For even the most knowledgeable skincare enthusiast, toners and essences still cause some confusion. These treatment liquids offer unique benefits, but many people still have no idea what they do—or what they are, for that matter. The uncertainty is only amplified by the fact that toners and essences are similar yet not interchangeable.
With that said, overlooking these two products isn’t the answer. If you do, you could be doing your visage a serious disservice. To help understand why you should consider adding them to your skincare rotation, below we answer your questions on what a toner is and what an essence is. Plus, find out the specifics of how they both differ. Keep reading for our full guide to essence vs. toner.
Essence vs. Toner: What’s The Difference?
It’s true: Essence and toner have a lot of comparable qualities. They’re liquid treatments that prep your skin for the rest of your routine. That’s why there are so many questions surrounding the topic of toner vs. essence. But while they may seem the same based on a first impression, there are key differences between the two. Essences tend to be more targeted to specific skin concerns and have more concentrated active ingredients. Another contrasting factor you may have picked up on is the application. Typically, essences are meant to be splashed or pressed onto the skin with your hands, whereas toner should be applied with a cotton pad.
Kiehl’s Tip: Facial mists are sometimes lumped together with toners and essences, but they’re unique products, too. These sprays are intended to be quick pick-me-ups that can be misted on as needed to refresh and hydrate the skin. Cactus Flower & Ginseng Facial Hydrating Mist is a great example; it helps improve your skin’s texture for a revived appearance. You may come across toners or essences with spray-on formulas, but the important distinction is that not all face mists fall into either of those categories.
What Is an Essence?
Some products are simple to understand. Face cleansers cleanse, moisturizers moisturize, and so on. But since there is no verb form of essence, the name isn’t a dead giveaway as to what this type of product is or does. That’s why we want to fill you in.
Essences are liquid formulas that help deliver actives, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals to your skin’s surface. They serve as an integral step in priming the skin to best receive hydration and treatment from any serums and moisturizers that follow. Most often, you’ll see essences incorporated into routines for dry or aging skin.
Ferulic Brew Rejuvenating Facial Essence is one great option for introducing your skin to this type of product. Its antioxidant-rich formula contains ferulic and lactic acids, as well as squalane. As for what benefits it offers, the essence helps visibly boost radiance, refine skin texture, and reduce the appearance of fine lines. The result is healthy-looking, glowing skin. It’s suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin.
We also recommend Iris Extract Activating Treatment Essence, which is formulated with exfoliating lipo-hydroxy acid (LHA), sodium hyaluronate (the sodium salt of hyaluronic acid), and iris florentina root extract. It hydrates the skin while helping to visibly improve fine lines and leave skin looking smoother and more radiant.
Both essences should be applied after cleansing and are meant to be splashed directly onto your skin. Pour a few drops into your palms and gently press whichever liquid you’re using onto your cheeks, forehead, and chin. Follow with the serums, concentrates, moisturizer, and SPF (if it’s morning) of your choice.
What Is a Toner?
To a certain extent, toners follow the skincare product-naming convention we laid out earlier. Toners tone the skin. Still, they’re one of the most misunderstood skincare products around. For years, toners were given a bad rap because they were solely associated with overly-harsh formulas that were popular in decades past. But, toners have come a long way from those days of stinging and irritation. Nowadays, gentle formulas help deliver their benefits without drying out your skin or leaving it feeling uncomfortable.
The main purpose of a toner is to function as a type of skin prep for the steps and products that follow. They’re often most prevalent in routines for those with oily skin, but they can work for almost all skin types, depending on the product’s formula and ingredients. Toners can offer a wide variety of benefits. Two of the most well-recognized are gently cleansing the skin’s surface of dirt and debris and minimizing the appearance of pores. They can also rebalance your skin’s moisture levels, soften skin, and replenish its natural moisture barrier. Other potential benefits, which depend on the specific formula, include mattifying, refreshing, hydrating, and soothing skin.
Kiehl’s has always known the importance of a toner in a complete skincare regimen—Calendula Herbal-Extract Toner has been an iconic product since its introduction in the 1960s. It cleanses without any harsh or synthetic drying agents and gently soothes and refreshes your skin. It’s made with calendula and allantoin but without alcohol, silicone, or mineral oil.
From our oldest toner to the newest: Milk-Peel Gentle Exfoliating Toner is an option with LHA, almond milk, and 23% emollients (ingredients that trap moisture). It’s clinically-demonstrated to gently exfoliate without causing discomfort. The toner also restores your skin’s moisture levels for a hydrated, comfortable feel and leaves skin looking bright, smooth, and soft.
Last but not least, Ultra Facial Toner is another alcohol-free formula. It gently removes surface debris and residue and doesn’t strip your skin. It also hydrates, comforts, and tones your skin in addition to helping visibly refine its texture. This toner is pH-balanced and contains effective emollients like avocado oil and squalane.
All of these toners are meant to be used on freshly cleansed skin prior to serums, moisturizers, and SPF. To apply one, soak a cotton ball or pad with the toner, then swipe it across your face, avoiding the eye area. While your skin is still damp from the formula, you can move straight to applying your face serum.
Do You Need Both an Essence and a Toner?
To reiterate our conclusion on essence vs. toner, the two products aren’t identical. This means you won’t satisfy all your skin’s needs by using one or the other. To reap every benefit available, you’ll want to use both. And there are two ways to do so. First, you can choose to use a toner in the morning and an essence at night (or vice versa). Alternatively, toner and essence can be layered one on top of the other. To do so, apply your toner directly after cleansing. Then, press the essence onto your skin afterward. This order works best because toner acts as an additional cleansing step and prepares your skin for the essence.