What Exactly Is Essence?

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So, have you heard about essence yet? And more importantly: Have you figured out what it is?

'Essence is the heart of the Korean skincare routine, and it is a skincare category that was created in Korea,” Charlotte Cho, co-founder of Soko Glam, tells us—something you may have gleaned while reading up on the Korean skincare routine. If you've been searching around and looking for the next trend as big as BB cream, your search may end here. “But there's a lot of confusion behind the product,” Cho said. So, let's clarify.

The easiest way to define essence is first to figure out what it is not. This is not toner, but you wouldn't be blamed for thinking that it is. They've got a similar slip to them. But unlike your drugstore bottle of witch hazel, essences by and large come in beautiful (often glass) bottles that look excellent on your countertop. They are also not meant for cleaning. With higher doses of active ingredients, essence is meant to deliver those deep into the skin after you've gone through the process of cleansing (two or three times, if you're thorough). It's got your hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and other natural extracts for an immediately hydrated and comforted feel, according to Janet Pardo, senior vice president of product development at Clinique, who helped create Clinique's Even Better Essence Lotion. It also balances pH once you've stripped the skin of oils. This is what you add to make you feel like you again.

But at the same time, essence isn't a serum, which comes in a smaller vial at higher concentrations. “There's only so much you can pack into an essence or a watery lotion,” Pardo said. That doesn't mean you shouldn't use it. Women in Asian markets have sworn by it for decades, Pardo continues, and now that they're filtering into the American market, technology is only getting better. Thought it may be of interest: As essences make their way stateside, some companies have blurred the lines between essences and toners with 'treatment' toners/essences/lotions meant to take care of two steps at once. Korean experts still advise using separate products for optimal results.

Application is also a different ballgame. Instead of dabbing some on a cotton pad and swiping over your face like you might with a treatment lotion or toner (or massaging it in like you might with a serum or oil), essences have their own special technique. Namely, that you pat or press it into your face with your hands, starting at your chin and moving upward, says Dr. Nadine Pernodet, who helped develop Estée Lauder's Micro Essence.

Beyond the simple feeling of hydration and luxury, there's an anti-aging element to essence as well. Adding moisture to the skin at an early age can help skin stay healthy and plump longer. “Asian women tend to have a thinner moisture barrier than Caucasian women and are therefore more prone to moisture loss,” Dr. Pernodet said, also explaining why Asian markets have had the product for so long. “Essence helps create a stronger, more resistant skin foundation for longterm improvement to the look of skin,”

That being said, essence isn't necessarily the end-all, be-all product. “This product isn't loved by all skintypes,” Pardo added. “If you've got oily skin, acne, or any issue with overproduction of sebum, this isn't really for you. The consumer who likes this product has drier skin—maybe they over-cleanse, but that's mostly because the market isn't mature here yet. But it's growing! So we'll see what comes out next,”

Photographed by Tom Newton.

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