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Toners vs Essence…and Essence Toners? We Look At The (Ever So Slight) Differences

24 Jul 2020 - By Catherine Sim

An already highly contested category in the already jam packed world of beauty, the powers that continue to confound us with ever new product types and names. So what is the difference between Toners, Essences and Essence Toners? Read on to find out!


Within the great post-cleansing debate, Toners, Essences and Essence Toners are often used interchangeably and for the most part, you could possibly do so with little detriment to your skincare routines. But there are some subtle differences you should know about.

So, what is a Toner and what is an Essence?

The key difference between Toners and Essences is that Toners, traditionally part of western skincare routines, are used to remove any last traces of dirt and residue that your cleanser missed and to balance the pH level after cleansing; Essences on the other hand, are more commonly found in Asian skincare lineups and are lightweight skin boosters that come with a variety of skincare benefits.


Isntree Hyaluronic Acid Toner Skincare

Toners provide an extra purifying step that helps to pick up residual oil, dirt and other impurities. Some old-school skin toners might contain alcohol and/or fall on the more astringent (drying) side but many modern Toners are water-based formulas that help lift skin debris without drying out your skin. 

In fact, many modern toners like the Hyaluronic Acid Toner from Isntree are formulated with humectants and hydrating actives to help moisturise and lock in moisture. Find out more about our Isntree Hyaluronic Acid Toner here: Isntree Hyaluronic Acid Toner and Toner Plus, The Last Toners You'll Ever Need

“Toners are the last step in your cleansing routine while Essences are the first step of your skincare treatment. This is one way to look at it.” says Cheryl Chua, Marketing Director at Asian Beauty X. “It is this blurring of the lines between the cleansing and skincare treatment steps that is at the root of the Toners vs Essences debate.”


The Pure Lotus Jeju Lotus Leaf Essence

While Essences aren’t common in Western skincare routines, they are actually very common in Asian, and in particular, Korean skincare routines. Usually a little more viscous in texture than Toners, Essences help ease your skin from the cleansing steps into the skin treatment steps.

Essences in addition to being hydrating, usually possess a myriad of other skincare benefits such as anti-ageing and skin brightening treatments. They are lighter and less concentrated than serums which target more specific skin issues. Essences are like multi-vitamins for your skin while serums are more like the Vitamin C supplements you take.

There are however Essences that are formulated with humectants such as Hyaluronic Acid, Ceramide and Glycerin that make them almost indistinguishable to Toners. The confusion continues as some brands have products termed “Essence Toners” and “Essence Lotions” and it really is no wonder the frustration felt at times when deciding on the right product to use. 

But just to be clear, for all intent and purposes, Essence Toners and Essence Lotions are in essence, Essences…no pun intended…

So What Should I Use?

Toners vs Essences

The key in deciding whether to use a Toner or an Essence or even both (more on that later) really depends on what you want to get out of the product that you are using. 

For instance, if you already subscribe to the Korean double-cleanse routine and are using quality facial cleansers that are pH neutral, then using a toner in the traditional sense might be overdoing it since a double cleanse is supposed to help thoroughly cleanse your skin of all impurities.

That is why some Korean skincare brands like The Pure Lotus do not have a Toner in their skincare lineup offering, instead, in its place an Essence.

“After your double cleanse, your skin is at its most ready state to absorb your follow on skin treatments. This is why we recommend using a richer essence as the first step of your skin treatment.” explains Oh Yu-Jin, founder of The Pure Lotus.

Alternatively, if you only do a single cleanse or you like a particular cleanser that is more on the alkaline side, then you would probably want to use a Toner to help rebalance your skin or to remove residual dirt. Some Toners have ingredients like Witch Hazel that may also help with acne issues and excessive oiliness. Just remember, unlike a Cosmopolitan, always, always, always choose alcohol-free.

In short, a toner should be used to restore your skin to its natural state after cleansing while Essences are used to target specific skin concerns such as ageing, dullness and skin dryness.

12 Steps?

Many ladies from South Korea, the mecca of beauty, choose to use both Toners and Essences in an elaborate 12 steps skincare regimen that might or might not be for you. If you are working 14 hour days like me then you know what I’m talking about.

Toners vs Essences

 Building up your skincare routine gradually layer by layer is the key concept of the 12 steps Korean skincare routine and its premise can serve as a guide to good skin care practices. But it can also be incompatible with the fast-paced lifestyles of young urban professionals. Long hours and late nights mean that we do not always have the time for all 12 steps. 

If you do not have the time for the 12 steps Korean skincare routine but have specific skin troubles such as acne and excessive oiliness then it is possible that using both the right Toner and Essence for oily skin together could help you achieve your long term skincare goals much faster. Using the right combination of products that complement or augment one another should be what you are looking for.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, whether you should choose to use a Toner, Essence or both depends a lot on YOU. So before you next go beauty shopping for a Toner or Essence, here are a couple of things to consider:

Steer clear of harsh ingredients. Oily skin or acne-prone skin types might be tempted to use alcohol-based, antibacterial toners that remove dirt, oil and shine, but these toners mainly dry your skin out. Check instead of formulas for natural anti-bacterials such as Willow Bark Extract like in the Thank You Farmer True Water Light Toner ($36) or White Lotus Extract like in The Pure Lotus Jeju Leaf Essence ($72).

Double up only when necessary. Do you have any specific skin concerns or issues that might benefit from using both a Toner or Essence? For instance, acne-prone skin might benefit from the superior purifying effect of a good Toner, or if fine lines and wrinkles are your primary concern then your skin might benefit from an extra layer of antioxidant-rich skin goodness from a good Essence. 


What is your daily skin routine like? Have you ever bought skincare products that just sit on your dresser for a year before getting thrown out? Join the discussion by following us on Facebook or Instagram.

About the writer
Catherine Sim

Catherine is an explorer and she loves surfing the internet for interesting and wholesome stuff. Her inquisitiveness propels her towards learning new things everyday and she strives to share her inspirations and explorations with people all over the world.

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