Anyone familiar with the 10-step Korean skincare routine knows that toner and essence make up two of the key steps—four and five, respectively. But even skincare aficionados can find themselves a bit confused about the difference between the two products. They look, feel, and are packaged similarly, and some products even combine the two to consolidate them into one step. So for anyone unsure about toner and essence—what they are, what they do, and when to use them—we break down the subtle but important differences here.
Most Americans are familiar with toning. Used to remove residue from your cleansers as well as any pollutants from the day, toners are often considered an essential step in one's skincare routine. In Korean skincare, toners prep—or "refresh"—the skin for the following step, the essence. They are also meant to help keep the skin's PH at a healthy level.
For those with sensitive skin, try opting for Korean toners as these are typically less harsh than their American counterparts.
The essence might be the least understood part of the Korean skincare routine. Though the formulation of an essence seems quite similar to that of a toner, their use and effects are very different. Many Korean women consider the essence to be the most important step of the skincare routine because it is meant to soothe skin at the cellular level, accelerating natural turnover and encouraging a smoother, healthier complexion.
All toners and essences are not made equal, and as with any skin care product you introduce into your routine, you should pay close attention to the ingredients. Depending on your skin type, you might look for toners that work to refine pores, fight acne, soothe redness, or deliver hydration. Essences tend to be a bit more similar, but trial-and-error will help you figure out which kind is right for you. Read on for some of our favorite picks in both categories.
This calming toner from cult K-beauty brand Amore Pacific is designed to work with sensitive skin to soothe redness and irritation, and promises to balance the skin's PH levels using botanical ingredients like red gingseng root extract and water lily extract.
An award-winning toner that contains real rose petals as well as rosewater, rose fruit extract, and angelica leaf extract meant to tone and hydrate. Hyaluronic acid makes this an especially good pick for anyone with dry skin. Be sure to avoid toners that include alcohol, which might strip your complexion of its natural, necessary oils. Instead, focus on ingredients that soothe and nourish.
Ole Henriksen's Balancing Force is a great toner for those who are acne-prone with oily skin and/or enlarged pores. It contains a blend of different acids meant to exfoliate and control sebum production, as well as neem seed oil meant to clarify. The formula manages to be active but not irritating.
Belif's formula uses rosemary and other herbs meant to hydrate and add the glow back into your skin post-washing and toning—two processes that often leave you feeling a bit dry and tight. Get the most out of the ingredients by patting lightly onto the skin with your hands and rubbing the excess onto your neck and forearms.
An ultra hydrating essence from one of the top Korean beauty brands that uses green mineral water meant to keep your skin moisturized and glowing from morning until night.
The absolute ultimate in essence. SK-II utilizes Pitera, a nutrient-packed substance gleaned from the process of yeast fermentation, which boosts your complexion, according to the brand. This essence promises to smooth skin texture, soothe irritation, minimize the signs of aging, and more. Just a splash or two each morning and night will give you results.
Now that you know the difference, you can better plan out your skincare routine—even if it isn't 10 steps.
Mukhopadhyay P. Cleansers and their role in various dermatological disorders. Indian J Dermatol. 2011;56(1):2-6. doi:10.4103/0019-5154.77542