In a pared-down skincare routine, the right order to apply your products is pretty simple: First, you cleanse, then you moisturize, and then you finish with sunscreen. But once you start throwing serums, retinol, face oils, and whatever else into the mix, that’s when things get v confusing. Add in the fact that some product categories aren’t as self-explanatory as, say, face oils are, and you might be feeling totally lost when it comes to something like a skin essence.
If you have no idea what essences in skincare are, or how to use them, or if you even really need them, you’re far from alone. So to help clear up some facts, we turned to cosmetic chemist Krupa Koestline, founder of KKT Consultants, who helped us answer the basic questions (hi, uh, what even is an essence?) to the…not-so-basic. Below, Koestline answers the question “What is essence?” and tons more.
What is skin essence?
In most Korean skincare routines, you’ll see essence listed as the thing you apply after toner and before sheet masks, but exactly what an essence is can…differ. And I wish I could give you a solid answer here, but the truth is, it depends. As Koestline explains it, every brand defines “skin essence” differently, which means some essences are kinda like lightweight serums, while others function as toners or mists. The ingredients used in skin essence can also vary greatly, but Koestline notes that they typically contain fermented extracts, hydrating actives, and enzymes.
When do you use an essence?
Again, it totally depends on the formula (so check out the instructions on packaging for insight). But in general, since essence is mostly water-based and lighter than a serum, Koestline says most if not all skin types can use them morning and night—either on clean skin or after a toner—followed by a serum and moisture to lock the moisture in.
Is essence the same as toner?
In general, yes—essence can be thought of as a type of toner, but it really still depends on the brand. The texture of essence is thin and watery, like a toner, which is why you’ll commonly find them in spray bottles as a facial mist or in a bottle with a tiny hole on top so you don’t pour out too much at a time (you know, like the hot sauce bottle of skincare), but you can also find them in a pump dispenser like you would a serum. While you could use a cotton pad to apply the skin essence, all you really need is your hands (you’ll waste less product that way, too). Pour a few drops in your clean hand, spread it between your palms, then press it into your skin.
What is essence used for?
Because the definition of a skin essence is a little all over the place, so is its ~intended use~. Depending on the ingredients in your specific product, a skin essence can be used to increase cell turnover, brighten, balance, prep, or hydrate the skin. Just like there are specific serums and toners for specific skin concerns, there are specific essences, too.
Is facial essence necessary?
I mean, no. If you’re someone who hates spending more than five minutes getting ready, essence is an extra step that you don’t really need. Outside of a cleanser, moisturizer, and SPF, nothing is necessary, per se, but if you’re looking to address more than just the basics, adding an essence into your routine is a nice bonus for hydration and moisture. Not only that, but applying a skin essence just feels really, really nice, and if that’s enough reason for you to add another step in your skincare routine, shop one of the nine formulas below. After you try it, you might just find that you can’t live without it.
You love all the deets on skincare that actually works, right? So do we. Let’s overanalyze them together. ✔️
The Cult-Favorite Essence
SK-II Facial Treatment Essence
Not only do celebs love this stuff, but the product itself has kind of a celeb status, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if this facial treatment is what introduced you to skin essences, because same. The main ingredient, pitera (aka galactomyces firment filtrate), is derived from yeast fermentation to balance and hydrate the skin. It’s a splurge, but if it’ll make your skin feel like a million bucks, at least you get your money’s worth, right?
This Skin Essence for Aging Skin
BeautyStat Cosmetics Universal Moisture Essence
Slightly thicker and oilier in texture than other essences on this list, this formula is made from 100 percent squalane (sourced from sustainable plant sugars), which mimics your skin’s natural waxy sebum to help it to retain moisture. If your skin’s looking a little dry and your fine lines are more evident than ever, apply a few drops of this fragrance-free, non-comedogenic skin essence to clean, dry skin.
This Internet-Favorite Essence
Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence RX
The internet’s favorite dupe for a more expensive option that may or may not be on this list (hint, hint), this fragrance-free skin essence contains fermented extracts, niacinamide, and ceramides to replenish, restore, brighten, soften, and moisturize the skin.
This Oil-Controlling Essence
Shani Darden Skin Care Sake Toning Essence
This might be a toner-slash-essence hybrid, but you want find any harsh alcohol that strips and sucks the life out of your skin here. On the contrary, this skin essence contains fermented rice water, niacinamide, vitamin E, green tea, and sebocytine to gently control oil, soften skin, and even its tone.
This Brightening Essence
Neogen Real Ferment Micro Essence
It might look like a simple bottle of water, but this skin essence is *so* much more. It’s packed with fermented ingredients, rice extracts, and birch juice for all the hydrating, moisturizing, and brightening effects. You’ll also love how it fills and plumps fine lines (albeit temporarily, but still) so much that you won’t mind adding another step to your routine.
This Affordable Essence Lotion
Bioderma Hydrabio Essence Lotion
You know how essences are sometimes categorized as toners or serums? Well, you can also lotions to that list. Don’t let the name confused you—this formula has all the same hydrating and moisturizing properties you love in an essence but with the bonus smoothing benefits of salicylic acid.
This Exfoliating Essence
Tatcha The Essence Plumping Skin Softener
Skin looking dull, uneven, and blahhh? Reach for this tall glass of water, a combo of anti-aging superfoods green tea, rice, and algae. The natural fermentation releases lactic acid to gently exfoliate your face and resurface your skin to reveal a softer, smoother, more even complexion underneath.
This Soothing Facial Essence Serum
Innisfree Firming Energy Essence With Fermented Soybean Facial Serum
Thanks to the fermented soybean extract and fermented soybean oil, this skin essence is rich in antioxidants and essential amino acids to improve your skin’s appearance and moisture barrier. But that’s not all! It’s also got oat kernel extract for bonus soothing benefits.
This Extra-Hydrating Skin Essence
Cosrx Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence
This essence is full of humectants, like snail secretion filtrate and sodium hyaluronate (another form of hyaluronic acid) to bring a whole lotta hydration to the skin. Follow it up with your moisturizer immediately afterward to lock all of it in.
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