We asked derms everything you need to know about the rising skincare category.

By Kristin Corpuz
July 24, 2020
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When the Korean 12-step skincare routine took off and gained popularity in the mainstream beauty industry, one of the biggest questions that people had was: "What exactly is an essence?" Is it a serum, or a toner—or both? 

"The main goal of an essence is to hydrate the skin and to help the other products in your skincare routine better absorb into your skin," says Simon Ourian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Epione Beverly Hills (who boasts celeb clients like Kim Kardashian West). "An essence includes a lot of great benefits for your skin and acts as a primer for your skincare routine. It makes the active ingredients in your existing skincare steps that much more effective. It provides a ton of moisture deep within the skin, restoring the natural moisture balance." 

Essences have a texture much more liquid-y than a serum, but still thicker than water, and the formulas are usually completely clear. Because of this, it's difficult to picture that they actually do anything, but they work to improve the overall efficacy of the products you layer on top of it. We compiled all the information you need to know about essences, including the most elusive question of all: Do you really need one? 

What does an essence actually do? 

"Essences originated in Korea and are considered the powerhouse step in the skincare routine," says Vanessa Lee, RN, a renowned aesthetic nurse and injection educator, as well as founder of The Things We Do in Los Angeles. "Essences usually carry a higher dose of active ingredients and are meant as a 'treatment' for the skin." 

"An essence is used to support the benefits of all the other products in your routine," Dr. Ourian adds. "The active ingredients within an essence will penetrate even deeper into your skin, working to better enhance your other skincare products and making your entire skincare routine more effective. It's a vital part of maintaining your skin's health."

When should essences be used in your skincare routine? 

Cleanse your skin first—if you're sticking to a traditional Korean routine, double cleanse—then apply the essence immediately after. If you are using an astringent or pH-balancing toner in your routine, that should go between your cleanser and essence, but typically, you want your essence to be the first layer that goes onto dry skin. After that, you can apply the rest of your routine as normal (lightest to heaviest, starting with serums and working toward moisturizer).  

Are essences meant to layer on top of each other the way serums do? 

"Essences are lighter in weight and less concentrated than a serum, so you only need to use one essence in your skincare routine at a time," says Dr. Ourian. Celebrity esthetician Renee Rouleau adds, "The skin can only absorb so much, so you don't want to layer too much on the skin as you'll waste product."

What is the difference between traditional toners (i.e., astringent formulas) and essences? 

"Essences can easily be confused with toners because they have a consistency that can range from watery to a light serum, but they should be respected in their own category," Lee explains. "Toners are meant to help balance the skin pH and prep the skin for more efficacious ingredient delivery in the products to follow. Serums generally have a higher molecular weight than essences and carry more emollient and humectant properties. Because they're specifically made for the delivery of active ingredients in a lightweight formula to be absorbed well by the skin, it makes it one of the most important steps of the Korean skincare routine."

Dr. Ourian also notes that there's a significant difference in the way each product is applied. "You apply an essence with your hands whereas with a toner, you typically use a cotton pad of some sort to wipe across your face," he says. "Using a cotton pad with an essence essentially leaves a lot of product on the cotton pad, not on your skin."

Is an essence a necessity in a skincare routine?

"Especially nowadays—while wearing face masks—using a hydrating, serum-infused toner [or essence] a few times a day will go a long way," says Rouleau. "They pamper and soothe thirsty skin cells by delivering moisture deep into the skin. Doing this a few times a day will remove dirt and oil buildup while simultaneously soothing the skin."

Dr. Ourian and Lee agree that essences are a necessity in both your a.m. and p.m. skincare routines. Lee just notes to watch out for the ingredients and the essence's purpose, as some are formulated with brightening ingredients that can make your skin more photosensitive (meaning that your skin is more sensitive to sunlight).

If you're convinced that essences are a must in your routine, check out a few recommendations from the experts below.

1

If you're looking for an easy introduction to essences, this one from Peach & Lily is a must-have. With its lightweight texture and pleasant fragrance, this quick-drying formula is a beautiful first layer for any skincare regimen. It combines hero ingredients like lotus extract, niacinamide, yeast ferment, bamboo extract, and many others to deliver deep hydration, irritation relief, and brightening with continued use. It's ultra-gentle, and luckily, just a couple drops go a long way, so your bottle is guaranteed to last for a while. 

To buy: $39; ulta.com.

2

Recommended by Dr. Ourian—as well as many other dermatologists and estheticians—this essence is one of the more luxurious options on this list. It contains hero ingredients like vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, and fruit enzymes to simultaneously brighten, moisturize, and resurface the skin. It's also formulated with Vintner's Daughter's signature Phyto Nutrient Infusion, which is comprised of 13 botanicals that help boost the essence's efficacy even further. 

To buy: $225; violetgrey.com.

3

"[This essence is] my all-time favorite," says Lee. "Not only does it help with skin brightening, [but] my breakouts automatically decrease when I regularly use this specific one because of the high quality fermented ingredients and red algae." TIMY's Giving Essence contains polyglutamic acid, which is an ingredient that claims to hold four times as much moisture as hyaluronic acid (a known hydration magnet in skincare). Plus, black chokeberry, which is rich in antioxidants, helps protect the skin from pollution and other environmental stressors. (And it doesn't hurt that this one was formulated by one of the leading voices in Korean skincare in the U.S., Charlotte Cho.) 

To buy: $50; sokoglam.com.

4

If you're battling dullness, uneven texture, fine lines and wrinkles, or extreme dryness, this is the essence for you. Formulated with more mature skin types in mind—though compatible with all skin types—this plumping and resurfacing essence helps amplify the effects of every product that layers on top of it. It also boasts the "Clean At Sephora" seal so you know the product is good for you, and it's gentle enough to use at any time of day. 

To buy: $95; sephora.com.

5

Essences aren't just for folks with dry or textured skin; they can also be used to treat oiliness. Recommended by Rouleau, this essence from celebrity esthetician Shani Darden's eponymous line combines the functions of both essences and toners to help control oil and refine the appearance of pores. Sake water softens and brightens the skin, while sebocytine (or rose cannina fruit extract) and niacinamide help reduce oil production and diminish the appearance of pores. 

To buy: $52; sephora.com.