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How My Elaborate Korean Skincare Routine Helps Me Fight Depression

"I stick to my routine. That alone has improved my mental health more than a hundred hours of therapy could."
Essences and ampoules. Photo: Jude Chao

Essences and ampoules. Photo: Jude Chao

A few years ago, my skincare routine was as low-maintenance as it had ever been. I washed my face with whatever scrubby cleanser cost less than $10 at CVS and moisturized with generic Olay dupes when I was broke or Olay Regenerist creams when I felt flush. Makeup remover seemed pointless. Why waste cigarette money on makeup remover when I could just wash off the previous day's residue in the shower, tugging the last flakes of mascara right off my lashes if necessary? SPF was limited to whatever my moisturizer provided, and as minimal as my routine was, I still found doing it so tedious that I often couldn't bring myself to cleanse and moisturize every day, let alone twice a day.

Oh, and I was at my most depressed.

Know how I said I often couldn't bring myself to cleanse and moisturize every day? I also often couldn't bring myself to wash the dishes, vacuum the carpet, or take out the trash. I had plenty of days when I could barely bring myself to get out of bed to go to work. Depression isn't about feeling sad all the time, at least not for me. That would require giving a shit. My depression manifests as being unable to give a shit. In fact, when I'm in the depths of a depressive episode, I can't even give a shit about not giving a shit, no matter how much I know I really should give a shit. The days blur together until I wake up one day and realize that I've lost another six months or another year, my life and sense of self stolen right out from under my nose, again.

But let's fast forward, because discussing depression is just too depressing. I'd rather talk about fun things, like how the now-trendy Korean skincare routine helps me keep my depression at bay.

For the last year, I have been the least depressed that I can remember being in my life. I owe that in large part to the lessons I've learned from Korean skincare. A couple of years back, I stumbled across Reddit's Skincare Addiction subreddit and was just beginning to get interested in a proper skincare routine. Since then, it's been an endless journey deeper down the rabbit hole. The Korean skincare lines resonated with me in a way that Western ones hadn't, because the Korean aesthetic is much more closely aligned with my personal tastes than typical images of women in Western media. 

All but one of my skincare products come from Korea, Japan, or Taiwan. Every product has a clear purpose in my routine. And I haven't missed a single session in at least a year.This is my current skincare routine:


Acids and actives. Photo: Jude Chao

Acids and actives. Photo: Jude Chao

· Cleanse with pH 5.5 Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Cleansing Foam on a gently exfoliating konjac sponge.

· Lightly hydrate and supply antioxidants with COSRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol propolis-based toner.

· Brighten, control oil production, increase cell turnover, and deliver more antioxidants with COSRX Galactomyces 95 White Power Essence niacinamide-boosted yeast ferment essence.

· Combat fine lines and sun damage with antioxidant-rich, retinol-infused Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Science Activator Borabit Ampoule.

· Moisturize and pack on additional antioxidants with honey-, royal jelly-, and propolis-packed Shara Shara Honey Bomb All In One Ampoule.

· Load up with another dose of antioxidants and just a little bit more moisture using Innisfree Green Tea Seed Serum.

· Reduce fine undereye lines and crow's feet with Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair retinol eye cream

· Seal all those actives and antioxidants in with Innisfree Green Tea Balancing Lotion or a dab of I'm From Honey Cream, depending on how humid or arid the weather is that day.

· Prevent sun damage with a generous amount of high-protection Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence Japanese sunscreen every day, rain or shine

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Lotion and cream. Photo: Jude Chao

Lotion and cream. Photo: Jude Chao

My evening routine looks much the same, except that I begin it with an emulsifying cleansing oil to remove my makeup before using my foaming cleanser to wash my skin clean. I also:

· Lighten sunspots, clear out pores, and accelerate skin turnover with C21.5 vitamin C serum, COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid, and COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid immediately after cleansing.

· Soak my face in an extended bath of hydrating, brightening, firming, and/or antioxidant-rich essence via one of my many sheet masks or hydrogel masks immediately after my last serum.

· Moisturize with richly emollient, honey- and propolis-filled I'm From Honey Cream.

· Lay down a layer of Innisfree White Tone Up Sleeping Pack to lock everything in for the night.

That's right: the woman who once could hardly drag herself out of bed and to the sink to brush her teeth in the morning now sticks to a nine-step skincare routine in the morning and an additional six steps in the evening. I think. 

It might sound like a Herculean effort, especially considering that I'm now juggling a full-time, high-level position in technology publishing, several steady side gigs as a marketing consultant, and the raising of a very energetic four-year-old. "Why would anyone do that?" you might think. Or, if you're interested enough in skincare to think such an effort might be worth it: "How?"

Here's the secret: It's fun for me. I look forward to my morning and evening skincare routines—they're often my favorite parts of the day. Korean skincare rituals have helped me significantly in my constant struggle with depression.

First and foremost, the results are positively addictive. In the year and a half since I adopted a serious Korean skincare routine, I've seen the vast majority of my visible sun damage disappear, the beginnings of fine lines smoothing out and the dark spots fading into a clear, even glow. I'm thirty-five and have never been happier with my skin.

Those results keep me coming back for more. I don't skip days because if I do, those are days when my complexion misses out on opportunities to suck up beneficial ingredients and get even better. I stick to my routine. That alone has improved my mental health more than a hundred hours of therapy could.

The author. Photo: Jude Chao

The author. Photo: Jude Chao

The biggest reason for this is the meditative nature of the Korean skincare routine. Even when I'm patting in my essences and serums and ampoules at my desk while reading the morning's emails, or on the sofa while heckling a random episode of "Ancient Aliens" at night, I'm paying attention to myself at a basic, physical level. The patting itself is calming, rhythmic, oddly satisfying. It grounds me in my skin, my body, and—not to get too New Age-y—the present.

That's what depression snatches from me: the present. When I'm deep in an episode and dreading every single simple task ahead of me, being truly present in myself becomes nearly impossible. I'm too lost in overblown anxiety. That's why all the days blend together and why I have so few memories of my life at its lowest points. My lengthy Korean skincare ritual gives the present back to me twice a day, every day. Putting things on my face doesn’t just soothe and smooth my skin but my thoughts as well, letting me feel myself in myself in a pleasant, positive way.

There's a sense of accomplishment, too. A ton of reading and research went into the selection of every one of the products in my current lineup. Along the way, I learned so much about the science of skincare. The improvements in my skin are concrete proof that I'm on the right track, which makes me want to learn and improve more, and having concrete proof that I'm doing something right encourages me to take positive steps in other areas of my life, too. My increased confidence and willingness to make an effort got me out of the house, into a doctor's office, and on an antidepressant, for one thing.

In the end, it all boils down to taking care of myself. In my experience, self-care is one of the first things to get smashed when the Depression Train rolls into town. Then come the feelings of guilt and inadequacy, both of which pump more fuel into the Depression Train. My Korean skincare regimen breaks that cycle by making me want to keep taking care of myself, no matter how numb and indifferent I might feel, and, as with so many other tasks, once I take the first step, the rest of it seems not only easier than I imagined but also more pleasurable than I expected. I love the way my skin looks now, but even more importantly, I love the way I feel in it. That's worth the cost of importing a million and one skincare products from Korea and the effort of pat-pat-patting them all into my face.

K-beauty correspondent Jude Chao blogs about beauty at Fifty Shades of Snail. She's gotten her four-year-old his own konjac sponge, and her other half now moisturizes regularly.