The ultimate guide to essences and serums

You know the classic three-step skincare routine — cleanse, tone, and moisturize. But where do essences and serums come in? How do you tell them apart, and more importantly, how can they help you achieve beautiful skin? Here’s all you need to know.

What are essences?

Essences, such as SK-II Facial Treatment Essence, are light yet powerful formulas that treat skin on a cellular level. This means they deliver rich ingredients deep into your skin fast — all the better to hydrate, rejuvenate, and freshen up your skin. Essences are typically clear and watery, with a mild, almost-unnoticeable scent. Their lightweight texture means your skin can quickly absorb all the goodness, and the water-based formula is suitable for virtually every skin type.


Some essences are formulated with anti-aging care or anti-blemish benefits, while others focus on smoothing and softening skin. But almost all of them contain ingredients for rejuvenation and hydration to give you dewy skin.

Rejuvenate your skin for natural radiance

Your skin has a natural renewal rate of about 28 days, which is the full cycle it takes for new cells to replace dead ones on the surface of your skin. Age, environmental stresses, or lack of sleep can slow down this process. Essences help get it back on track, promoting natural cell turnover to reveal your natural radiance and healthy-looking skin.

Hydrate your skin quickly and without stickiness

Your skin needs lots of moisture, and essences deliver that quickly and effectively. Many essences are chock-full of hydrating components such as Hyaluronic Acid, a humectant that keeps skin plump and young looking, and Niacinamide, a vitamin that strengthens your skin barrier to prevent loss of moisture.

What are serums?

Think of serums as boosters for your skin. As they’re more concentrated, they tend to have a thicker consistency that’s closer to gels or lotions. While essences provide a host of benefits for your skin, the best face serums deliver a suite of active ingredients to target specific concerns or areas with faster, better results.


Serums let you customize your skincare routine based on what your skin needs most, and the huge variety in the market means there’s a skin serum for everyone. Here are the main types of serums, and what they can do for your skin:

Slow down signs of aging

Anti-aging serums typically contain ingredients such as peptides and antioxidants. Peptides help boost the production of collagen in skin, a process that slows down naturally with age. This plumps up skin and reduces the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. Antioxidants like Vitamin A neutralize free radicals – unstable molecules that break down your skin’s collagen and accelerate multiple signs of aging – to prevent oxidative damage.

Brighten up your skin

Brightening serums are high in ingredients such as Vitamin C, Vitamin B3, and flavonoid-rich fruit extracts such as blackberry and prune. UV exposure causes unprotected skin to produce melanin, leading to uneven pigmentation and dark spots. These powerful ingredients work to inhibit melanin production and target dark spots for radiant, clear skin.

Where do essences and serums belong in your routine?

Your skincare routine can have multiple essences and serums, depending on your skin’s needs. So, which comes first? The general rule of thumb is always go from light to heavy. That means thinner, less viscous products go on first.

Quick Tip

Switch up your routine every day based on how your skin is feeling. If your skin feels dry and tight, skip your toner and double down on your essences for hydration and rejuvenation instead.

Use your essence right after toning and cleansing, then layer on your facial serum(s) (also in order of weight), and finish off with your moisturizer to seal it all in. The only exception to this rule is serums that have acids such as BHAs and AHAs – they may require a specific pH to function and should be applied before any other essences or face serums.

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