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Layering skin care: Who needs essences anyway?!

Most people seem to get by well with cleanser, moisturizer, and not much besides for facial skin care, so it’s a valid question. Why get into the notorious 10-step Korean skin care routine at all? But if for nothing else, the addition of toner, essence, serum, ampoule or face masks is all about consistencies.

East vs. West: the difference

In the West, you can choose between cream, lotion and gel formulas for moisturizing. But each comes with its own caveats. Creams are for normal to dry, lotions for normal and gel for oily skin types, and generally speaking provide the level of hydration that is commonly believed to suffice for each respective skin type.

So for oily skin, for instance, that’s usually fairly little. Most products for oily skin types will focus more on cutting down shine, or anti-sebum properties.

But: What if you have oily, yet also dehydrated skin, and want to fight signs of aging? Or your skin is dry and acne-prone at the same time? The majority of Western skin care products make it look as if all those problems were mutually exclusive, while in reality they are not. So how to moisturize effectively when richer formulas more easily clog pores? How to fight acne on dry or aging skin when the main function of anti-acne products is drying?

It’s all about consistencies

And here, the addition of toner, or an essence, etc., can make a lot of sense. They allow you to add a slew of beneficial active ingredients to your routine that are difficult to get from just cleansing and one cream or lotion. In the case of the Missha essence, for example, there’s something for extra hydration and anti-aging while being packed into an ultra light consistency.

As someone whose skin is prone to clogging, light consistencies are vital to me. I want and need nourishment without the richness, and exactly that is what essences and serums deliver. At the same time, toners keep my pores clear from product residues and build up – more things that could cause clogging – while still offering light nourishment in addition. So with the Western range of skin care products I would be able to target either my oily skin concerns, or anti-aging – but not both simultaneously. Whereas by combining several lightweight products at once, anything is possible!

Let’s take a look at various skin care concerns and the top skin care products to layer and address them. Choose from the following to complete your own multi-step Korean skin care routine.

Recommendations for oily skin types

Oily skin needs hydration too! But in contrast to dry skin, it mainly lacks in water, not oil. So look for skin care products with humectants. They are hydrophilic, which means that they ♥ water, and their function is to attract and bind it in the skin. Examples of effective and beneficial humectants are glycerin, Hyaluronic acid, Urea, Sodium PCA and seaweed or algae. [Source.]

Susanne Kaufmann Hyaluron Serum feuchtigkeitsspendend impresses due to its ingredients list: water, sodium hyaluronate, citric acid – that’s it. This is great for anyone who is looking for something toned down yet effective.

Mario Badescu Seaweed Cleansing Lotion is a another contender for very short ingredients list – which is almost always pretty good. With soothing aloe vera, and algae extract as humectant, this is a great toner for all skin types really. What makes this helpful against oily skin is the witch hazel extract in it, a natural astringent.

If you have any interest in Asian skin care products at all, you will have certainly come across the HADA LABO Goku-jyun Clear Lotion with Hyaluronic acid at some point. The cult product is specified as a lotion, and can stand well on its own. But with the consistency of a toner and a pretty short ingredients list too it’s also perfect for layering.

Recommendations for dry skin types

As Moi Sanom at 35th of May ably summed up here, dry skin lacks moistly oil, and does not take kindly to water because it only strips more moisture. You therefore want something that not only attracts and binds water, but ideally also traps it there. So besides humectants, the top skin care products for dry skin also include emollients and occlusives, such as plant oils, (coconut, jojobo oil or shea butter, for example,) lanolin, mineral oil, silicones, etc. Also, since I often find that a single moisturizing product does not suffice for really dry skin types, a serum + cream combo should work better.

Although the Innisfree Canola Honey Serum might not be suitable for sensitive skin types because of its alcohol content, it’s a Korean bestseller and has, for example, been voted #1 essence at The Glowpick 2014 Beauty Awards (Korean!) last year. It leaves the skin well hydrated and works even under foundations – all for a very reasonable price.

Another such bestseller is the Laneige Water Bank Essence_EX, voted third best moisture essence by consumers on SURE in 2014 (Korean!), as it offers long lasting hydration to the skin and can be used even when it’s irritated.

I’m generally skeptical about make up brands making skin care products. But the Bobbi Brown Intensive Skin Supplement is so full of really great ingredients, such as Vitamin E, C, green tea extract, and humectants as well as emollients. Heck, there’s even some Hyaluronic acid in there somewhere. And it doesn’t seem very heavy.


Combination skin is not easy to generalize. For example, I am dehydrated oily combination. That means my T-zone, especially my nose, is really oily, whereas the rest of my skin is a little oily, but feels tight and dry if not tended to properly. Others, in contrast, could be normal or dry combination.

