What does an essence actually do to your skin?

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If your face feels dry, rough or in need of an extra layer of hydration, you might benefit from an essence. This lightweight, water-based product helps hydrate and plump the skin, and might even combat concerns like acne and hyperpigmentation, says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ife J. Rodney

We talked to dermatologists about how ingredients and your specific skin type play a role in which essence you choose. Below, we highlighted expert-recommended and NBC Select staff-favorite essences, along with highly rated options that align with our experts’ guidance. 

SKIP AHEAD The best essences | How to shop for essences | How often should you use an essence?

  • Best for dry, sensitive skin

  • Best for oily, acne-prone skin

How we picked the best essences

As you shop for an essence, our experts recommend considering the following factors to make sure it works for you and your skin type:

  • Ingredients: Since the purpose of an essence is to draw moisture to your skin, we included products with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and ceramides. Some options also include niacinamide to help target your specific skin care concerns. (More on ingredients below.) 
  • Price: The cost of incorporating an essence into your routine can vary. Our list includes both budget-friendly and higher-end options. Many of these essences also come in smaller, travel-sized versions, which is great if you want to try out the product before committing to the standard size, according to our experts. 

The best essences in 2024

Below, we have compiled a list of expert-recommended essences, as well as highly rated options and NBC Select staff favorites that meet our dermatologists’ guidance.

Best overall: Cosrx

Cosrx Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence

Cosrx Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence

What we like

  • Suitable for all skin types
  • Lightweight

Something to note

  • Nothing to note at this time

This essence is recommended by both Rodney and board-certified dermatologist Dr. Sheila Farhang because it’s great for all skin types. One of its main ingredients is snail mucin, which adds moisture and addresses fine lines, according to experts in our guide to snail mucin. While you may think snail mucin would be thick and heavy, it’s actually the opposite: the ingredient typically feels lightweight on the skin, says Rodney. 

Best for dry skin: Ilia

Ilia The Base Face Milk 

Ilia The Base Face Milk

What we like

  • Creamy consistency
  • Multi-functional
  • Soothing

Something to note

  • Higher price point

You can use this multi-purpose essence on its own as a moisturizer or layer it underneath a cream for even more hydration. It works for all skin types, including sensitive, dry and acne-prone skin, according to the brand. “It feels incredibly soothing and lightweight, and soaks into my skin in seconds to the point where I can literally feel my skin drinking it,” says NBC Select associate updates editor Zoe Malin, who has combination skin that leans drier when on certain medications. “It doesn’t irritate my skin at all, and sometimes I use it multiple times a day to reduce dry patches when my skin is really rough,” she says.

Best for sensitive skin: Peach & Lily

Peach & Lily Wild Dew Treatment Essence 

Peach & Lily Wild Dew Treatment Essense

What we like

  • Good for eczema-prone skin
  • Evens tone and texture

Something to note

  • Nothing to note at this time

According to Peach & Lily, the brand behind some of our favorite Korean beauty products, this essence combines hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and glycerin to hydrate, soothe and firm the skin. Reviewers say the essence is non-greasy and fast-absorbing, and it leaves their skin feeling softer after applying it. This option, which has a 4.7-star average rating from over 1,100 reviews on Ulta, also has the National Eczema Association’s Seal of Acceptance, which means it’s suitable for sensitive skin. 

Best for hyperpigmentation: Caudalie

Caudalie Vinoperfect Brightening Glycolic Essence

Caudalie Vinoperfect Brightening Glycolic Essence

What we like

  • Evens out tone and texture
  • Brightens skin

Something to note

  • Higher price point
  • Natural orange scent

This Caudalie essence is great if you want a gentle formula that also helps combat dark spots, says Rodney. “This one has glycolic acid, which is an alpha hydroxy acid that helps turn over skin cells and specifically helps with dark spots and hyperpigmentation,” she says. You can use this essence both day and night, and it has niacinamide to soothe redness and irritation, according to the brand.

Best for oily and acne-prone skin: Bioderma

Bioderma Essence Lotion 

Bioderma Essence Lotion

What we like

  • Gently exfoliates the skin
  • Long-lasting hydration

Something to note

  • Added fragrance
  • May irritate sensitive skin

The Bioderma Essence Lotion is the perfect hybrid for those looking for moisture retention while also combating other concerns like uneven skin texture. It has salicylic acid to remove dead skin cells on oily or acne-prone skin, and niacinamide to soothe the skin and minimize irritation, says Farhang. 

