One of the most frequently asked questions I receive as a Korean Beauty blogger is “What is an essence?”. And I understand the confusion, believe me. When I first moved to South Korea and saw essences lining the beauty shelves in Seoul, I was equally baffled and even thought it might be some sort of innovative perfume! I’d never heard about essences nor seen an essence in my local Boots at home, let alone used one. You could say my Korean beauty journey really began with discovering essence in Seoul in 2014.
The essence question is often quickly followed with “is an essence the same as a toner?”. In short, the answer is no. And, Korean toners are typically very different to their western counterparts. The terms used by Korean beauty brands are not necessarily the same as those used in European or North American skincare and at first, it can certainly be difficult to get to grips with. Not only are the product names sometimes confusing but learning where to place these products in your routine can feel like a daunting task too. In today’s post we’re going to breakdown the terminology and explore different types of toners and essences, what they can do for you, and when you should be using them. Here is our ultimate guide to toners, essences, and everything in between.
We’re going to start with the extensive category of toners. VERY simply put, toners are a watery product to be used immediately after cleansing. A lot of cleansers, and even water, can throw off your skin’s natural pH leaving you feeling dry and tight (I’d recommend low pH cleansers for a gentler option). Toners are supposed to rebalance this, adjusting your skin back to its naturally acidic state. However, we must break this category down into much more detail because, of course, it’s not so simple. Toners can do a LOT more these days than just pH balancing. Let’s think of “Toners” as the umbrella term, with brands producing a wide variety of different products falling under that.
These are the classic liquid product from your teen years, and probably the only toner most of us were aware of until the Korean beauty influence hit the skincare scene. Usually with high levels of alcohol or witch hazel, these toners are aimed at oily, acne-prone skin. The alcohol is supposed to clear the oil, and it often leaves a stinging sensation on your skin. Sound familiar? Although astringent toners can have their benefits, drying out your skin is not always the way to the complexion of your dreams and can have a detrimental effect. Be aware of how your skin reacts to astringents and whether they’re really working for you.
Exfoliating toners are a watery liquid with the added benefit of chemical exfoliation ingredients. Before you run scared at the words “chemical exfoliation”, let me explain how INCREDIBLE these can be. If you’re familiar with skincare, you may have heard of the acid ingredients BHAs and AHAs. I wouldn’t typically group acid products with other toners and essences, but as a lot of the products use the label “toner” or varieties of the word, I thought it best to include an explanation in this detailed post.
BHAs, or beta-hydroxy acids for their full name, are fat-soluble acids that can penetrate and deeply exfoliate pores. The most common BHA ingredients are salicylic acid or, it’s gentler sibling and common in many Korean BHA products, betaine salicylate. BHAs are often suggested for those with troubled skin, targeting blackheads or pore control. The most popular Korean BHA product is probably the COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid. I personally use this product for controlling the excessive sebum across my nose.
AHAs, alpha-hydroxy acids, can help exfoliate the skin surface by removing dead skin cells, as well as help with anti-aging because of the way they help stimulate collagen production. The most common AHA ingredient is glycolic acid. They’re great for all skin types but can be particularly beneficial for those targeting pigmentation, texture, and signs of ageing. Again, a common Korean AHA is the Cosrx AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid. I personally use this to help target my uneven skin texture.
Many people, including myself, opt to use both AHAs and BHAs on different parts of their face. As I mentioned, I use BHA on my nose area to target sebum, then I use AHA over the rest of my face to target skin texture. One thing to bear in mind is that you must use sunscreen if you incorporate exfoliating toners into your routine, as they make your skin much more sensitive to the sun.
Most Korean exfoliating toners are on the gentle side, with a low % of acid and a higher pH level (the higher pH, the less effective the acid will be and thus, gentler). If you’re new to exfoliating products, be sure to go slow and see how your skin reacts. I explain at the end of this post where you should be placing these products in your routine!
The Innisfree Green Barley Peeling Toner contains AHA
Perhaps the most well-known of Korean products- hydrating toners. These beauties are exactly as they sound. They fill your skin with hydration leaving you with a healthy glow and plumped complexion. It was this step that transformed my skin. Many of us don’t realise our skin is dehydrated. Even oily skin types can be severely dehydrated which can lead to dullness and premature ageing. Incorporating these toners puts the moisture back into your skin and really helps achieve that healthy glow. Having moist skin when you move onto your next skincare steps will also help those further products absorb more effectively.
