The Whys and Hows of a Skincare Routine (aka the 3532 steps of K-Beauty)
I’ve seen far too many people buy into the hype of a product and then have no inkling of what to do with it or where it goes in a routine (or even if it’s suitable for them). Today’s post is all about the ‘whys’ and ‘whats’ in a skincare routine. The following will describe a step by step routine in which all steps do not need to be followed unless mentioned.
The most basic of steps would be to:
- Tone to balance and hydrate
and the more elaborate routine would be something like this:
- Double Cleanse and Balance
- Actives (treat)
- Hydrate and Secondary Treatments
Read on further on to why and how you may do this!
PC: Many thanks to my friend who painstakingly drew every single detail and shading of this picture. I had a go and drew the last product! We lost the original so we couldn’t draw more :'(
STEP 1: DOUBLE CLEANSE/ACID TONE (cannot miss):
Why? To simply put it, you don’t go to sleep with a dirty body. So why sleep with a dirty face? It also doesn’t make sense for you to do the following steps without a clean blank canvas. (No one cooks on a dirty pan, do they? *shudders*). Oh, and: face + dirt = breeding ground for bacteria.
Order of Steps: Oil Cleanse → Second Cleanse → pH Balance
- Oil soluble cleanse (optional if): in the form of a cleansing oil or balm.This is necessary if you’re wearing makeup or sunscreen as it dissolves product more quickly and properly. The oil molecules wrap around product and push it out of your pores (where they’re having a party). Note! It must be emulsifying (turns milky when in contact with water) otherwise product will not come out.
- Second cleanse (water soluble): in the form of a gel, powder or cream etc and it must be low pH. This is to remove the residue of the oil cleanser and most importantly, lower your skin’s pH. Why must it be a low pH? Our skin is naturally slightly acidic (not battery acid people), around 4.5-5.5pH. This prevents the growth of bacteria and creates a healthy environment for our skin. When we cleanse, the pH is messed up. How do we know a cleanser is low pH? It will either say on the product, or you can email the company, or (here’s the fun one) buy some litmus paper (ah, good ole’ school days) and test the acidity!
- Balance with acid toning (optional if): now, if you can’t get a hold of a low pH cleanser, there’s another way to lower your skin’s pH. Use an acidic toner. The product will have some sort of acid in it (e.g. glycolic, mandelic, lactic etc) or words like ‘glow’, ‘radiating’ etc will give it away. It’s very, very mild so it’s safe to use daily (unless you’re sensitive or over exfoliated). This also prepares your skin for the next step.
STEP 2: TREAT/ACTIVES (can give it a miss):
Why? This part is where you tackle serious skincare concerns. And I mean serious. The ingredients used in this step are potent and have their fair share of disadvantages. So, you must ask yourself if your concerns outweigh the cons.
The reason they’re called actives (active ingredient) is because they’ve been scientifically proven to change cell structure and behaviour. They’re medicine for the skin. Examples of active ingredients are Vitamin C, AHAs, BHAs, and retinol (amongst others). They can be found through prescription or products in themselves (e.g. the product would most likely be just called ‘AHA’)
Note! You DO NOT need to use these all at the same time, this is just an example of what would go where if you’re using more than one active.
Start with the product that requires your face to be at the lowest pH and go up. You must wait approx. 20 mins between each active (for it to work properly without being interrupted by another product).
A very important note: actives depend on a few factors; the concentration they are at, the pH and even what type of solution they are in. If they are at the incorrect levels, they may be rendered ineffective, too harsh, or won’t work as well. It’s important to note that the numbers mentioned are just rough go to’s and your face might like a lower percentage, higher concentration etc.
Order of Steps: Vitamin C → BHA → AHA → Prescription/Other
What it’s good for: fine lines, increases collagen production for plumper skin, sun damage, hyper pigmentation by acne, anti oxidant (prevents free radical damage)
How to apply: must go on a bare face at a low pH. Some forms of Vit C take fifteen minutes to absorb into the skin. (see below for what concentrations and pH they should be at)
Cons: can be quite irritating if the pH is low, quite unstable (so can degrade and not work if in the incorrect packaging)
Examples: there are a few forms of Vit C, these are: LAA – L-Ascorbic Acid (most common) use at a 20% concentration and a low pH aprox 3.5, MAP – Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate) use at a concentration of 5%, it’s not pH dependent so works betters there’s no wait time so you can layer product straight away, SAP – Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate, use at a pH of 7, AP – Ascorbyl Palmitate, use at a pH of 5 and a concentration of 3%
2. BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid): oil soluble
What it’s good for: acne prone skin, clogged pores, blackheads, anti-inflammatory
Cons: can be drying as it’s oil soluble
How to apply: effective on a face at pH 3-4 and takes twenty minutes to do the job
Examples: Salicylic acid, Betaine Salicylate (better for drier skin types)
3. AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid): water soluble and a humectant (draws and retains water to skin)
What it’s good for: dry flaky skin (it exfoliates), fine lines, wrinkles, breakouts, hyperpigmentation from acne, sun damage, anti aging, dullness
How to apply: must go on a bare face which is at a low pH and concentration of about 10%. It takes fifteen to twenty minutes to absorb into the skin.
