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Decoding the Korean Skincare Routine, Part 2: Toners, Skin, Treatment Essences?

 Toners vs. Lotions vs. Skin vs. Softeners vs. Mists vs. Treatment Essences?

mist-toner-treatment-essenceThe terms for toners are even more varied than the serum category. Let’s start with the key differences between toners in Asia and toners from Western markets, which boils down to the purpose.  Toner is a relatively new term in Asia – it’s more often referred to as a ‘skin’ or ‘softeners’. These products serve as the first leave on step after cleansing, used to jumpstart your skincare routine with a very liquid infusion of hydration. This goes beyond balancing skin Ph and stems from the belief (based in truth) that skin starts to lose water content immediately after cleansing and a toner is needed to replenish this moisture loss. Thus once skin is sufficiently rehydrated, it’s better prepared to receive the skincare steps that follow.

In the west, the toner step has traditionally been more astringent – almost as a second step after cleansing. Toners are often dispensed onto a cotton pad, which helps to ‘wipe-away’ any residue after cleansing. The fact that double cleansing is widespread throughout Asia is probably another reason why wipe-off toners are considered less of a necessity.

So let’s go through the staggering list of different names. Who said skincare was simple? 🙂

Toners: The format that is closest to water in terms of texture, with names that have benefits such as ‘balancing’, ‘clarifying’, ‘astringent’. Toners are usually used to wet a cotton pad, which is then used to ‘wipe away’ any remaining residue after cleansing, as well as clarify and Ph balance the skin.

Skin/ Softeners/Lotions: The traditional term for the toner step in Asia, which Skin being used more widely in Korea and Lotion & Softener being used in Japan. These formulas tend to have more body than the typical watery toner and are often pearlescent or milky – both because of certain hydrating ingredients and also because companies specifically design their product this way since this type of texture is associated with comfort & hydration. Skin or softeners can be used with a cotton pad if desired or one can dispense a dime size amount into the palm and gently pat into the face with hands. When using a cotton pad, we’ve seen many brands recommend to gently tap the toner/skin-moistened cotton pad over the face instead of using the potentially more abrasive wiping off motion.

Lotions are another term that is used differently by market. In Japan, lotions are interchangeable with softeners, whereas in Korea, this term is used for milky emulsions (moisturizers).  Another technique used by Japanese women are ‘lotion masks’, where a few cotton pads are heavily drenched in a lotion and placed on the forehead and cheek for a few minutes as a mini facial mask experience – some brands supply specialized cotton pads that can hold more liquid specifically for this purpose.  ‘Lotion masks’ can be done with any hydrating skin or softener formula – if your skin feels particularly dry after cleansing, this could be an easy way to pamper your skin before applying the rest of your skincare. (Or just use a facial sheet mask).

Goodal Oil Plus Skin MistBasically the love child of a skin, mist and an oil = super nourishing goodness
Goodal Super Seed Oil Plus Skin Mist

Mists: While we’re all familiar with the H2O mists (that very often dry you out 2 minutes after spritzing), the new generation of mists come loaded with skincare ingredients and are great for replenishing moisture throughout the day and give the face that desirable, subtle glow.  Many women in Korea keep one handy at their office desk or bag at all times. Mists can also be used instead of a toner, after cleansing to hydrate and prep the skin.

Whamisa-Olive-Leaf-Mist-TextureOne of our favorites to rehydrate through out the day
Whamisa Organic Olive Leaf Mist

Treatment Essence: Treatment essences, also known as ‘treatment toners’ or ‘essence toners’ are the new kid on the block in the US. One of the best known is SKII’s Facial Treatment Essence, which actually launched over two decades ago in Asia, where the treatment essence category is more established. Most treatment essences are formulated not only to hydrate but to contain more anti-aging and brightening ingredients, which is often why they have bouncier, more ‘cushiony’ textures than toners. Another thing to note is that treatment essences (or essence toners) are not the same thing as serum-type essences (more on that here!)

While some brands recommend both a toner/ softener and a treatment essence, we feel that a treatment essence is a great substitute for the usual toner step as it still helps to prime and prep skin on top of the host of other skincare benefits it offers….and that it’s not 100% necessary to use both to get results.

whamisa deep rich essence tonerWhamisa’s New Deep Rich Essence Toner
has an emollient texture

So here’s the gist.

  • After cleansing, we definitely recommend using any of these liquid treatments to hydrate, prep and kickstart a healthy, hydrating skincare routine.
  • Feel like your skin still needs a little more clarification after cleansing? Use a clarifying or balancing toner.
  • Skin feels a little dry or depleted? Use a more hydrating formula such as softener, skin or mist.
  • Can you layer both a toner and a softener or mist? Yes if you would like to, but it’s not necessary.
  • Want to get a jump start on your anti-aging routine? Try a treatment essence .

We hope this helps! We’d love to hear what your favorite toning steps are and how you use them – contact us anytime at


Get your glow on,
The Glow Recipe Team


P.S. Don’t know the difference between an essence, serum and ampoule? Check out our Decoding the Korea Skincare Routine, Part 1

P.P.S. Shop Glow Recipe-approved toners, mists and essence toners here

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