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Breaking down the difference between Toner, Essence, and Serum

We’ve many times believed that certain products are just not needed in our routine because they sound and look similar to another product in our skincare routine. But the skincare industry knows just what you might need and hence we see new product types on the table so often. It’s just like this, how many of us believe that toner and essence could potentially do the same job or essence and serum can be interchangeable. If you believe in this, then we’re here to give you reasons why toner, essence, and serum are very much different in their job, texture, formulations, etc.

What is Toner?

We’ve all heard that toner is an essential part of our routine. It’s the second step in the most basic skincare routine- CTM. Cleanse-Tone-Moisturise. Toner is essentially the skincare product that preps your skin to ensure that your actives work well when you layer it on your skin later. You can apply it by either spraying or dabbing it all over your face with a cotton pad.

Toners can also have cleansing and exfoliating properties and hence it is best not to skip it before going all in for your skincare routine. Toners can also be used as a refreshing mist in between the day when you feel like your skin is pulling or it simply needs a refreshment. Think of toner as a snack that your body needs from time to time to function well.

Learn more about toners here.

Sublime recommends Ras Luxury Oils Rose Nectar Face Mist & Toner. It has a brilliant mix of Rosewater and Lavender to combat dullness during the day. Pick it up in the middle of your day to freshen up instantly.

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What is an Essence?

Essence can easily be confused or rejected since it feels a lot like a toner but they’re both quite different. Essence is mostly water but it contains active ingredients too. Most of the essence is used because they can moisturise and treat effectively. Due to its consistency and formulation, it reaches the deep layers of your skin to do its job. In other words, it is permeable and high in efficacy. If you have any skin concerns, then you must include a suitable essence in your routine to address them.

Since essence contains active ingredients, its properties will depend on its composition. You can apply it as you would apply a serum and press it like a toner. Layering with essence will not feel heavy or even mildly make you realise that you’ve actually layered. So on days when we want a skincare treatment product but we want to keep it breezy for our skin, we opt for essence. You will love wearing this during the daytime since you don’t want to feel goopy on your skin due to your skincare but at the same time, you don’t want to skip your skincare steps.

Sublime recommends Daughter Earth Kombucha Essence + Plant Stem Cells Blue Light Mist. It does not just have hydrating ingredients like Rose Water, Lavender, Tara fruit extracts but also Niacinamide and Kombucha to strengthen your skin barrier and smoothen the skin.

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What is a Serum?

A serum is essentially used to address the skin concern that you’re focusing on. It contains active ingredients and is rich in Antioxidants that help you fight free radical damage. Its consistency depends on the brands. It could either be gel-like, milk-like, or even water-like. Serums effectively address the skin concern but it is a concentrated concoction. So you must build tolerance for the ingredient in the serum. To do so, start with the lowest concentration and patch test before you include it in your routine. The serum is permeable or it could be semi-permeable depending on the key ingredient present in the serum. When it comes to layering a serum, you can layer it right after toning and applying essence to maximise its effect. Since serums have more active ingredients, you cannot layer serum with just about any product. For example, AHA-based essence cannot be layered with a Retinol-based serum, BHA-based essence cannot be layered with Vitamin C serum, etc. 

Sublime’s AM recommendation is Aminu Ultra Modern Longevity Serum. It'd be perfect for the day since its formulation can protect you even from UVA rays. 

Sublime’s PM recommendation is Conscious Chemist Reboot Night Serum. It has Bakuchiol Oil, AHA, and Mushroom Extracts that help you detoxify.

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Pro tip- You must layer a serum with a moisturiser rich in Ceramides just to ensure that the active ingredients in the serum do not break down your skin barrier.

Sublime recommends Dear, Klairs Rich Moist Soothing Cream. We cannot get over how this cream fixes for almost all skin types. It has Jojoba oil and Ceramides as the key ingredients that help you strengthen your skin barrier.

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What is the difference between essence and serum?

1. Consistency

Essence is watery in consistency and lightweight. So when you apply an essence then it might feel just like your bare skin. With serum, it could be different. Serum could be gel-like or milky in texture. It could be a bit thicker than essence but then there are chances that it might still feel lightweight. 

2. Function

Essence works towards resurfacing your skin and smoothening the surface. This allows the next product to absorb easily. Serum work on the correction and treatment of a skin concern that you’ve prioritised. Serum can also strengthen your barrier but it depends on the composition of the serum.

