The History and Differences of Toners and Essences

The world of skincare has changed dramatically within the last decade. With that comes a lot of different trends and terminology. With the market being oversaturated with new products, some might question the difference between an essence and a toner, whether it’s needed in one’s routine, or if it’s just a cash grab for companies. The main function of both toners and essences is hydration, so I tend to use these two terms interchangeably in conversations. For the purpose of this post, I will use both terms to indicate separate things. My intention for this post is to serve as a prerequisite for all future reviews on both toners and essences.

Traditionally, toners were once thought to be a necessary step in one’s routine to remove any leftover makeup and cleanser residue. An alternate term used for this type of toner was astringent. While some astringents still exist on the market – usually with a label stating that it’s for oily skin – they should be avoided, as they are quite stripping for the skin’s barrier. Although skincare technology began to advance, toners were still needed to balance the skin’s pH after using incredibly harsh cleansers. (The pH of healthy skin ranges from around 4.5 – 5.5.)

Today, cleanser formulations are now usually at a pH low enough to not destroy the skin’s acid mantle (there are some exceptions). Thus, most toners now exist to provide additional antioxidant, redness reducing, and hydration benefits as a leave-on treatment. There is also a separate category of exfoliating acid toners, but those should be treated like any exfoliant – not meant for daily usage.

Essences originated in Asia and made their way to the western hemisphere by way of social media and Youtube influencers. Generally speaking, essences tend to be more viscous in texture than a toner, which is more watery. Essences are typically much more nourishing for skin than the toners of yesteryear. Another indicator of an essence is high concentration of one specific ingredient, usually fermented tea or another plant extract. Essences can also have the added benefit of brightening or evening out your skin tone.

Ever since Western skincare brands have caught on to the popularity of Eastern-style essences, they’ve introduced new products and reformulated old ones to fit in with current standards that savvy customers have come to expect. There is now a lot of overlap between the two product categories. It may not be a mandatory step in your routine, but if your skin is known to be dehydrated, then it might become necessary to incorporate an essence or toner in order to increase hydration levels and overall health of your skin.

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