Nov 12, 2020
What exactly is a facial essence? We shed light on the ambiguous skincare staple.
Is it a toner? Is it a serum? It’s (super) essence! You’ve read about essences, seen them on social media, and come across them on your favorite beauty websites. Heck, you might even have one in your routine right now! But how is an essence different from your other skincare steps, when should you apply it, and how does it benefit your skin?
Even as a skincare enthusiast—one who writes about beauty for a living, at that—the answers to these questions didn’t come as quickly as say, when I’m asked how a serum differs from a moisturizer (it is lighter and more concentrated in actives), or when to apply sunscreen (always as the last step of your routine before makeup). So, I jumped at the opportunity to dive deeper and try to gain some clarity into the topic.
Here’s all you need to know about essences.
What is an essence and where is it from?
The first thing to know is that although they are gaining popularity in the West, facial essences hail from Asia, which is why so many of them are from Japanese and Korean brands. And if you think they’re new, think again: Shiseido launched the Eudermine Revitalizing Essence, one of its oldest products, in 1897. In essence (pun intended!), a facial essence is a lightweight, easily layerable product usually akin to a light serum in texture. It is designed to penetrate deep into the skin, imparting moisture and boosting the effectiveness of subsequent skincare steps.
How does it differ from a toner or serum?
First, a note on toners. There are different types out there, with different aims: a hydrating toner’s role is to give your skin lightweight hydration, while an astringent toner (the type of product usually associated with the word “toner” in the West) is meant to perfect your cleansing step. Initially created to help balance the skin’s pH after using a harsher soap to cleanse it, the latter isn’t as relevant today, as the benefits of using gentle and low-pH cleansers instead of soap become increasingly common skincare knowledge. Whether your toner of choice is a hydrating or astringent one, you should apply it first after washing your face.
An essence is designed to add hydration and bolster the benefits of the skincare steps that come after it. Traditionally, it is a little thicker and more concentrated in actives than a toner, but not quite as much as a serum. Essences also often contain fermented ingredients, a key component in Korean skincare. As for serums, they provide actives to address various skin concerns: vitamin C (or other antioxidants) to help protect your skin from free radicals, or hyaluronic acid to plump it up and add hydration, for example. But, here’s the thing: essences can contain some of the same good-for-your-skin ingredients as serums, like brightening AHAs, or soothing niacinamide.
You may come across products whose names combine the words “essence”, “serum”, and “ampoule” (a superconcentrated type of serum popular in Korean beauty). Confusing, right? The truth is that with time, and as skincare products have gotten more advanced, the lines between different product types have become blurred: serums, essences, and ampoules are all similar in that they are lighter than a moisturizer and contain a higher concentration of active ingredients. Depending on whom you ask, some say that serums and essences are actually the same thing, and that whether a product is labeled as one or the other really all comes down to marketing.
How is essence applied?
Simply pour or pump a bit of essence into your hands, press them together, and then pat the product into your skin. Essence and serum are applied the same way (with bare hands), whereas some people prefer to use cotton rounds to apply toner. Personally, I apply all my skincare products with my hands, including my toner—it’s easier, faster, and less wasteful (both in terms of the cotton and the actual product).
When should I apply facial essence in my routine?
This is where it gets tricky. It depends on what other skincare products you plan to use. Most of the time, this will mean applying toner first onto freshly cleansed skin (for hydration), and then following up with an essence (for another layer of hydration and some active ingredients), before moving onto serums (for targeting specific issues), and finishing with moisturizing cream, and sunscreen (always—unless you’re going to bed). But when in doubt, the general rule of thumb is that you should apply skincare formulas starting from the lightest (or most water-like) to the thickest (i.e. moisturizing cream). This simplifies things for toners, essences, serums, and ampoules when the labels get confusing.
Ready to add an essence into your routine? Check out these five picks available on Beautytap:
A holy grail product for many a K-beauty addict, this COSRX cult classic contains 96% snail secretion filtrate and is a powerhouse when it comes to hydration, firming, and smoothing the skin. Its light, viscous consistency goes on like a charm and isn’t sticky like some other products that contain high concentrations of snail mucin.
Many skincare lovers swear by this Sulwhasoo activating serum, which is meant to be applied directly onto clean skin to immediately hydrate and prepare it for any serums and ingredients to follow. Its lightweight texture and herbal scent is the perfect way to kick off your skincare routine, both in the morning and evening.
This luxurious anti-aging essence boasts 35-year-old ginseng (which may explain its premium price tag), said to contain potent antioxidants to protect from skin-aging free radicals, as well as over 70 rare herbs and botanicals. Perhaps something to add to your holiday wish list.
This brightening and hydrating fluid is made of 94% fermented ingredients. Its texture is water-like and it can be used as a hydrating toner or essence. Either way, you reap the benefits of ferments that are apparently 150,000 times smaller than your pores, helping them penetrate deep into your skin.
Apply this fast-absorbing essence—whose first ingredient is hydrolyzed collagen—right after your toner for perfectly hydrated, bouncy skin, without any stickiness. In case you were wondering: collagen helps reduce loss of hydration—so it’s something you want in your skincare routine.
Mariève has been writing about beauty online and in print for over 10 years. Half-Canadian and half-Japanese, she loves that being a freelance beauty writer gives her the opportunity to explore the cosmetics landscape from Montreal all the way to Tokyo. Also on her mind at any given moment: cats, music, figure skating, food, and her next trip to Japan. You can find her (and her beauty illustrations!) on Instagram at @by.minoue.