Discover beauty through professional reviews

NOW READING Essence, Serum & Ampoule 101: What’s the Difference (& Does It Matter?)
June 25, 2018

Essence, Serum & Ampoule 101: What’s the Difference (& Does It Matter?)

Korean beauty may seem confusing at first, what with all the steps and layering and terminology. But once you understand the basics, it’s really not that hard (and your skin will thank you!). So here, a primer on the difference, if anything, between an essence, serum, and ampoule.


If you’re new to the world of K-beauty or even if you’re a seasoned pro and were just too afraid to ask, I’m about to break down the difference between essences, serums, and ampoules. As you might have already guessed, there’s really not a lot of difference, and I think that has led to a lot of longtime confusion amongst the skincare set. So let’s clear it up once and for all.




I’ll start with ampoules first, as this is the product amongst the three that actually does warrant its own category. Ampoules are usually highly concentrated doses of an active ingredient and are almost always like water in texture. Because of this, your ampoule should pretty much always come first, directly after your toner (or even before your toner if you’re using a very thick toner).


Because ampoules are made up of such an intensive dose of ingredients, they’re usually the most expensive part of a routine. Eyes tend to bulge when scanning the price of ampoules, but I guess this is a case of you get what you pay for, for the most part. There are some ampoules out there that make me throw back my head and laugh when I read the ingredients versus the price. If someone is trying to charge you $100+ for an ampoule that lists plain water as its first ingredient, run!




Ampoules are fun and really helpful because they’re what assists in making your routine truly individual. You can target highly specific symptoms with an ampoule and really give your skin a powerful dose of a helpful formula that will get right in there and do its job.


If you’re looking to enter the world of ampoules, I think Swanicoco is a great company to look into as it has several that are truly stellar and at several price points. I don’t know of a single person that didn’t love Swanicoco’s EGF and FGF ampoules (especially when used together). They were even Jude’s pick for the best of Swanicoco. The function of this duo is focusing on skin growth factors to improve texture and function. The ingredients are all backed by science and the results are visible. They are a bit pricey when sold separately (trust me they’re are worth it), but they’re slightly cheaper when sold as a set, so keep your eye out for Beautytap’s dailytap as they’ve been known to show up there.


If you’re not ready for the world of peptides and growth factors, Eclado Professional Formula Snail Ampoule is a great way to address dehydration and dryness. It’s especially great to use in humid climates or in the summertime when you’re still battling dryness but want something light that will really get to the heart of the matter. It’s on the pricier side at $66, but that’s actually on the cheaper end of the scale when it comes to concentrated ampoules. Also you can keep an eye out for dailytap deals as I’ve seen it on sale via those as well!


For a budget option COSRX’s Propolis Light Ampoule is only $24, and its first ingredient is pure black propolis extract at a concentration of 80% — that’s wild! Propolis, of course, is famous for its anti-irritation and anti-aging properties. Once again COSRX comes out with a product formulation that they could easily charge double for but make it affordable for all. Have I told you lately that I love you, COSRX?



Essences vs. Serums


OK, here’s the biggie. What I’m about to tell you might shift your whole world view. OK, ready?


The big difference between essences and serums? A big fat nothing. They’re the same thing! It all comes down to marketing and the specific manufacturer. It’s super confusing because there is such a wide range of formulas out there, you may think an essence is lighter or a serum must be thicker, but really it could go either way. To confuse things even more, there are “watery” essences that feel more like an ampoule in texture, and as if that weren’t enough, there’s even “ampoule serums.” It’s no wonder you’re confused!


Innisfree Derma Formula Serum Hyaluronic Acid


If you’re not sure what you’re going to get and you’re searching for a particular texture, I recommend Googling the product and trying to find a review with pictures or video to get an idea of what you’re going to get. There are some marketing materials out there that bill serums as being strictly moisture boosters, or serums as slightly more concentrated ingredient boosters, or ampoules as the most powerful ingredient shots. While the ampoule part of that is true, no one has decided one way or another about serums versus essences, and I’ve seen some that perform as those respective definitions and some that don’t. Basically, it’s a confusing marketing-based crap shoot. Again, doing your homework will really help you decide what’s right for you and which purchase will work best to bring you the results you’re looking for.




Now, with all of that said, I still haven’t explained exactly what a serum or essence’s purpose is. Essentially they can be either moisture boosters or concentrated skin boosters. They come in all different textures and with all different purposes. One of my favorite thick textured serums is Swanicoco Fermentation Care Serum; this one saved me over the winter. It has a thick, almost emulsion type texture, and it’s filled with fermented goodness. On the opposite end of the texture spectrum is Eclado Respiration Serum, which is more gel-like but also full of fermented ingredients as well as botanical extracts. For a budget friendly option, check out Klairs Rich Moist Soothing Serum at under $25; it’s deeply hydrating and has sodium hyaluronate as the second ingredient.


