I’ve been using an essence twice a day for over a year now, and it has completely transformed my complexion. My skin is vibrant, soft, supple, and most of the fine lines that were starting to appear have completely vanished. Adding an essence to your skincare regimen is one of the best moves you can make to improve your skin and keep it youthful for longer, and since I’ve tried SO MANY of them I am here to help you wade through the sea of options.
Fair warning – this is going to be a long one but, if you’ve been thinking about adding an essence to your skincare regimen, it’ll be worth the read!
At first glance, essences may seem like kind of a useless extra step in your routine. Like they’re just another serum-type of product that stands between you and your moisturizer. I promise that once you use one you will understand why they have risen to cult status in Korea and are finally starting to infiltrate the American market. I have actually come to consider it the most important part of my regimen.
Think of essences as a primer for your other skincare products. Much like foundation primer improves the way your foundation interacts with your face – it goes on more smoothly, stays put longer, blends more easily, and looks more natural – essences provide a better base for everything else you apply to your skin after it. It helps absorb products better, it keeps your skin moisturized longer, it evens out skin tone, brightens skin, smooths texture, and helps eliminate fine lines and keep wrinkles at bay. It just makes things better. Plus, some essences even go a step further and offer various additional benefits like sebum control and acne fighting. Even if you have oily skin, an essence may add enough moisture to allow you to downgrade to a very light moisturizer or not need one at all. As an added bonus, you’ll find you need to use a lot less of other products than you used to. I use about half the moisturizer that I used to due to my skin being so much more thoroughly moisturized after using the essence.
By far the biggest question I have received about adding an essence to your regimen is, “when in my routine do I use the essence?” A standard K-beauty regimen order is: cleanser, toner, essence, serum, oil/treatment, and finally moisturizer. I normally skip the toner step because my skin is pretty dry and sensitive, so my essence step is the first thing I do after washing my face. Some essences actually include a toning agent, so bear that in mind depending on your skin type and choice of essence.
The most important thing you need to know is that price does not equal quality. You’ll see below that a $12 essence blows a $179 essence out of the water, and that most of my favorites tend to actually be on the cheaper side. The essences we can get in the US so far are typically around $45, and while that’s on the pricier side, you use very little at a time (about a dime-sized amount) so the bottle will last you a long time. I personally have a strong preference of cream or gel essences over liquid essences, but I do make exceptions as you’ll see below. (Side note: If you’re using a liquid formula, DO NOT put it on a cotton ball to swab it onto your skin. You will lose so much of the product to absorption! Instead, pour it into your palm and smooth over your skin with your hands. If the bottle tells you to use a cotton ball, remember that they want you to waste the product.)
May Coop Raw Sauce ($43) – Rating: A+ – MY #1 RECOMMENDATION
Raw Sauce is known as The Ultimate Essence for a reason, and is by far one of the best essences I have tried (and I’ve tried a LOT). It’s the essence I always recommend folks start with. The results are super noticeable almost immediately and it’s great for all skin types. You’ll see results after only about a week of using this with your morning and night skincare regimen, and you’ll love what you see. The formula is more liquid than I would prefer, but its results are truly transformative and you can’t argue with that. You cannot go wrong with this essence and for the price point it is my #1 recommendation for someone who wants to add an essence to their regimen!
Holika Holika Gudetama All-in-One Master Essence ($30) – Rating: A+++
As much as I love Raw Sauce, this one is actually my all-time favorite essence. And of course since it’s something I love, it has been discontinued. This was part of the Lazy + Easy line, a special collaboration that Holika Holika did with Sanrio, which was comprised of some of the best K-beauty products I have found to date. This essence has a gel/cream texture and contains a gentle toning agent, which is amazing because most toners are way too harsh for my skin to use on their own. This essence plumps, tones, and softens skin almost immediately. Seriously, after like 3 days you’ll notice a difference. While it’s discontinued, there is a ray of hope if you’d like to try this essence – for whatever reason, CVS picked up the line as part of their new foray into K-beauty and it’s available (at least for now) on their website. (And as of the date of this post, you can save 30% on health and beauty items on the CVS site using code SAVENOW!!!) I bought 3 of ’em myself because I am really resistant to letting this one go. I gave May Coop Raw Sauce the spot for #1 recommendation because who knows how long this one will last on the market (and its price keeps increasing – it used to be $20), but if you find it I highly recommend picking it up.
