Korean beauty brands are slowly but surely taking over the shelves of Sephora and other big retailers, however, sometimes the classification of Asian products can be a bit confusing. While most of us know how to use cleansers, toners, serums, and moisturizers, Korean beauty buffs have about a dozen more words in their skincare lingo. We’re talking about boosters, essences, finishers, mists, ampoules, emulsions etc… Where do they all belong in terms of layering order? Today I’ll touch on the most popular type among these “exotic” products and one you are most likely to encounter in Western shops – the essences.
WHAT IS AN ESSENCE?
So, what is an essence and how do you use it? It took me a long time to figure out when I first got into k-beauty. After all they are so different from one another, and can sometimes be indistinguishable from serums and runny lotions. A typical Korean essence is lightweight, almost watery and often comes in a bottle with a pump dispenser or a dropper. What makes it unique is the concentration of active ingredients, as essences are generally less potent than serums and ampoules. Most of them are very runny and can be applied to cleansed skin right after your favorite toner and prior to serum and moisturizer. Due to their liquid nature they work extremely well with other products and almost never cause pilling and formula clashes, which is another reason why Korean women love layering them for maximum benefits.
Lower concentration of actives makes essences ideal for adding an extra dose of antioxidants, vitamins, brightening or anti-bacterial properties to your routine without clashing with the rest of the skincare. In my case, I swap essences depending on my skin condition. For instance, when I develop hormonal acne I use this one, and when my skin is looking dull I use this one. This method allows me to customize the benefits without changing every single step of the routine. After all, I don’t necessarily want to stop using my favorite anti-aging moisturizer just because there are a few breakouts on my chin, and with essences I don’t have to.
As with just about any skincare product, essence application has its buts and ifs. Like when I am using an AHA or BHA serums for example. I apply my serums to the skin right after cleansing and toning, and let them sit for a while before layering any essences on top. This allows the AHAs/BHAs to do some work before the rest of my skincare raises the skin’s pH back to normal, deeming those acids ineffective. This is my personal rule that I developed after much trial and error, but it works well for me.
HOW TO APPLY AN ESSENCE?
Now that you know what essences are and where they belong in a multi-step Korean beauty routine, your next question is probably how to apply essences. First of all, here’s how not to apply them: never use cotton rounds for your essences. An essence is not a toner, even if it looks like one, and you are basically wasting a ton of great product by soaking up that cotton round with it. You wouldn’t soak a cotton round with your favorite serum or a moisturizer, would you?
Instead, dispense an appropriate amount of serum on your fingertips, lightly rub them together to warm up the product, and gently pat into the skin. Patting method increases the absorption of active ingredients, while rubbing only smudges the product over the surface, so the absorption is very minimal. This is a clinically proven fact and the reason why Korean women apply all of their beauty products this way now, not just the essences. No wonder so many of them have perfect skin!
WHAT MAKES ESSENCES DIFFERENT?
Finally, I bet you’re wondering what’s the difference between essences, serums, boosters, and ampoules? They have one thing in common: in the layering order they are applied before cream and sunscreen. Assuming you have all four on your desk, here’s how I would layer them. Boosters prep the skin and make the rest of the products more effective, so start with it after cleansing and toning. Ampoules are usually the most concentrated products in the routine, but they often have thin consistency and can be layered right after booster [more on that in a future post, as there’s a lot to learn about ampoules in general]. Next up – the essences. I go wild and apply several different ones to really load up on antioxidants, vitamins, and brightening fermented extracts! And finally, I apply a serum on top of the essences to seal in the goodness. Serums are generally thicker than essences and ampoules, and sometimes even look like runny lotions.
Lotions and emulsions are types of an occlusive moisturizing upper layer, and are always used to top everything. Those are just fancy words describing the consistency of the product, like someone with combination skin might want to use a product labeled as a lotion where someone with dry skin would use a cream. Does that make sense? If all that still sounds confusing, as a rule of thumb you can’t go wrong by layering your beauty products by consistency instead of what’s written on the bottle – from the thinnest to the thickest. Just don’t forget to pat in everything for maximum benefits, and you’re all set!
