Essence vs. Toner: What’s the Difference?

Essence vs Toner
stoney clover pouch!

Okay this is going to be a very nerdy skincare post, but I hope that it will be helpful! One of the questions I get asked most via DMs and in beauty q&a’s  is the difference between essence and toner!! It’s confusing. I think skincare routines can feel very confusing but my best advice is to learn about each product does and it’s key benefits and then get really good at listening to your skin and giving it what it needs!

The products in theory are very alike, at least when it comes to looks and viscosity. But appearances and consistency aside, they actually could not be more different. Essences and serums are actually more alike than essence and toner.

Essence Vs Toner

The best way to look at it is that toner is the last step in cleansing. It removes any dead skin cells or oils; and readies the skin for skincare. Meanwhile, essence is the first step of your skin care routine.

What is Essence?

Essence originates from Korean beauty and should be the first step in your skincare routine (after cleansing, before serums and and ampoules, and then moisturizer). They typically hydrate and rebalance the skin. I go over this in my post about skincare product order but the best way to remember what to apply when is that skincare goes on thinnest to thickest (though the exception is that I think a lot of oils are thinner than creams, an oil goes on after moisturizer!)

Essence is usually packed with active ingredients so it’s often much more expensive than toner. It’s essentially a primer for your moisturizer or serum; bolstering the benefits of all your other products. Since it’s so “thin” or rather, low molecular weight, it can penetrate the skin barrier DEEPLY in a way that serums and moisturizers can’t. Essence usually has a lot of active ingredients.

What is Essence Used For?

Essence is used for priming the skin for additional hydration! It’s an integral part of a Korean skincare routine.

If you’re looking for that ultra hydrated, dewy look, essence is the magical step – take a cue from Korean skin care and add this to your routine! I shake a few drops into my skin after cleansing and pat it into my skin using a gentle pressing motion. No cotton pad necessary, just press with your hands!

What is Toner?

Toner is the last step in cleansing, it clears away any gunk and grime and prepares the skin for skincare! You use this right after your wash your face. Toner doesn’t usually contain very many active ingredients.

What is Toner Used For?

Toner exfoliates and cleanses deeply; removing dead skin cells. It’s almost like a double cleanse and has become (shockingly) a favorite skin care product. I like to pour a little onto a cotton pad and gently swipe my skin (in upward strokes!) until it comes away clean.

Essence vs Toner

Which Is Better for your skin type?

Honestly, this question is a trick! Because you can totally use both. I had always thought of toner as being for oily skins (I think probably because I think of all those really harsh, aggressive toners with salicylic acids we used as teenagers!) and that because I have dry skin, I didn’t need toner. My aesthetician at Christine Chin told me I was very very wrong. (Read this post for more on that!!)

There are two reasons we all need toner: it helps refine the surface of skin. I was getting little bumps on my cheeks and that was because dead skin cells were getting trapped. The second reason you need toner is that it helps your skincare (essence, serum, and then moisturizer) to penetrate deeper.

Conversely, essence is the best way to elevate your skincare game – it will make all of your other products work better and it’s super hydrating.

The Best Essence & Toners

My all-time favorite toner is the Acwell toner! And I talk about it in this post but it’s pretty affordable and really deep cleanse the skin! I like that I can really feel it working and cleaning my skin but it doesn’t strip or dry it out. I often use this before my beloved Dr. Bader cream (if I use Bader I do NOT use essence or serum first) and think that it’s the perfect way to prep skin before using such an intense moisturizer!

My favorite essence right now is the Royal Fern one. It’s been likened to “if P50 and SK-II had a baby” which is a very compelling sell! This has become an integral part of my skin care routine. I love how gentle it is, I love the smell, and I think that it gently exfoliates (I find that it softens the look of fine lines) while also hydrating. It’s a great product.

Other essences that I have and like include SK-II (always a fav especially for all its anti aging benefits but the Royal Fern is my top pick right now) and the Beautycounter Countertime one (this one is thicker than the others – almost a little milky) and feels SO good and hydrating, I love this when I feel like my skin needs a bit of extra hydration. Lastly I’ve heard amazing things about the Vintner’s Daughter essence and am planning to start testing that in the next couple months. It’s expensive but has a high concentration of actives.

Photography by Carter Fish.

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  1. I knew essence was a Korea thing, but the difference between the two has always confused me! Thanks for clarifying, Grace! ❤️✨

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

    3.4.20 Reply
  2. Jill:

    Thank you! The way you explained this as toner being the last step in cleansing but essence being the first in your skin care routine makes so much sense! I had been using a sample of SKII as toner.

    3.4.20 Reply
  3. Cathy:

    This is a really helpful post. Have you tested the Pixi Glow Tonic? I’m thinking the Acwell Toner is less harsh than that.

    3.4.20 Reply
    • Yes! Glow tonic is an acid and not a toner; you could do it after toner and just follow with moisturizer.

      3.4.20 Reply
  4. WOW! I feel like I never knew anything about essence. Thanks for sharing this post, I am definitely going to be adding an essence to my routine and I am thinking about switching up my toner. I always thought toner was just an unimportant step that I kind of did just because I had been gifted toner before. Thanks for nerding out!

    3.4.20 Reply
  5. Ellie:

    Do you know if P-50 is an essence or toner? I feel like toner but idfk?!

    3.4.20 Reply
    • It’s an acid which in my book is totally different! P50 is very very active so you want to do that and then just moisturizer after IMO.

      3.4.20 Reply
      • Ellie:

        Thank you!!! Very helpful you’re the best

        3.4.20 Reply
  6. Elizabeth Kinamore:

    Where is your cute bag inthis post from?

    3.4.20 Reply
  7. Laura:

    What exactly is P50 considered to be.. a toner or and essence?

    3.5.20 Reply
    • Laura:

      OK, I just now noticed the comment posted above..
      So, cleanse the face, then use P50, then just simply moisturize. Is that what you’d recommend?

      3.5.20 Reply
      • Yup!!!

        P50 is VERY active so you don’t want to use any other actives. You could use a gentle HA (Hyaluronic Acid) serum over the P50 if you like, but when I was using P50 I would just use a very gentle, thick moisturizer afterward (like Skin Food or the Tatcha Dewy Skin Cream)

        3.5.20 Reply
  8. Marissa:

    Such great info! I’m trying to learn more about skincare and your blog/podcast has been so helpful! I do still have a question. I double cleanse using a liquid cleanser and then miceller water. Do I still need to use a toner after that? Thanks!

    3.5.20 Reply
    • I would personally swap out Micellar water for toner BUT if you are happy with Micellar water, keep using that; you probably don’t need a toner. Or maybe give it a try, it can’t hurt! Skincare is just about experimenting and figuring out what works best for you. I’ve found it (toner) makes such a big difference for me.

      3.5.20 Reply
  9. Dani:

    Hi there! Which moisturizer do you use after Royal Fern (instead of Bader)? Thank you!

    3.13.20 Reply
    • Hi there! Honestly it depends. Sometimes I’ll still do Bader even though you’re not supposed to. Other times I’ll do serum and then cream. Favs right now are the Weleda Skin Food, the lighter Countertime moisturizer from Beautycounter, and Tatcha’s Dewy SKin Crewm. Read this post, it has more on product order and what I use.

      3.13.20 Reply