Decoding the Korean Skincare Routine, Part 1: Essences, Serums, Ampoules?


One of the questions we most often get is ‘What on earth do all of these names mean? How do I properly use a [insert exotic name here]’? 

So without further ado – our guide to decoding the Korean Skincare Routine, Part 1.

After your cleanser and toner comes the treatment step of your routine that is meant to address your primary skin concern – which are often named essences, serums or ampoules. These products are all essentially designed to treat your skin, but have slight differences.


Essences are often referred to as ‘lightweight serums’. They tend to have a specific texture, where the formula is more watery out of the bottle, or it has what is called a ‘water break’ when patted into the skin, where you feel a release of hydration during application. Essences can come in larger bottles sizes, such as 50~75ml, than serums, which range from 30~35ml. The general thought is that essences are less concentrated than serums and thus available in a size where you can apply generously to the skin.

Tea Tree 90 Essence
One of our bestsellers: LJH’s Tea Tree 90 Essence

Essences are not to be confused with a new, burgeoning category called ‘Treatment Toners’, or ‘Treatment Essences’ (or even ‘Treatment Lotions’). These toners, which will be covered in a later post, are often thicker than typical toners as they are infused with nutrients and anti-aging ingredients. They are a great way to kick-start your skincare routine, but they should not take the place of your essence, serum or ampoule which has a higher concentration of active ingredients. A classic example of this category is SKII’s Facial Treatment Essence – other recently launched examples include Clinique’s Essence Lotion or Estee Lauder’s Micro Essence.

Easy ways to tell the difference between a true essence and a treatment toner is the packaging, texture and size. True essences are fluid, but still thick enough to require being in a pump or dropper bottle.  A treatment toner will almost always be over 75ml and close to a liquid, enough to require a bottle with a narrow opening, like the below.

treatment tonerThe plug neck helps to control the dosage. 


Serums are the most well known product category and a staple in many of our skincare routines. While typically, serums are thought to have a thicker texture then essences, recent launches have had some standout lightweight textures, which have been blurring the lines.

RoseBulgarianRoseSerumTextureisoi’s Bulgarian Rose Blemish Care Serum also has a lightweight texture

What adds to the confusion is that until recently, all serums in Korea were referred to simply as ‘essences’. It’s a common practice to ‘nickname’ cosmetic products locally as the English names can be difficult to pronounce, and an example is Estee Lauder’s renowned Advanced Night Repair being called the ‘Brown Bottle Essence’ (갈색병 에센스).  It’s only recently, with the influx of serums from overseas, that this term is more widely understood and used in Korea.


Ampoules are the easiest to tell apart, since they come in smaller sizes due to their concentration. Some brands sell ampoules in small one-time use vials, in sets of 15~30 to use daily, while others offer ampoules in bottles similar to a serum or essence, but smaller in size. Ampoules are formulated to deliver a maximum dose of ingredients to your skin. In Korea, they are not only used in place of a serum, but also as a 2~4 week special treatment course – to be layered on before your essence or serum to boost your routine.

LJHpropolisampouletextureLJH’s Propolis Ampoule packs a powerful punch in a 15ml bottle

Our take on it? No need to stress about whether a product is an essence, serum or ampoule – all of these active-packed treatments will do wonders for your skin when layered properly within your skincare regimen – after cleansing & toning and before a moisturizer. (more on how to do that here). Choose one that has the right ingredients for your skin concern and right texture for your skin type.

Another question we get is whether you can layer your essences, serums and ampoules. The answer is, absolutely. For example, if you feel a little dry, you can use a hydrating serum with an essence that treats your primary skin concern. The rule of thumb for layering is to use the most lightweight products first.

Need a little help picking the right treatment for your skin? We’re always here at love [a] glowrecipe [dot] com to answer any questions!

Get your glow on,
The Glow Recipe Team

P.S. Have you checked out our post on New Year Skincare Resolutions for 2015?
P.P.S  Want to check out more Glow Recipe approved serums? Shop here.

18 replies

  1. I have a question. I am trying to start a Korean skincare regime for Night time, but I want to also include products from US and Japan. I want to use my Estee lauder global anti-aging cream, but I have no clue where to fit it in. Does it come after the moisturizer, or can I substitute it for an ampoule, or a serum?

    Right now, I am using the Kose Sekkisei Lotion as my Toner, and then the SKII First Treatment Essence. Since, I do not have an ampoule and serum. I just moisturize my face with Clinique Night Repair Moisturizer, then I use the Estee Lauder Revitalizing Supreme Global Anti-aging Cream and finish it off with Sheseido Dark Eye Circle Cream.

    I am confuse. It seems most of the Korean skin care is liquid form. I don’t know where I can fit a cream form. Thanks


    • Hi Mae! A good rule of thumb when it comes to the routine is to apply from the thinnest texture to the thickest texture. Based off of the products you listed, sounds like you’re on the right track! Heavier products like creams should go at the end of the routine.


  2. Hi! For my morning and evening routine, I’ve been double cleansing, using a niacinamide toner, and then using Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence. followed my multiple other steps. Now I am confused though if this essence is in fact a “true essence” or a “treatment toner”. The Missha First Treatment Essence is definitely in a 75ml bottle, close to a liquid, and has a bottle with a narrow opening, like you said the treatment toners have. If the Missha First Treatment Essence is really a treatment toner (and not a true essence), then I still need to buy a real essence.
    Help?:) Thank you!


  3. So, after reading this, I am confused! When I switched to K beauty skincare, after cleansing, I apply toner, followed by essence and then serum. With the LJH’s Tea Tree 90 Essence, for example, does this replace essence and serum in the skincare steps? At the moment, for the day time, I am using the Benton BHA Aloe Toner, followed by Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence followed by OST Vitamin C serum and onto my lotion and cream. At night, I use the same toner and essence but replace the serum with the Missha Time Revolution Night Repair Ampoule.


Leave a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s