You’ll often see the phrase toner-mist. These can be any of the above type of toner in spray form! Mist form is super handy if you’re a guy or gal on the go. They’re so easy to use, you can store them anywhere, and just spritz and leave. They’re low maintenance but ensure your skin gets the hydration it needs. I also like to spray in between skincare steps for added moisture or even use them as a makeup setting spray!
Moving on to…
Essences certainly appear to be like toners, in that they’re usually a watery liquid applied near the beginning of your skincare routine. However, think of essences as a step closer to serum- they have more concentrated ingredients than toners and often the effects of essences may be much more apparent than a standard hydrating toner.
There are not as many defined categories for essences as there seem to be for toners. However, we do typically tend to see more variety of texture and consistency in essences. Although a watery texture is common, they can also be more of a gel or a serum type. For example, the Etude House Moistfull Collagen Essence has a more gel-like texture than the watery IOPE Bio Essence Intensive Conditioning.
Brightening is often the effect most commonly associated with essences- particularly those that contain fermented ingredients. These types of essences (think Missha Time Revoluton First Treatment Essence) typically help with skin cell turnover which results in more radiant, brightened skin. These essences are extremely popular because of the stunning results and no-fuss application. Simply pat into skin and move on!
Although anti-aging is a difficult term to break down (we cannot reverse damage!), essences can certainly help target fine lines and hugely aid in preventative work. By plumping fine lines with the moisture of the essence, your skin will appear firmer and it will also prevent the lines from deepening. Combined with the brightening effects and skin cell turnover, the overall effect will be a more youthful glow.
First Treatment Essences (FTEs)
These are a distinct category within “Essences”. The clue is in the name. These are VERY thin formulas that are supposed to be applied immediately after cleansing. Some people use these in place of a toner, before a toner, or after a toner. It really is up to you. Personally, I often use a first essence followed by a hydrating toner.
And The Rest…
Just when you thought you were starting to understand the different types of product, I’m here to tell you that there’s more! Here are some of the other terms you may frequently see in the toner/essence category.
These usually fall more into the toner category. For example, the famous Son & Park Beauty Water is an exfoliating toner. Look at the ingredients’ list and function of the “water” product to figure this one out if you’re unsure.
Skin, in my experience, is often a hydrating toner type of product. At Kosame Beauty, we have the Hanyul Rice Essential Skin Softener. This is a gel-like toner that hydrates and conditions the skin for a soft, smooth appearance.
This is a term most frequently seen in Japanese skincare. I used to think the term lotion related to cream, but most Asian lotions are thin and watery like an essence. Typically, they often have a brightening effect but occasionally they’re astringent with high alcohol levels. Again, all you can really do is check the ingredients list as you become more familiar with what you’re looking for.
When To Use
With so many different product types, it can certainly be overwhelming trying to figure out when to use them. Here are some basic “rules” to help get the most benefit from your toner/essence products.
- Any BHA and/or AHA products should go first after cleansing. These products work best at a certain pH, and so you don’t want your other toners or essences to interfere with the pH and mess them up. Yes, they even go before “first essence”. So, wash your face, allow 15 minutes wait for you skin to return to its naturally acidic pH, then use your acid, followed by a 15-minute wait to allow it to do it’s work. There are theories that you don’t need a wait time, so you do you on that!
- If you’re using an AHA and a BHA product, do the BHA first followed by the AHA. BHA penetrate your pores and goes deeper, so it should be used first. After a wait time, follow with your AHA. Remember you don’t need to use one, both, or either of these- it’s up to you and your skin’s needs.
- For everything else, the rule of thumb is thinnest to thickest. Use your most watery product first and then move up through the consistencies. For example, you may have a super watery first essence to use first, followed by a hydrating toner that’s slightly thicker, followed by a gel essence which is much thicker in texture than the previous two.
I hope this breakdown has been helpful for those of you who are new to the world of Korean skincare. A Korean skincare routine does not have to be complicated, but it’s good to know the function of your products and where in your routine they should be placed for maximum effect. Just remember acids first, then your other products from thinnest to thickest. And most importantly, enjoy your ritual and don’t let it become a chore! Ultimately, it’s up to you where you place your products and whatever you feel works best for your skin. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to comment below and I will get back to you!
Katherine Spowart from skinfullofseoul.com