The 9 Best Korean Essences for an Insta-Worthy Glow

We independently research, test, review, and recommend the best products—learn more about our process. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.
Commerce Photo Composite

Byrdie / Michela Buttignol

Looking for a clear and positively luminous complexion? A highly considered and in-depth approach to skincare, Korean beauty is known for its layered process (a whopping 12-step routine is standard). But all those levels of juicy hydration pay dividends in the end. It’s no coincidence the world of K-beauty has coined buzzy phrases like “glass”, “honey” and “cloudless” skin to describe its effects.

A key player in the K-beauty game is facial essence. Not to be confused with toner, facial essences typically work to prime the skin before serums and moisturizers. They tend to contain soothing, hydrating, and brightening ingredients and are formulated at a low molecular weight for maximum absorption. Sure, it's another step, but if you crave that bouncy, dewy, Instagram skin aesthetic, a light layer of essence is absolutely going to help. 

With an abundance of Korean beauty products on the market, half the work is finding your perfect match. From brightening to budget buys, we’ve rounded up our favorites for a model-worthy glow.

Keep scrolling for the best Korean essences.

Best Overall: Laneige Water Bank Hydro Essence

4.6
Laneige Water Bank Hydro Essence

 Courtesy of Laneige

Who else recommends it? Allure also picked the Laneige Water Bank Hydro Essence.

What do buyers say? 97% of 40+ Amazon reviewers rated this product 4 stars or above.

This product is like a tall glass of water for parched skin. It’s full of what’s called green mineral water, an extract that's taken from vegetables like kale, watercress, and beets. It sinks into the skin quickly, leaving it fresh, plump, and comfortable without any residue. We’ve dubbed it best overall because it’s extremely effective on all skin types (from dehydrated to oily), thanks to the water-light texture and fast absorption.

Best Budget: Blithe Vital Treatment Essence

Blithe Vital Treatment Essence

This lightweight essence utilizes the power of seed extracts like baobab, evening primrose, and rosehip to help pep up tired, dry, or dull skin. It also contains niacinamide in the formula, which can assist with brightening your complexion over time.

Best for Dull or Tired Skin: Innisfree Fermented Soybean Firming Energy Essence

 Innisfree Fermented Soybean Firming Energy Essence

Any Innisfree product is a 10/10 in our books, but this essence is worth an extra special mention. Packed with fermented soybean extract from Jeju Island in South Korea, this antioxidant-rich formula will brighten and firm the skin like nobody's business. Bolstered with oat kernel extract, it also works to soothe and calm the complexion.

Best for Hydration: Hanskin Real Complexion Hyaluron Skin Essence

Hanskin Hyaluron Skin Essence

Key Ingredients

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.

Want luminous, glassy skin? Look no further than this cult buy from Hanskin. It contains a unique form of hyaluronic acid, in which the molecule is smaller and able to penetrate deeper into the complexion (hyaluronic acid can hold 1000 times its weight in water, by the way). It helps to soften fine lines, tops up skin moisture levels, and kicks signs of dehydration to the curb.

Best for Plumping: Then I Met You The Giving Essence

Then I Met You The Giving Essence

Then I Met You

With fermented ingredients, this essence can help to refine the skin’s texture and gently brightens, but it’s the polyglutamic acid in the formula that we’re here for. It’s a molecule that the brand claim holds even more moisture than hyaluronic, so you can expect bouncy, super-plumped-up skin after application. The rose-pink tint imparts a subtle glow too.

Best for Uneven Skin Tone: Neogen Real Ferment Micro-Essence

4.9
NEOGEN DERMALOGY REAL FERMENT MICRO ESSENCE

Courtesy of Amazon

This option is a K-beauty icon thanks to a high concentration of fermented ingredients and natural brighteners like rice ferment. It’s quite thick, but the time spent patting it into the skin is worth it. Interestingly enough, there’s no water in the ingredient listing, making the already sweet price point even sweeter. 

Best for Sensitive Skin: Donginbi 1899 Single Essence

Donginbi 1899 Single Essence

This pick literally contains just one ingredient, red ginseng extract. This particular extraction is prepared for 70,000 hours over 2,920 days, a process that helps to make the formula as concentrated as possible. According to Donginbi, the red ginseng is known to brighten, refine and soothe the skin, and because it’s a mono-formulation, the chances of skin irritation or sensitivity are relatively low.

