WTF are essences? We break down why you need them and the best ones to add to your beauty routine

best essences beauty
Photography by Peter Stigter

Applied between toners and serums in the Korean multi-step skincare regimen, essences are regarded as a sort of mystical fluid, though they’ve long played an integral part in the Asian beauty routine. Essences are even known as “immortal water” in some parts of Asia because of their anti-aging benefits. While we can’t attest to the immortality factor, there are valid reasons why the Asian demographic is not skipping out on this crucial step.

Containing effective active ingredients in a concentrated form, essences target the skin on the cellular level so that our skin can absorb the products that follow more easily. “Essences are similar to serums in that they’re formulated to absorb into the skin rather than sit atop as some moisturizers might,” says Alicia Yoon, founder of Korean beauty shopping site Peach and Lily. “Essences help hydrate and deliver skin benefits, while subsequent serums focus on specific skin needs such as firming or boosting radiance.” Still confused? Think of it this way: essences are essentially a less concentrated but more fluid-type of serum that allows you to layer other products without them feeling heavy on your skin.

Similar to other Asian-hailed products (ie. BB creams, cushion compacts, sheet masks), the West clearly sees essence’s value as well and are taking this as a cue to launch own versions. However, if essences aren’t confusing enough already, many Western-based brands have introduced more lotion-like textures (think Fresh and Clinique), while Asian-based essences are actually lower in viscosity. The reason? It all comes down to the base of the culture.

“Korean skincare routines are all about layering, whereas U.S. skincare routines seek the multi-functional products,” says AmorePacific’s Director of Marketing and PR, Nathalie Paiva. “As a result, the Asian approach to skincare lends itself to a lighter, more fluid formula because of the extensive number of products that make up the Asian regimen.”

Convinced you need some essence in your life? Scroll through to see the top 11 essences hot on the market right now.

More Beauty & Grooming