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. But, as more and more new products and formulas are introduced into the Western world, things can get a bit blurry.
Case in point: the difference between serums, ampoules, emulsions and essences. If you have no clue what an emulsion or an ampoule even is and are still not sure whether or not you need a serum or an essence, keep reading. We help to clear things up, below.
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 may have a lightweight texture, but when it comes to skin care benefits they pack a major punch. Think of a serum as a sheer film that covers your face while it’s concentrated formula works to target your skin-care concerns. Of course, while serums being lightweight and sheer is a nearly universal quality you can expect from them, beyond that they’re becoming more diverse. In addition to the thin gels you’ve likely used before, more watery serums — ones that require a dropper — are rising in popularity.
3 SERUMS WE LOVE
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.
When it comes to anti-aging, it’s safe to say you’ll want products with potent formulas. Hence why anti-aging serums are so widely adored. Enriched with active ingredients, this concentrate—a fan favorite from Lancôme — is formulated to boost visible signs of youthfulness and to help skin’s recovery during the day and night. From the very first drops, skin looks smoother and more luminous.
While serums with an aqueous texture are becoming more common, they aren’t the only option out there. For something more reminiscent of a moisturizer, try a formula that brings together face creams and serums. CeraVe’s take, which contains encapsulated retinol, helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and restores radiant-looking skin.
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. However, emulsions 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.
3 EMULSIONS WE LOVE
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. Still, it’s undeniable that the iridescent bottle is alluring and will add an excellent touch to your next shelfie.
Finding products that don’t irritate and upset sensitive skin is often nothing short of a challenge, especially if you’re searching for products 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 emulsion meant for sensitive skin soothes and hydrates.
Emulsions can be an essential anti-aging step, too. Formulated with niacinamide, this comprehensive daily emulsion helps to correct early symptoms of photoaging for a reclarified tone and retightened surface.
WHAT IS AN ESSENCE?
It used to be that essence was the lighter, less concentrated version of serum 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. Essence is considered to be the heart of the Korean skin-care routine and is meant to be used after skin has been prepped through cleansing and using a hydrating facial toner.
3 ESSENCES 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.)
Want to be able to match your essence to your emulsion? No problem — pair the Biotherm Life Plankton Sensitive Emulsion with the Biotherm Life Plankton Essence.
WHAT IS AN AMPOULE?
It’s likely that you may have heard of serums before, but maybe less likely you’ve heard of ampoules. An ampoule is like a serum, except it typically has a higher concentration of one active ingredient. Ampoules are great ways to target specific skin concerns like dark spots, obvious signs of aging or even 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!
3 AMPOULES WE LOVE FROM K-BEAUTY BRANDS
The Easydew EX DW-EGF Derma Oneshot Ampoule is a two-for-one deal. It’s formulated to address both wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.
Evening Island’s Pyunkang Yul Moisture Ampoule features only six ingredients, including Coptis Japonica Root Extract, an ancient Korean medicine.
This ampoule is formulated with centella asiatica (also known as tiger grass) and is recommended for irritated skin.
HOW TO INCORPORATE A SERUM, AMPOULES, EMULSION AND ESSENCE INTO YOUR SKIN-CARE ROUTINE
Now that you know all about the differences between serums, 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. And just in case, if you need any help remembering the order in which to apply, it’s almost always correct to start with the thinnest formula and work your way up.
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.