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We get it—it’s confusing. They look the same and often feel the same, one has previously been shunned by skincare aficionados, and the other, for many, feels scary and new. It was about time we broke down and simplified the major differences between a toner and an essence, and why, in actuality, they’re not as similar as perhaps you once thought—so we tapped MECCA skin specialist and essence-obsessive Lucy Shaw for a little help. Prepare to fall in love with these underrated and oft misunderstood heroes of your skincare regime.
Despite what you might think, it’s simple. The primary purpose of a toner is to balance the pH level of your skin (which should be slightly acidic, sitting at about 5.5). It also works to clear away any impurities left on your skin after cleansing, so if you’re double cleansing and toning, your skin will be as clean and balanced as can be. The primary purpose of an essence, however, is more like that of a serum, working to hydrate and nourish the skin, which then enhances the rest of your skincare routine. A toner is typically swiped over the face with a soaked cotton pad, and an essence is pressed straight into the skin.
To confirm, we went straight to our resident skin specialist: “toners work a lot harder now than what they used to in terms of brightening, resurfacing and decongesting skin,” says Shaw, of the common misconceptions around the effectiveness of toners. “I find that most toner formulations help to refresh the skin, remove any dull, dead skin cells and balance out excess oil. Essences are better for soothing irritated skin, hydrating a dehydrated skin and helping your skincare absorb more effectively.”
Used immediately after cleansing—and originating from the beauty salon as a way to cleanse the skin without tap water—toners are the ultimate way to ensure your pores are really, truly clean, as Shaw says, by “removing excess oil helping to balance congested skin due to its astringent properties.” A toner’s pH balancing powers also means you can ensure your skin is on the slightly acidic side, which protects the skin barrier by combatting harmful microbes (bad bacteria) and free radicals, both of which can increase the visible signs of ageing. While toners once had a bad reputation for drying and stripping the skin, they’ve come a long way. For example, Kiehl’s Calendula Herbal Extract Toner is alcohol-free and super gentle on the skin, with soothing allantoin, great burdock and of course, calendula, and is perfect “if you’ve been tackling any breakouts or flaky areas.”
The new and trending breed of toners often come along with gentle exfoliating benefits for serious glow—like Glow Recipe’s Watermelon Glow Toner with PHAs and BHAs, Mecca Cosmetica’s Glow Giver Solution with AHAs and salicylic acid, and Mario Badescu’s Glycolic Acid Toner.
Beauty’s biggest icons—like Gigi Hadid’s go-to makeup artist, Patrick Ta , and Tatcha Founder Victoria Tsai—swear by essences as one of, if not the most important part of their skincare routines. A K-beauty creation (so you know it’s legit), you can think of essences as an extremely lightweight—and often water-thin—serum, which are able to penetrate the skin at a cellular level. “Essences are BEST friends with serums,” says Shaw. “They complement each other perfectly as an essence will help to put the serum on a ‘freeway’ into the skin, into the deeper layers where we need them to go.” Think of it as the friend that makes you drink water in between wines on a night out).
Like AMOREPACIFIC’s Vintage Single Extract Essence, Lancôme Clarifique Dual Essence, and Tatcha’s The Essence, they’re usually packed with antioxidants and traditional skin superfoods like green tea, algae and rice that do literal wonders to your skin.
No matter your skin concern—whether it be dryness, oiliness, ageing, stress or irritation—you will notice a visible, glowing improvement immediately after using an essence, while “neutralising the effects of UV, pollution and stress on your skin.”
As we mentioned, an essence is more comparable to a serum, so using a toner will help to balance the skin and clear away dead skin cells and impurities before you nourish with an essence. “If you are more on the oily, acne-prone, congested side, I would say prioritize using a toner, as these will more than likely have a skin-balancing, deep cleaning action,” says Shaw. “If your skin is dry or dehydrated, or you’re wanting to step up your skincare game, go for an essence.”
Both products are crucial in the famous Korean ten-step skincare routine, and serve different purposes in the pursuit of clear, radiant skin. If you’re still confused, Shaw suggests the following; “think of toners as an extension of your cleansing routine and essences as an extension of your serum/treatment products.” If anything, like the Jack Johnson song, they’re better together.
Time to tone? Think essences are essential? Shop our winning collection of these skincare heroes here.
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