Essence vs Toner – What is it and do I need it?

Why do things tend to get extra complicated once marketing is involved? After my review of the pixi Vitamin C Tonic (read it here) I decided to look up the difference of Essence vs Toner and how a Tonic fits into the equation. And of course whether or not they need to be part of your skin care routine.

With the helpful comments of fellow skincare nerds like Rowena from Rolala Loves and hours spend googling (there is no PubMed research for that question I fear), I finally felt like I had a grip on the differences.


Essence vs Toner
Confused by the difference between Essence and Toner?


But when I tried to apply my Essence vs Toner knowledge to the products actually available on the market, it dawned on me that while historically there was a helpful distinction, right now brands would just name things however they wanted, blurring the lines between Toner, Tonic and Essence even further.

And believe me, that line wasn´t too crisp in the first place! At least not for a Korean Beauty Amateur like me… 

But before we dive head over heels into the difference of Essence vs Toner/ Tonic,  let me quickly say once thing:

I don´t think you need a 10 step skincare routine to have great skin!

Quite honestly, I think most of us are better off using a few products dedicated at our individual skin concerns rather than layering too much stuff on to our face.

I did a dedicated blog post on what I think are the essentials of a good skin care routine (read it here), and I still stand by my statement: A gentle cleanser, a dedicated serum, a moisturizer and for daytime a broad spectrum sunscreen are perfectly fine.

No Essence, Toner or Tonic needed!

But for those of us that actually enjoy spending time in the bathroom, applying multiple layers, let´s take a look at the Essence vs Toner confusion and how a Tonic might fit in.


What is a toner?

25 years ago, a toner was part of most European skincare routines. Cleansers back then were harsh, and a toner was suposed to balance pH and get rid of leftover dirt that remained on the skin. Many toners would be alcohol based, to really strip the skin of all the oils remaining, in order to “fight oiliness and acne”.

What might be skin care history to you was my reality growing up, and I still remember how tight my skin would be after cleansing and how much the alcohol based toner I applied afterwards would sting!

But even without the added alcohol, Toners back then were very much similar to Cleansing Waters (or Micellar waters): Gentle ways to get rid of traces of leftover makeup and dirt with as little upsetting the skin as possible.


So why use a Toner today?

Well, we have come a long way since then, and cleansers these days should respect the skins pH and be thorough enough to remove all dirt in one go, so why still use a toner?

Firstly, rinsing your face with water will leave your skin slightly alkaline, and the skin performs best if it is acidic at around a pH of  4,5 to 6,5. Whether or not an acidic Toner can help rebalance the pH is a topic though that the experts don´t agree on. Our skin is usually pretty good at staying in balance if we don´t constantly disturb it.

But there is another reason to reach for a toner today:

Toners are very watery, and usually contain a lot of humectants, so they will provide a first lightweight hydrating layer. It will also keep the skin damp, so products applied afterwards absorb easier.


How to use a toner

You apply a Toner directly after cleansing, either with your fingers or with a soaked cotton pad. Essence, Serum, Moisturizer all come afterwards.


Essence vs Toner
Probably the best known Tonic of all


And what is a Tonic opposed to a Toner?

I admit that I have found different explanations on what a tonic opposed to a toner actually is, but here is the one that made the most sense to me:

A Tonic is of the same consistency as a Toner, but contains “active” ingredients aimed at a specific problem, like chemical exfoliants, Vitamin C for brightening or similar. It is still more watered down than a dedicated exfoliator and more designed for daily use, but opposed to a Toner serves a purpose other than hydration.

That would explain why the plethora of pixi products is called Tonics as opposed to Toner. Although the pixi Rose Tonic would better fit into the Toner category then – I told you it gets confusing once brands come into play.

Tonic is, other than Essence and Toner, NOT a part of the Korean 10 Step Skincare Regime, so you´ll find the line between what I here described as Tonic and what I will explain now as Essence a little blurry.


What is an Essence in skin care?

Essence traditionally describes a product closer to a serum than to a toner in terms of active ingredients, but still less concentrated.

It does contain “actives”, for example brightening or nourishing ingredients, but the main focus is intense hydration. While still lightweight, it has more body than a Toner.

You could probably describe it as a very light serum in consistency, and I have read that the terms Serum and Essence basically mean the same thing these days, but are used based on the market you are trying to target, but that doesn´t sound quit right. I think with the constant improvement of textures, the line between Essence and Serum becomes more blurry by the day.

The Essence comes after the Toner and before the Serum in Korean Skincare and is pressed on to your face without wiping motions.


Bottom Line

When building a skin care routine, I wouldn´t get caught up with the names and rather ask myself what my skin needs. Is it mainly nourishment? Is lightweight hydration for the summer months? Or do I want actives like Vitamin C, but in a concentration low enough to be used daily?

That should help you decide which category to look for. And if you are rushed for time in the mornings, you should be able to find a serum that offers whatever you are looking for without the extra step needed.

Although you would miss out on the beautiful experience a fine face mist offers.

Which one of the above mentioned do you use?


Essence vs Toner
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