3. Composition

Essence may contain little to no active ingredients. It contains majorly soothing and healing ingredients like Snail Mucin, Cica, Aloe Vera. Serums have a higher concentration of actives and other repairing ingredients. Serums are used majorly for targeted therapy. For example, if you feel like your skin is dulling, you’d want therapy to brighten it. In this case, you’d prefer a serum that has Vitamin C in it.

4. Layering

Essence is the step that you consider after cleansing and toning. The serum is the step right after using essence once the essence has set in your skin. Not all serums can be used in the AM routine since serums contain actives that can make your skin sensitive to external stressors.

What is the difference between essence and toner?

1. Consistency

Toner is usually watery in consistency and usually comes in spray bottles or your regular bottles. It can be applied by using a cotton pad too. They look pretty much like your drinking water but they are much more than normal water does. Essence is watery too. But you might notice a bit of difference in consistency depending on the ingredient list of an essence.

2. Function

Toner is a facial mist that refreshes and literally wakes up your skin. It also soothes and tones your pores since it hydrates your skin. Depending on its composition it can even exfoliate and cleanse your skin. Essence is usually functional to resurface your skin and smoothen your skin tone so that the next product is absorbed easily by your skin.

3. Composition

Toner is usually made up of Rose, Aloe Vera hydrosol and may even contain essential oils like Neem, Tea tree, Sandalwood, etc. The composition of toner is usually light and easy to use on your skin as a wake-up call. Essence, on the other hand, may contain actives in low concentration or exfoliating ingredients like Glycolic Acid, Apple Cider Vinegar, Kombucha, etc. They could also have hydrating and healing ingredients but it all depends on the brand’s vision of creating an essence.

4. Layering

After cleansing or ideally double cleansing, you must go for a toner. So toner sits somewhere in the second or third step of your AM and PM routine. Toners are safe to use even in the middle of the day after washing your face. You can follow this with an essence. An essence is mild and so you can use essence in your AM and PM routine. Essence goes right after toner and always before using a serum.

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Can you skip toner, essence, and serum from your skincare regime?

Toner, essence, and serum have their set of functions. You can skip toner in case your essence has refreshing and hydrating ingredients like Aloe, Lavender, or Rose hydrosol. But let’s not forget that toning your skin before digging into your skincare regime is one of the most essential steps. Toner is very basic for the survival of skin’s plumpness. An essence can replace your toner but only if you know that your essence has that kind of composition to tone your skin along with resurfacing your skin.

So as per your choice of product, you may skip either toner or essence or use both to enhance your skincare’s effect. But serum is unavoidable. The serum is a concentrated concoction that can treat and repair your skin overnight. Serums are also rich in Antioxidants which is very important during the day when you’re surrounded by free radicals that can cause oxidative stress to your skin. 

So our verdict remains that serums are not avoidable and one must at least include either a toner or an essence before applying serum.

How can you layer toner, essence, and serum?

Interestingly, the Korean beauty regime includes all these three products to achieve glass skin. It's mainly because these three products are pretty wholesome in targeting your skin concern and repairing your skin barrier. Here’s how you can include them all-

Step 1: Cleanse

Its majorly to take off your makeup and dirt that has settled over your face. 

Step 2: Double Cleanse

You can go in with a mild cleanser that can take off the remaining bits of the dirt. We want to start with a clean canvas and not a dry canvas.

Step 3: Tone

Use a toner that can bring back the pH of your skin after cleansing. This will bring down the redness. Let it dry before you go for the next step.

Step 4: Essence

Now is when you want to prep your skin and add something that takes care of your skin barrier. You just cannot start with a broken skin barrier. The entire skincare routine wouldn’t make sense without this.

Step 5: Serum

Use a treatment based solution/serum that can target your skin concern and refine your skin.

Step 6: Sunscreen

If it is AM then add sunscreen as your last step. This is non-negotiable. Period.

    The final note

    Toner, essence, and serum are three different product types and play their unique role in refining your skin health. While toner and serum are quite known to us, essence has gained its popularity due to the Korean skincare regime that aims to achieve glass skin. Toner is nothing but the cutest pick-me-up for your skin before you start your skincare regime. Essence is known to resurface and let your skin absorb the next layer of skin care, which is a serum most of the time. Before you create a skincare regime, know the difference between these three so that you can craft your regime in a better manner.

    -Divya Salvi

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