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If you’re a skincare 10-stepper or a fan of the Korean skincare routine, you probably know all about essences. The name itself sounds so obscure—what even is it?—so it takes some research to really understand what it does. That’s where we come in.
You might be thinking that essences are just fancy toners, right? Wrong. We asked Charlotte Cho of Soko Glam and Christine Chang and Sarah Lee of Glow Recipe to break it all down for us. "Toners are traditionally more thought of as an astringent, pH balancing, clarifying step—almost as a second step after cleansing," they say. "Toners are often dispensed onto a cotton pad, which helps to wipe away any residue after cleansing. Essences are liquid treatments that efficiently infuse the skin with hydration and/or anti-aging actives and have a lightweight texture that is great for layering."
Here, find our favorite facial essences that your skin will love.
Best Overall: SK-II Facial Treatment Essence
You’ve probably seen ads for this essence all over social media (shoutout to James Corden for that skin #selfcare!), but this essence has been a fan-favorite in the beauty world for some time now. Infused with Pitera, an ingredient derived from yeast fermentation, the formula contains over 50 micro-nutrients that do everything from nourish, condition, smooth, and hydrate your skin. What users love most is how quickly they see a difference—even after a few days of use.
Best K-Beauty: Neogen Real Ferment Micro-Essence
Looking to achieve “honey skin” status? Here’s your ticket there. For the ultimate smooth, balanced, and even complexion, this fermented treatment—with 17% hydrating birch juice and 9% brightening rice extracts—is exactly what you need. Because it’s packed with a ton of humectants, it draws in moisture and keeps it there.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence
I know what you’re thinking—is she seriously suggesting snail secretion? Yes. I am. And with good reason. This essence is 96% snail secretion filtrate and what that means for your skin is a plethora of essentials vitamins that intensely replenishes and revitalizes your complexion. Snail mucin also moisturizes dry patches, treats acne breakouts, and decreases hyperpigmentation. It’s basically your all-in-one, especially if you tend to have blemishes that won’t quit. Because this formula is so potent, you only need a small amount to thoroughly treat your face.
Best for Large Pores: Kiehl’s Iris Extract Activating Treatment Essence
Sodium hyaluronate is a water-soluble salt that's derived from hyaluronic acid, which can be found naturally in the body. Like hyaluronic acid, sodium hyaluronate binds up to 1,000 times its own weight in water, but this form can penetrate deeper into the skin due to its lower molecular weight and is more stable.
Refine your skin’s look and texture with this velvety concentrate infused with sodium hyaluronate and lipo hydroxy acid. The formula helps to reduce the appearance of pores, combat dryness, and bring dull skin back to life. Reviewers were impressed with its skin-resurfacing ability.
Best for Uneven Texture: Fresh Kombucha Facial Treatment Essence
Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in the human body. It acts as a cushioning and lubrication agent for our joints, nerves, hair, skin, and eyes. When used in skincare, it acts as a moisture binder, which means that it will attach itself to the water in the cells (while also attracting and holding water from the air) making them plump.
This power-packed essence has every skin-smoothing ingredient you could think of, like kombucha, Africana fruit extract, hyaluronic acid, and mandarin peel extract. These ingredients work together to improve skin’s bounce, fade fine lines, and encourage luminosity. Users not only love the glowy results, but also the small bottle, which is travel-friendly.
Best for Dry Skin: Laneige Water Bank Hydro Essence
Think of this Laneige facial essence as a big drink of water for your skin. The star of its formula is the brand's proprietary green mineral water, which is infused with extracts from vitamin-rich vegetables (including kale, watercress, and beet) for a punch of hydration that lasts all day. Plus, it's super lightweight and absorbs easily.
Best for Sensitive Skin: Pixi Rose Caviar Essence
We're big fans of Pixi by Petra's skincare collection here at Byrdie HQ, so it's no surprise that this facial essence is on our list. This gentle, antioxidant-rich formula features ingredients like rose oil, anise extract, and mulberry extract to soothe and brighten even the most sensitive skin.
Best for Oily Skin: Caudalie Vinoperfect Glycolic Brightening Essence
If you have oily skin, reach for this natural, oil-free facial essence from French skincare brand Caudalie. Not only does it brighten and even out your skin (thanks to glycolic acid and white peony)—it includes organic grape water for a punch of hydration.
Best Budget: e.l.f. Cosmetics Coconut Water & Algae Hydrating Water Essence
Leave it to E.l.f. to launch an effective essence at an affordable price. With a super-lightweight texture, this hydrating essence contains purified water, algae, and coconut water to keep your skin as supple as possible. Users enjoy the weightless jelly texture as well as the radiance that comes right after application.
Best for Dark Spots: Tata Harper Concentrated Brightening Essence
Hyperpigmentation, dark spots and discoloration…we’ll pass. Considered a brightness booster, this essence formula works to battle uneven skin. With an ingredient combo of fruit extracts and acids, it encourages cellular turnover and diminishes the look of dark spots and wrinkles. Reviewers report that the consistency is thicker than other essences, making it feel more luxurious on the skin.
Best for Mature Skin: MISSHA Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence RX
Turning back time is more than just a song when it comes to this essence (cue Cher’s chorus). Another fermentation treatment, this concentrated essence improves the skin’s texture by exfoliating and brightening. Cicaenzyme fermentations deliver serious moisture while pearl reef extracts exfoliate the surface to remove dead skin cells. After swiping on the product with a cotton pad, gently massage any leftover essence into the skin with your fingers.
Best for Dull Skin: Juice Beauty Green Apple Brightening Essence
Tired of dull skin? Thanks to green apple and malic acid, this essence improves skin’s texture and brings out your natural glow. It also features zanthoxylum fruit, which is an effective redness-reducer. After consistent use, you’ll find that discoloration and bumpy skin have decreased.