What is the Difference between Toner, Essence, and Serum?

Skincare trends continue to evolve and once practiced in Asia, migrated all over the globe. It seems like there is always a new step to add to your skincare routine, and not just products but new ingredients and words are introduced every now and then.

Skincare vocabulary is already an extensive one that it gets quite overwhelming and confusing to keep a tab on everything. Then there is the K-beauty or Korean skincare routine which consists of 7-10 steps that promise to give bouncy and glass skin. 

Some of these steps include essence, toner, and serum. But the tricky part is knowing whether your skin needs all of them. For some, including toner and serum in their routine works for them, while others talk passionately about how their routine is incomplete with an essence. But the main question of them all: what is the difference between toner, essence, and serum? The trio is often confused and interchanged. 

Stay with us as we break down the difference between toner, essence, and serum for you to understand which is better for your skin. And you will have a perfect skincare routine in no time! 

What is a Toner?

Toning is the second step of the basic CTM (Cleansing, Toning, Moisturizing) routine. It is an essential step of any skincare routine because toner can act as a double cleansing by removing any residual product or impurities on your skin after cleansing. It restores the pH level of your skin and it can also be used in between the day as a mist as it refreshes the skin. 

Toner is typically applied right after cleansing as the first layer of hydration. You can either spray it or dab it onto the skin using a cotton pad. Toner also has exfoliating properties, thus helping close open pores, clear clogged pores, acne, and dead skin cells that accumulate on the topmost layer of the skin. Toner usually has a thin and watery texture.

What is Facial Essence?

Essence is commonly used to hydrate and regenerate the skin. It preps your skin for the next step of the skincare routine. Let's put it this way, essence acts as a bridge between your toner and serum. Essence has more benefits than a toner but is not as potent as serums. 

Essence is traditionally used as the second layer of hydration after using the toner and before applying a serum. It often contains ingredients such as ferments that give the skin an additional boost of hydration, moisture, and antioxidants, while aiding in the absorption of the next skincare product. 

Essence has their own benefits, and it also helps boost the efficacies of the next steps of your routine: serums, treatments, and even moisturizers. That is why most skincare enthusiasts swear by keeping an essence in their routine. However, some skip this step stating that a hydrating toner will suffice in priming the skin. Usually, essence proves to be beneficial for drier, dehydrated, and aging skin. 

What is a Serum?

Serum in any skincare routine is applied to target specific skin concerns like acne, pigmentation, aging, dryness, etc. Serums act as topical supplements for the skin, they have a higher concentration of vitamins, minerals, humectants, and active ingredients. They are applied before a moisturizer to thoroughly lock them into the skin.

They can vary in texture, ranging from watery to a thick consistency, but they are usually more viscous than toners. Serum formulations are potent and highly concentrated and they are usually sold in smaller volumes. 

What is the difference between toner, essence, and serum?

To put it simply, this table will help you understand the difference between toner, essence, and serum: 






Watery and light-weight

Gel-like structure


Water + essential oils

Little composition of active ingredients

Higher concentration of actives


Cleanses, hydrates, exfoliates, & refreshes the skin

Restores pH level

Hydrates and regenerates

Preps the skin for the next steps of the routine

Treat targetted skin concerns like aging, pigmentation, acne, etc.


After cleansing / double cleansing

Right after toner and always before serum

Right after essence and always before moisturizer

Summing up

All skincare products are made differently and it is critically important to pay attention to the ingredients and choose products accordingly. It may sound tempting to have numerous products and a multi-step skincare routine, but at the same time, it can be quite overwhelming. Start small and give your skin time to adjust to the new steps and formulations. 

Remember, no matter how many steps your skincare routine has, always apply the most watery product first and the thickest one last.