As for essences, you can’t do much better than COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence, especially for the price. Its first ingredient is pure snail secretion filtrate, making it a powerful essence with a welcoming price point at $19.






For a thicker essence there’s one of my personal favorites, SanDaWha Multi Action Intensive Essence. Whereas the COSRX essence is a clear gel, this is a thicker, more opaque formulation. Its first two ingredients are Camellia japonica flower extract and Camellia japonica seed oil (I am such a fangirl of all forms of camellia). It’s very moisturizing and hydrating and chock full of lots of yummy antioxidants. The rest of the ingredient list reads like an all-natural hippie’s wet dream and it’s packed with botanical extracts. It’s a bit pricier than the COSRX at $45, but I think it’s well worth the price. In fact, it’s similarly formulated to some essences that cost triple that price.


The main takeaway is that essences, serums, and ampoules generally go between your toner step and your moisturizer, which seals all those active ingredients in. Layer them on in order of most lightweight to thickest, and you’re generally good to go. (If you want to learn more about the Korean multi-step routine and what goes where when, check out this article.)


So if we’ve learned one thing today, it’s that no matter what you’re looking for, you can find it in K-beauty, even if you’re not quite sure what it’s called yet.


Do you have a favorite serum, essence, or ampoule? Do you use all three? Let us know in the comments!



Coco Park is an author, beauty journalist, blogger, podcast host, and all around oddball living in Montreal Quebec with her family. Originally from the southern USA, she worked for several years in the makeup industry as a professional makeup artist and holds a certificate in esthetics. She is a proud member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Want to know more? Check her out on the Beauty Beyond Basics podcast, on her blog, on Instagram @thebeautywolf, and in her book "Korean Beauty Secrets: A Practical Guide to Cutting-Edge Skincare & Makeup."




Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

I'm a die hard fan of Vitamin C serums, but this article convinced me to try the COSRX Propolis Light Ampoule. I'm excited to see what kind of anti-inflammatory effects this sample has on my skin.


I don't know if this was good intuition or not, but I've always looked for serums over essences and that has come in handy when I'm confused and not wanting to dump my whole wallet out. But now that I know more from this article, I'm excited to do some more exploring!


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

Coco's the best, Julian. If you're interested in K-beauty, her book is a must-have and a really fun read. She's one of the original K-beauty bloggers, and I've trusted her advice for years.


Ooh I'll have to go give that a read! I'm always curious to learn more. Thanks Tracy!


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

Happy to help, Julian. Their book quickly became a reference tool for me in 2015, and I actually own two copies now.


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

All the fancy marketing can really confuse consumers these days, so thank you for this explanation. I will be sharing this with a few ladies who I know would find it helpful! Ampoules were something I didn't know much about until this year :)


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

This is such a helpful article- even as a master esthetician I was still a little fuzzy on these products! Can't WAIT to try an ampoule!!


This was such a pleasant read and definitely clarifies the differences and similarities. I love that ingredients like Propolis, Camellia, and Snail Mucin are highlighted in the writer’s favorite products. I also like that she gently stressed to read the ingredients! 👍


This really clears up the confusion regarding ampoules, essences, and serums. There really is an option for everyone and I love how this article illustrates the budget options available.


Verified experts are beauty professionals who receive free products for independent reviews without receiving payment.

Wow - This article is AMAZING for people first coming to KBeauty. There is so much unfamiliar vocabulary floating around and this really helps clarify and educate so we know how to shop! Thank you!


Great article and has been very helpful! I was always getting confused with some of the names. I kind of stopped worrying about it and used the products from thinnest to thickest. Took the stress out of it all.


I was just wondering about this! I feel like when a brand puts out a line, why bother with the lighter essences and serums though? Why wouldn't you want to just go for the ampoule if all the products in the line are trying to do the same thing? Or are the essences and serums supposed to be the more economical choices rather than giving up on the brand/line altogether to find a cheaper alternative elsewhere?


I feel like some brands put out an essence version and an ampoule version to appeal to different price sensitivities. And then there are the brands that call everything an essence or everything an ampoule regardless of the actual concentration. I feel like there's no real standard and it just depends on the brand. (Like the way some essences are just toners and vice versa!)


Good to know! This part of the routine is definitely confusing to me at times!


Regardless of what they call it, I usually apply from lightest to thickest, unless it's a star ingredient that I want to get first crack at my skin, like niacinamide or licorice.


I feel like it really depends on the season and what catches my eye at the time, but I've definitely used an essence, a serum and an ampoule all in the same routine as well as just one or two of those at different times as well. I can see how it definitely is a bit confusing/intimidating with all these different terms if you're not familiar with K beauty but I totally agree; just put them in order from most light weight to thickets between your toner and moisturizer. Doesn't have to be stressful!