Examples: glycolic acid (penetrates deepest but can be irritating), mandelic acid (largest molecule so good for sensitive skin but takes longer to penetrate), lactic acid (the middle man), citric acid, tartaric acid, malic acid and PHAs (think AHA without the photosensitivity and irritation – lactobionic and gluconic)
Cons: photosensitising (vulnerable to sun damage), irritation
Note: the above two are less about pH and more about oil and water. BHA will battle sebum (skin’s natural moisturiser when it’s too much) and the AHA will work on skin texture.
4. Other: e.g. Retinoid (Vit A)
What it’s good for: exfoliates, anti-inflammatory, anti-acne, anti-aging, and hyper-pigmentation. It helps prevent premature aging and stimulates collagen.
How to apply: tbc
Examples: (in order of weak to strong) retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinaldehyde (these are over the counter) and adapalene, tretinoin (or retinoic acid), tazarotene, isotretinoin (these are prescription only)
Cons: irritation (more so than the others), redness, dryness
Note: if you are ‘purging’ (breaking out for your skin to become better again) and you aren’t using an ‘active’ at its correct pH. YOU ARE NOT PURGING, YOU ARE BREAKING OUT.
STEP 3: HYDRATE/SECONDARY TREATMENTS (do at least one step):
Why? This part is crucial for everyone. You don’t need to follow all steps but at least hydrate your face once. In this stage, we hydrate the face and also use moderate active ingredients (that don’t have the impact or scientific backing of a true active for it to be a product in itself).
Hydration is vital because most of our faces lack water (even oily skin girls!) In fact, there are two opinions on why skin is oily. 1) your skin is lacking in water, so it overcompensates by producing more oil 2) your skin’s barrier is damaged and cannot keep the oils at bay. Either way, hydrating is important to compensate for this. Note! Dry skin lacks oil, not water. You know you’re dehydrated when your skin feels tight after a shower, your foundation is patchy because your skin is drinking the water up (gross) and your face looks dull.
This stage also helps minimise the negative effects of actives. The reason I’ve grouped this together is because you use the ‘thinnest to thickest’ rule here. You are also able to play around with secondary ingredients that aren’t as important as actives and make a boring pot of humectants (hydrate by drawing moisture and binding it to skin) more exciting by adding extra benefits.
Order of Steps: First Essence → Essence → Serums/Ampoules → Sheet Masks
- First essence: watery hydrating toner that softens the skin and adds hydration. Usually contains ferment extract/filtrate (for hydration and antioxidants) and brightening ingredients.
- Essence: thicker texture, almost gloopy and has a high dose of skin loving ingredients. This is an alternative to serums for those with oily skin as it’s very light.
- Ampoule/serum: even thicker texture and has a high dosage of actives and other ingredients (like propolis, niacinamide etc) that doesn’t fall into the actives category but has amazing benefits.
Examples of humectants are: glycerine, hyaluronic acid, sorbitol (sugar alcohol), hexylene and butylene glycol, urea, and collagen
STEP 4: SEAL (at least one step is needed)
Why? Now it’s time to lock in all the amazing products you’ve used with an occlusive (creates a barrier to prevent water loss) moisturiser. Again, you don’t need to use all of the following, but you can if you want to.
Order of Steps: Emulsion → Cream → Oil
- Emulsion/lotion: thin and comparable to what the western world call lotions. Great for oily skin users as it isn’t too heavy.
- Cream: thicker but you can find watery textures like ‘gel creams’. Dry skin users can layer emulsions and creams for extra precaution.
- Oil: can be plant-based, and is even more heavy duty. If you’re oily and afraid of an oil, don’t be. Just patch test and make sure it’s not comedogenic (clogs pores). Please note that not all oils are occlusive!
Examples of occlusives are: mineral oil, vaseline, oils high in linoleic acid etc
Note! Do NOT expect your moisturiser to do an actives job. Its job is to moisturise and seal your skincare in to prevent TEWL (transepidermal water loss). That’s it.
Note 2! Do not go ham and use five various new products at once. If you break out from one, you’ll never know the culprit without having to go through it again. You also won’t be able to tell which product gave what benefit!
And there we have it! The end to a very, very, very long post. Hats off to you for completing that. Did you find this helpful? Comment and ask questions below!