The Japanese Skin Care Routine That Changed My Life

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When I was younger, I learned two things from my mother: one, to never apologize for bursts of ugly-sobbing when the world was crashing down on you and your only comfort was a wine cooler (it was the 90’s), and two, to never ever go to sleep with your makeup still on. Fifteen or so years later, these lessons still hold up.

What my mom didn’t teach me at the time, though, was a detailed skin regimen (bless her heart, she grew up in 1960’s middle America when going to the beach meant slathering on a gallon of baby oil like little sacrificial lambs offering themselves up to the sun god).

Yes, she instructed me to wash my face with a standard foam cleanser from the drugstore (I’ll give you a hint at the brand, it rhymes with Clean and Clear- oh, wait, did I do that wrong?) and to follow it up with some (very high-in-alcohol) toner, then a light moisturizer.

Little did i know, the ingredients in the products I was using, along with the improper cleansing routine, were destroying my skin.  Throughout my teens and up through my early twenties, I was constantly battling acne, and was told it was all hormonal or genetic, that there wasn’t much to be done about it.

Lies! If only I could Marty McFly-myself back to 2001 and tell 15-year-old-me about the differences in Western and Japanese skin care. It makes me want to grab everyone I see on the street, shake them, and scream WE’VE BEEN DOING IT ALL WRONG, WE’RE FOOLS!

Below, I’ll give you the step-by-step guide to a daily Japanese-inspired cleansing routine, a routine that I owe my much smoother, healthier skin to (as does my mom- plot twist!). A list of additional recommended products for this magical routine can be found here:  The Top Japanese Skincare Products


Steps 1 and 2: Double CleansingJapanese Skincare Routine Double Cleansing

You may or may not have heard of double cleansing, a somewhat recent method that’s made its way stateside thanks to the influx of all things South Korean: K-pop (BTS much?), food, and, of course, makeup and skin care. While there are differences between traditional Japanese and Korean skin care routines, one crucial step they both share (and one that stretches back centuries) is double cleansing.

Double cleansing is the act of first using an oil-based cleanser on your face to get rid of makeup, sebum, and dirt accumulated throughout the day (so don’t think this step is only necessary for those who wear makeup), rinsing that off, and then, and only then, using a foam or gel-based facial cleanser.

Geisha, who painted thick, white makeup onto their faces, needed a dependable oil cleanser that would melt it all away and keep their skin nourished. After, they would be able to get a deep clean of the skin with a water-based cleanser.

Are you listening, people? This is key. Get rid of all the gross stuff on your face with an oil cleanser before washing your face with a second cleanser. And yes, even if, like me, you have oily skin, oil cleansing is a necessary step. Oily skin produces more oil-related impurities, and you know what they say: fight fire with fire.

Tips: Use the oil cleanser with dry hands and a dry face. When using it, take your time. Give the muscles in your face a little love. Relax. It’s part of the ritual. Make sure to get that waterproof eyewear off you’ve been (rightly) flaunting all day.Rinse off and repeat this with the foam or gel cleanser of choice, avoiding your eyes. Rinse, and pat (don’t rub) dry.


Step 2: ExfoliatingJapanese Skincare Routine Exfoliating Skin

It’s recommended that you exfoliate at least once a week in order to slough off the buildup of dead skin cells, excess oil, and pollutants (especially if you’re livin’ it up in a city, like yours truly).
When you exfoliate, you’re also clearing the way for a deeper absorption of all products that follow afterwards, making for a more intense skin-cleansing session. Think of it as your weekly session with a therapist (a…skin therapist?), where you really get to dig deep (ha).

A lot of Western exfoliators are harsh on the skin, causing irritation to your face. Luckily, there are a lot of products readily available in Japan that oh-so-lovingly, gently exfoliate your skin for you. One such product is the popular Cure Natural Aqua Gel, which is said to fly off store shelves every 12 seconds. The polymer-based liquid latches onto the oil on your face and, as you massage it in, gathers clumps of dead skin and oil into little white balls that you watch form in complete disgust and delight.

Tip: Remember, this is a step incorporated just once or twice a week!  Typically in a nightly routine (and, if you exfoliate in the morning, be sure to wear sunscreen! More on that later.)


Step 3: “Lotion”, or Toner (Keshou-sui 化粧水)Japanese Skincare Routine Lotion

Why Japanese toners are translated as “lotions” largely remains a mystery to me, but I still can’t figure out Japan’s insistence on using corn as a pizza topping, either, though, so here we are.

It could be because, like a toner, it’s the product used after cleansing (or exfoliating, depending on the day). However, lotion, or keshou-sui, isn’t poured onto a cotton pad and swiped across the face like a toner. It’s meant to be poured out into the hands and patted into your skin and left to be absorbed.

The watery substance adds hydration (not necessarily moisture, like with actual lotion- argh, so confusing, Japan!) to your skin, and is typically full of ingredients that support this, like hyaluronic acid and ceramides. For me, this is much more comparable to the benefits of a Korean essence (shout-out to my Korean skin care gurus!) than a toner, which, speaking of which…


Step 4: EssenceJapanese Skincare Routine Skin Essence

We’re now ready to move on to the truly luxurious portion of the skin care process. This is the part of the ritual where Enya suddenly starts to play out of nowhere. Just go with it.

Essence is something that has a very small presence in the Western world of skin care (with trends going the way they are, though, my money’s on a big push for it in the next year or so). Hands down, the most popular, well-known essence is Japan is the SK-II Facial Treatment Essence, which even has some popularity in the states.

