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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.