The great Korean beauty invasion of the 2010s brought us the skincare-meets-makeup BB and CC creams, hydrate-while-you-rest sleeping masks, and cushion compacts for whisper-light makeup coverage. As we inch ever closer to mimicking complete Korean beauty regimens we begin to wonder: Should we be using essences, too? (And what are they, by the way?)
A cross between a serum and a toner, essences are typically packed with antioxidants, peptides, and other skin-pampering ingredients commonly found in high-performance serums. But because they’re lighter than many serums, some believe essences may be better equipped to penetrate deeper into the skin than more viscous products with larger molecules. It’s believed that the deeper these active ingredients can penetrate, the more likely they can help spike skin cell turnover, boost collagen production, and work other anti-aging magic.
But don’t toss your serums just yet. Dr. Jeannette Graf, a New York-based Dermatologist and author of Stop Aging, Start Living, says that serums are typically made with active ingredients in higher concentrations, which can deliver a stronger impact as an anti-aging step in a skincare routine. “Serums vary in consistency from lightweight to thick, but tend to give you more actives [than essences], without the water and moisturizers,” she explains.
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a New York-based dermatologist, agrees with Graf that while essences shouldn’t replace serums as the primary anti-aging component of your daily skincare routine, they can be used as an extra step to give skin an additional shot of antioxidants, moisture, or fatty acids. “Fundamentally, an essence and serum are the same thing, but many Koreans use these lightweight formulations after toner to add a layer of hydration,” says Graf.
So should we add this extra step into our AM and PM regimens? Graf and Zeichner both say the lines are blurry as to how much of an anti-aging impact these solutions can have. For those short on time, cleansing, applying an antioxidant-rich serum, and SPF covers the bases for an AM routine. Active ingredients like retinoids are known to deliver the biggest benefit at night. For those who want to intensify their skin-babying efforts, essences applied after cleansing and before a serum may serve as a helpful addition. “Their lighter consistencies should not interfere with the skin’s ability to absorb a serum when placed on top,” says Zeichner.
If you’re willing to give one a try, there are essences made to target every skin concern. One formula popular in Korea is Cremorlab Mineral Treatment Essence ($42), a fragrance and alcohol-free solution made with hydrating glycerin and mineral water and niacinamide for lightening dark spots. Those with dry skin may benefit from layering the antioxidant-equipped Dolce & Gabbana Aurealux Essence ($72) under moisturizer for a hydrating boost. Zeichner feels its gold silk sericin can provide building blocks for healthy skin cells. He also likes Vapour Organic Beauty Essence Restorative Night Treatment ($90) for its antioxidant-rich formula and skin-brightening and calming ingredients. Oily skin types can reach for Chantecaille Vital Essence ($112), a thicker, more serum-like formulation that is also antioxidant-packed, with red algae to help control oil production. Those with red or inflamed skin can find relief in Boscia Cool Blue Hydration Essence ($48), a hydrating gel that employs willow herb and sea whip to fight inflammation. Finally, if aging is a primary concern, SK-II Facial Treatment Essence ($165), is primarily made with a yeast extract rich in collagen-promoting peptides and can be added to an evening routine to aid in skin repair.
While these pros deem essences a nonessential, those looking to take their skin care routines to the max—and possibly nab the kind of flawless skin Korean women are known for—these skin tonics may just be that little extra something that makes complexions beam.