Decoding Beauty Essentials: Essence, Serum, and Ampoules

One of the questions we most often get is ‘What on earth do all of these names mean? How do I properly use it? After your cleanser and toner comes the treatment step of your routine that is meant to address your primary skin concern – which are often named essences, serums or ampoules. These products are all essentially designed to treat your skin, but have slight differences.


Essences are often referred to as ‘lightweight serums’. They tend to have a specific texture, where the formula is more watery out of the bottle, or it has what is called a ‘water break’ when patted into the skin, where you feel a release of hydration during application. Essences can come in larger bottles sizes, such as 50~75ml, than serums, which range from 30~35ml. The general thought is that essences are less concentrated than serums and thus available in a size where you can apply generously to the skin.

Essences are not to be confused with a new, burgeoning category called ‘Treatment Toners’, or ‘Treatment Essences’ (or even ‘Treatment Lotions’). These toners, which will be covered in a later post, are often thicker than typical toners as they are infused with nutrients and anti-aging ingredients. They are a great way to kick-start your skincare routine, but they should not take the place of your essence, serum or ampoule which has a higher concentration of active ingredients. A classic example of this category is SKII’s Facial Treatment Essence – other recently launched examples include Clinique’s Essence Lotion or Estee Lauder’s Micro Essence.

Easy ways to tell the difference between a true essence and a treatment toner is the packaging, texture and size. True essences are fluid, but still thick enough to require being in a pump or dropper bottle.  A treatment toner will almost always be over 75ml and close to a liquid, enough to require a bottle with a narrow opening.


Serums are the most well-known product category and a staple in many of our skincare routines. While typically, serums are thought to have a thicker texture then essences, recent launches have had some standout lightweight textures, which have been blurring the lines.

What adds to the confusion is that until recently, all serums in Korea were referred to simply as ‘essences’. It’s a common practice to ‘nickname’ cosmetic products locally as the English names can be difficult to pronounce, and an example is Estee Lauder’s renowned Advanced Night Repair being called the ‘Brown Bottle Essence’.  It’s only recently, with the influx of serums from overseas, that this term is more widely understood and used in Korea.


Ampoules are the easiest to tell apart, since they come in smaller sizes due to their concentration. Some brands sell ampoules in small one-time use vials, in sets of 15~30 to use daily, while others offer ampoules in bottles similar to a serum or essence, but smaller in size. Ampoules are formulated to deliver a maximum dose of ingredients to your skin. In Korea, they are not only used in place of a serum, but also as a 2~4 week special treatment course – to be layered on before your essence or serum to boost your routine.

Our take on it? No need to stress about whether a product is an essence, serum or ampoule – all of these active-packed treatments will do wonders for your skin when layered properly within your skincare regimen – after cleansing & toning and before a moisturizer. (more on how to do that here). Choose one that has the right ingredients for your skin concern and right texture for your skin type.

Another question we get is whether you can layer your essences, serums and ampoules. The answer is, absolutely. For example, if you feel a little dry, you can use a hydrating serum with an essence that treats your primary skin concern. The rule of thumb for layering is to use the most lightweight products first.

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