As a wise Ben Stiller character once said, "Moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty." He wasn't wrong, but there is one question he didn't address that's come up an awful lot in the last couple of years: What, exactly, is an essence, the K-beauty staple that goes after your toner and before your serum, if not just another unnecessary extra step in your already perfectly adequate skin-care routine?
Essences are, as Soko Glam founder and K-beauty expert Charlotte Cho explains, the very heart of the Korean skin-care routine. "They're lightweight but packed with concentrated hydrating ingredients, aiding skin repair and cell turnover that will promote smoother, brighter skin with regular use," says Cho. "Think of it as a pre-moisturizer moisturizer that balances skin."
Though they've become particularly buzzy in the past few years, essences are not new: They've played an integral role in comprehensive K-beauty routines for a long time, and Western brands are now (wisely) getting in on the game, too. Caudalie recently launched its Vinoperfect Concentrated Brightening Essence, which combines the brand's soothing signature grape water with a strong dose of glycolic acid to obliterate the dead skin cells that leave skin dull. Fresh just came out with the Black Tea Kombucha Facial Treatment Essence, a potent antioxidant solution that uses fermented black tea, another K-beauty staple, to leave skin smooth, hydrated, and more luminous over time.
And then there are Cho's go-tos, the O.G.s of the genre, like Missha's Time Revolution First Treatment Essence Intensive Moist. "This water-like essence is a cult favorite among skin-care lovers because it's well-known to repair damage and even out skin tone in just a few weeks," Cho says.
Another Cho favorite, which has scores of diehard fans on Reddit's SkincareAddiction, too: the Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence from CosRx, which, just as the name suggests, is 96% snail secretion filtrate. "Think of this like vitamins for your face, since it's loaded with replenishing and revitalizing nutrients to help prevent and repair damage," Cho explains. (Don't fear the snail factor. "Snail mucin has the ability to repair everything from dry patches to acne breakouts, while also helping zap hyperpigmentation," she says — and who wouldn't want that?)
So while it might be a stretch to say that you're missing out on the single most important step of your skin-care ritual if you've yet to add one of these cult-favorite formulas to your beauty routine... you are certainly missing out on the essence of it.