The woman in the photo above is 39 years old. We'll give you a moment to process that. If you're wondering who this ageless beauty is and how you can have what she's having, let us introduce you to Lee Sa-Bi, a South Korean model, actress, and the first native Korean to pose for Playboy. We’ve all heard about the superiority of Korean skincare routines. Most of us have sampled bits of it from popular lines like AmorePacific and Belif and are familiar with the famous 10-step Korean skincare regimen that starts with an oil cleanser and ends with a night cream.
But we wanted to take a closer look at the real skincare routine of someone with skin as youthful as Sa-Bi’s. With the help of the founder of Peach & Lily Alicia Yoon, who translated for us, we spoke with the fresh-faced model about everything skincare. And, for a little added input, we tapped K-beauty skincare expert Eugene He and board-certified dermatologist Ava Shamban.
Meet the Expert
Keep scrolling to learn more about Sa-Bi's comprehensive, customized skincare routine, including her must-have products for a flawless complexion.
While traditional cleansers are made of surfactants that can be drying and strip the skin of its natural oils, an oil cleanser doesn't affect the pH balance of the skin and is more gentle. "An oil cleanser is often high in natural antioxidants and can help to protect the natural lipid layer of the skin and the microbiome—the good bacteria—that live there, offering protection from pathogens entering through our largest organ, the skin," says Shamban. "They attract and bind to oils, making this type of cleanser a popular choice among those wearing heavy, oil-based face makeup as an effective way to remove."
As for Sa-Bi’s current Korean-based skincare routine, she says she’s become much more industrious now that she’s in her 30s. “In your 20s, you’re focused on prevention, which, of course, takes effort, patience, and consistency,” she says. “But in my 30s, I’m definitely more information-driven when it comes to skincare. I want to know and understand what I’m putting on my skin.” Take this cleansing balm from Ceramiracle, for example, which includes a list of pronounceable skin-loving ingredients like moringa oil, turmeric extract, and broccoli seed oil.
"A foam cleanser is a water-based cleanser that is either a runny liquid or a gel. When agitated with water, the surfactants foam up and dissolve grime and dirt," says He. "When used alone, a foam cleanser is used as a complete cleaner for the skin. When used in a 10-step routine, a foam cleanser is used to remove any further trace of makeup or un-emulsified oil on the skin." If you have severely dry skin, opt for one with more gentle, naturally-derived surfactant alternatives.
Double cleansing is a must for Sa-Bi. "On days that I’m on air or have a photoshoot, I have so much makeup on that a lengthier but still-gentle double-cleanse is mandatory, no matter how tired I am when I’m done shooting or filming. I massage thoroughly and ensure all my makeup is removed," she explains.
Shamban says that the end goal of exfoliation is to generate the process of lifting and removing dead skin cells from the outer layer of your skin, eliminating build-up in both the pores and skin surface. "This will improve the function and appearance of skin, as lack of cellular turnover can cause dull, dry, or sallow-looking skin as well as rough patches, clogged pores, and more visible fine lines or pigmentation issues," she explains. Needless to say, exfoliation helps get rid of that dull outer layer to reveal brighter, healthier skin cells.
Your skin type will determine what type of exfoliator to use. According to He, those with dry or mature skin should opt for a mild, acid-based chemical exfoliator while those whose skin skews oily can use physical exfoliators containing abrasives such as walnut shell or rice powder. Sensitive skin should go for more gentle enzyme- or chlorophyll-based exfoliators.
Think of toner as the final step of the cleansing routine, but not in the astringent way we're used to. The toners of the K-beauty world are more meant to hydrate, nourish, and soothe, acting as a skin conditioner to restore the skin’s pH after cleansing. "Glycolic acid, niacinamide, and soothing or calming agents are used to help maintain the pH balance of skin and maintain its function and cellular integrity," explains Shamban. "K-beauty seems to be leaning more towards some hybrid of cream toners, which are lightweight but have more of a milky consistency as opposed to a water." She notes that these toners are often high in amino acids and support the skin barrier, making them ideal for sensitive or super parched skin.
