If you are a skincare junkie who wants to know everything there is about the perfect skincare routine, tips and tricks for a flawless look, or the dos and don’ts this year, you must have read plenty of articles about the benefits of using essences and serums in your everyday skincare regimen.
There’s no doubt left that these products can be really beneficial for your skin when used right.
But the problem is that many times these terms are used as synonyms and interchangeably, which might make you a bit confused about what is what, thinking:
“Isn’t all this stuff the same? Do I really need all of this? Am I falling for a marketing scheme?”
Don’t worry, because here we’ll break down all the differences between essences and serums, look at the similarities, discuss what’s better and for whom, and even address the argument that there’s no essential difference (pun intended).
All you need to do is just keep reading. I’m confident that at the end of this article you’ll have a better understanding of how to slowly perfect your personalized skincare routine and get clear and glowing skin.
We can’t start this paragraph without mentioning the Korean beauty routine and its influence on the western culture over the past few years. If you’ve been wondering where did essence come from, and how it paved its way into the mainstream skincare market - you now have your answer.
Korean skincare routines have up to 10-12 steps, and essence is considered to be at the heart of it, which might explain why essence is now getting worldwide attention.
Essence is a watery substance, lightly concentrated with active ingredients that act on the skin to provide hydration, bringing out the inner glow and helping to even out your skin, both in tone and texture.
Essence is designed to soothe skin at the cellular level, accelerating natural turnover and encouraging a smoother, healthier complexion.The ingredients will vary based on the brand, people’s skin type, and preferences.Because it’s watery and light it will evaporate really quickly, but that’s perfectly normal.
The Essence step usually comes after cleansing and toning the skin, but before using a moisturizer. So, after you’ve carefully cleansed the skin and allowed for the toner to be absorbed on the skin, you can continue with the next step and apply the essence.
It’s important to note that essence feels and looks like a toner, but it’s not supposed to be a substitute for it.
Take a cotton ball and apply the essence evenly on your whole face. Wait for a couple of minutes for your skin to dry completely and then continue with your skincare routine.
If you decide to use a serum as well, then right after the essence is the right time to apply it. We will discuss this in detail further in the article.
On the other hand, if you decide to use only an essence, finish your routine with a moisturizer to lock moisture.
Serums have a gel-like consistency and are highly concentrated with powerful ingredients that help the skin get rid of wrinkles, fine lines, discoloration, and hyperpigmentation.
Serums are used to rejuvenate the skin at a cellular level and can work on a wide range of skin health factors at the same time. They provide vitamins, antioxidants, peptides, and enzymes, among other beneficial nutrients, which fight off free radical damage, skin pigmentation, symptoms of aging, acne, and scarring.
Usually, you can tell the difference just by feeling them on your fingers, since a serum is a heavier and thicker product.
Although we talk about serums being heavier and thicker than essences, we have to note that they’re still relatively lightweight, absorb well, effectively delivering beneficial nutrients and hydration to the deepest layers of the skin where moisturizers won’t penetrate.
Depending on the brand, some serums can be more or less greasy, although most of them today are watery.
The ticker and greaser the serum seems, the higher the concentration of active ingredients is. This is really important for many people because delivering a high concentration of a few active ingredients can successfully target and treat specific skin concerns.
In a perfect skincare routine, the serum comes fourth in line, after using a toner and an essence.
The sacred rule in the skincare-kingdom is to always apply the lightest products first and slowly make your way toward the heavier.
Most serums come in ‘dropper’ bottles or pumps that allow you to easily apply a few drops on your fingertips and gently spread evenly on the whole face and massage them into the skin, in a circular motion, for a deep delivery of ingredients.
Applying more serum on the face doesn’t mean more benefits. Serums come in small bottles because only a few drops are more than enough. You should focus on using the serum regularly and frequently rather than on the amount you are applying.
Depending on your preferences, skin type, and skin problems you can find a good-quality combination of ingredients in the serum which will help you tackle down specific issues. Serums are often composed of vitamin C, HCA, BHA, and AHAs.
So, know that you know what really is essence and serum, when and how to apply them, we can continue on and break down the key differences between them.
The first thing you can use to separate these two products is by their texture. Essences are typically more watery-like, light, gentle, and come with a lower concentration of active ingredients.
This doesn’t make them any less efficient, but rather it makes them more suitable for a person with sensitive skin.
That is, an essence may contain one or more active ingredients but it probably won’t be as concentrated as the active ingredients you’d find in a serum.
Another difference between an essence and serum is the time when they are applied.
For example, the essence is more watery and should always come first, before the serum. But, their watery consistency shouldn’t lead you to think it’s okay to substitute your toner with the essence. They have a different formulation, act differently on the skin, and are associated with different benefits.
Essence may look like a toner, but it’s more similar to a serum.
