The Missing Step In Your Skin-Care Routine

The Korean skin-care routine can involve anywhere from 10 to 30 products, including numerous steps to deliver each product onto the skin in just the right way. Most Americans are accustomed to the standard 3-step “cleanse, treat, moisturize” routine, and any attempts to incorporate the expansive Korean skin-care regimen can cause some confusion — particularly around step 3-ish: the essence.  

Korean women start their skin ritual with a wash (or double wash), followed by a tone. Then, before the moisturizer stage, comes a litany of products that can be downright confusing to differentiate. The stage following cleansing is called the treatment stage, which in Korea can include serums, essences, boosters, concentrates, and ampoules. Though I knew I didn’t necessarily need to use all of these products, it was hard to know where to begin. So, I set out to find some answers.

Perhaps the biggest point of confusion is around serum and essence products. An essence is a highly enriched, lightweight formula to be applied to the entire face, while a serum is a concentration of nutrients to be applied for a specific purpose such as brightening, anti-aging, or to combat specific problem areas of the face like dark spots or acne.  

True essences are programmed with the goal of enriching skin and preparing it for oncoming products. Essences are lighter than a moisturizer and more viscous than a toner. They should be absorbed into the skin immediately following toner application, when the skin is at its cleanest. Essences are applied in the same way as a serum: pumped or piped onto the fingertips and  gently slapped or pressed into the face. Serums, on the other hand, tend to be more concentrated and are used to target a specific purpose, which is why they usually come in smaller quantities and with higher price tags. 

That brings us to ampules and concentrates. These are usually heavy-duty, maximum dose concentrations that are used over 2 to 4 week periods for an extra boost of vitamins or concentrated nutrients. Ampoules are usually packaged for one-time use, and concentrates are generally single ingredient-centered extracts that come in tiny dropper vials. Finally, a booster is meant to prep and prime the face so that following products have maximum efficacy.

After testing the different products, I definitely wouldn’t find it necessary to use both a serum and an essence. Essences are unique to Korean makeup, and serums come in equally lightweight formulas. I’ve used many products out there formulated to nourish and prep your face — some are called serums, and others essences, but their effects were the same. 

Regardless of how many steps you entertain adding to your routine, I’ve pulled together my favorite treatment products for your consideration. To keep it simple, they follow toner and precede moisturizer in the skin-care routine, and in function, they all aim to deposit nutrients into the skin. And, though I think one treatment product (serum, essence, concentrate, or ampoule) is sufficient, if you choose to layer, a general rule of thumb is to start from lightest in texture and work your way up. 
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To accurately express how I feel about this new line from Dr. Jart+, let me tell you a story. Everyone knows that carry-on liquids need to be 100 ml or less. The Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Liquid is 150 ml, and I should have known better. With an unyielding TSA agent lording over me, I literally dumped out another product in a 100 mL container, swished it with water, and filled it up with the Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Liquid because being forced to throw it out would've broken my heart.

I’ve been using Dr. Jart’s Ceramidin line for almost three months now, and it has been my saving grace during this terrible winter. Ceramides are waxy lipids naturally found in the surface skin structure that help skin retain moisture. Dr. Jart’s Ceramidin “liquid” is a rich formula packed with an army of ceramides to form a skin barrier and protect skin from loss of moisture. I love it for all that it does for keeping my skin plump and moisturized. It also smells amazing — refreshingly bright and herbal.
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Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum, a best-seller for the popular brand, is all about preventing signs of aging before they appear. It has the unique aim of "opening up" the skin to allow the following products to have maximum efficacy. It’s like a pre-serum, if you will. The skin feels smoother after putting it on, but this serum has no moisturizing properties and is strictly for prepping skin.

I’ve been using this for a few months now, and though it’s difficult to measure whether it’s really enhancing the rest of my skin-care routine, I’ve come to look forward to the soothing, rather therapeutic effect of smoothing on its lightly ginseng-scented formula in the morning and at night.

What’s more compelling to me is the ingredient list, which though it contains alcohol, also boasts a hefty line up of amazing botanical extracts like milkvetch (improves skin circulation), licorice (anti-inflammatory and improves hyperpigmentation), Mondo grass (rich in saccharides known to hydrate and boost the skin's moisture-retaining ability), green tea leaf (antioxidant), white peony root (skin conditioner), Indian lotus (anti-ager and skin brightener), and the list goes on and on.
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LJH Tea Tree 90 Essence is formulated with 90% tea tree extract (hence the name). The formula is famously gentle and seems to have harnessed all the acne-banishing powers of tea tree oil without the harshness or tea tree scent (the essence is completely odorless). Those with acne issues (especially those with acne issues and sensitive skin) should seek out this product immediately, as it receives rave reviews all around. For people fortunate enough not to deal with breakouts, using this essence might feel more like simply applying water to the face.
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Referred to as "god's teardrop" in Korea for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, propolis is a kind of bee “glue” that honey bees use to seal their hives. It's a buzzy ingredient in Korea for skin care and medical purposes, and has actually been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years.