WHICH ESSENCES ARE THE BEST?
To wrap up this intro, I thought I’d share a few of my personal favorites, all of which I am currently using, to give you some ideas.
LJH Tea Tree 90 Essence [$45 for 1.7 oz, available here] used to be hard to find just a year ago, but now thanks to kbeauty community it rose to a cult status, so most Asian beauty retailers now have it in stock. This essence is perfection in a bottle for those suffering from breakouts, oily, and combination skin, and I can’t imagine my life without it. It’s unscented, non-sticky, and absorbs by the skin almost immediately, but the effect is straight up phenomenal. I’m not exaggerating when I say I have 10 backup bottles stashed away.
The Lotus Essence with Lotus Leaf [$64 for 4.2 oz, available here] was one of my most recent discoveries, and I am totally loving it! This herbal multi-tasker uses lotus leaf extract loaded with anti-oxidants instead of water, and helps boost hydration, brightens the skin, and makes it velvety smooth to touch so other products go on better.
Benton Snail Bee High Content Essence [$11 for 1.7 oz, available here] has been my go-to product for many years, and it’s widely available in many kbeauty retailers. It contains a very high concentration of brightening and skin-repairing ingredients like bee venom [yes, really!] and snail slime filtrate that work amazingly well for acne-prone and irritated skin. The reason I don’t talk about it more often is because the company was involved in a very bad drama, and I am totally siding with the consumers there. However, even considering my personal opinion about the company I find it hard to give up this essence, because it’s cheap, natural, and ridiculously effective. Can’t get better than that.
ProYou Magic Silky Shiny Skin Essence [$27 for 1.7 oz, only available in Korea] – Cheesy name aside, this is a fabulous essence! Packed with brightening adenosine and niacinamide, EGF [stands for Epidermal Growth Factor or Human Oligopeptide-1, used in medicine to treat burns and open wounds], moisturizing hyaluronic acid, panthenol and various vitamins & antioxidants, this essence was one of the best products I discovered through Memebox. According to CosDNA there isn’t a single irritant in the formula! If you are interested in purchasing this essence submit your request to TesterKorea, they’re good about stocking hard to find products. Or check eBay, but unfortunately the authenticity is never guaranteed there.
Unni Recipe Vitamin Recharger Essence [$18 for 1.85 oz, only available in Korea] contains an array of skin-brightening ingredients like Vitamin C and Niacinamide, as well as a high concentration of moisturizing Hyaluronic Acid, anti-aging Vitamin E, and dozens of plant extracts that act as antioxidants. If you are interested in ordering this essence I suggest you either check eBay or submit your request to TesterKorea. They have been very helpful finding products for me in the past and the prices are more than reasonable.
WHY CHOOSE ALCOHOL-FREE?
All of my favorite essences have one thing in common – they’re alcohol-free, which makes them extremely gentle even for sensitive skin. I keep mentioning this in my most recent posts, but I’m in the middle of a skincare experiment. I’m trying to minimize my skin’s exposure to Alcohol Denat in beauty products to see if it really makes a difference. Paula’s Choice has a great article about the dangers of Alcohol Denat for your skin, and while I don’t agree with them on everything [like how they don’t think an eye cream is necessary and undervalue the role of peptides in skincare], I think this one was really well-written. I’ll be sure to tell you about my results once the experiment is over!
P.S.: This article was written per request of my friend Angela from Hairspray and High Heels. Check out her cocktail recipes and beauty DIY ideas!
Have you tried Korean essences before? What exotic beauty term do you want me to write about next time? Let me know in the comments below!
Disclosure: This post features products purchased by Glamorable & received for editorial consideration and may contain affiliate or referral links. For more details about my product review policy, copyright, and information about affiliate links, please refer to Disclosures & Content Use page.