Toner vs. Essence: We Break Down the Differences

Mario Badescu toner

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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 also 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 soothes 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.

Toner vs. Essence
Michela Buttignol / BYRDIE

Toner

Treatment Toner
Amorepacific Treatment Toner $50
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This calming toner from cult K-beauty brand Amore Pacific is designed to work with sensitive skin to soothe redness and irritation, and balance the skin's PH levels using botanical ingredients like red gingseng root extract and water lily extract.

Rose Deep Hydration Facial Toner
Fresh Rose Deep Hydration Facial Toner $45
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An award-winning toner that contains real rose petals as well as rosewater, rose fruit extract, and angelica leaf extract 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 can strip your complexion of its natural, necessary oils, and focus instead on ingredients that soothe and nourish.

Ole Henriksen Balancing Force toner
Ole Henriksen Balancing Force Oil Control Toner $29
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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 to exfoliate and control sebum production, as well as neem seed oil to clarify. The formula manages to be active but not irritating.

Essence

Hungarian Water Essence
Belif Hungarian Water Essence $42
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Belif's formula uses rosemary and other herbs 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.

Laneige essence
Laneige Water Bank Hydro Essence $39
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An ultra hydrating essence from one of the top Korean beauty brands that uses green mineral water to keep your skin moisturized and glowing from morning until night.

Facial Treatment Essence
SK-II Facial Treatment Essence $185
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The absolute ultimate in essence. SK-II utilizes Pitera, a nutrient-packed substance gleaned from the process of yeast fermentation, to boost your complexion. It smooths skin texture, soothes irritation, minimizes 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.

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