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Here's What Happened When I Tried a 12-Step Korean Skin Care Regimen

Twice a day...

This is the last in a three-part series where we are deep-diving into Korean beauty products and trends. Read part one here, which details the five biggest cosmetic trends coming out of Korea and the rise of several new American e-commerce sites which specialize in this market. Read part two here, in which we tried out 17 unique products. 

While Korean skin care is getting a lot of attention in the U.S. now because of the innovative products coming out of the country, it's the near-mythical skin care regimen that Korean women follow which has most captured the imagination of women here. The regimen is usually characterized as a 10-step process using some skin care products in categories that don't even exist in the U.S.,  all of which must be applied in a specific order using mysterious application techniques. As a skin care junkie, I knew I had to try this immediately. 

I enlisted Alicia Yoon, the co-founder of Asian beauty e-commerce site Peach and Lily, who was trained as an aesthetician in Korea, to walk me through the steps. She "prescribed" me a regimen for my skin type (combination, prone to hormonal breakouts, some fine lines), complete with a huge bag of products to use in my experiment. I followed it for three weeks and gave up my Clarisonic, scrubbing at my eyes with makeup remover wipes, harsh exfoliators and Retin-A. 

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THE REGIMEN: The first misconception is that it's a set-in-stone 10-step process. It's not. According to Yoon, it can be anywhere from 10 to 17 steps, depending on how zealous you are during the serum portion of the regimen. Almost more important than the products, though, is the order in which you apply them, because that affects how well they're absorbed. Yoon's quick rule-of-thumb: "It's pretty visual. The more watery it is, the earlier it goes on." You should wait 30 seconds to one minute in between each step to let the product absorb. (My first session clocked in at 13 minutes.) The steps, in order: 

Cleansers: Yoon is appalled by how some American women treat their faces. In Korea, it's all about being very gentle. (She only uses her fingers to apply product and makeup.) Yoon gave me an oil-based cleanser and a foam-based cleanser and taught me the hallowed two-step cleansing process. 

Rather than ruthlessly going after your makeup with a wipe, you first gently massage the oil-based cleanser all over your face until your makeup melts away. I was skeptical (I'm a mascara abuser) but it worked -- my makeup came off with minimal effort without using a washcloth, though it did take a little more time.  Then comes a gentle, non-drying  foaming cleanser, which removes whatever is left over. In the morning, you are allowed to skip the oil-based cleanser and just use the foaming cleanser since your skin is already pretty clean from the night before. 

Products: Cremorlab Refreshing Cleansing Gel Oil, $32; Cremorlab Gentle Foaming Cleanser, $32.

Toner: I'm a toner scoffer and I don't think I've used one since my Sea Breeze days, but it's an intrinsic part of the process. A toner supposedly balances pH and preps your skin to "accept" the bounty you're about to heap upon it. Alcohol-free toner is a must to prevent drying. Yoon applies it with her hands, but gave me permission -- whew-- to use a cotton pad. 

And now here is my toner mea culpa: I'm addicted. I don't know if it's the brand I've been using, but there is something about that cool, fresh-smelling swipe that is completely relaxing. I think I actually feel my pores opening when I use it. 

Product: Be the Skin Botanical Pore Toner, $25.

Essence: Here's where it gets controversial. A traditional essence, a product category you're going to start seeing more of soon in the U.S. thanks to Clinique's new Even Better Essence Lotion launch, is like a thicker serum and is generally supposed to be used in the hydration (that comes later) portion of the regimen. But the newer generation of essences in Korea are watery (like SK-II), so should be patted on your face post-toning.

Once patted on, I was supposed to sweep it in an upward motion across my cheeks and forehead. I started skipping the essence portion of the routine pretty early. I'm not sure why, but I wasn't connecting with it. I think my skin felt so fantastic after the toner  that I wanted to move right to serums. 

Product: Cremorlab Mineral Treatment Essence, $42.

Serums: "With serums it doesn't matter the order you put them on, but this is where the steps multiply and it starts getting crazy," Yoon said. Bring. It. On. 

A lot of products in Korea treat single issues. So you mix and match your needs (hydration, dark spot correction, anti-aging, etc) and make your own serum cocktail. Yoon gave me a three serum starter set: an oil, a more watery anti-aging serum and an almost-lotion pore serum. They were all fabulous, but I didn't use all three every single day and night. There were a few really muggy days where the oil just felt too heavy. Another detail I blatantly disregarded here: Facial massage and pressure points. Yoon performs a whole lot of facial yoga and pressure point stimulation while massaging her serum in. I didn't. I was too lazy, to be honest.  

