what are facial essences and how do they work?

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by Jaclyn LaBadia

If you’re a fan of Korean skincare (notoriously known for its 10-step routine) you’ve probably heard of facial essences. But there’s a lot of confusion in the skincare community about facial essences. Are they toners? Are they serums? Though they’re easily mistaken for both, the answer is actually neither. If you’re wondering if you should add a facial essence to your skincare routine, you’ve come to the right place. We’re about to break down everything you need to know about facial essences and how they work.

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What is the purpose of a facial essence?

The purpose of a facial essence is to prepare your skin for treatment by starting the skin regeneration process, so that the top layer of the dead skin cells is shed, revealing new skin for a healthy glow. Facial essences are packed with highly concentrated active ingredients meant to intensely hydrate and nourish the skin and prep it for anything that follows. The theory is that new skin cells can more easily take in the active ingredients in the steps that follow, rendering them more effective by creating the best possible environment for the actives to penetrate the skin. Originating from the Korean beauty industry, facial essences combine various elements of a skincare routine in one step. Essences hydrate and re-balance the skin.

Essence vs. Toner vs. Serum: What's The Difference?

Essences, toners, and serums are often used interchangeably, even though there are differences amongst them all. Let’s take a closer look.

  • Facial Essence vs. Toner

A facial essence is essentially used to prep your skin for, and bolster the benefits of, the skincare products that will follow. Because of this, they’re often compared to toners. But toners are more of an astringent, pH balancing, clarifying step. Almost like a second step after your cleanser. While facial essences are liquid treatments that infuse the skin with hydration and actives.

  • Facial Essence vs. Serum

Facial essences are also easily confused with serums because of their appearance and ability to deeply penetrate the skin. But the biggest difference between facial essence and serum is the list of ingredients. Serum is a combination of active ingredients such as vitamin C, AHA, and HCA. Because of these rich ingredients, serums can treat things like wrinkles and dark spots that facial essence can’t. Serums are also effective at adding a layer of moisture to your skin because they’re traditionally a water-based product. An example of this is how a hydrating serum with hyaluronic acid can also double as a moisturizer.


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What is a facial essence made of?

Think of a facial essence as an illuminating moisturizer. Essences contain powerful humectants and emollients like hyaluronic acid and glycerin. As humectants, these ingredients act as magnets for water, drawing moisture into the skin and trapping it. But each humectant has its own unique benefits. Hyaluronic acid can carry 1,000 times its weight in water and bind water to skin cells; while glycerin molecules are smaller and can penetrate deep within the skin, carrying water into the inner layers of the dermis for mega hydration. As far as emollients, butters like shea and cocoa work to lock in hydration by preventing a natural function of the skin known as TEWL, or transepidermal water loss.

What skin types can benefit most from a facial essence?

A facial essence can benefit all skin types, but it’s particularly beneficial for dry or dehydrated skin, thanks to its hydrating abilities. If aging is a concern, this added hit of hydration can also help to decrease the look of fine lines and wrinkles. And it can be great for strengthening the skin barrier if you have sensitive skin. Even if you don’t have one of the skin types mentioned above, the added hydration and nourishment facial essences provide will only do your skin good.

Using a facial essence can...  

  • Increase hydration levels in the skin better than any other skincare product, by delivering hydrating ingredients to the skin at a very deep level. 
  • Banish dull skin, instantly making it look brighter and healthier, with a natural glow.
  • Combat the signs of premature aging by improving overall skin function and preventing environmental stressors from breaking down the skin cells and causing damage to the skin.
  • Help soothe irritated skin and eliminate redness and the signs of sensitivity in the skin.
  • Improve the texture of the skin by plumping it up.

If you have dry skin-

  • All facial essences will work for dry skin types, but the ones with a thicker texture made from botanical oils will be most hydrating.

If you have normal/combination skin-

  • Almost all essences work well for normal and combination skin types. You can choose to only use a facial essence on the parts of your face that are dryer, or you can use it instead of a moisturizer on the parts of your skin that are oilier.

 If you have oily skin-

  • You can use facial essences, even if you have oily skin. Essences are usually oil-free products meant to hydrate the skin without weighing it down or clogging it. If your skin is extremely oily, all your skin may need for hydration and moisture is a facial essence. If your skin is acne-prone, avoid essences that contain probiotics or fermented ingredients. 

If you have hyperpigmentation-

  • If you have dark spots or hyperpigmentation that you’re trying to eliminate, facial essences can help reduce it. Essences containing skin-brightening ingredients that are extremely effective. The best facial essences for your skin contain ingredients like niacinamide and vitamin C.

If you have mature skin-

  • Almost all facial essences have ingredients to combat the signs of premature aging, like wrinkles, fine lines, and loss of tone. Keeping the skin hydrated is the key to younger-looking skin. But the best essences for reducing the signs of aging include a variety of skin-renewing and protecting ingredients. 


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So should you use a facial essence?

The answer is a resounding yes! Facial essence helps to balance the pH levels of your skin. This is important because it helps keep your skin hydrated without being overly oily. A facial essence helps decongest pores, smooth skin, and brighten your complexion. It also helps to keep your skin hydrated. Imagine placing a dry sponge under a flowing faucet. Most likely the water will bounce right off and not absorb into the dry sponge. But if the sponge is damp, it will absorb more water. If your skin’s been prepped and nourished with an essence, it will be more receptive to whatever else you apply next. Always make room for a facial essence in your skincare routine.

How to Use a Facial Essence in Your Skincare Routine

  1. Start with a clean face using a gentle cleansing cream.
  2. Next, tone your skin by soaking a cotton pad and wiping your skin with it in upward, circular motions. 
  3. If your routine includes actives like salicylic acid, vitamin C, or glycolic acid, apply them now regardless of their texture. Wait 15-20 minutes to allow them to work.
  4. Now you’re ready to apply your facial essence. Pour a nickel-sized amount of essence into the palm of your hand. Rub both your hands together to warm up the essence and press it into your skin.
  5. Apply the essence around your nose and eyes, with the pads of your fingers. Press it in lightly. 
  6. Give your skin a few moments to absorb the essence.
  7. Apply your serums, and anti-aging face moisturizer.
  8. In the daytime, finish off with a healthy amount of anti-aging sunscreen.
  9. In the evening, finish with an anti-aging face mask.


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Tips for Using Facial Essences

  • For an easier application, pour your facial essence into a spray bottle and then spray it directly on your face. This will work with almost all liquid facial essences.
  • A facial essence can double as a makeup refreshing spray. Splash a bit onto your face if you feel like your makeup is looking too dry or powdery.
  • If you’re in a rush, use your facial essence to boost the hydrating abilities of your moisturizer. Mix the two products in your hand right before applying them to your skin. This can also work with serums.
  • Facial essences are also great for making your own sheet masks. You can purchase dry sheet masks online. Soak the sheet mask in your essence and apply it to your skin. After twenty minutes your skin will feel super soft and hydrated.
  • If your skin gets dehydrated throughout the day, carry your essence with you (especially if you’ve replaced the top with a spray!), and mist your skin with it every time your skin feels thirsty for an instant pick-me-up.

Wrapping Up...

Facial essences are one of the most commonly misunderstood steps in Korean skincare. Unlike toners and serums, they are less well known outside of Korea and their purpose is less cut and dry. But these highly-concentrated treatments contain high doses of active ingredients meant to intensely nourish the skin post-cleanse and prep it for anything that follows. If you’re not already using a facial essence, it’s time to up your skincare game!

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