The Ultra-Lightweight Product That Revitalizes Sensitive Skin

Photo credit: Courtsey of brands
Photo credit: Courtsey of brands

From Prevention

Choosing the right skin care products is no doubt overwhelming. With cleansers, toners, exfoliators, acne treatments, serums, moisturizers, and so much more to choose from, it can be difficult to figure out what your skin really needs to look and feel its healthiest.

And now, another skin care product is starting to grow in popularity. Thanks to the rise in Korean beauty, facial essences have made their way to the United States-but what exactly are they?

At first glance, essences look a lot like the serums you know and love to treat fine lines, fight dark spots, and give your skin an all-over glow. But while they might serve similar purposes in your skin care routine, they’re not exactly the same. Here, dermatologists explain the difference between an essence and a serum, the unique benefits of each, and how to figure out which one is right for you.

Essence vs. serum: What’s the difference?

“In Korean beauty, essences are lighter in weight, less concentrated than serums, and are used after a toner to add another layer of hydration before the serum is applied,” explains Hadley King, MD, a dermatologist at Skinney Med Spa and clinical instructor of dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

“Serums generally contain a few key active ingredients to address specific issues like brightening, dark spots, or fine lines, and the active ingredients are usually found at higher concentrations in serums than in moisturizing creams,” adds Dr. King. They also tend to be a bit thicker in consistency than an essence.

Most companies recommend using an essence first, after cleansing and toning, and following it up with a serum. However, it’s not totally necessary to use both an essence and a serum, says Erum Ilyas, MD, a dermatologist at Montgomery Dermatology in Pennsylvania.

Why? The play very similar roles in your routine. Both an essence and serum deliver active ingredients to the skin before you moisturize-it’s just all about personal preference and how your skin reacts to the individual formulas.

“If a patient tells me they can’t stand lotions or moisturizers because they are thick and greasy or they don’t like the way they feel, then essences can play a refreshing and light role in providing needed hydration with a water- or gel-like consistency,” she says. “Although some regimens will call for a cleanser, then toner, then essence, then serum, then moisturizer-for most people this is a bit much.”

For this reason, she tries to minimize routines to just a few steps, with two to three steps being ideal. “There’s just a better chance that these routines will sustain themselves,” she adds.

Read on to find out if you should incorporate a serum or essence into your routine.

The benefits of a facial serum and how to use one

Serums tend to be more potent than essences. They contain high amounts of active ingredients in one lightweight product, which sink deep into the skin to get to work.

This is why it is most beneficial to apply your serum after cleansing, but before your moisturizer. “The particle size of lotions and moisturizers is often so large that they can adhere to skin, but not necessarily find their way between the skin layers,” says Dr. Ilyas.

Serums are also beneficial because they target specific skin problems-say, a hyaluronic acid serum if you’re dry or a vitamin C serum if you have hyperpigmentation.

Just note that a pea-sized amount should do the trick. “I find that serums are so concentrated that the key to remember in using these is to use very little,” says Dr. Ilyas, otherwise you may actually experience more dryness and irritation.

The benefits of a facial essence and how to use one

If your skin tends to be more on the sensitive side and you’re worried that a higher concentration of active ingredients might cause irritation (such as redness, itching, or breakouts), Dr. Ilyas suggests going with an essence instead. This way, you still reap the benefits of the same ingredients, only in lighter formulations.

In traditional Korean beauty standards, you would apply an essence after cleansing and toning, but before moisturizing.

Should you be using an essence or a serum?

Since essences and serum will target similar skin concerns-fine lines and signs of aging, acne, or dryness, for example-Dr. Ilyas explains that some people will see more of a difference using potent serums, while others may find them irritating and opt for essences instead.

“For example, if you are looking for hydration in your skin but cannot tolerate thick products, then try out a serum and see if you like the thickness of it,” she says. “If it’s still too thick, drop down to an essence.”

If you’re looking for anti-aging effects, but have very sensitive skin, she suggests choosing an essence over a serum to minimize the irritation from common concentrated ingredients, like retinol.

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