Serums, Ampoules, Emulsions and Essences: Is There Really a Difference?
With innovative skin-care products and cosmetics like BB creams, sheet masks, and cushion compacts, it's no wonder we're obsessed with all things Korean beauty. And as more and more new products and formulas make their way onto our routine to-do lists, deciphering the differences between serums, ampoules, emulsions and essences can get confusing. Ahead, we broke down exactly what each of these formulas are, what they do and how to use them.
What Is a Serum?
In most skin-care routines, serum is the step after cleansing but before moisturizing. And, while these lightweight, concentrated formulas have consistency in common, the benefits vary. From serums formulated with antioxidants to layer under your sunscreen during the day to anti-aging serums to press into your skin before bedtime, serums pack a major punch. Think of a serum as a sheer film that covers your face while its concentrated formula works to target your skin-care concerns. In addition to the thin gels you’ve likely used before, more watery serums — ones that require a dropper — are rising in popularity. Ahead, find three of our favorites to try.
If you have post-acne marks and large pores, the Resurfacing Retinol Serum by CeraVe should become your go-to. This formula contains encapsulated retinol that will help restore the skin barrier and improve the skin’s texture.
If you need a boost of hydration with a soothing finish, try Lines Away. With hyaluronic acid and antioxidants, it helps to lock in moisture and keep free radicals at bay.
Interested in giving one of the most popular types of serum a try? If that’s the case, look no further than a vitamin C serum. Formulated with pure vitamin C, vitamin E and hyaluronic acid, this Vichy serum immediately leaves skin smoother and softer. With time, skin becomes brighter, feels tighter and your complexion will look more even.
What Is an Emulsion?
Lighter than a cream or lotion and thicker — and less concentrated — than a serum, an emulsion is like a watered-down, lightweight facial lotion. If you have dry skin, you may be wondering what the point is, but hold your judgement. Emulsions are often the perfect product for those with oily or combination skin, as their formulas can hydrate and moisturize the complexion and allow the skin to breathe at the same time. Emulsions, however, aren’t reserved for only certain skin types. If your skin needs more moisture, an emulsion can work for you, too. In fact, emulsions are perfect for adding an extra layer of hydration to your routine — just use a face cream on top. We broke down three to try, ahead.
Emulsions can be an essential anti-aging step. Formulated with niacinamide, this comprehensive daily emulsion helps to correct early symptoms of photoaging for a clarified tone and tightened surface.
Finding products that don’t irritate and upset sensitive skin is often nothing short of a challenge, especially if you’re searching for skin care in a category that isn’t nearly as saturated as “moisturizer” or “face wash.” Thankfully, sensitive skin types don’t have to worry about tracking down an emulsion that’s safe for their skin. This one is meant for sensitive skin and soothes and hydrates.
Have you ever added a product to your collection based on packaging alone? While there’s no shame in that, it won’t be the case for this lightweight emulsion. The formula is as divine as the iridescent bottle.
What Is an Essence?
It used to be that essences were the lighter, less-concentrated versions of serums, but the roles have since reversed. Just like serums are changing and becoming lighter and more watery in texture, essences are changing and being made into creamy or gel-like formulas. No longer will you need to waste cotton pads sweeping liquid essences over your skin; you can simply pat on these slightly thicker formulas. Essences are considered to be the heart of the Korean skin-care routine and are meant to be used after skin has been prepped via cleansing and using a hydrating facial toner. Here are three we love:
A throwback to the once liquid-based essences, this essence is formulated with lipo-hydroxy-acid (LHA) and sodium hyaluronate and can smooth and hydrate the skin, promoting a brighter, more youthful-looking complexion.
If you’re ready to try an essence with a more modern texture, this Shu Uemura option, which has a gel consistency, is a prime pick. (There’s also a cream, if that’s your preference.)
For a silky essence formula full of antioxidants, try The Giving Essence. It contains black chokeberry and ellagic acid to brighten and even out skin tone and texture.
What Is an Ampoule?
An ampoule is like a serum, except it typically has a higher concentration of one active ingredient. Ampoules are a great way to target specific skin concerns like dark spots or dry skin. They can also be used in addition to anything else you put on your skin — a friendly skin-care companion that gets along with anyone! Ahead, find a few of our favorites.
This formula contains 10% vitamin C, natural hyaluronic acid, phyto-peptides and mineralizing water to help soften, smooth and brighten the skin.
If your skin is in need of hydration, these ampoules will become your new favorite ritual. They visibly plump the skin, reduce wrinkles and hydrate all in one shot.
This one-week program by Peach & Lily. contains one clear ampoule, followed by six brown formulas that will help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and dullness.
How to Incorporate Serums, Ampoules, Emulsions and Essences into Your Skin-Care Routine
Now that you know all about the differences between serums, ampoules, emulsions and essences (plus our product picks for each), you’re free to add them into your skin-care routine. And you don’t have to play favorites, you can use them all — as long as you know when to apply them.
Here’s the deal: Out of the four, essences should be applied first, as they’re the thinnest. Apply your essence of choice directly after using a toner — or a cleanser, if you prefer to skip toner. Next, it’s time for your serum. That means an emulsion should come last in your routine. Should you want to give your skin an added boost, apply an ampoule to top everything off. In between each of these steps, be sure to give the product a minute or two to sink in, then keep layering.
Editor’s note: There’s no rule saying you have to use all three at the same time. You can also choose to split up your serum, ampoule, emulsion and essence between your morning and night routines — it’s up to you.