LJH Vita-Propolis Ampoule is a glow-inducing ampoule with 50% propolis extract. It provides nourishing, soothing, and healing effects to help combat the signs of aging and assist fatigued, dull, or stressed skin. This little bottle packs a strong punch of radiance — so, in addition to using it as a serum, I love to add an extra drop to my foundation or moisturizer for an additional nourishing boost.
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Innisfree is known to be Korea’s first all-natural brand, and in terms of pricing, it's on par with American drugstore brands. One of the company's bestsellers is the Green Tea Seed Serum, which is hugely popular not just in Korea, but all across Asia.

Green tea seeds are a fairly common ingredient in Korean cosmetics, because they pack powerful antioxidants and act as an excellent emollient moisturizer. The Green Tea Seed Serum uses 100% organic green tea ingredients harvested from Korea’s Jeju Island. I love it because of its quick absorption and glossy, moisturizing feel. I don’t love its scent, which is a bit like Elizabeth Arden’s Green Tea perfume, but that could be a welcome plus for some.
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The story of Su:m 37 is like a Korean fairy tale. Their research facilities are set high up in the snowy Korean mountains. And, true to the yin and yang philosophy, the clean whiteness of the surrounding snow is countered by the pitch black charcoal that covers the floor of the research lab. It’s all very Zen, and their products boast years of fermented botanicals in the making in combination with Eastern medicine. This particular essence, a Su:m 37 bestseller, is packed with over 80 naturally fermented plant extracts.

SU:M37 Secret Programming Essence, $83.19, available at KoreaDepart.
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Named an ampoule but tripling as a toner, serum, and moisturizer in one, Shara Shara Honey Bomb has an unbelievably lightweight texture without being sticky, which I find surprising given the honey component — Manuka honey, that is. Also known as “liquid gold,” Manuka honey (which can run you up to $50 a jar in Korea) is known for its antibacterial properties and skin-care benefits; both Michelle Phan and Scarlett Johansson swear by its beautifying merits. Shara Shara Honey Bomb contains Manuka honey, royal jelly, and propolis — a golden trio for deliciously hydrated skin.

This is also a true multitasker (read: lazy girl’s best friend). It's effective enough to roll all those finicky skin-care steps into one jar. And, I like to take advantage of its nutrient-packed ingredients by smearing it on as an overnight face mask once or twice a week to wake up to glowing, nourished skin.
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Rice Force is a Japanese brand that has its history in sake. The story goes that the perceptive owner of a sake brewery noticed that his craftsmen, who were in daily contact with the fermented rice used to make sake, had beautiful, hand-model status hands. The rice extract developed by this same brewery owner, who also has a PhD in Agricultural Science, is the prime ingredient in Rice Force skin care.

Rice Force Deep Moisture Essence goes on velvety and is beautifully hydrating because it increases ceramide production, which boosts skin’s capacity to hold onto moisture.
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Scinic stands for “self-clinic,” meaning something along the lines of “be your own dermatologist.” Named an ampoule, but really more of an essence or serum, its Night Repair Ampoule looks suspiciously similar to the other wildly popular “little brown bottle” but comes at a fraction of the price.

Like the real McCoy, this formula contains a blend of probiotics lactobacillus and bifida ferment lysate, but has the addition of more Asian ingredients like rice extract, ginseng extract, shiitake mushroom extract, and mung bean ferment. Korean women flock to Scinic’s version of the ubiquitous brown bottle because of its brightening effect and anti-aging properties. It also doesn’t hurt that Korean actress Sora Kang serves as its spokeswoman.
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AmorePacific Moisture Bound Rejuvenating Serum is an anti-aging serum formulated with bamboo sap. Perusing the ingredient list, I stopped short at alcohol, which for me is a big a red flag. I know I could get flack for even suggesting you buy something with alcohol as the second ingredient, but even I was surprised by how much I liked it.

I didn’t find the formula drying even with the alcohol. This could be because the alcohol acted as an astringent to strip down the skin barrier so this formula's other, rather impressive, lineup of ingredients could nestle in deep into the dermis to deliver their punch. Or, maybe my skin just really likes bamboo.
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