10-Step K-Beauty Routines Gave Me Perioral Dermatitis—Here's How I Saved My Skin

A few years ago, I jumped on the Korean-beauty trend that has seemingly taken all young people by storm. In all my 24 years of living until that point, I simply washed my face with a basic water-based cleanser and moisturized with something so generic I can't even remember what exactly it was, which makes me wonder if I even moisturized at all. I was lucky to have very well-behaved skin; that is until I jumped on the 10-step K-beauty routine my boyfriend at the time was trying out in an attempt to achieve glowing skin of his own.

My clear and normal-looking skin kicked into high gear. Suddenly, it was glowing like the sparkly reflections of the sun on the ocean. Suddenly, the dark circles under my eyes were hardly visible, even to me. Suddenly, people left and right were asking me what I was using on my skin. And then, the quest for perfect skin felt infinite.

I introduced salicylic acid into my routine because I decided the pores on my nose could be smaller. Almost immediately, a small red mark popped up beneath my left nostril, on which I applied more salicylic acid. The redness grew, then spread to the other side of my nose and below my mouth. Every night, I used masks that promised to detox and calm my skin. No! you may be screaming to yourself, and I'll assure you my roommate did the same thing when she saw the packages mounting in the trash night after night. But I proceeded, lathering my face in all the things because surely this had more to do with my new affinity for natural wine or a recent transcontinental trip than the multitude of products I was piling on my face.

I made an appointment with a dermatologist nonetheless. Within moments of entering my derm's office, she diagnosed me with a skin condition called perioral dermatitis and without hesitation attributed it to the heavy products I was using.

Notes From an Expert

I called my doctor, Sinae Kane, MD, of Presidio Dermatology in San Francisco, to share with Who What Wear what she told me two years ago. Here she is to explain the enigma that is perioral dermatitis and warn that she's seeing more cases of it every day.

"What we know about perioral dermatitis is that it's believed to be a form of rosacea, and although there's a lot of speculation about the condition, we do know that there are some main triggers," says Kane. "The ones we usually see are the use of a lot of heavy products—thicker creams, oils, or ointments—and overuse of products, in general.

"Especially with the natural-skincare industry booming, a lot of patients have gotten really interested in learning about skincare, and although I think it’s really fun, people end up trying on a lot of products and using multiple products at once, so that often creates an environment where it will trigger a flare of perioral dermatitis.

"Kind of going hand in hand with the natural-skincare industry booming, I think 10-step Korean skincare processes are a bit of a setup for perioral dermatitis as well. We've definitely been seeing an increase in the number of patients with this condition, and the most common situation is a patient comes in and tells me, 'My skin was dry, so I started using a bunch of products, and I saw the bumps pop up and it felt irritated and dry, so I wanted to use some other products,' and they keep adding product on top of product to try to solve it, and typically it just makes it worse."

A New Era: In the Clear

I didn’t want to believe Kane when I first saw her, and in fact, I didn't. After the antibiotics she prescribed me cleared up my skin, I went back to many of the products I was using before. And sure enough, I had another flare-up. It was at this moment I realized I needed to change everything.

"One way to treat this is with zero therapy, which means you put nothing on your face—like no products at all," Kane adds. "I always tell people it's not a popular option because your skin will go through a very dry and uncomfortable phase and won't look great, but that actually is one way to get the bumps to go down. I always tell people this because I think it drives home the point that products can trigger the reaction."

When I finally listened to my doctor and simplified my skincare regimen down to the brass tacks, my skin almost immediately cleared up.

"The thing I have to remind patients about is once you've had it, you're sort of always prone to potentially getting a flare of it in the future, so you'll have to be careful in terms of your product selection," Kane warns.

"I tell people, once you get your skin clear and you're at the point where you're wanting to reintroduce things, you can always pick one product and try it out. You'll want to wait a couple of weeks and see how your skin responds."

