There are products in your skin-care routine that are pretty self-explanatory, like cleansers and moisturizers, but then in between those two steps is a bit of a gray area. That's where serums, toners, and essences live. If you're a skin-care pro who already knows what each of these product categories does and what order they're applied, then you can skip right ahead to our product recommendations for each, but if you're a bit more unfamiliar with layering these beauty products, allow us to formally solve any confusion.
At first glance toners, serums, and essences can seem very similar. They can have the same type of packaging and texture, making them hard to distinguish between — especially when sifting through the many options on store shelves. Still, there are a few key differences. We're breaking them down here.
What Is a Toner?
Toners are liquid formulas that can be applied on a cotton pad (we prefer reusable ones) and swept across the skin. It should be your first step immediately after washing your face and patting dry. Their original purpose was to balance the pH in the skin that was disrupted from harsh ingredients in soap-based facial cleansers, which have since been phased out.
"Now that more cleansers are pH balanced, toners really are not necessary [for that], but they can fulfill different purposes, such as an extra layer of cleansing, adding hydration, or exfoliating," Ted Lain, MD, chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology, told POPSUGAR. Depending on the type of toner, they might contain exfoliating acids to address uneven texture and pores, astringent properties to reduce oil, anti-inflammatories to soothe redness and irritation, and glycerin to boost hydration. While many old-school toners were high in alcohol, newer versions make it easy to steer clear of this drying ingredient.
What Is an Essence?
Commonly used in Korean 10-step regimens, think of essences as watered-down serums, in that they tend to have a thinner liquid consistency or water-gel textures. Many have similar ingredients that you'd find in a serum, only with one key difference. "The higher water content allows for those with sensitive skin to tolerate active ingredients better than using a serum," said Dr. Lain.
If you want to use both an essence and serums in your routine, apply your essence first. A good rule of thumb is that you should always layer products from thinnest texture to thickest, because it allows the ingredients to better penetrate the skin).
What Is a Serum?
Serums are where you'll find the most of your active ingredients, as they contain higher concentrations than other formulations, explained Dr. Lain. "Usually a few drops is all that is needed to cover the face, since these are powerful products." Serums can come in gel, liquid, or oil form, these formulas will almost always sway thicker in consistency than your toner or essence.
Again, if you wish to use all three of these products, the order to apply goes: toner, essence, then serums. The options ahead are a good place to start.