Sa-Bi alters her skincare routine to be more brightening for the springtime. "I’m currently obsessed with the Shangpree Bitgoa line and the toner in particular, as it boosts radiance with really amazing ingredients. This spa is really well-known for making some of the most beloved products by women looking for serious skin care," she says. While her pick is currently unavailable, we're big fans of this toner from skin-refreshing pick from Cosrx.
An essence may seem like an unnecessary step to non K-beauty followers, but their function is to get the skin ready for better absorption of the serum, according to He. "Using an essence gives the opportunity to layer on additional active ingredients onto the skin without the heaviness of using two serums," he explains. "A good essence will also provide additional protection to the skin barrier by reducing transepidermal water loss." We love this mist essence by Missha because it's as refreshing as it is convenient to apply, plus it leaves skin prepped and ready for hydration in the next steps.
Ah, serums. They've been the gold standard of skincare routines no matter the skin type or texture (yes, oily skin included). He explains that serums are highly concentrated skin lotions that contain active ingredients to improve the condition of the skin, and typically target one or two skincare issues at once. Ampoules are also serums, but are in single-use packaging and serve up a powerful cocktail for the skin. Shamban says that ampoules are not always necessary for daily use, but are good for periodic usage—a little goes a long way.
If you have dry skin look for ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and squalane. Those with oily skin should look for serums and ampoules that utilize the skin-loving benefits of seaweed ferment or honey extract, and mature skin should opt for stem cells and peptides.
Sa-Bi says that for her, there has always been a “soothing, ritual-like” element to skincare. “Growing up, I saw my mother washing her face with rice water, which has nourishing and brightening benefits,” she describes. “It was all very ritualistic. The first batch of rice water is thrown out, and the second batch is used. Then, just water is used to rinse off thoroughly. I grew up doing this, too, because I saw my mother doing it. It was all a part of learning how to take care of yourself.”
Cue sheet masks, which have grown in popularity for their ability to create a spa-like experience at home. “For the last eight years, I have done a sheet mask every night, no matter what. I have done this without skipping even one day. You can call me a sheet mask connoisseur, for sure. I have tried thousands of masks, and I love the instant and deep hydration and glow sheet masks provide. If you do it daily, you also see longterm benefits," she says.
If you have open wounds or cystic acne, He warns against using sheet masks, as they may aggravate the skin.
"An eye cream in a 10-step routine is specifically for the reduction of wrinkles, puffiness and dark circles," explains He. "Look for one that is lightweight, unscented, and spreads on easily. It should also include peptides, as these ingredients show the most promise in fighting the signs of aging around the eye area." When applying, be sure not to tug or pull on the skin underneath the eyes—this area is thinner than the rest of the face and thus, more delicate.
Struggling with inflammation underneath the eyes? Keep your eye cream stored in a skincare fridge—the coldness will help to reduce puffiness.
You may think the sole purpose of a moisturizer is to, well, moisturize. And while that is one of the main benefits of a moisturizer, it's also meant to provide a barrier to shield the skin from the environment. Shamban notes that while many of the serums and masks part of this routine are made with key humectants and a full range of hydrating and moisturizing ingredients, moisturizers can still be used if you're looking to lock in more moisture. We stay committed to this one from Belif—it erases dry patches like a dream and leaves skin looking silky smooth, especially underneath makeup.
SPF or Night Cream
As the last and final step to the 10-step Korean skincare routine, a night cream or SPF should be used (depending on the time of day you're doing the routine). SPF is the cornerstone of healthy skin and shouldn't be skipped (seriously, wear at least SPF 30 daily—please). “For sunblock, I wear two kinds always, even if I stay indoors," says Sa-Bi. "I do this since you can get sun damage through UV lights and via sunlight through the windows as well. I love being outdoors, though, and am always very active and will work up a sweat when I work out, so I use waterproof sunscreens and sunscreens that protect you from pollutants as well."
As for night creams, they're best used for those with dehydrated, stressed, or mature skin types. "The benefit of night creams are that they are applied for the interval when our skin, like the rest of our body, shifts into high repair mode (aka when we sleep) so they are working for the longest, most metabolically-cellular active working period and are not disrupted by sunlight, sweat, environmental pollutants, and makeup," explains Shamban.