Zero Waste 10 Step Korean Skincare Routine

Inspired by Elizabeth and Christina's post, Clean Version of the 10 Step Korean Skincare Routine (thank you to everyone who shared this with me!), and readers Rachel, Ji, and Susanna, here is a zero waste approximation of the Korean skincare routine. I only spoke to a limited sample of Korean women- most of whom are family- so this definitely isn't representative of everyone, but they didn't really know what I was talking about when I said "10 step routine." It's just something they've always done, and the number of steps vary by person. There's a strong history of DIY and zero waste beauty treatments in Korean culture, dating back to at least the Goryeo Dynasty. You can read some traditional recipes, with ingredients like sulfur and human milk, in the Joseon-era Dongui Bogam. I also recommend watching the K-drama Horse Doctor for historical depictions of Korean beauty :)
My sister and I could tell countless stories about exacting Korean standards of beauty. Our flaws were discussed regularly, openly. In particular, acne was seen as a reflection of poor character. "Last year, I told your grandma, Ariana looks terrible," my friend said recently. "You finally look normal again." After an American friend visited the Philippines for a weekend, Korean colleagues touched her bronzed, glowing skin with tears in their eyes. "Don't worry," they whispered. "We can whiten this for you." I get the impression, however wrongly, that French women feel pressure to maintain a certain weight. In Korea, excess pounds have actually been referred to as a shame upon my family, along with dark circles, freckles, curly hair, and even being too thin. There was a period of time when I was a little skinny because of complications from celiac disease. When I recovered, a longtime family friend said verbatim: "Good. I'm glad you're so much fatter now. You were starting to be embarrassing."



I actually never thought this was a bad thing. Perhaps I'd feel differently if I actually lived there, but I always sensed an undercurrent of healthfulness in Korean standards of beauty. Friends and relatives were genuinely concerned that my external flaws reflected internal medical issues, and for the most part, they were right. To me, the Korean ideal was attainable, wholesome even. It was the pressure to conform to American standards- tanned, big boobs, plump lips, and a contoured face, like Barbie- that really messed with my self-image. Again, I'd probably feel different if I lived there, or if mixed heritage hadn't given me eyelids that rendered blepharoplasty unnecessary (not pointing fingers or anything, but the national obsession with plastic surgery arguably began with American occupational forces, not K-pop superstars). 
Despite their admitted devotion to products, whenever I tell a Korean I'm doing water only, they know what's up. And even though my own routine couldn't be more different, I respect the methodical, individualized approach to beauty my friends and family members take. So, here is the 10 step Korean skincare routine with their plastic free, zero waste counterparts. While I can't comment on the effectiveness of this anecdotally-derived routine compared to modern Korean products today, the women I consulted always had perfect skin. They all look half their age! Remember, Koreans believe beauty starts from the inside, so eat lots of kimchi, miyeok guk, and good fats for a healthy glow.





10 Step Zero Waste, KOREAN Skincare Routine


I.

Cleansing Oil
Floral oils like camellia or peony are really traditional, but my grandma pointed out they are better for hair than skin. Pre-Occupation, she and her friends used sunflower, pumpkin, castor, apricot kernel, or even cabbage oil, depending on skin type. Castor oil was also applied directly to eyelashes and eyebrows in the hopes of making them fuller, pre-Latisse. Now, my grandma uses olive oil, but other Koreans I asked use rice bran, rosehip, or grapeseed oil, since they're less comedogenic. Check out this post about higher linoleic acid oils to minimize breakouts.

II.

Cleansing Foam
Ground mung beans were the original HG cleanser. I tried it once- they actually foam like soap. Grind raw beans or use mung bean powder mixed with water, milk, or yogurt to treat acne and fade scars. Can't find mung beans? Gram flour is a great substitute. You could also just try plain soap. The unpackaged soap my grandma uses was once milled from flowers that grew in the DPRK.

III.

Exfoliant
Ginseng root, red beans, sponge gourds, and rice bran were the most common exfoliators- gentler than sugar or sea salt and oil. You basically chop the raw roots and beans really finely or grind them in a coffee grinder and apply to wet skin. Mix with oil, if desired. My grandma said facial exfoliation didn't happen often- less than once a week- because they thought too much caused wrinkles. This is opposed to body scrubs, which frequently pushed pain thresholds to the brink. 

IV.

Toning
Cucumber slices or homemade rice toner removed the last traces of cleanser, gently softening skin. Oily skin types used hamamelis  (witch hazel) in water.

V.

Essence
Pinning down the essence- now considered the most important step in the Korean skincare routine- was the hardest part. Older Korean women didn't know what I was talking about, even if they were addicted to SK-II's version. My grandma says she and her sisters applied watermelon juice (diluted with water) or homemade floral water after toning, so I'm guessing this may be the precursor to the Korean essence. Oily skin was treated with lemon juice in water. Some people used pomegranate, which my grandma called extravagant, lol.

