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Beauty Tips: Essences, Serums, Ampoules… What’s the Difference?

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Essences, Serum and Ampoules have been popularized due to the popular multi-step Korean skin care routine. But what’s the difference? It is just clever marketing combined with confusing English translations from these Korean beauty products? Or do they actually have different functions? Essences, serums and ampoules are all skin treatments with very similar functions, but varying levels of concentration and penetration.


Before discussing essences, be sure to know all about toners first, since they help prep the skin for the next steps. Once your face is cleansed and toned, now it’s ready for essences. Essences are usually thought of as ‘lightweight serums.’ They typically have a more watery texture and you feel a release of hydration during application. Essences are infused with ingredients that are targeted towards specific skin issues, in which skin care benefits can range from whitening, moisturizing, or anti-aging. This means that you can use a combination of essences to obtain different skin care goals.

Essences can come in larger bottles sizes (50~75ml) vs. serums, which are usually in smaller bottles (30~35ml). Essences are typically more lightweight and less concentrated than serums so you can generously apply essences to the skin and all over the face. They usually are used after a toner to add another layer of hydration before you applied serums or moisturizers. Though you can still find the more watered-down essences today, there are now also thicker essences, especially in the Korean beauty market, which feel similar to serums so the lines are quite blurred. This can be even more confusing since many serums are becoming more lightweight. In fact, the Chinese word for essence is the same word for serum since they consider them to be the same thing.

Note: To add more confusion, now there are toner essences. These toners are often thicker than typical toners as they are packed with nutrients and anti-aging ingredients. These should still be used as toners, applied after washing your face, but still before essences, serums, ampoules and moisturizers.


Serums are concentrated skin care treatments, similar to essences or sheet masks, containing a few powerful active ingredients to target specific skin care issues. Serums do not contain filler ingredients, like they way moisturizers and essences do, and they are stripped down so that their functions can penetrate your skin faster. Compared to essences, the consistency of a serum is a bit thicker and typically in a smaller bottle. A serum is typically more concentrated than an essence, but less concentrated than an ampoule. Serum bottles often have droppers to dispense the product, but can also sometimes be in pump bottles. There are water based serums and oil based serums (because they contain very UV ingredients such as Vitamin C or retinol in which their effects may be minimized in a water base). Serums also tend to be more expensive than essences.

There’s a common misconception that serums are only used when you’re in your 40s or older or that you only use serums for anti-aging. However, you can start using a serum at any age! There are serums available for many different skin issues, including brightening your skin and even intensely moisturizing it. If you want to add a “boost” to your skin care routine and even your makeup routine, it’s great to add a serum. In fact, several beauty bloggers recommend adding a drop of serum to the foundation.

Serums are intended to be spot-applied to your skin so it is not necessary to spread a serum all over your face. They can be specifically targeted to the problem area. With serums, it is important that results will be seen in at minimum 4 weeks time. If you’re lucky, you may see the results earlier but your skin needs time to accept the skin care treatment.


An ampoule is the “super serum” and most concentrated of these skin care treatments. It is an intensive serum with higher concentrations of active ingredients when you need a super booster. They are sometimes referred to as “beauty boosters.” Ampoules, like serums, usually come in smaller bottles with droppers and only a few drops of liquid are needed to boost your skin care routine.

What is interesting though is that some beauty bloggers actually recommend using an ampoule before your essence or serum. However, it is more common in a typical Korean skin care routine, that your skin care routine would go in this order: cleaners, toners, essences, serums and finally, if needed, ampoules. Skin care advocates and even beauty companies would surprisingly not suggest using a serum and ampoule at the same time. It could be too much for your skin to handle. It is important to approach using ampoules like medication, only when treating a serious issue.


An essence isn’t a serum and a serum isn’t an ampoule. They are all the same and yet different. The most important thing is to always think about your skin type and your skin needs before jumping into using all these different skin care products.

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Article Published: January 6, 2017 is a review site for Korean makeup, Korean skin care, and other Asian beauty products. It's the best way to blog and share your Asian skincare reviews!