The SK-II essence is water-light and is meant to follow the toner/lotion step. Like Japanese lotion, a few drops are meant to be poured into your hands, patted (or tapped) onto your face, and absorbed into your skin. The anti-aging liquid known as Pitera, which is derived from a natural fermentation process, is this essence’s star ingredient. According to SK-II, the vitamins, amino acids, and minerals in it give a boost to your skin’s ability to rejuvenate.

Pretty crazy, right? You basically become a superhero every time you apply essence, winding back the clock on your skin.  You become the Doctor Strange of skin care.

Once I started incorporating essence into my routine, my skin changed completely: it appeared brighter, smoother, and the skin tone evened out. Essence also preps your skin to better absorb the last couple of products you’ll be using, enhancing their intended benefits.

So, you may ask, why is it taking so long for the West to make this a major step in the typical skin care routine? Yet another mystery.


Step 5: Serum

After your essence, you’ll want to apply a serum, which is a thicker liquid that targets specific concerns like fine lines, dark spots, or dry skin. For more hydration, try a serum like , which plumps up your skin with collagen, ceramides, and sodium hyaluronate.

A few drops should be plenty when using serums since they’re so concentrated. To make sure none of it goes to waste, I like to place one drop on each cheek, my forehead, and my chin. From there, I tap the serum into my skin, spreading it around, then I allow it to be absorbed for 2-3 minutes.

Following it up immediately with moisturizer might nullify any effects the serum would have had (and besides losing out on those benefits, you’re pouring money down the drain). So brush your teeth!  Do a little dance. Ponder the meaning of life for a few minutes. Then you’re ready for the next step.


Step 6: Emulsion/Moisturizer

Emulsion was something that took me a long time to wrap my head around. Why would I want to put a lotion on…before I put my lotion on? Turns out, emulsion is a light lotion that gives an extra boost of moisture if you’d like to layer it on before applying a heavier moisturizer. That technique is great for those with drier skin looking for an extra boost of moisture, especially in the winter months.

However, emulsions can be used on their own if you have oilier skin and don’t want to over-moisturize (which can clog up pores and lead to breakouts). If you’ve ever spent time in Japan during the hot, humid summer months, you’ll know exactly where the inspiration to create emulsions came from.

A brand that has a great emulsion is Kosé (which can be found in most Japanese drugstores and online). Their  brightens skin, evens out complexion, and regulates your skin’s melanin production, helping to fade dark spots.

If you’re doing this routine at night, then congratulations! You’re done! Everybody go to sleep.If you’re starting out your day, however, don’t miss the next, vital step.


Step 7: SunscreenJapanese Skincare Routine Sunscreen

The irony is not lost on me that in a nation where the sun is smack dab in the middle of its flag, it tends to be warded off like the devil in the sky that it is.

Year-round in Japan, women don long-sleeves to protect their arms. People of all ages tote parasols above their heads throughout the seasons to shield themselves from the sun’s harmful rays, a habit I picked up in Japan and brought back to the states. Do you know how many weird looks I get, popping open an umbrella on a hot, sunny day in New York City? Well, joke’s on you, New York! Guess who’s not going to age at a rapid rate? You’ll never take me down!

Knowing how diligent people in Japan are when it comes to protecting themselves against our solar system’s central sphere of hot plasma, it should come as no surprise to anyone that sunscreen is regularly worn every single day, no matter the weather or the season, and rightly so. Sun damage accelerates aging, wrinkles, dark spots, and, of course, an increased risk of skin cancer.

Besides being excellent at protecting your skin from sun damage, Japanese sunscreens (unlike many in the West) apply well underneath your makeup. They aren’t sticky, nor do they give a white cast. Instead, they’re moisturizing and give you a healthy-looking glow. What a novelty!

A gel-like, fast-absorbing sunscreen (great for those with drier to normal skin) is the , while a milky, matte-finish sunscreen (wonderful for combination to oily skin) is the popular Shiseido Anessa Perfect UV Sunscreen SPF PA++++.

Whichever you go for, just make sure you use it every single day. Also, make sure you’re re-applying it every few hours (I know, a huge pain if you have to retouch your makeup as a result, but honestly, it’s worth it). Make sure to do this even if you’re just sitting by a window inside (UVB rays might be blocked, but UVA rays are not- sneaky buggers).

At the risk of sounding dramatic, a skin care routine like this could change your life. In lieu of a Dolorean that can whisk us all back into the past to open the eyes of the masses, please accept this guide as my gift to you: a launching pad into the future.

Also, be sure to check out the Top Japanese Skin Care Products article for more information.


Do you use any of the steps mentioned above in your routine? Do they differ from your own? Share any questions or comments you have with us below!

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Kristen Barrett

Kristen is a Michigan-born, Brooklyn-based freelance writer. She studied abroad in Japan during college and realized that it was, in fact, possible to fall in love with a country. She lived there after college, teaching English for a year deep in the countryside of Shiga Prefecture. After then traveling the world as a Japanese-speaking flight attendant for two years, she finally planted her feet on the ground. Kristen enjoys her days reading as many books as humanly possible, writing as much as she can, and traveling back to Michigan to see her lovely family at any opportunity.

1 thought on “The Japanese Skin Care Routine That Changed My Life”

  1. Kristen, thank you for your wonderful lessons on taking care of our face which in turns helps us take care of our spirits as women. I enjoy your humor in your writing because it helps us readers relax a little while we learn. It makes us smile. Uh-oh. Laugh lines! But, it’s okay, because you’ve perfectly described how to pamper our facial characteristics so they make us look better. An excellent article! I have been lucky to have been taught all of this by you years ago, and it works! A privilege of being your mother. (P.S. I could just cringe when I think of putting on that baby oil long ago! At least I had a soft sun-burn. If that’s a thing.)


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