The Ultimate Korean Beauty Glossary & Skincare Guide

Korean sleep mask. Image from

If you are new to Korean beauty or the Korean 10 step skincare routine, one challenge you’re likely to face is the daunting task of deciphering Korean beauty terms. It often gets worse because some terms used in Korean skincare products don’t usually translate to their connotative meaning in western beauty products.

That is why we have provided you with the ultimate Korean beauty glossary to help you understand such terms and how they are applicable. To make things even better, we have included essential beauty tips to help you enhance your knowledge and finesse your experience while using Korean beauty products. 


AHA’s – Short for Alpha Hydroxyl Acids. This water-soluble acid is often found in chemical exfoliators. AHA’s remove the surface of your skin, which contains dead cells so that new cells can regenerate. This gives you a smooth and even skin tone. 

Ampoule – An ampoule usually comes in a vial with a dropper applicator like your serum. Ampoules have more concentrated formulas and thus they’re used as treatments for various skin concerns. At what point you will apply an ampoule will depend on the viscosity of the product. However, generally, an ampoule is applied at the fourth step of your skincare routine. That is after cleansing, toning, and using an essence. 


BB cream – Short for blemish balm, this is a skin-first light coverage foundation that contains SPF and other skincare benefits. Such include mattifying, hydrating or shine control. BB creams don’t cover imperfections or give full coverage as foundations do. Instead, they give a sheerer coverage and hence a great option when you want a natural look. 

BHA’s –  Stands for Beta Hydroxyl Acids. Unlike AHA’s which work on the surface of your skin, chemical exfoliators that use BHA’s can penetrate deeper into the pores to remove dead cells, dirt and excess oil. 

Brightening – Synonymous to whitening, this label means that your product can address issues such as a dull complexion, hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone. Such products make your skin glow and radiate.


CC cream – Short for colour corrector, this is a multipurpose product, meant to correct redness, dark spots and other blemishes. CC creams give more coverage than BB creams and contain benefits such as anti-ageing, brightening or sun protection.

Cleansing balm – Also known as sherbert cleansers, they are used to melt dirt, makeup and impurities for an easy cleanse. Cleansing balms have a creamy consistency and are ideal for people with dry skin. They are great for maintaining the skin’s moisture balance as they don’t leave a drying effect after cleansing.

Cleansing oil – This is an oil-based cleanser used to melt dirt, makeup and impurities before using a water-based cleanser.

Cleansing water –  It’s also known as micellar water. This type of water-based cleanser is infused with oil molecules to absorb dirt, makeup and impurities from your pores while toning the skin. 

Cushion compact – A lightweight foundation with SPF benefits soaked into a sponge.  Patting the cushion onto your skin gives you dewy benefits, sun protection and refreshes your look without ruining your makeup. 

A cushion compact. Image from


Double cleansing – The process of using an oil-based cleanser, or a cleansing balm followed by a water-based cleanser. Double cleansing maintains the skin’s moisture balance while keeping the skin clean. 


Essence – A more lightweight and less potent product, that provides added hydration benefits to your skin. Essences contain vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants, which nourish the skin and give it that soft supple and smooth texture. They are applied after toning and before applying a serum.

Emulsion – A light-weight moisturiser that resembles a lotion. It is applied after the serum but before an eye cream or sunscreen.  Order: (cleanser – toner- essence – ampoule/serum – emulsion).


Face cream – Contains a thicker texture than a lotion or emulsion. Most face creams are applied at night as they offer super hydration and moisturising benefits to the skin. 


Lotion – This is a light-weight skin moisturiser, although it is a bit viscous than an emulsion. Lotions and emulsion are used during the day while creams and sleeping packs are used during the night. Check out a review of the Innisfree Balancing Skin Ex lotion


Mists – In Korean skincare products mists are toners or toner – essences like the Mizon water volume Ex first essence. Mists are used to hydrate and refresh the skin during the day. They can also be used in place of a toner or an essence depending on the formula.


