My relationship with my skin is bumpy at best. Like many adolescents who had the misfortune of going through puberty, my body became my nemesis as soon as I turned 14. As I grew out of my cherubic cheeks and into a mostly formed human, my T-zone became a foreign landscape pitted with scarred valleys from my impatient picking, covered with volcanic zits ready to erupt with teenage self loathing. Like many adolescents riddled with acne, I turned to the internet for help.
The first time I smeared a stranger's advice onto my face, I was trying to erase a particularly nasty pimple the night before the first day of eighth grade. Desperate to smooth over my skin, I mixed lemon juice and baking soda into a paste and packed it onto the little pink spot before bed. The next morning, the zit, which had started out as a mildly annoying bump on my forehead, had turned into a fiery open wound, bubbling with lava from the depths of hell. During that first phase of trying to control my skin, I tried everything from spinning brushes to exfoliating apricot scrubs recommended by listicles. In the end, my four-year crusade against acne wasn't won by furiously washing off the top layer of my skin, but by going on the pill and actually starting to use lotion. The second time I smeared an internet stranger's advice onto my face, there was a bit more research involved than skimming a WikiHow article. When I replaced drinking water with chugging iced coffee and downing tequila during my senior year of college, my skin responded with a semester-long breakout so fierce even the thickest concealer couldn't hide it. This wasn't the kind of acne that faded away with a dab of salicylic acid; it came from deeper. Painful cystic lumps dotted my cheeks and never erupted into whiteheads, but grew under the layers spot treatments could never reach. In turn, I fell deep into the rabbit hole of online skincare communities. Impossibly beautiful people with porcelain skin preached the gospel of chemical exfoliants and serums on their Instagram stories, so I bought them. Beauty blogs laid out the 10-step Korean skincare routine, so I made detailed cards to remember the order of products I had to slather on my face and tucked them into my bathroom cabinet. Whenever someone I followed shared their #shelfie — i.e., posting photos of their products aesthetically lined up in a cabinet — I researched each product's ingredients in hopes of finally fixing my acne and embracing perfect, pore-free skin. Julian Sass, a member of a private skincare group on Facebook for people of color, had a similar experience. Like me, the now 25-year-old dealt with teenage acne by first trying to wash it all away with the infamous St. Ives apricot scrub, which was involved in a 2016 lawsuit that claimed the product caused microscopic tears in the skin and led to long-term damage.
"OK, if I can just keep scrubbing my skin, the acne will go away for sure," Sass said during a Skype interview, explaining why he kept using the controversial product. Several years later, he started watching beauty vloggers who talked about their routines. He continued, "You know there are those YouTube videos where they're like, 'So I know you guys have been asking about my skincare routine' and nobody has asked them." He got hooked by 'them going through like, 'OK, here's my 10 products that I use.'"
He's referring to the popular 10-step Korean skincare routine, a term coined by skincare guide and retailer Soko Glam. Although the tenets of the routine — double cleansing, face masks, serums — have been part of Korean culture for decades, Soko Glam is often credited with bringing them to the United States. Its extensive step-by-step guides explain the serums that will lighten dark spots, prevent wrinkles, ease dark circles, and more. If you name an issue, there's likely a Korean beauty product marketed to fix it. The promise lured me in, too.
Sass says he bought one of Soko Glam's 10-step starter kits for oily and acne-prone skin and "went headfirst into the whole thing immediately."
The 10-step routine, laid out by Soko Glam, goes like this: makeup remover or oil cleanser, water-based cleanser, exfoliator, toner, essence, treatments, face masks, eye cream, moisturizer, and sunscreen. It's not the most complicated, but it's intense if you go all-in at once.
"There are all these different databases of ingredients that are like, 'oh, this is good, and this is bad.' I was going through and researching every ingredient, trying to figure out what was actually going to help me," he said. "It was a lot. I wanted to look like a pore-less porcelain doll after putting in all of that money, and I was like, why don't I look like these people I see on the internet?"
Both Julian and I ended up on a quest for perfection; I also wanted the glossy, smooth complexion that so many sun-kissed influencers had. But, as it turned out, the best cure for my cystic acne was sleeping more than three hours a night and drinking water. When I graduated college and started maintaining a more regular sleep schedule, my skin wasn't perfect, but the cystic acne let up significantly. But I was already involved in a number of online skincare communities and developed a new goal: glass skin. Many skincare enthusiasts aspire to have flawless, smooth skin like "glass," a look supposedly achieved by diligent cleansing, exfoliating, moisturizing, and facial-ing.
Here's the thing: It's just not realistic. Dr. Michael Kim, a dermatologist who works with primarily Asian patients in Koreatown, Los Angeles, often reminds his patients that the skin celebrities have isn't necessarily obtained by a 10-step routine, but by good lighting, filters, and pricey treatments like Botox. "You know that they're not going to be in front of the TV or the camera when they have bad skin," Kim explained during an interview at his office. "Some of the stuff you see is pure fantasy. Once you take that all away, they're going to look like you and me."