VI.

Ampoule
Well, by the sea, they really did use snail mucin, or bee jelly. And in ancient Korean texts, they mixed pearl powder with breast milk, which is unfortunate. Others used- still use- ginseng oil or skullcap (Chinese herb) tea instead of serum. Infuse your own ginseng oil by leaving a piece of the root in the oil of your choice. Let it sit in a tightly sealed bottle in a cool, dark place, 1-2 weeks. Some people said just boil ginseng three times, let the water cool, and apply that instead. My grandma's friend recommended mixing it with lotus starch to make a cream. Others remembered using fermented tea mixed with one drop of fragrant oil.

VII.

Sheet Mask
Elizabeth and Christina made their own beautiful, zero waste muslin sheet masks out of fabric scraps, so they could wash and reuse them indefinitely. I don't think my grandma did these, but one of her older friends said she made one from rags back in the day. Use 1-2 times per week.

VIII.

Face Cream
Most of the women I talked to remember cucumber, pumpkin, or watermelon lotions, but they were apparently more like milk than cream. To make it, they extracted juice from the gourd plant and mixed it with distilled fruit essence. Others just used rice water instead of lotion, which really works! One halmeoni recommended mixing rosewater with rice powder and safflower oil. I tried that once, and it didn't end up lotion-y, so you may wish to use one of the recipes here, perhaps substituting candelilla for beeswax and rice powder for cornstarch. Or just use plain oil, purchased in bulk.

IX.

Sleep Mask
Some Korean people said they used milk- again, the Dongui Bogam recommends human milk- tea, honey, or eggs for the occasional nighttime mask. The water that floats over millet porridge, or fermented millet water, purportedly whitens skin and remove freckles. Chinese motherwort, roasted and ground into powder, then mixed with drops of water to form a paste, was used to remove acne. Turmeric bug is another traditional recipe that's easy to make today.  

X.

BB / SPF
During the Occupation, in country towns where they couldn't get Japanese products, people used mibun or baekbun (millet or rice powder) mixed with water or oil to form a paste. This whitened, concealed imperfections, and shielded the face from the sun, so I guess it was the original BB cream? Then they used plant ash or indigo soot to draw on eyebrows and define the eyes. Obviously, sun protection is not something to be messed with today. There are plastic free and homemade sunscreen options, but they're not for everybody, and as with conventional sunscreens, they're not always effective. So choose at your own risk! Personally, I've mixed arrowroot with cornstarch to make zero waste foundation, and it provided effective coverage- but I wouldn't try making a cream with it.

Paris to Go

26 comments:

  1. This is so interesting!! Wow! However, 10 steps are too much for me. I do know from experience they are really on to something with the rice bran oil.... Very helpfull as allways Ariana.

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    1. I thought of you when they said rice bran oil :) One commenter said in another post she lives in Japan and everyone is crazy for it there! Oh, and it's too many steps for my grandma too. She now only does oil cleansing, and then soap, and then a cream, and eye cream. No more exfoliation, and masks very rarely. It seems like some of the steps are only occasional, and the order of them differs between individuals, also. It depends on each person, I guess!

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  2. Wonderful! I have been waiting for this. I suspect the gourd milk was more of an "emulsion" than a lotion or cream. It seems the older generation prefers heavier creams, but women our age are more inclined towards emulsions, gels, and facial milks for moisturizer. What amazes me is the complete lack of brand loyalty among Koreans. I wonder if this routine would satisfy those looking for the newest and best thing. There is one SPF that works really well, especially for people who are concerned about the ingredients in typical sunscreen. Aloe Fresh sun milk. Doubt you could find it unpackaged, however.

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    1. Thank you for the idea, and for the recommendation! The clean version of the K beauty routine linked at the beginning of the post also had a lot of ethical products with safe ingredients. Good to know that about emulsions! French women love them as well, if City Pharma and Joelle Ciocco are any indicators :) I'd be interested in seeing why Koreans lack the brand loyalty I'm used to seeing in the US or even here. Many women I know have been wearing the same perfume since high school, but it's really true, with Koreans- at least in my family- it's on to the next thing.

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  3. I must recommend three Korean brans for natural ingredients, Face Shop, Innisfree, and Nature Republic. There seems to be a lot of science beyond Korean beauty items, so I doubt a zero waste routine would be as effective. What I am wondering is what are the most important steps in the routine beyond essence? And why is essence so important? I'm curious to hear the opinions of your Korean relatives, if they have any thoughts. I am happy with the results of my regimen but would love to simplify it a bit on busy mornings. If there were one or two steps I could eliminate in a rush, I would like to know which ones.
    x

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    1. Unfortunately, they didn't seem to know what an essence was. The translations are different. I think this article is pretty good at explaining: http://fashionista.com/2015/02/korean-skin-care-essence-serum

      Thank you for the recommendations :) Probably one type of cleansing would be sufficient in the morning. The oil is mostly to take makeup off and dissolve sunscreen, I think.