Best toner and essence hybrid: Ma:nyo

Ma:nyo Panthetoin Essence Toner

nyo Panthetoin Essence Toner

What we like

  • Suitable for all skin types
  • Long-lasting hydration

Something to note

  • Thicker than other options

NBC Select associate SEO reporter Ashley Morris, who has oily and acne-prone skin, considers this essence a staple in her morning skin care routine after receiving it from the brand to try out. The water-based formula has key hydrating ingredients including glycerin, hyaluronic acid, ceramides and more. “Once it’s absorbed, it adds a light layer of moisture that holds up all day, even during the drier winter months,” says Morris. “The texture is a bit thicker than other essences I use, so I like to press it into my skin first before my skin care products like serums and moisturizers.”

Best multi-purpose essence: SKII

SKII Facial Treatment Essence  

SKII Facial Treatment Essence

What we like

  • Absorbs quickly
  • Reduces fine lines
  • Evens tone and texture

Something to note

  • Higher price point

This essence comes recommended by Farhang because it’s hydrating and suitable for most skin types. It uses Pitera, a proprietary ingredient that combines the benefits of ingredients like retinol, vitamin C, niacinamide and hyaluronic acid. Because the essence combines the benefits of these ingredients, it helps even skin tone and texture, reduce the appearance of fine lines and combat dull skin, according to the brand. 

Best spray essence: Violette_FR

Violette_FR Boum-Boum Milk

Violette_FR Boum-Boum Milk

What we like

  • Spray formula
  • Creamy consistency
  • Reduces irritation

Something to note

  • Higher price point

This formula combines the benefits of a toner, moisturizer and serum — it has the watery, lightweight texture of a toner but provides the same amount of hydration as a serum or a light moisturizer. It’s a favorite of NBC Select editor Lindsay Schneider, who notices a difference in how moisturized her combination skin feels after using this essence both morning and night. The spray essence has fermented birch sap to calm irritated skin, squalane to moisturize and support the skin barrier, and olive leaf extract to even out skin texture, according to the brand. 

How to shop for an essence 

Essences are lightweight and help hydrate the skin and retain moisture, according to our experts. Depending on your skin type and concerns, our experts recommend looking at the ingredients and considering how your skin might benefit from them. You may want to consider an essence that includes one or more of the following: 

  • Emollients: Emollients like squalene and lipids (ceramides) help hydrate, soothe and soften the skin, according to our experts. These ingredients are especially great for dry skin types or if you’re looking for overall hydration and skin barrier repair, says Farhang. 
  • Humectants: These ingredients, which include hyaluronic acid and glycerin, help attract moisture and water to the skin. Like emollients, humectants are great for dry to normal skin types.
  • Antioxidants: All skin types can benefit from incorporating antioxidants in their essence, so it depends on your skin care concern. You might also find antioxidants, including vitamin E and vitamin C that will help brighten and even your skin tone, which is great for those who want to combat discoloration or dull skin, according to our experts. 
  • Exfoliants: For oily skin types, you should look for exfoliating ingredients such as salicylic acid, tea tree oil or other chemical exfoliating acids, says Farhang. 

How often should you use an essence?

While other products like moisturizers and sunscreens are essentials in your skin care routine, using an essence isn’t absolutely necessary, according to our experts. Since essences are generally mild and soothing, you can apply them daily, both morning and night, according to Rodney. You can also reapply your essence throughout the day if you notice your skin is feeling very dry or dull (like after a flight), says Farhang. 

Meet our experts

At NBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.

Why trust NBC Select?

Bianca Alvarez is an associate reporter covering skin care, hair care and gift guides, including recent stories on the best foot creams and dry shampoos. For this story, she interviewed dermatologists and shared their recommendations as well as researched highly rated essences and NBC Select staff favorites that met their guidance.

Catch up on NBC Select’s in-depth coverage of personal finance, tech and tools, wellness and more, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok to stay up to date.

Bianca Alvarez

Bianca Alvarez is an associate reporter at NBC Select.

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