The Epitome of Cleansers, Toners, Essences, Serums & Ampoules

If you’ve ever searched for “Korean skincare regimen”, chances are you’d be bombarded (and befuddled) with results that carry numerous product terms: toners, serums, essences and ampoules. Confusing English translations on products from Korea, clever marketing lingo and the sheer number of products in the category all added to the challenge.

While waiting for the kids to do their Karate color-belt grading in Bathurst, I thought I make an attempt to demystify these products.

[Fun Fact: For those who do not live Down Under (or in the best city in the world, Sydney). Bathurst is a regional city in the Central Tablelands of New South Wales, Australia. It is approximately 200 kilometres north-west of Sydney.

Bathurst has an historic city centre with many buildings remaining from the gold rush period of the mid to late 1800s. It was the site of the first gold discovery and where the first gold rush occurred in Australia. The internationally known racetrack Mount Panorama is a landmark of the city.]



A cleanser is a facial care product that is used to remove make-up, dead skin cells, oil, dirt, and other types of pollutants from the skin of the face. This helps to unclog pores and prevent skin conditions such as acne.

There are 2 types of cleansers: Oil-based and water-based cleansers. Ideally, we should use both. Starting with an oil-based cleanser to remove oil-based makeup, SPF and other impurities (since water repels oil). This allows for effortless cleansing rather than tugging at your skin to remove that last bit of mascara.

Next, following with a water-based cleanser removes any remaining residue and leaves skin supple. The key is to find a gentle formula that won’t strip or dry out your skin.



Before the days of cleansers, we used to wash our face with some sort of soap, which raises the pH of our skin to a rather unhealthy level. Hence toners were invented to bring the skin’s surface pH level back to normal. This is why we suppose to use toners after cleansing our face.

These days, we have gentle cleansers, so pH level is not so much a problem anymore. Toners provide a base layer of hydration, making the skin more amenable to what’s about to go on top.

Most toners these days also contain antioxidants or other beneficial additives and they serve as a skin prep.


Essences & Serums

I put both essences and serums in the same group because they are essentially the same thing. There are however some important caveats to note. Technically, once you cleansed and toned your face, you should apply essences.

Essences traditionally were more watered-down and less concentrated than serums, and were used after a toner to add another layer of hydration before you applied serums.

A serum, on the other hand, contains a few key active ingredients to address specific issues like brightening, dark spots, wrinkles, ... The active ingredients are usually more concentrated than a moisturizing cream. Therefore, serums are a bit thicker in consistency, almost oil-like, and usually come in a much smaller bottle than toners or cleansers.

Nowadays, serums are getting more lightweight and essences are getting thicker, and they both can contain high concentrations of active ingredients. The differences between the two are getting blurred.

Both essence and serums are used at the same treatment step of skincare to achieve similar results. There may be small differences in texture but you can hardly tell.



Ampoules are in the same family as essences and serums. An ampoule is a supercharged serum with higher concentrations of active ingredients that you're meant to use for a finite amount of time as a booster or when you're having a skin crisis of some sort. It is best to use ampoules before your essence or serum.

Ampoules usually come in smaller bottles with droppers. 


Still confused?

Still confused what to do with 30 different products?

Here’s my take:

First, figure out what your skin needs and choose products with ingredients that fit the bill. Don't get caught up in whether it's a serum or an essence. Ignore everything on the label except the ingredients. Choose the ingredients depending on your skin needs.

Secondly, choose a texture that suits your skin type and your sensibility. Try out different textures to see what you like.

Finally, no matter which or how many products you use, the general rule-of-thumb is to apply the most watery product first and the thickest, richest one last.

  • June 26, 2017
  • Aphrodite and Hebe

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