Because of these characteristics, the essence comes right after the toner and just before the serum application. It will evaporate really quickly from the skin, leaving more time for the final steps of your routine.
Serums are ticker and they should be applied after you’ve applied essence. Depending on the formulation, they can be more or less greasy with a lot of active ingredients, which means that it will take a little while before they’re absorbed in the skin.
Some serums might make your skin really smooth and give you a feeling that you don’t need to apply a moisturizer afterward. However, it’s always recommended to use a moisturizer after using a serum. The moisturizer applied over your serum will help lock in the serum’s anti-aging actives and nutrients.
You shouldn’t apply an essence, moisturizer, then serum because the moisturizer will create a barrier between the skin’s pores and the serum, preventing absorption. In other words, you won’t get any benefits from the serum. If you are using both, essence and serum, the moisturizer should come after the serum application.
This difference goes without saying, but it’s still worth to go over it so that you have a clearer view of the relationship between essence and serum.
Both essence and serum are suitable for all skin types. You have a variety of different formulations and combinations of ingredients that can work wonderfully on different skin types.
The rule of thumb though is that essence is more lightweight and less concentrated which might work better for more sensitive or oily skin in some cases. It has less active ingredients, meaning it that it can penetrate the skin deep and provide hydration without irritating the skin.
Serums work well for all skin types but might be especially beneficial for dry, problematic, combination and loose skin, brown spots, wrinkles, and even scarring.
You can always use both if your skin allows it. For some skin types applying a cleanser, toner, essence, serum, and moisturizer might just be too much.
When it comes to the results and advantages of adding an essence or a serum to your daily skincare routine, both products share the same benefits since they work in a similar way on the skin.
People with dry skin know the struggle of maintaining healthy moisture on the skin. Essences and serums can change that. These products are known for their ability to penetrate deep in the skin, improve its texture, and give the skin a hydrated glow and a youthful look. One of the most used ingredients in essences and serums that hydrate the skin is the hyaluronic acid. This acid works by trapping in the skin's natural water levels and making sure that it doesn't lose any of its natural moisture.
One of the most common ingredients in essences and serums is Vitamin C, which plays a great role in preventing the symptoms of aging skin. It works by aiding the collagen production and boosting the skin’s immunity.
With time and regular use, you can also notice your spots fading and your skin tone becoming more even.
Essences and serums come packed with a lot of antioxidants, which scavenge free radicals and protect the skin from the damaging effect of oxidative stress. Combine this with powerful anti-inflammatory ingredients, like zinc or aloe vera, and you got yourself a potent tool for fighting acne and acne scarring.
Essences and serums with such formulas can help you prevent redness, breakouts, and inflammation.
So, by now we’ve established that both essence and serum deliver active ingredients to the skin before you moisturize—it’s just all about your personal preference and how your skin reacts to the individual formulas.
Because there’s a lot of brands and a massive amount of different formulas, with a different combination of ingredients, ranging from very mild to very highly-concentrated, some people believe the differences between essences and serums are becoming negligible.
The best argument for this idea is that today you can find serums that are lighter and less concentrated than certain essence products, and vice versa.
You can also find essence and serum products for all skin types, and for almost all common skin issues. Both products work to deliver similar benefits as well.
So, a valid question they ask is “Do we really need to make such a distinction?”
Well, in my opinion, I believe it’s good to know how to separate them since the typical products on the shelf of almost every store will have the above-discussed characteristics of essences and serums.
There’s no wrong answer to this question, as it’s unlikely for you to experience a negative reaction from using both essence and serum. The thing is, this can be really time-consuming and redundant, meaning you won’t experience any additional benefits from using both.
Instead, if you invest time and energy to find the perfect match for your skin, you might not need to overwhelm it with too many products.
Yet, some problematic skin types might look and feel better after applying both an essence and a serum.
If your skin is overly sensitive, start with using just an essence. After a month or two, you can switch to milder and gentler serum to see how your skin reacts. Observe your skin and scan it for results. If you still feel like you need a stronger effect, you can use both products and see if maybe that’s best for you.
For some people, it will be essence, while for others it will be the serum. It really depends on your skin type and your specific skin problem.
If you are concerned with a specific skin problem, you should be looking at the product’s ingredient label to see what might be most helpful. As mentioned, if you have sensitive or dry skin try the essence first and see how it goes.
If you have oily and acne-prone skin, go for a more concentrated serum with potent ingredients.
Although essence is a relatively new product to catch the attention of skincare brands, it’s rapidly gaining popularity and a permanent spot in the daily skincare routines of tons of beauty enthusiasts.
This is because it provides hydration, keeps the skin glowy and shiny, helps brighten the skin, and reduces aging symptoms.
The benefits are what make the products similar, while the texture, formulation, and concentration of the products are what make them unique and suitable for different skin types and conditions.
By using the guidelines we presented in this article you can decide what would be the best type of product to test out on your skin.