Niacinamide –  An ingredient that’s quite hailed due to its anti-ageing and pore minimising benefits. Products with niacinamide are good for treating acne, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, blemishes and inflamed skin. 

Night cream – rich textured creams usually applied at night. They have a concentrated formula that works better without the interference of sunscreen or make-up. Their ingredients also take several hours to work and that is why night creams are applied right before bedtime. Here’s a night skincare routine for acne-prone skin

Innisfree Jeju Orchid Eye cream is the best choice for fine wrinkles, laugh lines and dark circles under the eyes.


Oils – A highly concentrated treatment that’s usually applied directly on the skin or mixed with a moisturiser.


PA – A label that’s found in sunscreen. It denotes sun protection from UVA rays. 

Peeling gel – This is a watery-gel like product that is used for chemical exfoliation. It reacts to the sebum on your face to form tiny clumps that extract dead cells from your skin.  


Retinol – A powerhouse anti-ageing ingredient, known for boosting the amount of collagen produced by your skin. Retinols are treatment products, and they are best applied at night. Apply retinol after an essence but before applying a moisturiser.


Serum – comes in a small vial bottle like your ampoule, but may have a pump or a dropper applicator. Serums contain high levels of active ingredients and are used to address issues such as acne, ageing, dryness, or dull complexion. Serums are essential in your skincare routine as they help trap moisture and hydration from the rest of your products. Unless otherwise, apply a serum after a toner. Ultimately, the order of application will depend on the viscosity of the serum. Check out a review of the Innisfree Green Tea Seed Serum

Sheet mask – It looks like a ghost mask, with holes cut out on the eyes, nostrils and mouth. Sheet masks are infused with several nutrients and potent ingredients to help the skin with different issues. A sheet mask is usually left on the face for 15 – 20 minutes, because if left longer it can suck the moisture out of the skin. Sheet masks can be used after applying the serum for extra care and pampering of the skin. Use it once a day, every three times a week or once a week, depending on your skin type.

Here’s a review of the Aloe vera Korean sheet mask.

Check out the benefits of using a facemask

Skin – Another name for toner. Check out a review of the Innisfree Balancing Skin Ex.

200ml Innisfree balancing skin Ex

Sleeping mask – also known as a sleeping pack is used at the last step of your skincare routine. It is best applied at night to nourish the skin deeply. While a sleeping mask creates a barrier on top of the skin, a night cream deeply moisturises the skin. 

It should be used once or twice a week.


UVA –  Longwave Ultraviolet rays (A), penetrate deeper into the dermis, causing premature ageing, wrinkles and dark spots. A product that’s labelled PA indicates sun protection against UVA rays. Skin: Ways you are making your sunscreen less effective without noticing it.

UVB – short wave ultraviolet rays (B) are the leading cause of sunburns and skin cancer. SPF on sunscreens usually indicates protection against UVB rays.

Apply sunscreen at the last step of your Korean skincare routine. 

Order of application: (cleanser – toner – essence – serum/ampoule – sheet mask – eye cream- moisturiser – sunscreen)

To learn the correct order of application when using Korean beauty products, arrange them in a line, then start applying from the lightest formula to the thickest. Check the instructions given on the package as your product may work better when applied in a different order. 

Vitamin C – a serum that carries brightening effects and anti-ageing benefits. Vitamin C protects you against damage from UV rays and it is best applied in the morning. Also, check out why you need vitamin E in your skincare routine.


Whitening – This label on Korean skincare products doesn’t mean bleaching. It indicates a product will brighten your complexion rather than change your skin colour. 

Want to know more about Korean beauty? Check out the best Korean products according to your skin type

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I am a writer with interest in hair, beauty and fashion. I also like telling stories, but most of all I enjoy listening and reading them. If I'm not doing any of the above, I will be trying to crack a game of chess or monopoly. My biggest fear is being ordinary.