Cleansers, exfoliates, toners, masks, serums, face oils, eye creams, moisturizers—the list of skincare products really does go on and on. As a result, taking care of our skin can quickly turn from a few minutes in the morning and evening to a full-blown scientific equation that could take hours and make even the most devoted skincare enthusiast’s head spin.
Naturally, the question many of us are asking ourselves is: Do we really need all these steps—and what are all these products actually doing?
Read on for the full intel on multi-step skincare routines and whether or not they’re worth the time and money.
The 101 on multi-step skincare routines
Everyone seems to have their own opinion about what it takes to optimize your skin health. Some say all you need is a cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen; others say you absolutely must exfoliate. This makes nailing down a routine that works for you all the more complicated.
In order to swim through all these opinions and conflicting advice, it’s important to know what the point of each step actually is. To do this, let’s look to the ultimate skincare routine—the 10-step Korean beauty regime—which includes the following steps:
Step 1: Oil cleanser
Oil cleansers are meant to remove makeup and as Arielle Nagler, M.D., a dermatologist at NYU Langone Medical Center told Health, “The theory behind oil cleansers is that they’re thought to remove bad excess oil because they have similar chemical properties as skin oil, which allow them to interact.” This is in contrast to water “which separates from oil,” she explained.
Step 2: Water-based cleanser
Speaking of water, the next step in the ultimate skincare routine is a water-based cleanser. The goal here is to remove anything water-based that the oil cleanser may have missed, including sweat and dirt. According to beauty experts, this can be a foam or no-foam cleanser.
Step 3: Exfoliator
Probably the most famous part of our skincare routines, exfoliators come in many shapes and sizes. There are chemical exfoliators, such as alpha-hydroxy acid and glycolic acid, and there are physical exfoliators, such as brown sugar scrubs or treatments like microdermabrasion. Finding the right exfoliator usually requires some trial and error and depends on your skin’s specific needs.
Step 4: Toner
Toners don’t always get the attention they deserve, but this is the first step of your skincare routine that you actually leave on your skin. So what’s the purpose of toners? As Sarah Lee, the co-founder of Glow Recipe told Allure, “If you want to talk science, a toner is a fast-penetrating liquid that delivers skin a quick hit of hydration and helps remove some dead cells off the surface of the skin.”
Step 5: Essence
This might be the first time you’re hearing about it, but an essence are one of the most important parts of a 10-step Korean skincare routine. As New York City-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner told Hello Giggles, “An essence is a cross between a serum and a toner. They have high concentrations of active ingredients like a serum but has a liquid consistency like a toner.” Their purpose is typically to promote cell turnover and leave your skin brighter and smoother as a result.
Step 6: Serum
Serums are designed to penetrate deep into the skin’s layers and typically target a specific issue or pain point. They often contain antioxidants like vitamin E, astaxanthin, or CBD to promote skin health on a cellular level and fend off signs of premature aging.
Step 7: Sheet mask
Sheet masks are all the rage, but what do they really do for your skin health? The purpose of the sheet—which is usually made from cotton or cellulose—is to increase the efficacy of the ingredients by essentially trapping them on your face. As physician’s assistant Laura Dyer told The Cut, “The physical mask prevents the evaporation of beneficial ingredients.”
Step 8: Eye cream
“To eye cream or not to eye cream?” is a question many of us have asked ourselves at least once or twice in our lives. According to an article in Vogue Australia, an eye cream is important not only because the skin around your eyes is thinner but because it ages more quickly and becomes dehydrated more easily.
Step 9: Sleep mask
The second to last step is a sleep mask. Sleep masks are all about deeply hydrating your skin while you’re getting some much-needed zzz’s. According to Bustle, they can also help seal in your entire skin-care routine.
Step 10: Sunscreen
Last but not least, there’s sunscreen. This step is important for both the short-term prevention of sunburns and the long-term protection of your skin’s texture and appearance, as sunscreen protects against UV damage that can cause wrinkles and sunspots.
What really matters to your skin health
So, back to the question of the hour: Is a multi-step skincare routine really worth it? At the end of the day, our skincare routine is an act of self-care. Just like we eat healthy meals and exercise to protect our bodies, we should be giving our skin similar love, time, and attention.
That said, most of us won’t have the time, money, or motivation to go through all 10 of these steps every day—or even every week!—and that’s OKAY. Plus, it’s not just the products we use that impact our skin health. Diet and nutrition play a huge role and shouldn’t be underestimated. Stress also has a part to play; in fact, research has drawn strong connections between common skincare conditions like psoriasis, acne, and atopic dermatitis and high-stress levels.
Not to mention, quality is more important than quality. If you’re struggling to afford products with high-quality ingredients that have been sourced ethically and sustainably, pull back on the steps and focus on the basics and what feels right for your skin and budget.