Products: Mizon Original Skin Energy Peptide 500, $48; Aromatica Neroli Brightening Facial Oil, $42; Be the Skin Botanical Pore Serum, $35.

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Masks/Extras: Before or after the serum step, you can choose to add a gentle exfoliator or masks. Or both. Twice a week or so, I used a gel peel, which is like no other exfoliator I've ever tried. After you rub it on your face, it pills off, supposedly bringing dead skin cells with it, without microbeads or harsh scrub. I did this before the toner.

Korean women think of masks as single serving serums, according to Yoon. So if you're having a day where you think you need extra hydration or some brightening, you add it to your regimen a la carte. I love sheet masks, so did this 3-4 times per week. I usually did the mask first then added my daily serums on top. 

Products: Mizon Fruit Therapy Apple Smoothie Peeling Gel, $16; Mizon Ampoule Essential Sheet Mask, $3.

Eye Cream: A thick eye cream should be applied twice a day. Dab and pat -- do not rub! I do this religiously anyway, so this step was downright homey feeling. 

Product: Cremorlab Shadow Off Eye Cream, $48.

Moisturizers/Sleep Masks: The final step is to seal it all in with a good moisturizing product. Day and night I used a delicious whipped moisturizer, and three times a week I substituted that out for a sleep mask, one of the newer innovations coming out of Korea. They generally provide an extra dose of hydration while sealing all the rest of the goodness in. 

Products: Cremorlab Smooth Pudding, $48; Mizon Special Therapy Good Night White Sleeping Mask, $24.

Sun Care/BB: During the day, the last step is to add an SPF product. I used my trusty Clarins (not Korean, I know) and followed it up with a cushion compact for an extra hit of SPF and light coverage. 

Products: Clarins Sunscreen Multi-Protection Broad Spectrum SPF 50, $43; AmorePacific Cushion Compact, $60.

Mist: No, we're not done yet. You've done all that work twice a day, so in order to maintain that dewiness you've achieved and "re-activate"  the products, you must mist periodically. Yoon said it isn't unusual to see women in Korea whipping out misters in offices and on public transportation. I embraced this step wholeheartedly, and offered mists to everyone around me. (Not on the subway.) My travel size can ran out before the three-week period was over. 

Product: Cremorlab Mineral Water Mist, $12.

"Maintenance" Facials: While I didn't partake in any of these, it's worth noting that in Korea women go for weekly "maintenance" facials. In fact, Yoon has a family facialist who she sees every time she goes to Korea to visit. "It's like going to the gym," she said. "You run in after work to get an hour-long facial, you get the steam, you get everything out, you get a massage to make your face slimmer. It's just bed after bed after bed." Since this amazing concept doesn't exist in the U.S. yet (entrepreneurs, do this!), I didn't do it. High-end spa experiences are common in Korea, too, but I opted not to spend the money. 

RATING THE REGIMEN: After a few days of fumbling, this regimen, with the exceptions I noted, became pretty routine for me. While I was waiting for certain products to absorb, I'd put my eye makeup on or get dressed. So while it is a bit of a time commitment, it didn't add significantly to my prep time in the morning. And in the evenings, I actually looked forward to trying different peels and masks and experimenting with my serums. If you get joy out of this sort of thing, I highly recommend it. 

Most importantly, my skin looked fabulous. I have been battling hormonal breakouts for a while, and when I embarked on this regimen, they were finally starting to be controlled -- I was really concerned that all this product would exacerbate the issue. Since I've been following the regimen, though, I haven't had a new breakout in almost two weeks. I have no idea if there's a connection, but there you go. 

I should note that this particular regimen was very expensive, because the products were from fairly high-end brands. You can find similar products if you look at less expensive brands like Missha and Etude House.

Finally, will I stick to it long-term? Yes, with caveats. I'm going to add back some of my tried-and-true American products into the serum step. I like the idea of layering -- it's something I've always been nervous about, but not anymore. And I love the two-step cleansing system and toner. Ditto the sleep mask and gel peel. I may not do all the steps everyday, but I'm a convert. It was definitely better than replacing my entire regimen with coconut oil

Homepage photo: Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images