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A Guide to Korean Skincare for Women of Color

We haven't heard much about dark skin and K beauty — until now.

I am a skincare junkie. Reading about a new product online, running to the store to buy it, tearing the package open like it's Christmas morning and then impatiently waiting for my proposed results — I love every single step. This love affair has led me down the winding — sometimes scary —€” road of skincare experimentation. So when I first heard about the phenomenon that is Korean skincare, I was all about it.

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It seemed like nearly every beauty blog was singing the high praises of Korean skincare, but I had yet to come across a single article that even mentioned darker skin and Korean skincare in the same sentence —€” leaving me hesitant to try this new routine.

As a Black woman, I have to admit I was a bit nervous to dabble in this centuries old approach to skincare.

In all my Internet and IG trolling the only images I came across were of women who looked nothing like me. As a Black woman, I have to admit I was a bit nervous to dabble in this centuries old approach to skincare.

But being the skin daredevil I am, I couldn't resist the lure of the glow. Fast forward several months and I am now a certified Korean skincare enthusiast.

After months of perfecting the routine, speaking with Korean Beauty experts, and beauty insiders who look like me (including the owner of New York City's hottest beauty boutique), I finally have a better understanding of Korean skincare and it's unique relationship with darker skin. And now, so will you.

The Korean Approach to Skincare

The cornerstone of the regimen is a somewhat exhaustive multi-step process. According to famed Korean Skincare expert Charlotte Cho, "the main steps include cleansing, exfoliating, treating, intensely moisturizing and applying plenty of SPF during the day. Thorough skincare is really just a part of Korean culture."

This cultural significance was a large part of what initially piqued my interest in K Beauty (aside for my eternal goal of glowing, prepubescent skin). "It's completely ingrained in your life since early childhood" Cho explains. Something about a routine that was more than just the latest fad (and believe me I've tried plenty of those) really resonated with me.

The cornerstone of the regimen is a somewhat exhaustive multi-step process.

Desiree Verdejo, owner of Vivrant Beauty, a beauty boutique in New York City geared towards women of color, and beauty editor DaMonica Boone, agree that they first heard about and experimented with this regimen about two years ago. Having worked in the beauty industry, they were no strangers to using multiple steps in their skincare routines, but not the 10 to 12 foundational steps in the Korean routine.

Like Desiree and DaMonica, both women of color, my skin regimen was nothing close to 12 steps, so I was cautious about completely switching up my routine. I was especially nervous because I had never heard of most of these steps — serums, sleep packs and sheet masks were all new territory for my melanin rich skin.

Darker Skin and Hesitations with K-Beauty

Taking up this regimen not only meant committing to seven to eight additional steps a day but also adopting a new vocabulary. "There are certain terms commonly used in Korean skincare, such as whitening that caused me to think twice about using them on my brown skin," Desiree told me.

"I also don't believe [Korean skincare] meant to leave out darker skin tones.

I asked DaMonica, who has worked in the industry as an editor for almost five years, if she had read any articles mentioning Korean skincare in relation to darker skin, or even heard it discussed, "I have not," she told me, "I don't think Korean beauty is necessarily targeted to darker skin, but I also don't believe it's meant to leave out darker skin tones. I believe it's just a topic that people of darker skin either have yet to try or have tried it, but aren't discussing it."

DaMonica corroborated my initial hesitation and helped me realize its root: the absence of information about darker skin tones and Korean skincare, not a fear of the actual products.

Giving the Regimen a Try

My goal is to hydrate and even out my skin tone, so I choose products with ingredients that specifically addressed these concerns. For the first few weeks, I decided to take things slow with this new skincare relationship and added just a toner and serum into my existing routine.

I decided to take things slow with this new skincare relationship and added just a toner and serum.

Toning, a step often skipped by many of us stateside, is very important because it helps to balance the skin and its pH level, the body's way of keeping skin healthy. Using a toner also "preps" the skin for the following steps in the routine, such as moisturizing. Serums — think super concentrated bottled fountains of youth —€” really helped me hydrate my skin. Every morning and night I would apply two to three pumps (a little bit truly goes a long way with this product), to my fingertips and lightly massage it onto my face and neck.

