Skin care used to be simple. You cleansed your face with a cleanser. You added moisture with a moisturizer. Eye cream goes on the eyes. Self-explanatory.
Cosmetics have gotten a lot more complicated in the past decade or so, in large part due to the popularization of Asian skin care in the West. Asian skin care, particularly Korean and Japanese skin care, operates on a different paradigm, with far more steps and far more options. That means new terminology (and new uses of existing terminology) for beauty lovers to learn.
Among the most confusing are essences and serums. Some brands use the terms interchangeably. Others split hairs and come up with multiple types of essences. It’s a lot to take in.
Arguably the most recognizable example of an essence will be SK-II’s storied Facial Treatment Essence, said to smooth wrinkles, refine skin texture, and deliver brighter, clearer, and more radiant skin with daily use. SK-II Facial Treatment Essence has spawned countless imitators across all price ranges. SK-II Facial Treatment Essence is … not a typical essence.
SK-II Facial Treatment Essence and similar products are a subcategory of essence, most commonly called first essences or fermentation essences. First or fermentation essences typically come in larger bottles—150-200mL is the norm—and have a thinner, more watery consistency than a regular essence. First/fermentation essences also rely heavily on rice fermentation ingredients, since that was SK-II’s original claim to fame.
For the most part, first or fermentation essences all claim the same basic effects: brightening, wrinkle reduction, increased clarity, improved absorption of subsequent skin care products. They’re also used in the same way: immediately after cleansing, before any other products. You can consider a first essence a toner replacement, or a toner with added effects.
Regular essences, on the other hand, go after toner or first essence. They tend to be thicker than first essences, with more of a gel consistency, and they come in smaller bottles, since they’re not meant to be splashed generously over skin—30-60mL bottles are common.
First or fermentation essences have a more watery consistency and are used right after cleansing, like a toner. Regular essences tend to be thicker and go after toner.
Regular essences also offer a wider variety of benefits. In this category, you’ll find essences catering to just about every skin care need, from acne care to skin tone brightening, from oil control to wrinkle reduction. La Mer’s The Brilliance Brightening Essence, for example, uses a blend of antioxidant-rich botanical extracts, niacin, caffeine, and their signature sea kelp extract to ostensibly fade dark spots, prevent the formation of new ones, and boost skin’s overall firmness.
Does that sound pretty much like a serum? Wellll …
That’s because there often is no difference between an essence and a serum.
Theoretically, a serum is more concentrated than an essence, with more potent and targeted effects. That’s why serums often come in smaller sizes still—25-30mL, usually. Products labeled as serums also tend to cost more by volume than essences. Sometimes that reflects the quality and concentration of the ingredients it contains; sometimes it’s a marketing tactic. Since there is no standardization of the terms, it’s easy for brands to play fast and loose with them.
There is one main exception, however. Generally, clinically proven “actives” are best in serum form. In some cases, it’s because the instability of the active (vitamin C, for example) makes packaging it in larger sizes counterproductive: the product will oxidize before it’s used up. In other cases, it’s because the concentration of the active ingredient is high enough that selling it in larger sizes would be less than economical.
Choosing Between Essences and Serums
Now that you know that there is often no difference between an essence and a serum, how do you choose which one to use?
As always, I suggest paying less attention to the name of the product and more to the ingredients. Whether it’s an essence or a serum, look for the ingredients you have found work well for your skin issues (or ingredients that your research suggests will work well for you). Wherever possible, look for those ingredients in the upper half of the ingredients list, which suggests they are present in more significant concentrations than if you find them at the bottom. If you’re looking for chemical exfoliants or vitamin C, make sure the concentrations are disclosed so that you can know the product is made with enough of the active ingredient to make a difference, rather than a token amount thrown in simply to be able to make a claim on the label.
Once you’ve decided on your product, the only question is where it will go in your routine. Here, the typical instructions are to use an essence before a serum. Since we’ve seen that the “essence” and “serum” terms are often used interchangeably, however, don’t take that as a hard and fast rule. Instead, go by the consistency of a product. In general, skin care products absorb most efficiently when layered from thinnest to thickest, regardless of what a product is labeled as. That’s why first essences go first—their thin, watery consistency is best suited to the first step in a post-cleanse routine.
And above all else, put your skin’s needs before whatever “needs” beauty marketing pushes on you. Not every routine needs an essence and a serum or a first essence, an essence, and a serum. Play around and experiment, but remember, the cardinal rule of skin care is YMMV: Your Mileage May Vary. Find what works best for you, and go from there!