Years ago, when I was first appointed creative director at Shiseido and was working in Japan a lot, I remember being blown away by the sheer volume of products you could find that catered to every whim. In England for example we had one kind of cuticle cream/oil, whereas in Japan there was one for day, one for night, one for dry cuticles, one for dehydrated etc. etc., it was incredible (and in fact I'm still amazed whenever I visit Asian drugstores and beauty emporiums today). So it stood to reason that the typical Japanese skincare regime (like the typical Korean one) was very different and incorporated a lot more steps than the European equivalent - around five steps morning and night in Japan, and up to ten or more steps in Korea. They also used products like essences and lightening/whitening serums which weren't popular in the West at that time.
Fast forward to 2016 and Asian skincare trends and beauty obsessions are gaining popularity globally - think the BB creams and sheet masks of the past few years - and recently at my studio I've seen a huge influx of essences. Traditionally, essences are formulated to be more fluid versions of serums (think the same water-like slip of a toner), with less active ingredients. Designed to be used in the middle of a typical Asian routine (i.e. post-cleanser/toner and pre-serum/moisturiser), they're often mainly made up of moisturising ingredients as their primary job is to oomph your skin hydration levels to prepare it for whatever you apply next - the idea being that the extra layer of moisture will boost the efficacy of subsequent skincare (serum, oil, moisturiser etc.). But as with lots of modern skincare, there are no defined lines - some essences have higher viscosities and levels of actives more akin to serums, or AHAs and enzymes which mean they could also fall into an exfoliator category.
Six Great Essences to Try
When I was in LA before the holidays I started trialling Hungarian brand Omorovicza's Omoressence and really enjoyed using it. I was drawn to this particular one because it contains a little exfoliating lactic acid (my favourite skincare ingredient), along with moisture retaining glycerin and urea. Anyone who's watched my Favourite Skincare films will know that I'm not a fan of heavy creams (and my combination skin doesn't need tons of moisture), so this was perfect for me - lightly hydrating without any heaviness. I've been using it post-cleanse, pouring a little onto my palms and gently pressing into my skin, then applying SPF straight over the top as it has enough moisture for me (if your skin is dry you will probably want to follow with a moisturiser). Plus I'm not really into doing lots of different skincare steps and find that the simpler my routine, the better my skin is. So you don't necessarily have to see an essence as an additional step in your current regime - as always, the key is to listen to your skin and tweak your routine according to what it needs.
I've also used British brand This Works' No Wrinkles Wonder Essence (available here), which is incredibly light and fresh. Again, I pat it in post-cleanse and my skin practically drinks up the hyaluronic acid (fantastically hydrating) and protease enzyme (gently exfoliating) formula. Another hyaluronic-based essence is Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Essence (an American brand available here), a moisturising - without feeling heavy - mist that also contains brightening vitamin C, detoxifying pink clay and calming witch hazel, so it's a bit like a toner, serum and (unless your skin is dry) moisturiser rolled into one.
These essences are on the mid- to high-end of the scale as Western drugstore brands don't seem to have tapped into the trend yet. However, if you head to your local Korea/Chinatown you should be able to find dozens of different brands at different price points.
One of first Asian essences to catch the imagination of the West in the late 90s was by SK-11, the now-classic Facial Treatment Essence (available here). It contains over 90% pitera, a vitamin-rich liquid naturally derived from yeast fermentation that was discovered (according to popular legend) during the sake distilling process by Buddhist monks. The newer version, Mid Day Essence (available here), has the same formula but comes in a spray bottle that's useful for midday spritzing if your skin feels hot, dry or tight. On shoots I'll often spray makeup if the base starts to look a bit dry - to freshen skin and re-blend base.
A new Japanese brand that arrived at the #HouseofEldridge recently is Rice Force. I haven't tried all the products properly yet, but like the look of the Deep Moisture Essence (available here) - it's got a slightly thicker, gel-like texture so again I would use it as a hydrating serum/moisturiser. The main ingredient of the essence (and the other products in the line) is a rice extract, similar to SK-II's yeast extract. Alongside this is brightening licorice root, antioxidant Vitamin E and hydrators like hyaluronic acid and olive oil.
A Korean drugstore brand (popular across all of Asia) that I love is innisfree. Anyone who knows me knows that I swear by herbal tea as a general cure-all (and drink tonnes of the stuff!), so naturally I loved the look of their Green Tea Fresh Essence (available here). The green tea seeds they use come from the South Korean island Jeju and have potent antioxidant properties as well as being full of amino acids and minerals. This one also contains clove flower extract which is often used in acne skincare to control sebum - if you have dry skin, you could try the Green Tea Moisture Essence (available here), which uses cotton seed oil alongside green tea.
So in essence... an essence can be whatever you want it to be!
If you've tried or are currently using an essence you like, I'd love to know what it is - let me know in the comments. X