Even Charlotte Cho, the co-founder of Soko Glam, says her company's goal isn't to market perfect skin to her customers. "At the end of the day, everything in beauty is aspirational," she said during a phone interview. "Our mission statement is, 'There are only good skin days ahead.' Nothing in that statement says, 'For perfect skin use K-beauty!' It's really about helping you get educated."
The 10-step routine appears to be losing steam with more and more people turning to minimalist skincare routines that only require a cleanser and moisturizer. Kim thinks it's because maintaining such hefty routine just isn't feasible, and people won't stick to it. He says he's had patients who had maintained complex routines for weeks, but ended up giving up because committing to a more than 30-minute daily routine is tough. "It's appealing because it seems like something that will work the way the way it's marketed," he noted. "And you know, they try to give it a hard sell about how it's not that hard to do, but in reality, you know it's hard to do day-in and day-out for a few weeks. And some of it is redundant."
That being said, there are certainly parts of the 10-step Korean skincare routine that work. Kim's trifecta of recommended skincare is hydrating, moisturizing, and sun protection — three pillars that K-beauty also pushes. Drinking plenty of water and avoiding dehydrating beverages like caffeine and alcohol, locking in that hydration with lotion, and ensuring your skin stays protected with sunscreen will probably do more for your complexion and overall health than a pricey ginseng serum. There are some products that do actually work, like snail mucin, which is a protein peptide attached to a carbohydrate.
Kim says that compound does prevent drying. But at the end of the day, he notes, it's just another moisturizing agent. "It's playing a dangerous game when you're trying to really satisfy those kinds of unrealistic expectations," he says, referring to the supposed all-healing powers of skincare products. At the end of the day, what actually helped my skin improve through adult acne was a combination of sleeping regularly, drinking water, and consulting an online dermatologist who prescribed a topical cream to treat the cystic breakouts. Kim says more people need to turn to experts, not the internet, when they're dealing with serious skin issues.
For Sass, it took getting rid of his entire routine and starting from scratch to figure out what actually worked.
"Something that I wish was pushed more is starting with the absolute basics," he said. "Seeing where your skin goes from there and then looking for those active ingredients. I feel like for someone who's just starting out, you don't need any more than a non-soap face wash, moisturizer, and sunscreen."
He also acknowledged that when you're putting 10 brand new products on your face all at once, you can never really know what works, and what doesn't. If you're slathering a decadent night cream on top of a lighter exfoliant and finishing it off with a different face mask, how do you know which product caused a breakout? For Sass, escaping the online skincare vortex took understanding that his goal shouldn't be perfect skin, but healthier skin. He was able to stop idolizing the flawless complexions he saw on social media when he realized that those people had access to procedures like Botox and money for high-end dermatologists, in addition to complex routines. "I think trying to isolate yourself from [the pressure to achieve flawlessness] is very hard," he said. "But it's definitely very worth it when you realize, I may not get to this person's point of having you know, a pore-less complexion, but my skin is much healthier now."
Cho says she wants Soko Glam to help people understand what works and what doesn't for their skin, and adds that her own daily routine doesn't reach 10 steps, but depends on her day-to-day needs. If she's in a rush, she'll go through four or five steps, and if she has extra time, she'll treat herself with a face mask. Rather than aspiring toward glass skin, people should figure out a more issue-specific goal and work from there, she feels. Whether it's alleviating acne or fading dark spots, identifying a single issue and getting products that treat it, rather than heaping everything on your face at once, will often yield more successful results.
"The main message we like to share at Soko Glam is that you need to be educated about your skin type, your concerns, your goals," she said. "If your goal is literally to have a clean face, then two steps is for you, because that's your goal!"
Kim agrees, and often prescribes patients with a simple two- to three-step regimen that encompasses his skincare trifecta of hydrating, moisturizing, and sun protection. He'll often toss in an extra step, like a prescription to treat acne or hyperpigmentation, but he stresses simplicity above a complicated routine.
Just because I've scaled back on my routine doesn't mean I've given up on Korean skincare forever. I'll still double cleanse and smear snail mucin on my cheeks, to my roommate's horror, before patting on my daily moisturizer. My mornings consist of three steps, and my nights consist of five. What really got me out of the rabbit hole that was skincare, though, was a health-focused approach over a perfection based one. My skin, marred with the occasional zit and dark circles, is anything but porcelain. I frequent skincare groups and subreddits like r/SkincareAddiction for the community, but coming to terms with the fact that I'll never achieve glass skin, and can stop trying, was a relief.
That being said, there are parts of the 10-step routine I'll never be able to ditch. I'm still That Person wearing a sheet mask on the plane.