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    2. Oh and about the science! There most certainly is a lot behind research and development. In the rush to get a new product to market, long-term studies are few and far between though. They often have relatively short trial periods before they move on to the next product.

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  4. Serums, essence, and ampoules are essentially the same things with different textures. They're all designed to add moisture, so you could eliminate one of those steps or combine those steps based on your preferred texture, or depending on how dry your skin is. Ariana, you may find this list of K brands helpful: http://geishababy.blogspot.fr/2013/05/list-of-korean-cosmetic-brands.html
    They also include brands with similar ingredients, such as mung beans and skullcap. They must be effective if they are still being used in modern products today. Love the heritage behind Korean beauty routines. And adorable picture-is that you?

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    1. Thanks for this! How interesting that they still use those ingredients today. And yes, that's me and my sister. I cut my own bangs right before this was taken for some reason. I didn't know what picture to use so I used the most Asian looking one I could find :)

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  5. Wow! What an amazing routine! I just wash with water and then apply rice bran oil or olive oil, which is a lot quicker when you're trying to get three children out of the door on a morning! Interested to read about breastmilk. When I was breastfeeding I would use breastmilk to treat sore spots and sticky eye on myself or the children. It's such magical stuff that I contemplated freezing tiny cubes of it when I knew I was stopping feeding our youngest, just in case I needed some for emergencies.

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    1. I didn't realize breast milk had all those uses! What a good idea to freeze some for future use. And it's amazing so many people use rice bran oil. It's very light and the smell is nice, so it must lend itself nicely to beauty routines.

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    2. When I had my first baby my midwife was like "oh just put breast milk on that" every time the baby had some problem.

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    3. That is interesting! I never heard of that before but it makes sense.

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  6. What an interesting insight into Korean beauty attitudes! I try to keep it simple, less is more works better for my sensitive skin ;) Thanks for the nice article! Susanne

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    1. Thanks Susanne! Same with me, if I just leave my skin alone it's happier than using lots of products.

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  7. This is a completely amazing piece of cosmetology/anthropology... What a great read, even if I won't do all ten steps. Thanks for always putting so much effort into your posts!

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  8. I just graduated with a bachelor's degree in Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing and learned a lot about cosmetics chemistry and product development from school and internships. I love learning in depth about native beauty routines from various cultures. There is benefit natural formulations an science based ones. At the end of the day, use what works best. I have very oily acne-prone skin. I've been vegan, gone 100% natural, tried just water or just oil, etc. and now have a routine that utilizes a bit of nature, a bit of science, and persistence. I wish my face thrived solely on leaves and berries, but retin-a is my hero product, haha. Without it my aloe vera only moisturizer and vitamin-c serum would do nothing. So reading this post, I see a place for this old school wisdom and the trendy (if not at times fadish) innovations coming from Korea. This semester in lectures and at my internship korea was talked about everyday for good reason, but people need t know more about heritage too.

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    1. That is awesome, I am so interested in your routine now. Your degree sounds fascinating. What a dream to intern in Korea! I'd be very curious to hear more about your experiences and what drives the fads in Korea, in your opinion. This is a generalization but it seems many people I know throw away and start fresh with a whole new wardrobe every season, is that how people view beauty products too?

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    2. Oh I never interned in Korea. The company i was with in New York and my professors
      talked about Korea a lot.

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  9. This post is amazing! I've added it to my bookmarked pages to refer back to (for the record that brings my bookmark total to two - your post and a recipe for GF bread). I'm going to try the toning and essence suggestions.

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    1. Aw thanks Cassie! I'm honored. Let me know how they work please :)

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  10. Super cool post and a fascinating perspective on Korean beauty routines throughout different periods of history! I had never thought about the historical angle, despite being a big consumer of contemporary "Asian" or Korean-inspired skincare products.

    I haven't tried out too much DIY or potentially zero-waste products outside of oils for moisturizing (rosehip oil included, though I prefer argan oil). My mom uses a few things that might be somewhat traditional in Taiwan (and China before that), including egg white masks to minimize pores. She's also a big believer in massaging the face daily to... stimulate bloodflow and reduce wrinkles? Something like that.

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    1. Korean loves the massaging too! To increase circulation and plump up fine lines or something. I never tried the egg white mask, and I have big pores I've always tried to minimize! Thanks Xin!

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  11. I like the idea of using arrowroot and cornstarch for a foundation!!!

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    1. I think it's the most popular foundation recipe- has great coverage!

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