Deeply moisturizing, essences have been called “miracle water,” and they’re growing in popularity in the U.S.
It has been called “miracle water,” but an essence — the beauty product that’s considered an integral step in Korean and Japanese skin-care routines — is no water.
Nor is it a toner, serum or moisturizer. An amalgam of all of the above, this all-in-one has elicited both praise and skepticism since it entered the U.S. beauty market from Asia about seven years ago.
Victoria Tsai, the Taiwanese-American founder of Tatcha, a Japanese skin-care line, was one of those skeptics, refusing to add an essence when the brand was introduced in 2009.
“Our scientists wanted to make an essence, but I couldn’t understand how it would improve the benefits of our skin care,” Tsai says. “I’m a mom. I have a budget. Anything that takes an extra step or costs extra money didn’t sound compelling to me.”
But over the course of seven years, the Tatcha scientists formulated an essence in secret, experimenting with more than 200 strains of yeast and perfecting the fermentation process of the brand’s Hadasei-3 blend of Okinawa algae, Akita rice and Uji green tea to yield a potent amino acid-packed concoction.
“It felt like water, but it was transformative,” Tsai says of The Essence ($95 at tatcha.com). “My skin felt super-soft and plump, and when we saw our clinical results — how it instantly increased the skin’s hydration — it confirmed my experience.”
An essence is applied to a clean face, prepping the skin to effectively absorb subsequent products, like serum and moisturizer. Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist who is the vice president for sales and innovation at Aware Products, likens the essence’s role to loosening garden soil before watering it.
“If you water loose soil, it’s able to flow to the bottom, but if it’s tight and compact, whatever you put on top is just going to sit there,” she says. “We’ve failed to realize that in order for ingredients to easily flow through the bilayers of the skin, you need moisture, you need your skin to be primed.”
Tsai recommends taking a palmful and gently pressing it directly into the skin. “My skin at 40 looks better than when I was 20,” she says. “If I could shower in the essence, I would.”
It’s hard to pinpoint its first use or its origin, but documentation in Japan can be traced to “Miyakofuzoku kewaiden,”an 1813 guide to centuries-old geisha beauty rituals. “There are references to beauty waters, which were botanicals extracted from an alchemical still or a tea-kettling system,” Tsai says.
In 1897, Shiseido became the first Japanese brand to bring an essence to market with Eudermine Revitalizing Essence ($57 at shiseido.com) and it led to the ubiquity of branded essences all over Asia.
“My mom used it when I was little, and my grandma used it when my mom was little,” says Nicole Takahashi, the founder of the Japanese beauty blog Beau Tea Time in Tokyo. “It’s been a part of our skin-care ritual for a long time. There’s no Japanese skin-care brand that doesn’t have an essence.”
Essences in Japan, it turns out, are called lotions, while serums are referred to as essences — terminology that has contributed to confusion about what exactly is an essence in the United States.
Though they’re deeply ingrained in Asian beauty regimens, essences have been slow to be embraced in this country, which mostly has to do with the typical American cleansing routine: to reach for soap and water rather than an oil cleanser to dissolve oil-based makeup.
“Alcohol-heavy toners were invented to remove the last traces of makeup your soap left behind,” Tsai says. “And because of the alcohol, you felt this cooling, tightening effect, so you’d apply a rich moisturizer that’s high in oil and waxes. And while that works as the final step, if you don’t hydrate the skin first, there’s not much to seal in.”
Add to that a certain degree of masochism in American beauty — if it’s not burning or stinging, then it’s not working — and it’s not hard to see why a watery fluid, however beneficial it may be, may seem superfluous.
“In Asia, you never strip the skin,” Tsai says. “You plump it up with micronutrients, and you seal it with a light moisturizer — it’s much closer to the natural balance of skin.”
“In America,” she says, “women like to see their skin slightly raw because it feels like they took action. It’s a pretty aggressive approach.”
But the K-beauty boom and increased interest in J-beauty have shifted this thinking, spurring a demand by global brands for essences.
Estée Lauder introduced its Micro Essence Skin Activating Treatment Lotion ($62 at esteelauder.com ) in 2014; in 2016 La Prairie released its Skin Caviar Essence-in-Lotion ($255 at laprairie.com); and the Korean brand Missha reformulated its best-selling Time Revolution Treatment Essence Intensive ($39 at misshaus.com) to include moisture-enabling ingredients, like Himalayan purple barley, in 2017.
Fresh, a natural beauty label, introduced its take with Black Tea Kombucha Facial Treatment Essencee ($68 at fresh.com) this year.
Light in weight and fast absorbing, essences range in texture (from watery to a viscous consistency) and objectives, with some created to target a specific concern, like vitamin C to even out skin tone, niacinamide and peptides to combat signs of aging, or alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs) to remove dead skin cells.
Prices can be steep, so it’s best to steer clear of alcohol content and, for the most value, look for a high concentration of active ingredients. Wilson believes it pays off: “You’ll get more bang for your buck if you’re prepping the skin first. You’ll see more benefits from your products if you’re using an essence.”
Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at the Mount Sinai Hospital, agrees that “the backbone of any skin-care regimen is to make sure that the skin barrier is functioning optimally.”
“Using the appropriate essence for your skin type is one way to hydrate the skin and prime it for the rest of your skin care routine,” he says.
And the beauty converts really do believe in it. Tsai says the Tatcha essence has consistently sold out since its introduction in 2017. Kazumi Toyama, the global senior manager of scientific communications at SK-II, says that more than 20 million bottles of its Facial Treatment Essence ($179 at sk-ii.com) have been sold since its debut in 1980.
“To me,” Tsai says, “it’s the single biggest game-changing and gentlest thing you can do for your skin.”