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What Exactly Is an Essence? We’ve Got the Answer

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You’ve got cleansers and serums aplenty. Acids and toners galore. But when it comes to the pursuit of a clear, glowy complexion, yes...there’s more. Enter, the essence: A Korean skincare staple that can be a bit of a head scratcher at first, but we promise is well worth the effort of adopting. It might seem like product overload, but when it comes to expansive skin routines (like the famous Korean 10-step routine), the goal isn’t about incorporating as many products as possible, but about creating a regimen that is completely tailored to your needs—with every product serving a distinct purpose. Just like double cleansing or exfoliating, essences can play a game-changing role in your skin routine, but the biggest hurdle is learning how and when to apply them.

To get to the essence of essences, we went straight to skincare expert Charlotte Cho. Keep scrolling for everything you’ll need to know about this beloved product.

Want more Korean beauty trends? Check out Amy Chang’s glass skin tutorial here:


About the Expert:

Charlotte Cho is an esthetician, curator behind the K-beauty retailer Soko Glam, and founder of the skincare line Then I Met You.

So, What Is a Face Essence?

Is it a serum? Is it a toner? Well, it’s kind of both...and neither. Insert head exploding emoji. Basically, essences act like a bridge between those two important steps (toning and applying serums) that you likely already have a handle on. Then like a cheerleader for the rest of your routine, they boost the penetration and efficacy of each product after it. “An essence has a thin, watery consistency and contains active ingredients that hydrate, brighten, and plump the skin for that glowy, radiant look that K-beauty is known for,” explains Cho. Unlike toners, which work to reset your skin's pH levels and prime the skin for better absorption after cleansing, the active ingredients in essences speed up skin cell turnover, which can help treat specific concerns (similar to serums), like dullness, fine lines, or post-acne hyperpigmentation. But the ultimate benefit of using essences for skincare? Major. Hydration.

“Essences moisturize the skin by providing an extra layer of hydration,” says Cho. “When skin is hydrated, it not only controls acne and oil production, it helps to prevent fine lines and wrinkles.” Which brings us to the next awesome fact: Because this layer of hydration is so lightweight, essences are great for all skin types. Cho points out that K-beauty essences are typically formulated to suit everyone, even those with oily or acne-prone skin—who can sometimes be wary of heavy moisturizers.

How Do You Apply an Essence?

If we’re looking at a typical five-step routine (we’ll save that fancy 10-step version for another day), the steps would look something like this: Double cleanse, tone, apply an essence, moisturize (with serums and moisturizers), protect with SPF. A good rule of thumb is remembering to go in order of consistency, from thinnest to thickest.

Skin loves to drink up the hydration essences provide, so there won’t be a ton of downtime waiting for them to sink in. Because they absorb so fast, it’s best to ditch your cotton rounds for this step, which would end up wasting product, and opt for clean hands instead. “Pour essence onto the palms of your hands and then ‘pat, pat, pat’ it all over your face,” Cho puts simply. Yep, it’s that easy. The patting motion (as opposed to rubbing) helps keep the watery formula from running down your face and aids in absorption. Don’t forget the neck! Excess essence can be patted into the skin on your neck and onto the collarbone area.

The utility of these K-beauty faves doesn’t end here—essences work fabulously when prepping skin for makeup. “Since an essence will quickly absorb into skin, it’s perfect for wearing underneath your daily foundation as a protective layer of hydration,” says Cho. Need a quick fix for dry patches? Cho recommends grabbing a few cotton rounds and loading them up with essence. Then, place the soaked rounds onto any dehydrated spots, letting them sit for five to ten minutes before peeling off.

4 Best Face Essences We Know You’ll Love:

Feeling ready to take on the wide world of essences? We’ve rounded up a quick list of our current go-tos.

1. Best Skin Reset: SUNDAY RILEY Pink Drink Firming Resurfacing Essence

SUNDAY RILEY Pink Drink Firming Resurfacing Essence

The first step in any good skincare routine? A potent face mist, like this one from SUNDAY RILEY. The multitasking essence helps resurface, balance, and firm skin with peptides, ceramides, probiotics, antioxidants, and vitamin-rich pink yeast extract.

2. Best Skin Soother: /SKIN REGIMEN/ Microalgae Essence

/SKIN REGIMEN/ Microalgae Essence

Even with a flawless application (and reapplication) of SPF, extensive time in the sun can still do a number on your complexion. This super lightweight essence helps rebalance and reinvigorate skin—thanks to a potent microalgae formula that plumps and soothes thirsty skin. Plus, it has a cooling texture that feels a-maz-ing on skin after a long day outdoors.

3. Best for Dehydrated Skin: TONYMOLY The Chok Chok Green Tea Watery Essence

TONYMOLY The Chok Chok Green Tea Watery Essence

This part toner, part hydrating serum has a watery texture that penetrates deep into skin for maximum hydration. Infused with lemon seed oil, this formula has antibacterial properties to help prevent breakouts, plus the addition of rosewood helps soothe and revitalize skin, leaving your complexion hydrated and soft.

4. Best Skincare Prep: VEGAN BY HAPPY SKIN ORIGINAL SKIN ESSENCE TONER

VEGAN BY HAPPY SKIN ORIGINAL SKIN ESSENCE TONER

Formulas that offer a two-in-one promise have come a very long way from the dreaded shampoo-conditioner combinations that haunt our beauty nightmares. Case in point? This essence and toner from VEGAN BY HAPPY SKIN. It uses a blend of antioxidant-rich and skin-soothing ingredients like aloe vera juice, chamomile, and calendula to calm your complexion post-cleanse while prepping your skin for serums and moisturizer in one fell swoop.

So the next time you look at someone else’s bar-soap-only routine and ponder your extensive skin regimen, just remember—when they go low, we go high. And with a little dedication, you will be rewarded with the glowy skin of your dreams.

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About the author
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Hannah Cassidy
Hannah is a beauty editor at IPSY and has been creating content for fashion, beauty, and wellness in Los Angeles for over five years. Outside of the beauty world, she’s an avid vintage collector and dog mom to Pumpkin and Turtle.
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Article Last Updated April 27, 2022 12:00 AM