Serums versus Toners versus Essences

Serums, toners and essences – when the 10-step Korean beauty regime came into the spotlight, so did these terms. But what exactly are they, how do they differ, and do you really need to use all three? 

Serums versus Toners versus Essences

What’s the definition of toner, essence and serum?

There’s no standard definition for the terms toner, essence and serum. Traditionally, toners were water-based products applied after cleansing, to remove residual traces of soap on the skin. These days, they’re often used as an additional hydration step, or to deliver active ingredients such as antioxidants or alpha and beta hydroxy acids. Serums are usually slightly thicker in consistency than toners, and contain a high concentration of a few key active ingredients. Essences originated in Asia. Originally, they were lighter in texture than a serum but contained more active ingredients than a toner, and were used in between applying a toner and serum as an added layer of hydration. 

Is there much of a difference between them?

These days, the terms serum, toner and essence are really just marketing terms. The definitions are much more fluid, and the consistency and composition of toners, serums and essences varies greatly from brand to brand. The terms essence and serum are frequently used interchangeably, and they’re often used to achieve the same result. 

How do I decide which one to use?

The best way to decide what to use is to look at the ingredients of a product, and choose a texture you like. It’s absolutely not necessary to use toners, essences and serums – choose what to use based on your individual needs.




Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…