Facial essences are a big part of Korean skincare, but what exactly are they?

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If you’ve already got a pretty laborious skincare routine, the thought of adding in a whole new step might be daunting. But as Stylist’s beauty director Shannon Peter finds out, facial essence is more than worth the extra time investment.

From sheet masks to pimple patches, K-Beauty trends continue to leave a lasting impact on beauty culture — and bathroom cabinets — over here in the UK. But one Korean export that perhaps hasn’t taken off quite as much is facial essence.

And in all honesty, I can see why. Facial essences are a kind of between-y product, which feels a little like a toner, and a little like a serum, but is, in actual fact, neither. And it doesn’t help that the promised benefits of facial essences tend to crossover with other skincare products too. Depending on the formula, a facial essence can hydrate, brighten and even out skin tone, but if you’ve already got those things covered elsewhere in your arsenal, do you really need to add yet another step to your routine?

Safe to say, when I first heard about essences I was a bit dubious. But thankfully intrigue won out, and I started testing out a few facial essences to see if they really made any kind of difference. A few months later, I’m an official facial essence convert. Want to know why? Well, here’s everything you need to know about this skincare category: what it is, why it’s worth using and the very best formulas around.

What is a facial essence?

Facial essences tend to be full of skin softening and hydrating ingredients and come in a texture not too dissimilar to a watered-down serum or a thickened toner. But don’t let that comparison fool you. They aren’t designed to be used in lieu of either. Instead, their role is to amp up the effects of the rest of your routine.

According to Nathalie Broussard, Shiseido’s Scientific Communication Director, “the main role of an essence is to hydrate and prepare skin to receive the skincare products that follow”.

Quite often, the ingredients within have a lower molecular weight than those found in serums, so they can travel deeper below the skin’s surface. Broussard explains that, in layman’s terms, the essence softens up the skin and enables following formulas to work harder. “It opens a ‘path’ of the skin to deliver the benefits of products used afterwards,” she adds. “It is just like soaking a sponge, it absorbs better water when it is humidified than a dry one.” 

How do you use a facial essence?

Inserting a facial essence into the right stage of your skincare routine is crucial. “Apply it straight after cleansing and toning but before serum,” explains Dr Dendy Engelman, Elizabeth Arden’s Consulting Dermatologist. To apply, simply splash a few drops onto a (reusable) cotton pad and swipe it over the entire face. “It can be used all over the skin, around the eyes and on the neck,” adds Broussard. 

Do you really need a facial essence?

That totally depends. If you’re someone that wants to spend no longer than two minutes over the sink, then introducing an essence into your routine will probably be more fuss than you have the patience for. However, if you are willing to invest a little more time, then I’d definitely recommend making space in your cabinet for one.

Like I said, I am a serious essence convert. I’ve got fairly dehydrated skin, so I’m all about using finding skincare products that amp up hydration, and essences bring that by the bucketload. I use one near enough every morning and while without the aid of a microscope, I can’t exactly see whether it’s helping the absorption of my serums and creams, but I have noticed that my skin feels a hell of a lot softer and looks much brighter. Plus, it stays hydrated for longer too. One five-second step for all that? Totally worth it if you ask me.

The best facial essences

There’s been a steady influx of facial essences onto UK shelves in recent years, and after seeing a real benefit, I’ve made it my duty to hunt out the best ones. Here’s my edit of the best facial essences I would wholly recommend.

  • The best facial essence for dry skin


    Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Micro Capsule Essence

    Ceramides may be all the rage right now, but Elizabeth Arden was one of the original brands to hero this powerful ingredient. If you don’t know, ceramides are like the mortar that holds together the bricks (or the cells) of our skin. A reduction in ceramides leads to a compromised skin barrier which doesn’t have the strength to retain much needed moisture, so they’re a vital ingredient for anyone with dry skin. You’ll find them in the brand’s new essence, alongside seven different antioxidants which help to protect skin from free radical damage.

    £45, Elizabeth Arden

  • The best facial essence for dehydrated skin


    Shiseido Eudermine Revitalising Essence

    It might look a lot like a fancy perfume, but inside this dramatic red bottle is the latest iteration of Shiseido’s cult essence, which first launched in 1897. It feels a little more jellified than other essences I’ve tried, but that makes it all the better at remedying dehydration. 

    £77, Shiseido.

  • The best facial essence for dull skin


    Fresh Black Tea Kombucha Facial Treatment Essence

    I’ve never been into the taste of kombucha, but as a skincare ingredient? I can totally get on board. In this facial essence, the fermented sweet black boosts radiance and alongside hyaluronic acid, it draws moisture into the skin where it belongs.

    £28, Cult Beauty.

  • The best facial essence for sensitive skin


    Dr Jart+ Vital Hydra Solution Essence

    This essence from South Korean skincare brand Dr Jart+ is especially soothing for anyone with sensitive skin. It contains a blend of ingredients designed to support the skin’s microbiome, i.e the bacteria living on its surface. Yes, it sounds weird, but it’s actually vital in ensuring you have a strong skin barrier that won’t leak out precious moisture — a particular concern of anyone with sensitive skin.

    £15, Cult Beauty.

Images: Getty / courtesy of brands.

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