Toner vs essence: What’s the difference? Do you need both for your skincare routine?

Tan Wei Lin

CNA – When essence arrived in the skincare scene, there was a lot of confusion. Suddenly, things were not quite as clear-cut anymore. Is it a toner masquerading as a serum? An innovative serum in a watery form?

Most of us could not quite put our finger on what essences were, yet we simply had to get our hands on the most popular of these, especially since these were prominently featured in big skincare trends like the 10-step Korean routine, and touted by magazines as the new regimen-boosting must-have that every woman needed.

At the same time, the market was flooded with these, which makes it harder to understand the exact, basic function of the product and where it fits in our skincare regimen.

Do essences replace toners, or do we even need toners, for that matter? You can only find out by first understanding what each of these does for your skin.

WHAT IS A TONER ANYWAY?

Back in the “old days”, a toner typically refers to astringents used right after skin-cleansing to clean away any residual dirt and tighten pores.

That is why they are called astringents – toners usually contain witch hazel, which works to contract skin cells, temporarily remove excess oil and leave a cooling sensation on the skin.

The most important function of toners, however, is unfortunately lost on most people: Modern toners are actually formulated to rebalance skin’s pH levels after cleansing, since most cleansers – no matter how gentle they are – will inevitably bring about a change in the skin’s acid mantle and compromise the skin barrier.

While toners of the past do tend to “sting”, today’s versions are much kinder to skin as brands are consciously reducing the use of the skin-drying ingredient or replacing it with a skin-friendly alternative. In fact, some toners may not even fall into the astringent category – these could be suitable for those with sensitive skin.

What’s more, they now come with a variety of additional ingredients to benefit skin in multiple ways. Depending on your needs, you can find one with either exfoliating, acne-clearing, anti-inflammatory or anti-ageing benefits.

By leaving toners out, you are missing out on a crucial step that can affect the efficacy of the rest of your skincare regimen. A basic one will serve to protect your skin barrier and prep it to absorb other skincare ingredients optimally. With the number of options available in the market now, there is something that will suit every type of skin.

SO WHAT IS AN ESSENCE?

The essence or essence lotion, as many brands like to call it, is still a relatively new product category that exploded onto the beauty scene alongside the Korean wave that spread internationally a little while back.

What exactly does essence mean? Is it a lotion, a serum or simply a more fanciful synonym for toner? It is the single most confusing product category in beauty – a problem compounded by the fact that it exists in such a bewildering variety of formulations.

In all honesty, the line between toners and essences is sometimes blurred – a result of the eagerness of beauty companies to jam-pack more benefits into either product so as to make them more appealing.

To simplify things, think of essences as the product that comes in-between your toner and serum – it serves to facilitate the transition between the use of these two products.

An essence is a liquid skincare product that does not quite do the job of a toner, but is not as potent or concentrated as a serum, either.

It is designed for quick absorption, fast hydration and nourishing skin at a cellular level, leaving it “softened” and perfectly primed to receive all the goodness of your serum.

In other words, they can boost the performance of your serum, while opening an opportunity to provide your starved skin with an extra shot of hydration and nutrients.

You might think it is all a ploy of beauty companies out to sell you more products. Is essence mandatory? Not necessarily, but the truth is that they are a bonus perk for your skin, if you bother to provide it.

Finally, to clarify a semantic confusion – the word “lotion” is sometimes applied to essences that have a thicker liquid texture simply because of its consistency. These are essentially still essences.

SHOULD YOU USE COTTON PADS OR HANDS?

Which should you use to put on your toner and essence? The general rule is that toner should be applied with cotton pads, while essence should be patted directly into skin with your palms. The logic is based on the product texture, since toners are mostly more lightweight and runnier than essences.

Then again, there are no hard and fast rules these days as products become increasingly varied and complex. Some toners can be as thick as an essence, in which case using your hands may facilitate its penetration into the skin better.

Always use a cotton pad with an exfoliating toner, however, as the mechanical action of swiping your skin down with the pad will boost the product’s skin-renewing action.

As for essence, applying it with your palms is typically recommended, because it is intended for skin absorption rather than as a final-step “cleanser” like toner is.

At the same time, there are also essences that have a very runny texture and will apply better when delivered via a cotton pad. If in doubt, consult the beauty advisor at the counter where you are making your skincare purchase – he or she will know exactly how the products are designed to be used.

IS TONER OR ESSENCE MORE IMPORTANT?

There is no straightforward answer to this conundrum, simply because everyone’s skin is unique and different. Most dermatologists will say that both products are not mandatory, even if they do benefit your skin.

Still, if including a toner and/or essence into your routine could potentially improve your skin or boost the plateauing performance of your regimen, why not give them a fair shot and see for yourself if they really are worth the extra expenditure, time and effort?