Expert Explains the Differences Between Toners, Serums and Essences

If you ever find yourself confused when it comes to your beauty products, you are not alone.

With so many products to choose from, it's hard to keep up with the benefits and differences of each. We asked Dr. Hadley King, board-certified dermatologist, for some major clarification when it comes to toners, serums and essences. Are they all pretty much the same thing? Keep reading to find out and for our full interview with Dr. Hadley King!

Sweety High: What is a toner?

Dr. Hadley King: Traditionally a toner is used as the final step in cleansing, designed to remove residue from the cleanser and the last traces of dirt and any pollutants from the day that the cleanser may have missed.

three women clean beauty

(via Shutterstock)


SH: What is a serum?

DHK: Serums are light skincare products that can be applied after cleansing and before moisturizing to deliver high concentrations of active ingredients.


SH: What is an essence?

DHK: Essences are lightweight boosters that target skin concerns like fine lines and dull and uneven skin tones.


SH: What are the benefits of toners, essences and serums?

DHK: In general, essences hydrate, serums hydrate and deliver active ingredients, and facial oils and toners moisturize and often deliver anti-oxidants.

SH: What is the best skin type for toners, essences and serums?

DHK: Dry skin will benefit from essences, serums and facial oils designed to hydrate and moisturize.

Oily and acne-prone skin may particularly benefit from adding a toner because it provides another way to add active ingredients like salicylic acid and witch hazel to the skincare routine to remove excess oil, unclog pores and temporarily shrink the appearance of the pores.

People with dry and sensitive skin should avoid products that dry out the skin like alcohol-based toners, and they may also have a difficult time tolerating alpha hydroxy acids and salicylic acid. But there are gentle hydrating toners that may be good options for these concerns.

Serums can be rich in antioxidants or peptides for anti-aging, or hyaluronic acid for hydrating, or salicylic acid for fighting oil and acne or glycolic acid for exfoliating and anti-aging, or retinol for anti-aging.

girl applying skincare

(via Shutterstock)


SH: Should we be using all three products?

DHK: The toner generally follows the cleanser, before the next step, which may be an essence, serum, or moisturizer. Gentle hydrating toners may be used twice daily during the multistep skincare routine. Toners with active exfoliating ingredients may be irritating if used more than once per day, depending on your skin type and the other products being used. Alpha and beta hydroxy acids can deactivate retinoids, so if you use a retinoid at night you should forgo a toner with these ingredients before applying the retinoid.

If you have particularly oily and acne-prone skin then you may find that using a toner with ingredients like witch hazel and salicylic acid or an alpha hydroxy acid can be applied multiple times throughout the day to decrease oiliness.


SH: What are some of your favorite products? 

Face Latte Serum from GoodJanes because it is rich in antioxidants. It is formulated with vitamins C and E, green tea extract and plant stem cell extracts from echinacea and apple that contain potent antioxidants. It also contains jojoba oil to moisturize and soothe the skin.

Best Face Oil from GoodJanes is a lightweight, fast-absorbing facial oil that hydrates, soothes, moisturizes and is rich in antioxidants. It contains a blend of safflower, coconut, argan and jojoba oils to moisturize and soothe, and it also contains buriti oil, which is rich in vitamins E, A and C. It also contains alpine rose stem cell extracts, which are rich in antioxidants.

AcneFree Witch Hazel Mattifying Toner includes a great combination of ingredients. Witch hazel, which is a natural astringent, temporarily shrinks your pores and it has anti-inflammatory properties so it soothes the skin. Glycolic acid and lactic acid gently exfoliate and remove excess oil. Aloe vera and glycerin, both humectants, hydrate and soothe. And finally chamomile, which has anti-inflammatory properties.


In the mood to shop? Look HERE for the best beauty deals this upcoming Black Friday and Cyber Monday.