Best Mist Option: Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Essence Mist

Acwell Licorice pH Balancing Essence Mist

This portable essence mist is milky and hydrating, so you’ll still get that elusive plumping effect on the go; it also doubles as a primer or setting spray. It features calming and hydrating ingredients like licorice water and root extracts, hydrating bamboo water, and centella asiatica leaf water (sensitive skin, rejoice). Try keeping it in the fridge for an instant refresher on steamy summer days.

Best Editor's Pick: Peach & Lily Wild Dew Treatment Essence

Peach & Lily Wild Dew Treatment Essence

Byrdie’s former editorial director, Faith Xue, loves this essence because it gives tired, dull skin a glassy finish. Formulated with lotus extract and niacinamide, it also boosts the absorption of all your following products. One application, and you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.

What to Look For in Korean Essences

Fermented Ingredients

This ingredient category has taken the skincare world by storm, turning already powerful ingredients into ones that can accomplish even more. Fermented ingredients are ingredients that have been aged, and their benefits include prolonged moisturizing effects, increased antioxidant activity, elevated ingredient concentration in formulas, and improved texture. Using fermented ingredients can lead to your skin experiencing higher biodiversity, meaning a healthier ecosystem.

Polyglutamic Acid

Even more powerful than the infamous hyaluronic acid is polyglutamic acid, and it boasts holding four times as much water as hyaluronic acid does. Charlotte Tilbury tells Byrdie that “polyglutamic acid helps seal the moisture in your skin and enhances the skin’s elasticity … part of the aging process involves the loss of HA in the skin, which is broken down by an enzyme called hyaluronidase. Products that contain PGA help to inhibit the action of hyaluronidase, resulting in more HA in the skin, and giving an overall moisturized, rejuvenated, and hydrated appearance to the skin."

Waters

It might sound strange, considering how often we hear complaints that skincare products contain water, but certain waters are highly beneficial. Because essences are thin, being only slightly thicker than toners, they’re the ideal place for beneficial waters such as green mineral water, licorice water, and centella asiatica leaf water. These are lesser-known ingredients that may generally be rare to come across in beauty products, so essences are a convenient way to give them a try.

FAQ
  • Is facial essence necessary?

    Even though a skin essence, or facial essence, isn’t a vital step in a routine like washing your face, it can be a very helpful one. "An essence often has similar benefits to a serum, meaning it will have a lower molecular weight than a moisturizer and will, therefore (when formulated correctly) penetrate the skin more deeply," says Megan Felton, co-founder of expert-led skincare consultancy firm Lion/ne.

  • Is Korean facial essence best?

    If you’d like to try a facial essence, you’ll notice that most brands of them are Korean. It’s the Korean 10-step skincare routine that popularized this category of product, and they’ve only been available in the west in very recent years. Korean skincare brands have cornered the market on this type of product and produce many different ones. While there is no proof that a specific country’s items are “best,” you can’t go wrong with a facial essence that comes from the place that popularized them.

  • Can I use essence every day?

    Always check the labels of the products you use to find out how often to use them. Some essences are meant to be used twice a day, some once a day, and some occasionally. As with everything else you use, read closely to learn how to use the product in a way that allows it to do its best work without irritating your skin.

  • What is face essence used for?

    Each product has its own purpose, and essences aren’t one size fits all. According to Charlotte Cho of Soko Glam and Christine Chang and Sarah Lee of Glow Recipe, “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."

How We Researched & Tested

To compile this list, our team of editors and contributors spent hours researching the best products on the market in this category, evaluating their key features—like ingredients, shade range, or design—in addition to reviews from customers and other trusted sources. Our team also incorporated their own personal experiences testing products in their own lives. We then used these insights from our research and testing to assign a star rating from one to five (five being the best; one being the worst) to certain products on the list.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. The 18 Best Facial Essences for Plump, Glowing Skin. Allure. https://www.allure.com/gallery/best-essences-korean-beauty

  2. Wohlrab J, Kreft D. Niacinamide - mechanisms of action and its topical use in dermatology. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2014;27(6):311-5. doi: 10.1159/000359974.

  3. Sudha PN, Rose MH. Beneficial effects of hyaluronic acid. Adv Food Nutr Res. 2014;72:137-176. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-800269-8.00009-9

  4. John HE, Price RD. Perspectives in the selection of hyaluronic acid fillers for facial wrinkles and aging skin. Patient Prefer Adherence. 2009 Nov 3;3:225-30. doi: 10.2147/ppa.s3183

Related Stories