The Beginner’s Guide to Essences, Serums, and Ampoules

How to use these K-Beauty treatments for flawless skin

Photo by zhang Mickey

Anyone who’s heard of K-Beauty has heard of the iconic 10-step routine. The entire ritual is designed around building a flawless base of healthy, hydrated skin by layering different products customized to your skin type.

But all those steps with all those products can seem pretty complicated, especially that muddle of steps in the middle that all have to do with various kinds of treatments. Like, most versions of the 10-step routine will tell you to use an essence in step five and a serum and/or ampoule in step six, but what even is the difference?

It’s not as difficult as it sounds, though — read on to learn more about essences, serums, and ampoules, and how to customize them for your personal skincare routine!

What’s the difference between essences, serums, and ampoules?

Honestly, not much — they’re all essentially skin treatments that contain active ingredients that target specific skin problems. The reason why they work is that they have smaller molecules than your basic moisturizers and thus can better permeate the layers of your skin. The main differentiation lies in the size of the molecules and the concentration of the actives.

That said, the lines tend to blur. There’s no specific set levels of concentration to define a hard difference between the three. A lot of the time, the choice between labeling a product as an essence, serum, or ampoule lies in marketing, especially when it comes to exporting to a Western market which already understands the word “serum” but not necessarily the word “essence”.

Generally, though, you’ll find that essences tend to be more watery, while serums are more gel-like with a higher concentration of actives. Ampoules are even more concentrated, and aren’t really used on a regular basis— think of them as a super serum or a booster shot that you only bring out when you have a special event coming up or if your skin’s having an extra bad day.

Happy Skin Beauty Sakura Bloom Hydrating Skin Booster | Nuxe Dark Spot Correcting Serum | V10 Plus Ceramide Serum

What active ingredients should they have?

Essences, serums, and ampoules should always be customized to your skin type and to your skin’s needs. The actives for targeting hyperpigmentation are different from those for targeting dryness, which are different from those for targeting sun damage. And even if you use the exact same products as another K-Beauty aficionado for the exact same skin problem, both of your faces might react differently.

In short: figuring out the right actives and the right combination of essences, serums, and ampoules takes time, patience, and some experimentation — but that’s what makes it fun!

To get you started, here’s a very general run-down of some of the most common active ingredients for specific skin goals:

  • For fading dark spots and brighter skin: Vitamin C, niacinamide, arbutin, kojic acid, galactomyces/saccharomyces
  • For soothing redness and irritation: snail mucin, witch hazel, aloe vera, green tea
  • For calming down acne: tea tree oil, propolis, Vitamin C, bee venom
  • For hydrating dry skin: glycerin, ceramides, rice extract, hyaluronic acid
  • For smoother skin (e.g. reducing wrinkles): adenosine, niacinamide, lactic acid, lycopene

Tip: an easy way to try out different ingredients without committing to buying a whole bottle or jar of product is sheet masking! Sheet masks come in super affordable packs and are a relaxing way to end your day. They’ll also usually have a label to tell you what the benefits of that particular ingredient are.

Goodal Citron Infused Water Mild Sheet Mask (Brightening) | Naurko NRK Snail Essence Intense Hydra Repair Mask | Banila Co. Hi Bye Soothing Sheet Mask

How do I put them on?

Essences, serums, and ampoules are at the heart of the Korean skincare routine. The earlier steps of the 10-step routine are basically meant to clean and prepare your face to receive all the goodies that these treatments provide — so to maximize the benefits of the products, make sure you don’t skip out on double-cleansing and toning beforehand.

After toning your face, pour a bit of essence onto a cotton pad — or your hand, if you want to minimize wastage — and pat to apply evenly on your face and neck. Remember: pat, don’t rub. Aside from preventing damage, patting actually helps your skin absorb the treatments faster.

Source: Buzzfeed/YouTube

Serums and ampoules don’t need to be applied all over your face. Depending on your skin needs, they can be used as spot treatments for specific problem areas such as dark spots from the sun or aging. Whether you’re using them all over or only on certain parts of your face, remember that they’re already hyper-concentrated (and are also more expensive than essences), so use a light hand in application. Ampoules in particular tend to come in dropper bottles to help you get the right amount of product.

Make sure to take a quick break between applying each treatment to give your face enough time to absorb the product. And remember, you don’t have to apply all of them every single time, so adjust according to how your skin feels that day.

After applying all your treatments, go ahead and finish off your routine with an eye cream, a moisturizer, and sun protection (for daytime).

And that’s it for your beginner’s guide to the staples of Korean skincare: essences, serums, and ampoules! We barely scratched the surface, so make sure to read up and explore which actives and which products are right for you and your skin. Have fun!

What are your holy grail Korean skin treatments?

Let us know in the comments section below! Looking for new products to try? Head on over to ZALORA and check out skincare from different Korean and other Asian beauty brands.

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