If you're confused about what face essences are, how they work, if they're worth your hard-earned cash, and how the heck they're different from the other 10 billion skincare products on the market, you're definitely not alone. The industry loves a great trend opportunity, and while essences have been a staple part of Korean beauty for years (with very specific benefits and purposes, mind you), it's all gotten a bit muddled since the product category caught fire stateside. Now, every brand you can think of has its own versions, many of which are more serum, toner, or mist than true face essence. So I reached out to two fantastic experts—Alicia Yoon, the founder and CEO of Peach & Lily, and Charlotte Cho, an esthetician and the curator behind K-beauty retailer Soko Glam—to break it all down and get back to the basics because, really, a fantastic face essence can do amazing things for your skin's health, happiness, and dew point.
"Essences are a Korean beauty staple for keeping skin healthy, radiant, and dewy," Yoon confirms straight away. "It's an easy step to incorporate and really goes a long way since deep hydration can help turn around a range of skin issues. As an esthetician, I've seen people see tremendous results by incorporating an essence into their routine, as it's challenging to stay hydrated on a consistent basis. A face essence, however, makes it easy to keep skin hydrated from within."
Below, both Yoon and Cho are answering all of our burning questions about face essences in addition to sharing their top shopping picks. Keep scrolling!
Face Essence 101: What are they, and why are they special?
If you do a search for face essences on the internet (or if you simply start scrolling through your favorite beauty retailer), the narrative starts to get a little murky regarding what they are, what they do, and how they're different than other popular skincare products like toners, cleansers, mists, and serums. While essences are a Korean-born category of skincare, almost every brand, Korean or not, has launched its own iteration. The marketing isn't always clear, and it's hard to know if you're investing in a true essence or simply a look-alike product a brand has created in order to jump on the trend bandwagon. So I turned to Cho and Yoon to help set the record straight on what exactly essences are and how they're different from other popular skincare categories.
"In Korea, essences are considered the most important step in a skincare routine," Cho tells me right off the bat. "It's a Korean-born skincare category that is traditionally applied between the toner and serum step, and they're typically formulated to deeply hydrate and brighten your complexion." She notes they can have additional benefits like lessening the severity of wrinkles, fine lines, and dullness.
While some face essences might run a bit thicker with a more viscous consistency, they're typically on the thinner side and have a water-like texture. They can help rebalance the pH of your skin post-cleanse, but their primary job is to drench the skin with lots of nourishing hydration, unlike toners (which tone the skin) and serums (which work to remedy specific skin concerns).
What are the benefits of using a face essence?
Are you ready for this? According to both Cho and Yoon, face essences are pretty much the most effective product for gifting your skin maximum hydration and TLC. Yes, other products like serums and creams definitely help on the moisturization front, but the effects might not be as powerful since these types of products usually have lots of different ingredients and/or targeted concerns or skin issues they're formulated to address. Essences, on the other hand, prioritize hydration above all else, which will make your skin really happy and enhance the effects of your other skincare products.
"You'll see more results from an essence than any other product because it treats skin on a cellular level," Cho explains. "Essences are notoriously nourishing and deeply moisturizing, seeing as the skin barrier is best able to protect the skin when it’s adequately hydrated." You'll usually find MVP agents like hyaluronic acid and polyglutamic acid in the best face essences, and Cho says many also contain a high ratio of fermented ingredients, as they contain complexion-boosting probiotics to increase cell turnover and to keep the skin barrier balanced and healthy. The end result? Calm, happy, plump, and glowing skin that's less likely to get inflamed or irritated or develop fine lines, wrinkles, and dullness.
How to Apply and Layer Face Essences Like a Pro
To make sure you get optimal absorption (and all the amazing skin perks!), Yoon recommends patting your face essence into your skin using your hands or a cotton round. (However, we like the hand route! Sprinkling the formula directly into your palms before gently patting it into the skin will result in less waste.)
"I recommend truly patting and working your face essence in to maximize absorption and help keep your skin hydrated from the inside out," Yoon says. "Essences are easy to incorporate into your skincare routine since the foundational hydration they provide can amplify results from your other products." Again, the best expert-approved protocol is to apply your face essence after your toner (which should be used right after you cleanse!) and before your serum.
