The Real Difference Between Ampoules, Essences, & Serums

Layering is everything in the world of K-Beauty, which is why you’ll find an array of products in pretty much every texture imaginable. The sheer number of them can be overwhelming, and knowing which is which and when to use them is confusing. Case in point: Serums, ampoules, and essences. To the untrained eye, these three products can seem like the same thing, but in reality, they each have different functions in your beauty regimen.


To help clear things up, we put together this definitive guide to these Korean skin-care staples. Read on to learn what the heck each of them are, who should use them, and how to combine them with your existing routine.



A uniquely Asian beauty concept, essences allow all of your other products to penetrate deep into your skin for maximum results. The texture is much more watery than you would find in a regular serum or ampoule. Essences are lightweight but work hard to prep the skin for the rest of your routine. Most formulas are less concentrated which is why you’ll often find them in larger bottles and almost clear looking. 

Essences are also not to be confused with a new, burgeoning category called ‘Treatment Toners’, or ‘Treatment Essences’ (or even ‘Treatment Lotions’). These toners 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.

If you have sensitive skin but want to bring a serum into your life, a calming essence like ID.AZ Dermastic Essence is a great place to start. Pro tip: skip the cotton pads and gently pat the liquid directly onto your skin to make sure none of the product gets wasted.


ginger serum

Of all of the layerable treatments, serums are perhaps the most widely known. Most brands in the US and Europe have a serum in their collections. Typically, serums are more concentrated and a few drops is all you need. The trick is to find active ingredients that address your specific skin concerns. If your skin is looking dull and deflated, a brightening serum packed with vitamin C — like the Sweet Chef Ginger + Vitamin C Serum Shot — will give your skin an instant perk up. Has your radiator completely dried you out this winter? Try a hyaluronic acid-packed option like Yuripibu Cucu Black Truffle Serum to restore hydration.



Ampoules might look small and dainty, but they pack a major punch. Formulated with a higher concentration of active ingredients than both serums and essences, ampoules deliver a highly concentrated formula to revive troubled 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. If your skin is going through a rough patch, layering an ampoule on before your essence is an incredible way to refresh your regimen. We can’t get enough of Leegeehaam’s brilliant Vita Propolis Ampoule, which is bursting with multi-vitamins and healing, anti-inflammatory propolis extract.

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.

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