We Ask a Derm: What’s the Difference Between Essence vs. Toner?

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essence vs toner cat

Toner has been floating around the skincare world for quite some time. Then, essence made an appearance as the new K-beauty replacement for toner (or add-on, depending on who you’re talking to). But do we really know what they do? And more importantly, is it necessary to have one or both of them in your skincare steps? Whether you can’t enough of your SK-II or you rely on your Fresh’s toner daily, we tapped dermatologist Raja Sivamani at Zen Dermatology to finally breakdown the difference between essence vs. toner.

What is toner?

Toner is another product that works to exfoliate and clear the skin of excess oil, dirt or makeup. When you incorporate the product into your routine, you are working to restore your skin’s PH balance level. It usually comes in a bottle or in spray form, but typically a cotton pad is used to gently sweep it across your skin. Keep in mind that toners can be harsh and drying to some (because of its acidic ingredients), so Sivamani recommends looking for one that is alcohol-free to not irritate your skin.  

Get the toner: The Ordinary Glyconic Acid 7% Toning Solution ($9); INNBeauty Project Down to Tone Life Changing Toner ($26) REN Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic ($38); Arbonne AgeWell Refreshing Toning Mist ($41); Fresh Rose & Hylauronic Acid Deep Hydration Toner ($45); Augustinus Bader The Exfoliating Toner ($85)

What is essence?

Essence is a staple in Korean skincare and has become quite popular in mainstream beauty over the last couple of years. While a toner uses acids to exfoliate, an essence can hydrate and calm the skin with ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide or squalane oil. “The concept of an essence comes out of Japanese and Korean skincare regiments and is a light way of delivering ingredients to the skin,” Sivamani explained. “From a functional sense, it’s not as hard as a toner and it is more about delivering ingredients to the skin rather than cleansing it.” Instead of relying on a cotton pad, work the liquid onto your hands and pat gently on your face and neck. It’s recommended to use an essence before your serum to enhance the next products in your routine. 

Get the essence: Cosrx Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence ($15); Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence ($25); Juice Beauty GREEN APPLE Brightening Essence ($38); Tatcha The Essence Plumping Skin Softener ($95); Vintner’s Daughter Active Treatment Essence ($225); SK-II Facial Treatment Essence ($235)

OK, so what is the main difference between essence vs. toner?

So, both nourish the skin, and both are usually water-based products (with the occasional essential oils mixed in for added benefits). But at the end of the day, the difference between the two really boils down to the ingredients. “It all depends on the ingredients that are in the toner or the essence, but typically they have different intents and match differently to different skin types,” said Sivamani. For example, essences typically have hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin and algae, to name a few. And toner relies on active ingredients like astringents (witch hazel or tea tree oil), AHA (glycolic or lactic) and BHA (salicylic acid) in their products. These ingredients work to cleanse, tighten and balance out the skin but can be too much or too strong for some skin types.

And is one better than the other?

When making the decision to use essence vs. toner, it all depends on your skin type. It might be helpful to look closely at how your skin reacts to each product. Plus, looking at the ingredients is key to figuring out if any of them might irritate your skin. 

According to Sivamani, people with oily skin can benefit from a toner because of how easily it strips away excess oil and refreshes the skin. But people with dry or sensitive skin should probably avoid it altogether, and instead reach for an essence, which is more lightweight and moisturizing to the skin. “People with dry skin do not need to use a toner as that can be too harsh. Instead, this is where an essence can be useful.” 

Oh, and spoiler alert, you don’t have to use both in your skincare routine. Some people choose to apply essence after toner, but it’s not a necessity. It’s just an added benefit to keep your skin feeling and looking plumped. If you want to swap your toner for an essence, go for it. Remember that it’s your skincare routine. If you like minimalism or prefer a full 10-step process, don’t stop us from doing your thing. Just make sure to pay close attention to how your skin responds to the products you’re using. 

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Associate Editor, Ultimate Fangirl, Aspiring Beauty Guru

Chelsea Candelario is an Associate Editor at PureWow. She has been covering beauty, culture, fashion and entertainment for over a decade. You'll find her searching the internet...