"Another way to get a great dose of essence is to apply a Korean sheet mask," Cho adds. "The face essence is soaked in the hydrogel or microfiber mask, and there’s usually plenty of essence leftover in the pouch to slather on your neck, hands, and arms!"
Pro tip: For a quick at-home hydrating facial, do like Yoon and pat in seven (yes, seven) layers of a hydrating essence on top of freshly clean and dry skin before following up with your fave serum and moisturizer.
Are face essences safe for everyone and all skin types?
Since essences are primarily focused on hydration, with little emphasis on harsh actives and other potentially irritating ingredients, Yoon confirms that they can be used by anyone and everyone. After all, she says, optimal hydration levels are considered one of the most important foundation pillars of healthy, naturally radiant skin. However, not all face essences are created equally, and quality and ingredients are super important to consider when shopping for your optimal formula. Additionally, we all have different needs when it comes to our complexion, and sensitivities vary greatly. Pay heed to what you know does and doesn't work for your skin, and keep that in mind as you shop and do your research.
"Essences can vary widely in their formulas, so be sure to read the ingredient list for any ingredients your skin might specifically react to, including fragrance or certain types of extracts," warns Yoon. Additionally, if you have particularly oily skin, you can still use and benefit from face essences! Cho recommends applying a few layers of your essence in lieu of heavier moisturizers or creams, which could clog pores or exacerbate current breakouts.
The Best Face Essences, According to Experts, Editors, and Reviews
Shop Charlotte Cho's favorite face essences:
"Jam-packed with ellagic acid (a natural brightener that is derived from berries) and naturally fermented ingredients like galactomyces, this shelfie-ready essence pretty much does it all. Polyglutamic acid, an ingredient that holds four times more moisture than hyaluronic acid, packs a powerful wave of hydration, while the essence’s efficacious mix of fermented ingredients and berries brightens, reduces pores, protects from environmental harms, and gently exfoliates. I love how the pink hue of the essence naturally comes from a blend of berries!"
"Missha's best-selling essence improves elasticity and helps even out the skin tone by promoting skin renewal with the K-beauty world's favorite ingredient: saccharomyces ferment filtrate."
"Delivered as a fine mist, this essence formulation soothes and nourishes the skin with licorice root extract, centella asiatica leaf water, and ferment filtrate."
"Setting out to nourish and brighten, this face essence does just that with 93% naturally fermented ingredients, including bifida ferment lysate, and 28% saccharomyces ferment filtrate."
Shop Alicia Yoon's favorite face essences:
"This face essence is gentle and easy to use for all skin types. It deeply drenches skin with hydration using clinically proven ingredients, like various molecular weights of hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, adenosine, and lotus extract, to also help boost skin brightness and firmness."
"It hydrates while also helping to combat redness, minimize the appearance of pores, and calm the skin."
"I love this face essence because it's a great multitasker for anyone who is looking to condense their skincare routine. It effectively hydrates, and it actually combines the essence and moisturizer step while pampering skin with antioxidants and nourishing ingredients."
"This essence is created by Korea's largest spa and does double duty, as it deeply hydrates while helping to curb breakouts."
"Ultraconcentrated, this face essence uses propolis, which is celebrated for anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, to hydrate while simultaneously fortifying and soothing the skin."
Shop our beauty editors' favorite face essences:
This face essence from SK-II is expensive but legendary. It's a staple among makeup artists for red carpet prep, and we've heard more celebrities than we can count swear it's one of their best-kept secrets for clear, glowing skin.
This concentrated skin essence from Kiehl's sells like hotcakes, and its almost five-star rating speaks for itself. The delicate iris florentina flower is this formula's superpower, and it's an especially potent ingredient for packing in anti-aging benefits.
I've never met a product from Laneige that I didn't immediately fall head over heels for and that didn't immediately turn my skin into the glowing, dewy orb of my dreams. The ratings and reviews are solid, and stealthy skin-enriching additions like watercress, kale, and beet make it feel like a green juice that your complexion will love to take a sip from.
My mom is 73, but her skin looks like it could belong to someone in their 50s. She swears by this skin-softening essence from Tatcha, so now, I swear by this skin-softening essence from Tatcha.