Korean skincare regimen basics: Essences and why they work

The world of Korean beauty products can be confusing and overwhelming - there are essences, tonics, skins, ampoules. We’ll do a deep dive on each of these products to better explain what each product really is, but today’s spotlight will be on essences.

Almost every Korean skincare regimen will include an essence, but in the U.S. this really isn’t a product category that’s ubiquitous. 

So we’ll decode it for you today. 

Let’s begin with, what is an essence?

An essence is formulated to be delivered deep into the dermis (read: works at the cellular level) and is functional. It will contain an active ingredient to provide a function for your skin - brighten, plump, rejuvenate, nourish, etc. 

Ok great, that sounds a lot like a serum, so what’s the difference?

There isn’t a huge difference other than the fact that serums are typically more concentrated and viscous than essences. Essences are sometimes more easily absorbable and typically a very lightweight, every AM/PM must-use for Korean women. Additionally, unlike serums, typically essences will absorb right in and not have too many texture breaks (how a product feels on your face at first, as it’s being rubbed in, and when it’s all seeped in) aside from an overall hydrated feeling.

However, essences have evolved and come a long way, and are formulated in lots of varying ways now. Part of the confusion is that essences now can be watery, slightly tacky, super silky, you name it. And they’re all called essences. The essence of the essence (no pun intended ;>) doesn’t change though - it is a functional product intended to transform skin from the inside out.

So when do I put on an essence?

After washing, apply toner, then apply your essence. If the essence is slightly watery, highly recommended to apply right after the toner. If the essence is more viscous, then it can come before or after serums/face oils/ampoules, but always before your moisturizer. General rule of thumb, the more watery products go on first, and the more occluisve, heavier products go on later.

And finally, what kind of essences are trending lately in Korea/Asia?

Essences have been a staple product category for generations of women in Korea. However, excitingly, there are innovative trends in essences that make these wonderful products better and better. The latest trend is for essences to become more and more watery or to have a hybrid function. Essences were typically slightly viscous (although still watery compared to serums). However, with the latest trend in Korea to have a youthful, seriously hydrated and plump face, essences have become a bit more watery (while still being chock full of active ingredients that will go to work on your skin) to provide intense hydration. These “watery” essences are all the rage in Korea, which you can read about in this really wonderful W Magazine feature on Korean beauty (and Peach and Lily!). 

Our pick of the month: 

One of our favorite essences is a hybrid one that acts as a toner, essence and an emulsion in-one! This luxurious take on the essence is a dream for the busy and demanding: May Coop’s Raw Sauce, which is also mentioned in the W Magazine article. What we love about May Coop is that the brand uses maple tree sap as its base, which is the same size as your skin particles (vs. water which is about 1.5x the size of your skin’s barrier, which means most products don’t always easily seep into the skin) making for exceptional delivery into the deeper layers of your skin. What do you with that kind of base? You fill it with incredible active and high-end ingredients to create small miracles in pretty glass bottles. 



Cheers to a whole new world of exploring the power of essences! - Alicia

Posted on June 30, 2015
by Shannon Zhu