The best way to go about combination is to ensure proper hydration on all areas via essences/serums suited for oily skin types – see “oily” above ↑ – and apply a richer product only where needed – see “dry” above ↑.

(When it comes to cleansing, I recommend gentle cleansers only, no matter the skin type.)

Acne-prone and/or irritated

In my experience, acne outbreaks are often caused by irritations, and if they’re not, the only thing I find helps is treating them from the inside out.

[Read about the correlation between dairy and acne here.]

But topically, I’d treat acne-prone skin as irritated and provide it with soothing hydration, while also relying on spot treatments. And, on the whole, you will want to stay clear from

since these are all common skin irritants that can possibly aggravate your skin conditions.

To soothe, look for facial skin care containing chamomile, panthenol, allantoin and/or aloe vera instead.

Klairs Rich Moist Soothing Sheet Mask has just recently been voted #1 sheet mask per Glowpick reviews in April this year, and from the ingredients list alone proves to be a must-try. Apart from Hyaluronic acid, it features panthenol as well as licorice root extract, an efficient anti-inflammatory that is known to relieve swelling and redness. [Source.]

In order to fight already existing acne, and shorten the lifespan of each zit, BHA will work wonders while gently fading old acne marks and scars, and rejuvenating the skin at the same time. Try layering the Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Gel Exfoliant before proceeding with a hydrating serum (refer to recommendations for oily skin types ↑) and a moisturizer suitable for your skin type.

As a spot treatment, I can personally recommend the Ciracle Red Spot Cream, as it speeds up the healing process of pimples without drying out the skin (a huge problem with most spot treatments, in my opinion) and supposedly works to fade acne marks as well. Use after the BHA gel on blemished areas over night.

Aging, sun-damaged, lackluster, scarred

Honestly, most anti-aging products don’t do much except provide the skin with much needed moisture – which is good in itself. But if you really want to reverse signs of aging, then you will need to target sun-damage, such as wrinkles, brown spots, irritations and inflammations, as well as a lackluster complexion. Incidentally, anything that helps with the concerns above will also improve scarring, boost healthy collagen production, and aid the brightening of your skin.

(Now, don’t be afraid. Skin brightening usually refers to fading acne marks and other hyper-pigmentations, thus evening out the skin tone, not making the skin whiter overall.)

I’ve already written about the benefits of alpha hydroxy acids in depth, and again will recommend Alpha-H Liquid Gold as it will “effectively diminish wrinkles, pigmentation and sun damage.” But for an even more potent alternative, the Papa Recipe White Flower Clear Up 8% AHA Gel is a great mix of 8% AHA and soothing ingredients.

Another amazing active ingredient that brightens and firms the skin, fades acne marks, boosts collagen production, reduces inflammation and irritations, and aids wound healing all at the same time is Vitamin C, or L-ascorbic acid in INCI lists. I love the Original Pure Vitamin C20 Serum, but the formula has recently been improved and now the new version Pure Vitamin C21.5 Advanced Serum contains 1.5 % more Vitamin C and less other ingredients, so I will recommend you that.

Although the Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Synchronized Recovery Complex II‘s claims are haughty, I’ll add this to the list of best anti aging skin care products because it’s been around and hyped for ages – it was voted #1 anti-aging essence by the same SURE readers as above in 2014 and even Paula Begouin approves – and I think that does say something.

To further address any of the concerns above, it should also be worth looking into

Some words on layering skin care

The consistency of your skin care products is important also in order to determine their order. Generally, disregard the instructions on your products and just go from thinnest to thickest consistency after cleansing. This way, you’ll be on the safe side most of the time.

So let’s say, you have a watery essence, it will come before your more viscous ampoule, while an oil-based serum should come after a light moisturizing emulsion – get it? The logic behind this is that lighter formulas need to absorb into the skin, whereas richer formulas form a protective barrier supposed to seal in moisture, which will make it difficult for consequent products to sink in. So ideally, these richer formulas need to come in last.

Now that you know how to best layer different skin care, here are the only exceptions to the rule.

In case of Vitamin C, AHA and BHA, you’ll want to use them before anything else – so ideally right after cleansing, or after toning. If used all together, layer first Vitamin C, then BHA, and AHA last.

[You can also read more about it here.]

Still not sure if the 10-step Korean skin care routine or rather layering skin care products is for you? Then try this easy trick first, and get into it. At the least, layer sunscreen after moisturizer during the day. To get it all off again, double-cleansing works wonderfully.

Miss a product that should be in this list? Tried any of the above? Comment below ↓


  1. Thanks for the mention! This post is quite different than most layering skincare posts. I liked that you split it up in skin types and concerns.


    • V. says

      De rien :)
      Yes, maybe. I mainly tried to give pointers at what to look for in skin care, and less explain how exactly to layer. Above all, I hope it helps.


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