Beauty 101

What's The Difference: Essence, Serum, Emulsion & Ampoule

Chloe Song Beauty Expert
What's The Difference: Essence, Serum, Emulsion & Ampoule

What's the difference between essences, serums, emulsions and ampoules?

On today’s episode of “What’s the difference”, we’ll be talking about something I’ve struggled to understand as well. And that it the differences between Serums, Essences and Ampoules. These 3 terms refer to products that are very similar to one another, they all have a liquid and slightly thick consistency compared to a toner, which is why it’s easy to differentiate them from a toner. However, trying to differentiate a serum, essence and ampoule from each other based on just its consistency is almost impossible, hence, we look towards their main difference which is its formulation.



essence texture

Facial essences saw fame from Korean skincare and has been a to any Korean skincare routine, some it call it the heart to Korean skincare, but it’s beginning to see an increase in Western skincare with more brands releasing essences and advocating its use. A facial essence is commonly applied after a toner and before serums/ampoules. They work to hydrate and reenergize the skin, preparing it for the following steps in your skincare routine. Now you might be asking, how does an essence differ from a toner that does the same benefit; hydrate and prepare the skin? Well, the main difference is that toners are used after cleansing to remove any leftover residue (when applied with a cotton pad), hydrate or exfoliate the skin and restore the skin’s pH level.

But essences work to hydrate not just the surface of the skin but add moisture deep within. Unlike a toner, essences are rarely recommended to be applied using a cotton pad but more so using our hands and tapping the product in. So, we recommend essences to people with oily or sensitive skin that are in need of a light and simple skincare that provides rich moisture and soothing effects.

Threebs recommends:

COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence
Dr.Jart+ Vital Hydra Solution Biome Essence
Benton Fermentation Essence
Purito Fermented Complex 94 Boosting Essence



serum texture

The biggest differences between essences and serums are the list of ingredients and texture.  Serums are typically formulated using a combination of active ingredients like AHA, vitamin C, retinol and etc, which is why serums can treat specific skin issues like pigmentation, fine lines, wrinkles, dehydration, damaged skin barrier and etc. Whereas, essences contain a lower concentration of active ingredients, or even none at all . And serums are usually thicker and have a gooier texture. This doesn’t mean that serums aren’t as hydrating as essences, in fact they can even be more depending on its active ingredients, hyaluronic acid for example, and serums actually add a moisture layer to the skin. Traditionally, serums used to be water-based but with the evolution of skincare, oil-based serums have begun gaining popularity and a following.

Like we said before serums are applied after toners and essences as these 2 products will help the skin better absorb the active ingredients in the serum, increasing its efficacy.

Threebs recommends:

Any serum from The Ordinary
Any serum from The INKEY List
Dr.Jart+ Ceramidin Serum
Dr.Jart+ Cicapair Serum



ampoule texture

Now what exactly is an ampoule? Well, think of ampoules as a supercharged serum. It has higher concentrations of active ingredients and are usually meant to be used as a booster or when you’re having a skin crisis and is need of immediate help. Its texture is typically similar to a serum or sometimes even thicker. They usually come in small packaging for a one time use or with a dropper for easy estimation.

Ampoules are to be applied before your essence or serum to give your skin that extra boost it needs and to be used for a finite amount, like 2-3 times a week depending on the product.

Threebs recommends:

COSRX Centella Blemish Ampoule
AXIS-Y Artichoke Intensive Skin Barrier Ampoule
COSRX Triple Hyaluronic Moisture Ampoule
COSRX Full Fit Propolis Light Ampoule
COSRX Balancium B5 D-Panthenol Ampoule



emulsion texture

Emulsions, I consider this to be the most confusing product and it might be for you too. In short, emulsions work as lightweight moisturizers that create a moisture barrier to prevent moisture loss. They work more similarly to a moisturizer than a serum/ampoule and is generally recommended for those with oily and combination skin types, or those living in warmer climates. This is because it doesn’t have that sticky and greasy finish that most moisturizers have and provides a more comfortable finish. For people with extra dry skin or living in colder climates, or a mix a both, you could even layer an emulsion underneath your moisturizer for that extra moisture boost.

Threebs recommends:

Mamonde Ceramide Emulsion
VT Cosmetics Cica Emulsion
Laneige Perfect Renew Emulsion


Final Thoughts

Something to note is that these descriptions of an essence, serum, ampoule and emulsion is not standard and universal. Meaning that not all brands and products are made in relation to this description, it all depends on the formulation and instructions of the products itself. A serum-like concentrated formulation may be labeled and sold as an essence and vice-versa. Another thing to note is that the line between these 4 products are extremely blurry and are mostly marketing tactics used to differentiate skincare products and attract people to purchase more.

Hence, there is no need to include all 4 in your skincare routine. No, not at all! All 4 provides similar effects to the skin, it’s all about personal preference and finding the one that fits and reacts to your skin the best. Some may prefer a more watery consistency, so they’ll choose an essence while others may need a more potent formulation to treat their skin concerns, so they’ll choose a serum/ampoule. Another common question is “how do we layer them on?”. The rule of thumb for layering any skincare products is to start with the most lightweight/watery product first and work your way to the creamiest.


I hope this blog has helped you in any way and if you have anything to add or ask, feel free to join in conversation below! We’ll gladly answer all questions to the best of our ability and help you in any way we can!

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