Keep reading to see the products I used that cleared my skin and what I've been slowly reintroducing to my regimen now that I've been in the clear for more than six months.

Shop my simplified skincare routine:

First things first, no more double-cleansing. I use nothing more than this simple face wash in the morning and at night. And for removing mascara? I rinse one of those Magic Eraser towels in water and gently rub my eyes in a circular motion until the mascara is gone.

Kane is always encouraging her patients with perioral dermatitis to use the lightest-weight products. This may be called an intense hydration cream, but it's really lightweight and nonirritating on the skin. I continue to use it every morning because I think it's a nice light base underneath my sunscreen.

I may have been cutting down the skincare routine, but I couldn't live without an eye cream. This eye cream is quite utilitarian: keeps the under-eye area hydrated but doesn't wow with its anti-wrinkle and brightening capabilities. 

Was I crazy to introduce a retinol within a year of being in the clear of my skin condition? Did I take it slow? Did it work? Yes, yes, and yes.

Honestly, the First Aid Beauty 5 in 1 eye cream only did so much for my under-eye shadows. I missed using a vitamin C–based product to brighten things up. After hearing my co-workers rave about this gel, I had to give it a try, especially with the toll quarantine has been taking on my skin. I've been using this every morning for a week, and my shadows are noticeably brighter.

It might be easy to tell I have a hard time keeping things as simple as possible, but who doesn't love to put something special on their face before bed? This cream has niacinamide, which I find helpful for treating dullness, enlarged pores, and fine lines. 

Universally beloved by dermatologists everywhere, this EltaMD is the only liquid sunscreen I'll put on my face. 

"Sunscreens tend to be thicker, a little heavier, and sometimes, especially the natural sunscreens which we do like and provide better protection, they can be a little drying on the skin," says Kane. "For some patients who have a really stubborn case of perioral dermatitis, I will recommend they switch to a powder sunscreen, like Coloresciene. They have different options for shades, and it's just powder zinc oxide, so it gives a good level of protection."

After this entire experience with my face, it's made me much more careful about what I put on my body, too. This sunscreen has been super gentle and effective, and most of all, I love that it isn't toxic for coral reefs.

Kane says flare-ups around the eyes are rare, but guess what, it happened to me. (I'm telling you, I made my skin angry.) I got this mascara because it's free of parabens, sulfates, and sodium laureth sulfate, and I knew it would give me the full lengthening and volumizing look I'm after.

I've been wearing concealer under my eyes since I was in, dare I say it, middle school. As a lifelong insomniac, it's been my security blanket for far too long. Kane suggests wearing lightweight or powder-based formulas for face makeup, as cream-based and full-coverage products can irritate the skin. This concealer feels so moisturizing and light, almost as if I'm not wearing anything under my eyes.

For a few years, I lived with friends who loved ordering from Glossier. With every order it seemed, we'd all go in on a Balm Dotcom Trio. I'm still nursing two tubes, an original and a cherry, and I can't say it's a bad thing. There's something special about applying this salve to your lips—that Glossier je ne sais quoi.

One of the main things I was desperate to reintroduce was exfoliation. Months of a very simple skincare routine meant that pores in my T-zone were in need of a cleanse. I trusted First Aid Beauty enough at this point to give its facial pads a try. Initially, I only used these pads once a week but have since increased to twice a week, and I'm really happy with the results: no bumps or redness or breakouts and my pores are noticeably smaller.

Remember when I said I have insomnia? I was chomping at the bit to use my tried-and-true under-eye patches. Cooling, brightening, de-puffing, these gels are the best.

This product makes my skin glow like nothing else. The ingredient list seemed safe enough, so I decided to give it another try a few months back. I'm so glad I did.

Because I'm human, I get pimples. I love plopping one of these patches on a pimple before I go to sleep and running to the mirror when I wake up to see the magic it worked on my skin. Since these are so small, they were the first "crazy" product I reintroduced, and I never had an issue.

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