Essences, toners & astringents: What’s the difference?


Unique enough to warrant individual brackets but similar enough to cause confusion, the crowded crop of post-cleanse topical options can make the selection process a complex one.

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Because while the application process is the same (a few drops in your hand, to be patted into clean skin using palms), the objectives and results offered by each do differ.
Think of them as levels on a skin-balancing scale. Essences are the gentlest, astringents are the strongest, and toners sit somewhere in between. Allow your goals and skin type to inform your choice.
As for layering, the intensity scale apprises the suitability of certain combinations; for example, as the mildest option, an essence could be layered over a toner, but pairing a powerful astringent and balancing toner together could definitely verge on drying and detrimental. Our advice? For safety, pick your player and stick to it.
We spoke to Kiehl’s Educator Jemma McBride to identify the differences once and for all.

What are astringents and how do they work? 

“Astringents are the second step in the routine, after cleansing. They help to clean and minimise pores, reduce excessive oil and fight breakouts,” McBride explains.

What ingredients should you look for in an astringent? 

“A good quality astringent should contain ingredients that reduce oil, minimise pores and act as an antibacterial, as well as ingredients that hydrate the skin. They can include natural ingredients such as witch hazel or acids like salicylic acid,” she shares.

Which skin types are astringents best suited to?

“Acne and blemish-prone skins should be using an astringent, [whereas] sensitive and dry skins should avoid using astringents,” McBride tells us.

Kiehl’s Blue Astringent Herbal Lotion

What are toners and how do they work? 

“Toners are the second step in the routine, after cleansing. Toners help to balance the pH levels of all skin types which helps the skins barrier function protect us against harmful bacteria,” she explains.

What ingredients should you look for in a toner? 

“Toners are water-based with a range of added ingredients depending on the targeted concern. Toners are usually on the acidic side in order to balance the pH levels of the skin,” McBride shares.

Which skin types are toners best suited to?

“Toners are suitable for all skin types and conditions. There are many different toners in the market, some are created for dry, others for normal or oily skin,” she confirms.
Balancing Toner, $38 by Grown Alchemist

What are essences and how do they work? 

“Essences are the third step in the routine, after cleansing and toning, however, many use essences on their own instead of a toner. Essences are designed to provide hydration to the skin. Most essences also balance the pH of the skin, which is why many people opt out of using a toner,” says McBride.

What ingredients should you look for in an essence?

“Essences are usually a richer texture and often contain a number of nutrient rich ingredients like antioxidants, active ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, natural botanic and plant extracts,” she shares.

Which skin types are essences best suited to?

“Dry or dehydrated skin would be more suited to an essence. An essence will provide a dry or dehydrated skin with hydration to last throughout the day,” she advises.
The Essence by Tatcha, $152 at MECCAMain image credit: @lauralind

Do you use an essence, toner or astringent in your routine? Which would you most like to try?

Share your thoughts

Comments 47

  1. I use none of these as they do not have enough of relevant active ingredients for my skin to make any functional purpose. Hang on, some good quality toners can have more than 5% aha-s, so then yes.

  2. I find toners can be very refreshing and I am currently using an essence from Lancome, which is nice, but I would not call these necessary steps in skincare. Nothing can substitute a good cleanser and moisturiser and serum.

  3. I find that Korean brands make awesome toners and essences, and the lines between them can be blurred, for example the Pyungkang Yul ‘essence toner’. They are usually very hydrating.

    There’s also another class of toners – acid toners which need to be applied more carefully/possibly less frequently as they are exfoliants.

  4. Honestly a bit surprised to find astringents being given props here. Not suitable for all – most definitely not suitable for dry skin types. If you have acne and dry skin, an astringent can further irritate breakouts, leading to peeling and additional redness. Also, avoid alcohol-based astringents if you have eczema or rosacea.

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