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Toners vs Essences: What’s the Difference?

It’s probably the hottest debate in skin care right now: what’s the difference between a toner and an essence, and which one should you be using? We’ve compared these two daily skin care steps to help you understand how they work and which one is best for your skin needs below.


What does it do? A toner essentially signals that the cleansing phase of your routine has ended and it’s time to start applying your treatment products. They remove any leftover cleanser residue and impurities from the skin that you might have missed, while balancing the skin’s pH level to help prevent post-cleanse dehydration. Some toners do also contain added ingredients to target specific skin concerns, such as Salicylic Acid to treat acne or Hyaluronic Acid to quench dry skin’s thirst.

Why do you need it? Toners used to be incredibly astringent and packed with alcohol, so they started to fall out of favour with skin care consumers. Modern formulas contain little to no alcohol and are less likely to dry out the skin, making them an essential for all skin types. They soothe, balance, hydrate and refresh the skin in seconds, and sink in quickly so they are easy to add into any existing routine.

What does it feel like? Generally, most toners feel like water – very thin, light and runny in consistency – and few leave any residue or greasiness on the surface of the skin.

How do you apply it? There are two main ways to apply a toner. The first is to mist it over the face after cleansing. This is the quickest and easiest application method. For exfoliating or richer formulas, it’s best to apply them to a cotton pad and wipe over the skin after cleansing and drying the skin. You can also target problem areas, such as around the nose and along the jawline, more effectively this way.

Any top toners? Yes! The SkinCeuticals Blemish + AGE Toner uses a blend of acids to gently resurface the skin after cleansing or, for something more conditioning, try the Paula’s Choice Skin Recovery Enriched Calming Toner.


What does it do? Although essences might look like toners, the job they do is very different. An essence signals the start of the treatment phase of your routine and, in simple terms, prepares the skin for the application of a serum by creating the perfect environment for these active ingredients to be absorbed by the skin. Essences also contain more active ingredients than toners, to nourish and hydrate the skin while strengthening the lipid barrier.

Why do you need it? Originating in Korea as part of the famous ten-step skin care routine, essences are a great way to improve skin health without committing to an entirely new regime. Just like toners, they are very easy to add to an existing routine and often contain tone-brightening and radiance-boosting ingredients that make the skin glow.

What does it feel like? Most feel as light as water, but the majority sit in-between a toner and a serum in terms of texture. They have more substance to them than a toner but aren’t quite as active-packed as a serum, meaning they still sink in quickly and leave skin feeling immediately better.

How do you apply it? The best way to apply an essence is to pour some into the palm of your hands, pat them together, and gently press or pat the solution over the face after cleansing and toning. This application method ensures maximum penetration of any active ingredients and has a therapeutic effect on not just the skin but your overall wellbeing. This gentle pressing/patting method also inflicts minimal damage to the skin barrier, preventing irritation and inflammation.

Any essential essences? Of course! The Exuviance Probiotic Lysate Anti-Pollution Essence is a fabulous all-rounder, while the Tata Harper Concentrated Brightening Essence gradually brightens mature skin.

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