Esfolio Goat Milk Daily Essence ($12) – Rating: A
This was such a great Memebox find! This essence is a cream, so I was immediately on board with it. Memebox inventory regularly comes and goes, as is the way when products are entirely international; I have not seen it on there recently, but I’m hopeful it will come back (I’m keeping an eye out for it!). For such an extremely low price it is a solid essence and gives visible results. It’s made with goat milk extract, which is known for being super moisturizing, and is part of the Esfolio’s Goat Milk line. It amplifies skin elasticity and has a brightening agent that helps keep your skin tone on point. This essence is so moisturizing that it’s great for the winter, and this may even be enough of a moisturizer on its own for someone with skin on the oily side.
Blithe Vital Treatment Essence for Hydrating ($42) – Rating: B+
I really wanted to love this one, and I aaaaaalmost did. This essence tops skincare lists often, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a liquid formula, but it absorbs wonderfully and definitely hydrates skin. The problem for me is that I just wanted more. My favorite essences go that extra mile – improving skin tone, smoothing skin, treating fine lines, etc. This one just didn’t do much besides laying a great base for serums and moisturizers (which it does do well). I think for this price you’re better off with Raw Sauce.
Shiseido Ibuki Softening Concentrate ($38) – Rating: B
I picked this up during a big sale on Birchbox and got it for 40% off! An essence for that price? Sign me up! While I don’t love this essence, but I don’t hate it either. It makes no promises other than softening skin, which is exactly all it does. I keep it on deck as my backup essence for when I run out of a better one. Much like the Blithe essence above, it just falls short of being amazing. Is it worth it if you find it on sale? Yes. Is it worth it at full price? I don’t think so. Also, the formula is liquid, and you know how I feel about liquid essences.
SK-II Facial Treatment Essence ($179) – Rating: B-
Let me preface my thoughts with this – this essence retails for SO MUCH MONEY. There is not an essence on the market that is worth that price, this one included. Maybe even especially this one, because it’s not that great. You can of course get the travel size bottle, which is a mere $99 (WTF). Ok, now that that’s out of the way, this essence is fine. It made me break out a little, which I did not appreciate, but otherwise it does its job. It is brightening, and it is smoothing, but it’s not as much so as Raw Sauce. Considering you can get more than 4 bottles of Raw Sauce for the price of a single SK-II, I’d recommend passing on this one. If you really want to try it and see what a $179 bottle of essence is like, go to Sephora and ask for a sample of it. It’s free!
Belif Classic Essence Increment ($46) – Rating: C…. for now.
Belif recently came out with a line of 5 essences (!!!!), each addressing specific a skincare concern. I got the Classic Essence since I figured it was a good place to start, but so far I have been underwhelmed. Full disclosure, I have only been using this one for about a week, so time will tell. The formula is a cream, which I love, but it seems more like a very light moisturizer without the treatment properties that I have come to love about the best essences available. This might be because I got the most neutral essence of the line, so maybe the more targeted essences will yield better results.
MISSHA Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence ($49) – Rating: C
This was neither revolutionary nor the first treatment essence, but it came in a Target Beauty Box so of course I had to try it. Of all the essences I have tried, this was the least impressive. It’s a liquid (strike one), it was tough to absorb (strike two), and it’s pretty expensive considering it’s a drug store brand (strike three, and you know what that means). I found this essence to be a bit drying, so if you were using a toner with it your skin would probably be begging for some moisture after. Not exactly the purpose of an essence. I am glad Target has started carrying more K-beauty products, but this one totally missed the mark. Still, this essence is better than no essence at all.
I highly recommend adding an essence to your regimen, because once you fall in love you will never go back to your pre-essence life (plus your skin will thank you!). It’s a real shame that 2 of my 3 favorite essences have disappeared off the market, but that’s the curse of loving a product too much. Sephora carries a bunch of different essences, which is great news for you because you can waltz into your local store and ask for samples of a few different ones. It’s a great way to try them and see what works for your skin without spending a lot of money on various types. While essences aren’t cheap, the bottles last a long time and they are worth every penny.
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I bought these products, all opinions are my own. Post contains referral link.