For the most part, I tried to use natural products — meaning that I could pronounce and understand the main ingredients in each of the products I chose to incorporate. Rose, Argan oil, vitamin C, and vitamin E quickly became my skin's best friends.

During the first few weeks of beginning this routine, I slowly developed a lasting relationship with SPF. Up until this point, I had rarely, if ever used a moisturizer with sunblock in it (gasp). As Desiree reminded me, "Korean skincare acknowledges the benefits of avoiding the sun — the most powerful source of aging. At Vivrant Beauty, we hand select SPFs for our brown-skinned customers that won't leave a white residue, but we still have to convince some customers that they need a daily SPF."

After getting comfortable with my newly hydrated face, I took things up a notch and began to exfoliate two to three times per week. Exfoliation helps to remove dead skin cells, revealing baby soft skin. I'd also use sheet and clay masks one to two times per week, to detoxify and deeply hydrate my skin, and religiously use eye cream, both in the AM and PM. Once an eye cream skeptic, a big no-no in Korean skincare, I now realize how important this preventative step is. It helps with everything from puffy eyes, to dark circles, and fine lines if those are current problems — or helps to avoid them like the plague.

I slowly developed a lasting relationship with SPF.

After months of trying different combinations of products and steps, I am a true believer in the Korean approach to skincare. I've since learned what steps I can skip, such as essence, a product that is commonly used after toning but before applying a serum, and sleep packs, fancy night creams applied right before bed and worn throughout the night. While some people swear by these steps (Charlotte Cho has called essence the essential step in the Korean skincare routine), I didn't see or feel a noticeable difference when I used them. The best part about skincare is that it's completely personal — what works for me may not work for someone else.

My perfected Korean skincare routine consists of eight steps: cleansing, exfoliating, toning, applying eye cream, masking (both clay and sheet), and using serums and moisturizers. This condensed routine (with essence, sleep pack/masks, and mists left out) has helped me achieve my version of the fountain of youth. Some of my favorite products include Mario Badescu's Enzyme Cleansing Gel, Andalou Natural's Clementine Vitamin C Toner, derm e's Microdermabrasion Scrub, Andalou Natural's Luminous Eye Serum and Karuna's Sheet Masks.

Just Give it a Try

Over my months of experimentation and countless conversations with beauty experts, I learned that Korean skincare isn't so much about the color of your skin but your skin type. For example, DaMonica says she has, "combination-oily skin that is prone to breakouts," so it's important for her to use products that will control her oil production and calm breakouts without drying the skin.

"Though we love to think black don't crack, it does."

She went on to explain that, "I believe women of color should try this type of routine because though we love to think black don't crack, it does. Korean skincare is designed to keep the skin healthy, young and manageable. It never hurts to take care of your skin."

Desiree echoed these same sentiments when asked if women of color should embrace this routine. "Brown women could benefit from a few aspects of the Korean regimen such as the addition of the ampoule (or serum), a concentrated treatment geared towards your skin's needs."

The color of your skin is not indicative of your skin type. My skin concerns, hydration and hyperpigmentation, were very different from the other ladies I spoke with, despite all of us identifying as women of color.

A trip to your local Korean beauty store or Sephora will show you just how many different types of skincare concerns there are, and that there's a Korean beauty product to help with every single one of them. All I had to do was pick out those that I felt best addressed my current skincare woes.

All I had to do was pick out those that I felt best addressed my current skincare woes.

My advice to anyone who shares the same amount of melanin as me is to definitely give the Korean skincare routine a try. I wouldn't suggest anyone completely overhaul their entire routine at once; slowly incorporating a few additional steps into your regimen is the best way to start.

Never used an exfoliator or toner? Start there. Need some extra moisture? Give serums and ampoules a try. What's most important is not being afraid to try Korean skincare, or at least parts of it, because you have a darker complexion. Investing time (and a little money) into your skin, no matter the color, is always a great investment. Who doesn't want to put their best face forward?


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