Essences and Serums

essences serums prevention magazine erum ilyas

December 27, 2018



Disclaimer : This page contains an affiliate link to products.  We may receive a commission for purchases made through this link.


There are so many different types of skin care products.  Lotions, creams, foams, serums, essences, ointments... It can be really difficult to dice apart how to choose the right product for your skin.


Essences are lightweight products that often have similar ingredients to a serum but not as concentrated.  If you are trying to avoid heavy or thick lotions but would like to have lightweight hydration, this may be the right option for you.


The problem is that these types of products are often poorly defined and when people shop for them there is a lot of confusion.  Websites advertising them will call them ‘serums’ or ‘lotions’ in the description only adding to the frustration!  Although some companies and treatment regimens will place essences in a sequence after cleansing and toning and before serums and lotions, it should be noted that it is not necessary to use every product available on the market just because it exists!  If a patient tells me they can’t stand lotions or moisturizers because they are thick and greasy or they don’t like the way they feel, then essences can play a refreshing and light role in providing needed hydration with a water like or gel like consistency.



Serums are lightweight products with a very small particle size. They do not have the thickness or weight of a lotion or a cream and can penetrate the skin more effectively. Serums usually have more concentrated active ingredients targeting specific concerns such as anti- aging or hydration of the skin.


If you have excessively dry skin just heaping on more and more heavy moisturizers is just not going to get you much further! This is where serums can really help. They are meant to be applied to your skin first to allow those smaller particles to get into the upper layers of the skin. Following this up with a thicker moisturizer if needed will seal in this hydration much more effectively! With this concept I always go back to the analogy of give my patients- think of your skin as not smooth like a wall, it’s more like a cobblestone street. When your skin dries out it’s as though the mortar that holds the bricks (your skin cells) together is breaking down. Serums have a small particle size and can settle effectively between those skin cells to replace the mortar.  Following with a moisturizer is helpful to “seal” it in.



Formulas that make up essences and serums are often quite similar. The main difference is that essences tend to be lighter weight and have less concentrated active ingredients.  Although some regimens will call for a cleanser, then toner, then essence, then serum, then moisturizer --  for most people this is a bit much.  I try to minimize routines to just a few steps- two to three steps being ideal.  There’s just a better chance that these routines will sustain themselves.


Essences and serum will have similar targets – anti aging, acne, hydration, spot treatments.  Higher concentrated serums will be ideal for some skin types while others may find the higher concentrations too irritating and opt for essences instead.


For example, if you are looking for hydration in your skin but cannot tolerate thick products, then try out a serum and see if you like the thickness of it. If it is still too thick drop down to an essence.


If you are looking for anti-aging effects but have very sensitive skin, then choose an essence over a serum to minimize the irritation from concentrated ingredients.


The main benefit to a serum is the ability to concentrate active ingredients into a lightweight product that can effectively find its way into the superficial layers of skin to actually show a benefit.  The particle size of lotions and moisturizers is often so large that they can adhere to skin but not necessarily find their way between the skin layers.




These mild products contains lightweight oils to hydrate the skin effectively. Remember these products come in smaller containers for a reason- a little bit goes a long way! Jojoba oil softens and hydrate the skin. Nice inexpensive way to try out a serum.



Amazing product- ceramides, vitamin b5 (pantothenic acid protects the skin) and Hyaluronic Acid all in one product. Hyaluronic Acid in a serum form allows it to penetrate between the skin cells to draw moisture into the superficial layers of skin. With this concept I always go back to the cobblestone street analogy of the skin that I give my patients.  When your skin dries out it’s as though the mortar that holds the bricks (your skin cells) together is breaking down. This leaves it open to any insult from the environment which will inflame and irritate your skin. Hyaluronic Acid can find its way into these cracks and draw moisture into the skin to repair and hydrate!


The Ordinary : Hyaluronic acid 2% + B5


Clear from the label that this serum is giving your skin the Hyaluronic acid directly that will bind moisture to it and increase the hydration of your skin to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. B5 is also a humectant to add to the ability of this product to bind moisture to your skin!  (I love this product line because its affordable and lists its ingredients without much information about what the product does.  I think of this line as a spice rack- grab a bunch of different products and create different combos to suit your needs as they change through the seasons and as we age.)


This product is so lightweight but filled with lots of antioxidants and anti inflammatory ingredients for the skin. I find that serums are so concentrated that the key to remember in using these is to use very little. If you use too much your skin will just dry out and you won’t get a chance to really feel the hydrating benefits.



Peptides in serums are thought to work by stimulating collagen production in the skin. These are small molecules that are believed to stimulate receptors in the skin to result in collagen synthesis. This effect along with the hydrating effects of the numerous oils and anti oxidants improve the overall appearance of fine lines and wrinkles quickly with this product. Remember to use a moisturizer on top to make it more effective..



If you have sensitive skin and worry that the concentration of active ingredients in a serum can really irritate your skin, then try an essence instead.  Get the benefits of the same ingredients in lighter formulations.  In general essences seems to run a bit more expensive without as many options in drug store brand varieties.


Kiehls Iris Extract Activating Treatment Essence


This formulation has hyaluronic acid to hydrate and a version of salicylic acid to give a little exfoliation. Many anti-aging formulations add salicylic acid or derivatives of it to give a little exfoliation.  Be careful with these products around the eyes as those with sensitive skin may get excess dryness in these thinner skinned areas.


Origins Original Skin Essence Lotion with Dual Ferment Complex

Another option that blends the hydration of hyaluronate with plant extracts, oils and salicylic acid to give the skin a glow balanced with hydration.



Missha First Treatment Essence Mist


There are two things that I really like about this product.  The first is that it has niacinamide.  This ingredient is well known to work as an anti-inflammatory to bring down redness in the skin.  The second is that it comes as a spray.

The biggest issue I run into in recommending ‘niche’ products like essences and serums is that there is a learning curve in understanding how to use these.


When using a new product, most people naturally pour out a ‘glob’ into the palm of their hand and then apply. The size of the ‘glob’ varies widely but can often be directly connected to how desperate we are to clear up whatever issue we are dealing with!  I’ve had patients call one week into a prescription asking for a refill on a 60gm tube of medication because they used it all up!  I find out they are using it like a mask and not just the pea size amount I counsel them to use.  I can understand the thinking maybe using more will give faster results.  However, this is not the case.  Using more will just compound side effects of dryness and irritation but not necessarily hasten the end result we are looking for.


With Essences and Serums there is a lot less needed to achieve the impact of these products.  A few drops goes a long way!  A spray for dispensing almost makes people instantly understand that not much is needed.


This probably doesn’t apply to essences and serums but since I alluded to “globs” above I thought I should mention the idea behind a “fingertip unit” or FTU. One adult FTU is the amount of cream squeezed out onto the fingertip in a line from the tip of the finger to the first joint skin crease.  One adult FTU of product will effectively cover two adult handprints of skin surface area. I just think it’s a fun concept and easy to understand for patients.





Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.