Choosing the right skin care products is no doubt overwhelming. With cleansers, toners, exfoliators, acne treatments, serums, moisturisers, 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. Facial essences have made their way to our shelves—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 dermatologist Dr Hadley King.
“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 moisturising 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 dermatologist Dr Erum Ilyas.
Why? The play very similar roles in your routine. Both an essence and serum deliver active ingredients to the skin before you moisturise-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 moisturisers 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 moisturiser-for most people this is a bit much.”
For this reason, she tries to minimise 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 moisturiser. “The particle size of lotions and moisturisers 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.
Should you be using an essence or a serum?
Since essences and serum will target similar skin concerns—fine lines and signs of ageing, 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-ageing effects, but have very sensitive skin, she suggests choosing an essence over a serum to minimise the irritation from common concentrated ingredients, like retinol.