpigmentation, increase collagen production, and protect your skin from environmental aggressors.

Step Eight: The snail lotion

Mizon All in One Snail Repair Cream: This one is a nice lightweight jelly cream, great for dry skin under a thicker cream, or if you want something you can barely feel on your skin. The benefits of snail mucin as I listed above are also a great reason to get into this.

Step Nine: The snail-free lotion

Cosrx Oil-Free Ultra Moistursing Lotion: This is a gem. It smoothes the skin, it smells deliciously of birch sap (which makes up 70% of the formulation) and it seals in all the goodness you’ve applied – it is beautifully moisturising without any grease. This would be my final step at night and my penultimate step in the morning (followed by sunscreen). If you’re super dry this works, if you’re super oily it works. It’s the one.

Step Ten: The pimple destroyer

Cosrx Master Pimple Patches: Use these after cleansing, before any other skincare directly on spots. It is most effective on spots which have come to the surface like whiteheads or emerging cysts. It absorbs the gunk from the spot and prevents scarring. It also stops anything from further irritating your your fingernails. Yes, I see you.

Step Eleven: The sunscreen

Missha Sun Essence: This little miracle sun lotion is non irritating, leaves no white cast, has broad spectrum protection and is actually enjoyable to use. Sunscreen, if you haven’t already been lectured, is a must for all skin tones. The sun (even on a cloudy day) not only causes cancer and burns, but its UVA rays damage deeper layers of your skin, causing wrinkles that will come to the surface later in life. Its never too late to start protecting your skin!

If you’ve ever scrolled through YesStyle, bleary eyed, waiting to reach the bottom of the page, you’re welcome.