The Essence of an Essence: A Hydrating Skin Care Step

To be clear, this post is about a liquid-ey skin care product called an “essence”, not a treatise on philosophy. Like most Korean skin care inventions, there is yet another step to add to the famous Korean 10-step (sometimes 14) skin care routine. Why do it at all? It’s another way to add hydration (by definition, that’s anti-aging!) and exfoliate your skin–that may even be better than a serum.

The essence step doesn’t add a lot of time to your nightly routine. I first heard of it when I got a Korean essence as a gift. I didn’t know what to do with it and used it incorrectly. I thought it was a toner. 😦 But now I’m more enlightened.

What Is It, Exactly?

An essence is a liquid that you apply to your face after cleansing and toning. It is usually more of a watery liquid than a thick serum. Like a serum, it has anti-aging ingredients, but also usually has softening and exfoliating properties in a much thinner consistency. It also “prepares” your skin for the next step, like a serum or a sheet mask. In the famous Korean multi-step skin care regimen, this is a step most women don’t skip. These women are serious about their skin.

Some Essences to Try:

I primarily use SK-II Facial Treatment Essence (it’s actually Japanese, but has cult-like status). The story behind it is that it was discovered in Japan by a scientist years ago who

The cult favorite, SK-II

observed sake brewery workers. The workers put their hands in the yeasty liquid every day and even though their bodies and faces aged normally, their hands remained young and wrinkle free. Scientists attributed it to an magical ingredient called “Pitera.” SK-II and most other rice-based essences have yeast and other fermented goodness in it to help gently exfoliate your skin also. Warning: it’s pricey!

For less expensive options similar to SK-II, you can use Botanic Farm Rice Ferment First Essence, which is supposed to have the same skin-softening yeasty ingredients. I’ve compared this to the SK-II version, but found that on application, it doesn’t feel as silky smooth as SK-II. I didn’t try it long enough to see if it had the anti-aging effects, because I felt like it wasn’t as hydrating for my drier skin. Which annoys me since it would have been so much cheaper if I loved it. But you can’t skimp on products for your face.

Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence is another option that’s a Korean bestseller and more affordable than the Japanese SK-II version. It has the similar yeast ingredients and also has niacinimide, another proven anti-aging ingredient.

A Second Essence?! Yes.

If you feel like applying one essence is good, why not add another afterward? 🙂 My favorite snail-essence-bottleis this Korean essence, which is thicker and feels extra hydrating, Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence from Cosrx. My friends and I are in love with it because it makes your skin so plumped and soft. It’s also thicker than the usual watery essence, but then absorbs quickly and doesn’t leave anything sticky behind. You do still have to apply moisturizer afterward.

As for the snail mucin part? Yup, it’s made out of the slime that snails leave behind. It’s not as awful as it sounds. Snail mucin was being used in every skin store I went to in Seoul way back in 2012–and had been around for years. There’s been some debate about it–especially with the slow-to-catch-on U.S. beauty brands–but I’ve seen great results and use it twice a day.

Thicker consistency for the Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence

Why I’m Obsessed with Essences:

  • Adds very little time to your routine. It’s fast, but has a lot of benefits. It’s quicker than using a mask or something that you have to carefully apply and then rinse off.
  • Works quickly. You can easily find the brand (or brands) you like and your skin immediately feels softer.
  • Even if I don’t know the *exact* science behind it, essences help “prepare” your skin for the subsequent hydrating/anti-aging steps like serum, mask, moisturizer, etc.


  • You don’t need a to apply with a cotton ball. To save product, press it gently into your face with your fingers or palms after cleansing and toning, but before your serum or moisturizer.
  • The general principle to follow if you don’t know what order to put on products: apply the thinnest products first and then end with the thicker products like a serum and then moisturizer.


SK_ll,SK2 Facial Treatment Essence 75 ml Skincare Pitera Water, sk2 from Japan, by For mom SHOP

Botanic Farm Rice Ferment First Essence

MISSHA Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence (130ml)

[Cosrx] Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence 100ml

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