Skincare is tricky. Keeping up with the laundry list of terms on product labels might make your head spin, and knowing the difference between product types is just as confusing. Case in point: essences versus toners. Is there even a difference? Well, it depends. Celebrity esthetician and skin care expert, Olga Lorencin, uses them interchangeably on her clients depending on skin concerns. Meanwhile, Rosemary Gaudiuso, head of training and education for K-Beauty brand Innisfree USA, explains that they can be used as two separate steps in your skincare routine. If you’re unsure of how, when, or whether or not you even need to add the formulas, check out how these two experts break it down.
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Understand the difference. Traditionally a toner is used as the final step in cleansing, and an essence is used as the first step in treatment. The main function of a toner is to balance the pH level of skin after cleansing and to remove the last traces of dirt and residue that your cleanser may have missed. “Think of your cleanser as your wash cycle and your toner your rinse cycle,” Gaudiuso explains. In Korean beauty, toners, which tend to focus more on locking in moisture after cleansing, can be used to prep the skin with an extra hydrating layer that also promotes glowing skin.
Essences, on the other hand, are lightweight boosters that target skin concerns like fine lines, wrinkles, dull and uneven skin tones. “While they’re less concentrated than a serum, they’re still packed with hydrating ingredients that work at the cellular level to help promote cell turnover and give the skin a smoother, brighter appearance,” says Gaudiuso. Consider these beauty buys as a pre-moisturizer that boost the effects of the skincare products to follow.
Choose based on skin concern. Choose your toner or essence based on what you want the product to help you with. For example, toners help re-balance skin after you wash your face, and formulas with salicylic acid or witch hazel — like Saturday Skin Daily Dew Hydrating Essence Mist ($34) — can help target specific skin concerns like acne and excessive oiliness. If your skin is dry, look for hydrating ingredients like sodium hyaluronate, amino acids, and sodium PCA.
When you need something even more specific, an essence might be the way to go. “Since an essence is a targeted treatment, the primary ingredients may vary according to the skin condition you are trying to address,” explains Gaudiuso. For example, if you’re looking to protect against free-radicals, an anti-oxidant-rich product like Innisfree Firming Energy Serum with Fermented Soybean ($39) will give you just that.
Steer clear of harsh ingredients. Always avoid any toner or essence that contains alcohol. “People with combination to oily skin and even acne-prone skin may be inclined to use an anti-bacterial toner that removes excess dirt, oil, and shine,” but these mainly dry the skin out according to Gaudiuso. Instead, check formulas for bacteria prohibiting ingredients like willow bark extract, found in the Herbivore Jasmine Green Tea Balancing Toner ($39).
Astringent toners should only be used for acne and oily complexions — but even oily skin can benefit from a more moisturizing options. “Sometimes I recommend clients to use my Rebalancing Toner ($42) followed by my Dry Skin Toner ($42) when they’re a little bit clogged and they live in a humid climate,” says Lorencin. No matter what your skin type, Lorencin suggests keeping a moisturizing toner in your carry-on to rehydrate during and after long flights.
Double up, only when necessary. “You should always strive to minimize your skin care routine for maximum impact. Adding unnecessary products will just confuse your skin and cause more dullness than glow,” Lorencin notes. However, Gaudiuso argues that incorporating each of these types of products into your routine can be beneficial. She says that a toner should be used to maintain your skin type, based on what we perceive our skin type to be, whereas an essence targets skin conditions like aging, dullness and moisture loss due to external factors. The key here is moderation and monitoring the state of your skin at any given moment.
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