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18 May 2016 4 comments

I think most of us are clear on the beginning and end steps of our skincare routines; cleansers and moisturisers are pretty self explanatory, but when it comes to Korean skincare, the jumble in the middle can get pretty confusing. Why are there so many different names for a toner? What exactly are the differences between an essence, serum and ampoule? What on earth is a refiner/softener/treatment essence, when and how do I use it and how can I recognise one? Today I'm going to try and straighten out the confusion regarding some Korean skincare products and how they're named, whilst sharing some of my favourite recommendations, so by the end of this post, you'll be a little more in the know!


TONER | More traditionally, toners are liquids, with the same viscosity as water, used to rebalance the skin's naturally acidic pH after the use of soapy/alkaline cleansers. Nowadays though, cleansers are a lot more 'skin friendly' and so toners have taken on a bit of a new role, to add the first level of hydration to your skin post-cleanse and to start providing your skin with beneficial active ingredients. The Cosrx AHA BHA Clarifying Treatment toner, for example, contains lactic, glycolic and salicylic acids to help with large pores, oil production, blemish formation, brightening and acne scarring, I literally love it (have a look at my Before + After here).


Korean toners go by many names though. Softeners/refiners/treatment lotions/treatment essences are all forms of toner, although you can think of them as 'super toners'. These products are often more viscous than ordinary toners, meaning they don't feel quite as runny as water, and can be milky or translucent from plant extracts. They provide the base layer of hydration, replacing hydration that may have been lost during the cleansing process, and prepare the skin for serums/essences/ampoules to follow (Korean's call this 'arranging skin texture', quite a cute description I think). A lot of 'super toners' are mildly exfoliating, making your skin feel super smooth, and have antioxidants, humectants and botanical extracts for skin resurfacing, brightening, pore reduction etc. These toners are best applied onto fingers then tapped into the skin, rather than swiping with a cotton pad. Toners generally come in a bottle with a plug neck rather than pipette and their name often includes 'First', like the Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence, indicating that this is the first step of skincare after cleansing.

N.B 'Super toners' are not part of the cleansing process. They're not supposed to be a last step of cleansing, nor are they used to remove any residue from the skin, your skin should be completely clean before you use these.

Some favourites to try:


IOPE Moistgen Skin Softener £30
Cosrx AHA BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner $16
Hera Cell Essence £50
Laneige Skin Refiner £32
Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence £33

ESSENCE | Here are where things get a little more tricky. All serums used to be called essences in Korea, but now serums and essences coexist and there's a definite blurring of the lines when it comes to defining them. Generally, an essence is thinner in consistency than a serum, and isn't as expensive as a serum/ampoule because they are have a lower concentration of the active ingredients (they'll often come in larger bottles and are used more liberally). Sometimes known as 'treatment waters', essences predominantly add hydration to the skin but include skin benefiting ingredients such as niacinamide, antioxidants, humectants and plant extracts, and often exhibit a 'water break', where you can feel the 'burst' of hydration when you pat them into your skin. These days, the words essence and serum are largely interchangable, and more of a marketing tool rather than a definition, as both products are applied to the face at the same step within a skincare regime and both produce similar results. Koreans generally would not apply both an essence and a serum, as modern day essences are often extremely similar to a serum.


Tony Moly Chok Chok Watery Essence £14
Su:m37 Secret Essence £64
Cosrx Galactomyces Essence £20
Etude House Moistfull Collagen Essence £15
Laneige Pore Clear Essence £24

SERUM | I think this is what we feel most comfortable defining. Korean serums, like western alternatives, contain high concentrations of active ingredients, addressing specific skin concerns such as brightening, anti-wrinkle, blemish care, pore control etc. They often have smaller molecules than a moisturiser and are able to penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin to provide internal care, which is why they're so effective. Korean serums usually come in a glass bottle with pipette, and are usually 50ml in size, although some come with pumps and are more creamy in texture (a bit like Sunday Riley's Good Genes).


Neogen Dermalogy Pore Refine Serum £19
Hera Waterin Gel Serum £43
Neulii Snail Bee Anti Wrinkle Serum $19
Zymogen Houttuynia Cordata Serum $29
Klairs Freshly Juice Vitamin Drop $23


AMPOULE | Ampoules are considered a 'super serum'. They are often more concentrated in their active ingredients than a serum, therefore making them the priciest item discussed in this post. Small molecule size and high concentrations of active ingredients penetrate the skin and make short work of specific skincare concerns. Sometimes sold in individually packed applications, or in a bottle with pipette (often 30ml), Koreans don't traditionally use ampoules on a daily basis, they are more commonly used temporarily for stressed skin, or when your skin is not 'cooperating', such as after a stressful time, before an event etc. Ampoules are used before essences/serums to make sure they hit the skin first to provide maximum benefit.


Hera Hyaluronic Ampoule £35
Skin Inc Encapsulated Vitamin A Serum $45
It's Skin Power Effector - Adenosine £12
Phyto C B5 Gel £45
Su:m37 Waterfull Triple Story Ampoule £82

Goodness me that was a long post! Thank you for sticking with me this far, hopefully this shines a little light for you as to what it all means! And any questions or recommendations, leave them in the comments!

P.S Have you seen my Korean Skincare Dupes?

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