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What Are Facial Essences — and Should You Be Using One?

They can hydrate dry complexions and prep skin so ingredients in other products can better penetrate.
By Brittany Loggins
April 02, 2021
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.

Whether you have a lengthy skin-care routine in place or get by with just a few hero items, you still might want to consider adding a facial essence to your rotation. While you may be trying to weigh the advantages of using a facial essence on your skin versus it being another bottle to schlep to the gym or during travel, it can actually benefit your complexion — especially if you tend to suffer from dryness — and help the ingredients in your other skin-care products penetrate better.

What Is a Facial Essence?

"Facial essences are a staple in the multi-step Korean beauty skin-care routine and are growing in popularity here in the U.S.," says Corey L. Hartman, M.D., a board certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama. These lightweight formulas feel similar to a toner, and are ideal for adding moisture to the skin, he adds. (Related: Witch Hazel Is Making a Major Skin-Care Comeback)

If you're wondering if your toner can double as an essence (or just confused about the difference between the two), know that they aren't interchangeable. "A toner is primarily designed to remove impurities from the face, such as oil, dirt, or dust," explains Dr. Hartman. "Whereas an essence is designed to prep the skin to boost the effectiveness of other skin-care ingredients and add moisture to the skin."

The Best Facial Essence Ingredients

When shopping for an essence, look for major hydrators, such as hyaluronic acid or glycerin in the ingredient list. Emollients such as shea butter, cocoa butter, squalene, and lanolin can also help draw moisture to the skin barrier and keep it there, notes Dr. Hartman. (Related: How to Boost Your Skin Barrier — and Why You Need To)

For those wanting to reduce the signs of aging, Dr. Hartman suggests choosing an essence that is packed with antioxidants such as vitamin C, which he says will "brighten skin and promote collagen regeneration." Vitamin A is another powerhouse ingredient that can help smooth the fine lines and wrinkles and even out skin texture.

How to Apply a Facial Essence

Facial essences can be used in the morning and at nighttime after toning. They not only provide your skin with an extra dose of moisture, but Dr. Harmon also points out that they are amazing at setting the stage for serums, moisturizer, and SPF. (Related: The Exact Order to Apply Your Skin-Care Products)

To apply an essence, your best bet is to forgo cotton balls and pads, since these can soak up too much product and effectively waste formulas. "Pour or spray the essence directly into clean, dry hands and apply it to the face in patting motions or small, upward circular motions to ensure the skin absorbs the product," says Dr. Hartman.

The Best Facial Essences

If you're aiming to boost hydration and the effectiveness of your other skin-care items with a single product, shop the best facial essences below, according to Dr. Hartman and customer reviews.

Kiehl's Iris Extract Activating Treatment Essence

facial essence kiehls
Credit: SEPHORA

This facial essence is one that comes highly recommended by Dr. Hartman. It contains hydrating hyaluronic acid and lipo hydroxy acid, a salicylic acid derivative that exfoliates and helps remove dull skin and rough texture. If you're looking for an anti-aging essence, this is a good option since it helps smooth fine lines and wrinkles.

Fresh Kombucha Antioxidant Facial Treatment Essence

facial essence fresh
Credit: AMAZON

You probably already know that adding kombucha (fermented black tea) to your diet is healthy for your gut, but it can work wonders for your skin, as well. This formula boasts kombucha — which smooths skin, increases radiance, and protects against pollution and free radical damage — along with hyaluronic acid and mandarin peel extract to hydrate and even skin tone. (Related: Kombucha Isn't Just Good for Your Gut—It's Great for Your Skin, Too)

"My sister recommended this and I was a bit skeptical.... especially due to the price!" said a customer. "However, after one week of once-a-day usage, I am IN LOVE with this! Softens, soothes, moisturizes, and preps my skin without leaving a film. Love love love!!"

Laneige Water Bank Hydro Essence

facial essence laneige
Credit: AMAZON

Another pick from Dr. Hartman, this facial essence contains kale, watercress, and beet in its ingredient list— all of which work to provide hydration. It's also packed with antioxidants, such as green mineral water, a water drawn from vitamin-rich veggies.

"I got a sample of this when I bought some products from Laneige in Seoul." said a shopper. "Tried it, and loved it so much that I bought a bottle of this right away the next day! It moisturizes my face without making it feel sticky or oily at all. I use it after cleansing and toning, like a moisturizer, though Laneige recommends using face cream after this step."

SK-II Facial Treatment Essence (Pitera Essence)

facial essence skii
Credit: SEPHORA

Despite the expensive price tag, reviewers say this essence is totally worth both the hype and credit card swipe. Pitera, a yeast-derived ingredient, is the key to its miracle formula — it contains more than 50 micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and amino acids to condition skin. Shoppers say it softens texture, reduces dark spots and fine lines, hydrates skin, and gives you a radiant glow. (Related: How to Deal with Hyperpigmentation In Your Skin)

One fan wrote: "This essence is incredible. I didn't think I would like it, or notice a difference, but my skin texture and tone really improved shortly after starting to use this. It is very pricey, but I put three drops in my hand and pat it on my face, careful not to waste any. It should last me approximately for months, which isn't that bad considering I use it mourning and night."

SeoulCeuticals Korean Skin Essence

facial essence seoulcueticals
Credit: AMAZON

This essence is made with 98 percent natural ingredients and contains tamarind seed, cucumber, and green tea extracts to hydrate, soothe, and brighten skin. The formula is non-comedogenic (aka won't clog pores), packed with anti-aging nutrients for a youthful glow, and has racked up nearly 2,000 five-star ratings among Amazon shoppers.

"I spray it once in the morning and once a night and it has been hydrating my very dry skin in the cold winter months," reported a reviewer. "I use it in conjunction with a moisturizer and a serum, but I notice a difference in my skin texture. Ever since I have been using it, my skin feel cleaner and softer."

Belif Hungarian Water Essence

facial essence belif
Credit: AMAZON

Loaded with rosemary and lavender, both of which are hydrating antioxidants, this essence recharges your skin's moisture level and protects against free radical damage. The formula is incredibly lightweight, so won't feel like it's weighing down your skin, but is long-lasting, as well, so you'll feel hydrated, healthy, and supple all day long. (Related: How to Protect Your Skin from Free Radical Damage)

"It's been very hard for me to find a hydrating product that isn't TOO heavy or rich or greasy because I live in Southwest Florida, and the humidity here is dreadful and constant," shared a customer. "But I'm also 46, and I'm a distance swimmer, so my skin is constantly exposed to sun and pool chemicals, and no matter how much sunblock I apply, the environment definitely can take a toll. This hydrating serum is great — it's the perfect medium between a lotion/cream and a lighter serum, and it's specifically made for oily/combo skin so it works well in a super humid environment."

Caudalie Vinoperfect Concentrated Brightening Essence

facial essence caudalie
Credit: SEPHORA

With more than 50,000 "loves" on Sephora's site, this essence could be considered a cult favorite, much like the one from SK-II. It brightens and sloughs away dead skin cells, thanks to the addition of glycolic acid, and has white peony and organic grape water in the formula to moisturize, soothe, and even your skin tone.

"Best essence I have ever tried!!" raved a shopper. "I used it consistently for about a week or 2 and saw a difference in the way my skin looked. My skin feels more smooth and bright and this essence has now become a staple in my skincare routine. I also began receiving compliments on how bright my face looked!! 100% recommend!"