What is an essence and do you really need one?

This has got to be, hands down, one of the most confusing topics I've ever had to write about here on Project Vanity. 

It all started when one day, I noticed that bottles of what I thought were serums were carefully labeled as essences. I did a double-take. It was like seeing the products for the first time even if they've been in my vanity for months, even a year, now. So I checked to see the labels of products which I thought were essences, and they were clearly labeled as lotions or softeners.

What? Imagine my confusion, my friends. I felt - feel - a little dizzy trying to understand everything. So I did a little digging and here's what I found about this confounding Korean skincare category.

Elle says that essences are "designed to be used just after cleansing...these new liquids infuse the skin with nutrients and moisture. And don't be deceived: Though they may have the consistency of water, some are more concentrated and high-impact than many serums and creams."

Into The Gloss agrees that it's neither toner or serum, "With higher doses of active ingredients, essence is meant to deliver those deep into the skin after you've gone through the process of cleansing (two or three times, if you're thorough). It's got your hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and other natural extracts for an immediately hydrated and comforted feel."

Sokoglam was quite murky yet somehow enlightening about the matter, "Depending on the concentration of the formula, they [essences] have been also referred to as serums, ampoules and even boosters. Ampoules are super concentrated versions so they tend to be more expensive than essence."

What I gleaned from these definitions is that essence can refer to pretty much anything that has active ingredients suspended in a watery emulsion. Though they are not to be confused with an actual emulsion (which is basically another name for moisturizer in K-beauty) or with softeners/lotions (which are closer to the concept of toners), essences are more kin to serums but are not quite there. It all depends on the concentration of the active ingredients. Labels don't matter as much because it's not like companies will say how concentrated (or not) their essences are anyway.

Based on the products I have with me though, I think that my "essences" are pretty much serums. Well, I've been using them as such anyway and I see no difference compared to the ones labeled as serums. Each has a different function but all feel watery and super light on skin; they are hydrating and have a nice brightening effect. 

Try: Estee Lauder Crescent White Spot Correcting Essence for blemishes / Estee Lauder Nutritious Rosy Prism Essence for brightening / Neutrogena Hydro Boost Essence for added lightweight moisture / Etude House Wonder Pore Tightening Essence to soften the appearance of pores (it helps fill in)

Try: Estee Lauder Crescent White Spot Correcting Essence for blemishes / Estee Lauder Nutritious Rosy Prism Essence for brightening / Neutrogena Hydro Boost Essence for added lightweight moisture / Etude House Wonder Pore Tightening Essence to soften the appearance of pores (it helps fill in)

And so we come to the ultimate question: do you really need essences in your routine

My day-time three step routine normally involves facial wash, softener, and then a serum (or as I found out, technically essences in this case). This way I get maximum comfort under my makeup and the benefit of a higher concentration of active ingredients! I'd need SPF on top but those three steps are the core of my day time skincare.

If you like ultra light textures without spending full price for a legit serum, then using an essence instead is a pocket-friendly option. If you like your skincare simple as the good god intended, then stick to a moisturizer or an actual serum under the moisturizer. There isn't much of a difference, honestly.

Discuss:

  • Do you think essences are necessary or do you think they're just another way for companies to squeeze us for more money?
  • Do you think Koreans are onto something when it comes to essences? Which ones would you like to try?

Further reading on PV: What softeners are, really / The 10-step Korean skincare routine

photography by Sam Gonzales