What Is a Skin Essence, and Do You Really Need One?

Woman standing outside spritzing essence onto her face

It's safe to say that the most cutting-edge skincare often originates from Korea. From sheet masks to snail gel, if something is big in Korean skincare, it's likely to become a buzz over in the West, too. So it might come as no surprise that we have Korea to thank for the surge of skin essences cropping up in our bathroom cabinets.

But what is a skin essence, and do we need to be using one? It's something I've asked myself a lot, too, because even though I'm always partial to add yet another step to my Sunday Nightlies routine, there's no point in investing in a skin essence (and trust me—some are an investment) unless you really understand what it can bring to the table.

So I spoke with Megan Felton, co-founder of expert-led skincare consultancy firm Lion/ne (and my go-to skincare guru), to find out what a skin essence really is. "Skin essences are a hard one to define because each brand will have a different meaning for what an 'essence' is," Felton says. "For some, it may be more of a toner or a facial mist, while others might use this word for a light serum."

Marketing jargon aside, what is the point of a skin essence? "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," Felton explains.

How Do You Apply a Skin Essence?

Essences should be treated like serums when applied. Water-based (thinner) essences should go on first, working up to your thicker product like moisturizer and SPF. "The trend for skin essences became more popular with the rise of K-beauty skin regimes, that often have several steps. While the addition of a skin essence (for me personally) isn't an essential step in a skincare regime, it certainly can be an added bonus. Many skin essences can help to add in an extra layer of hydration for dehydrated skins and are great for priming the face for makeup," says Felton.

Which Is the Best Skin Essence?

There are so many skin essences around, and it really depends on the ingredients as to which is right for you. There are hydrating skin essences that are perfect for dehydrated skin types (which, let's be honest, is pretty much everyone come winter), and then there are brightening essences that can pep up tired, dull skin. So whether you want to splash out or try one that's more affordable, we've rounded up some of our all-time favorite skin essences that are perfect for edging up your nighttime routine.

Gallinée Face Vinegar
Gallinée Face Vinegar $30.00

This multi-action face vinegar is meant to be used after cleansing to tone and purify your face, but it also promises to soothe irritated skin and lower redness, so it's great to use before makeup.

Algenist Hydrating Essence Toner
Algenist Hydrating Essence Toner $25.00

A great "small but mighty" addition to your skincare regime, this hydrating essence uses Algenist's famous alguronic acid meant to deeply tone and purify the skin. It also contains chamomile, witch hazel, and aloe to even out skin texture and stimulate a natural glow.

Aurelia Probiotic Skincare Brightening Botanical Essence
Aurelia Probiotic Skincare Brightening Botanical Essence $63.00

This fancy facial mist contains quartz crystal-charged water meant to energize your skin along with magnesium salts to detoxify. This is a gorgeous one to keep on your desk. It smells incredible and leaves your skin feeling awakened and refreshed. 

By Terry Detoxilyn City Essence
By Terry Detoxilyn City Essence $36.00

Formulated specially to help protect the skin from the stresses of urban life, this K-beauty–inspired essence promises to neutralize pollution particles and zap free radicals before they cause any harm.

Caudalie Vinoperfect Concentrated Brightening Essence
Caudalie Vinoperfect Concentrated Brightening Essence $49.00

The simplicity of French skincare might go against everything Korean skincare stands for, but they can agree on one thing: A skincare essence is a must-have step. Caudalie's Vinoperfect Concentrated Brightening Essence contains glycolic acid meant to help eliminate dead skin cells. The brand's signature grape water promises to hydrate, soothe, and moisturize skin from within.

Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Essence
Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Essence $72.00

Combining hyaluronic acid with vitamin C and detoxifying pink clay, this hardworking mist is packed with 100% natural ingredients to calm, soothe, hydrate, and brighten skin.

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