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Toner vs. Serum vs. Essence: What's the Difference?
Moisturizers, serums, essences, toners… where does a skincare product end, and where does the other begin?
When it comes to the world of skin care, a lot of the mistakes we make come from simple confusion. And, to be honest, there’s a lot to be confused about. Toners, serums, and essences are just an example of certain products that seem to look, sound, and even function the same. What exactly is the difference between them, anyway?
If you’re wondering how these products became so popular in the first place, we have K-beauty to thank! The 10-step Korean skincare routine has become the benchmark for achieving super glowy and dewy glass skin, attracting plenty of women and men across the globe. Even K-pop superstars BTS have named these products as part of their enviable skincare routine. If you’re a fan of the Korean beauty regimen, then you probably already know the key differences between these products.
However, if you’re new to all of this, you might be left with a few questions. What exactly is the function of the toner, serum, and essence? Should I be using all of them, or can I swap one for the other? Where in the routine should each product be?
Learning the key differences between these three products can be beneficial in improving our skincare regimen. After all, each one has its own consistency, texture, and place in every skincare regimen because each one of these products is a vital step when done correctly. No matter what your skin type, there’s bound to be an essence, toner, and serum that can help you address skin care concerns.
So, let’s get right into it! Here are the key differences between these skincare products and how they can help you achieve a glowing face that lasts!
What is a toner?
I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t toners basically astringents, a.k.a. super drying products that help achieve just about the complete opposite of the dewy, fresh face we’re going for? Well, the answer is both yes and no.
In the past, toners were frowned upon by many cosmetologists and dermatologists for their high alcohol contents. If you were a teenager in the 90’s and early 2000’s trying to get rid of acne, you’ve probably suffered through toners that leave your face with the worst stinging sensation.
Thankfully, Korean toners have saved us all from the nightmare that used to be these super-harsh treatments. Because the foundation of Korean skincare is intense hydration, a toner is now more synonymous to a hydrating leave-on product that can also treat skin problems like acne, blackheads, whiteheads, etc. Some can even treat fine lines and wrinkles.
Where does a toner go in my skincare regimen?
Toners used to be a “correcting” step in many skincare routines. According to some skincare experts, toners were invented because a mild cleanser did not yet exist. Soaps were used to cleanse and, oftentimes, they raised the skin’s pH balance to unhealthy levels. A toner would help restore the pH level of the skin.
But now that we have all sorts of cleanser products that leave our skin’s pH balance as it is, toners have become a way to prepare the skin for the routine, like an essence and a moisturizer. So no, a toner is not an all-in-1 cleanser and makeup remover!
Toners are usually applied using a cotton pad and swept across the face. However, some products can be applied by gently patting the product all over the face using one’s fingertips. The latter method helps save product, as a cotton pad can absorb most of it. Other brands also use spray bottles and a spray nozzle for misting the skin.
What are serums?
Ever since the popularity of K-Beauty, serums have become all the rage. A facial serum is a lightweight product that has different functions and can address all kinds of skin issues. It usually contains low concentrations of active ingredients and can be used either in the day or night, or both.
There are different categories of serums according to their purpose. Some serve as an additional moisturizer, to be layered after your first moisturizer to seal in the water and prevent moisture loss. Other serums are meant for brightening the skin or getting rid of dark spots on the face.
It’s quite easy to spot the difference between a toner vs. serum. A toner is lightweight and has a watery consistency. You can usually find one in a large bottle. Serums, on the other hand, are more gel-like, thicker in consistency, and can be found in much smaller containers that come with droppers. You’ll also find ampoules, which fall under the serum family but are usually more concentrated in terms of the active ingredients they contain.
Some popular examples of serums are a hyaluronic acid serum or a niacinamide serum. A hyaluronic acid serum is mainly used as an extra layer of moisture to lock in hydration in the skin, while a niacinamide serum is primarily for reducing the appearance of blemishes and evening out skin tone. Some remove fine lines, aid in the turnover of skin cells, and prevent early signs of skin aging.
You’ll also come across many brands containing active ingredients, usually exfoliating acids like AHAs and BHAs. These active ingredients, paired with moisturizing ingredients in the formula, help clean and remove deep-seated dirt without drying out your skin.
The question is, where does it go in the usual skin care regimen? After the cleansing step and the toner, you may opt to use an essence and serum, in that order. More on the difference between an essence vs. a serum in the section below.
So, what is an essence for the skin?
Okay, a toner and a serum are pretty easy to tell apart. But a serum and an essence is where things get tricky. And not everyone is in agreement here, either, because some sources will tell you that there isn’t actually a difference between the two. Essences used to be more lightweight than serums, and they’re traditionally used right after toning the skin to add moisture.
So, what is the real deal on the essence vs. serum debate? Well, essences and serums are generally used to achieve similar results. There are essences with the purpose of brightening the skin, others to moisturize, and others to get rid of acne scars. The same goes for serums.
Some even say these two skincare products are interchangeable depending on one’s needs. This is because they can both go after the toning step in the routine. While the two used to have distinct consistencies, plenty of essences have become thicker and other serums more lightweight, effectively blurring the line.
Another thing to note is that “serum” and “essence” can refer to the same items — just with different names. Yes, because products from Asia are often exported to the West and vice versa, they can have different marketed names. For example, the Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair Serum is referred to as the “Brown Bottle Essence” in Korea.
That said, you can still use both an essence and a serum in the same routine, especially since they can serve distinct purposes. Do note that a serum often has higher concentrations of active ingredients as it comes in smaller vials, while an essence will come in larger bottles and have a consistency that’s a little more watery.
An essence, toner, and serum can be used in a daytime and a nighttime skincare routine. The trick is to find out which specific ingredients found in each product complement or don’t complement each other. For example, a toner with AHAs generally should not be paired with a retinol serum; applying the two together will result in unhealthy pH levels and increased photosensitivity.
You should also always check if the product you want to buy is compatible with most skin types. This can help prevent budding skin concerns. Similar to moisturizers and essential oils, some essences and serums can be too greasy for oily skin types. On the flip side, certain toners or “cleansing waters” can be too drying or clarifying for dry skin.
We hope this article has shed some light on these three skincare must-haves! If you can now confidently walk down the aisle at your local beauty store and choose the correct products for your routine, then our work here is done. Go forth and complete your journey to beautiful, radiant skin!
Is there something you want to read about in our next blog post? Sound off in the comments below. For now, take a look at our other stuff! We answer your questions about menstrual cups (should you use them?), lay down a guide to surviving sensitive skin, and even give a step-by-step Korean hair care routine.
Joey is an AB Psychology graduate of the University of St. La Salle – Bacolod. Her life’s passions include writing, film, and spending hours on end binge-watching fashion vloggers on Youtube.