Serums, Ampoules, Essences, First Serums…… What is the difference?!

Serums, Ampoules, Essences, First Serums…… What is the difference?!

Keina Yuan 
K-Beauty Editor

With the K-beauty hype getting higher and more powerful by the day, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard the infamous 10-Step skincare routine. Although some of the steps seem to make sense; like cleansing, moisturising, and the occasional serum, a few like essences, and first serums have us scratching our heads.

For a quick rundown, all four are types of treatments with high doses of active ingredients which are aimed at treating specific concerns like hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, dryness and so on. 

And the differences between each of them are their texture or viscosity, and the concentration of active ingredients in them.

First Serums

Well like the name suggests, you apply them first! Yes, even before toner. First serums act as a sort of booster to enhance the effects of your other products and to help your skin absorb the following steps of your routine more effectively. 

Now I know what your thinking. This sounds a bit like a toner doesn’t it? 

Unfortunately, no. It isn’t a toner. Many first serums out there don’t actually balance your skin’s pH. But because the molecules are so small, they are able to penetrate the skin without the help of a balanced skin barrier. First serums in fact, have a lot more nutrients in them as well allowing them to nourish the skin a little more than a regular toner. 

However, you don’t need to use a first serum every day. I would recommend using them from time to time when your skin feels tired, or if you think your skin needs a little boost of nutrients. And yes, definitely follow up with a toner. Your skin definitely still needs to balance its pH. 


Much like first serums, essences are a on the watery side and in Korea have been nicknamed as a “treatment water”. Essences generally are applied after toner to give a small boost in hydration for that “glow from within”. They often also contain antioxidants and minerals for an extra shot of nutrients as well. 

These beauties were designed so that you are able to layer on a number of products afterwards and have been considered the ‘hearts’ of Korean skincare routines. The main concept and purpose for the 10-Step routine is to thoroughly nourish and hydrate the skin, and that is essentially what an essence helps to achieve, layers of hydration and nourishment (sorry mind the pun!).


Serums are probably the products that everyone is the most familiar with. They are generally a water or gel-based product and tend to be on the thicker-side, a bit like watered-down honey or oil. Serums contain a much higher concentration of active ingredients in comparison to an essence or a first serum and don’t usually contain too many ‘filler’ ingredients. Meaning companies try to omit ingredients like mineral oils, lubricating and thickening agents and fragrance. 

Some common ingredients you might see in serums are Vitamin C, Niacinamide (Vitamin B3), Propolis, Peptides and Hyaluronic Acid.


Ampoules are “supercharged serums”. They have much higher concentrations of active ingredients than serums and are used to revive the skin. Usually, an ampoule has one or two key ingredients which target a specific concern meaning they are quite potent (strong). We recommend you use ampoules 2 – 3 times a week OR you can give your skin a sort of boot camp. 

Boot camp meaning, you choose a specific skin concern to target, and use the ampoule of your choice every day for up to 2 weeks (no more than that!). 

On another note, there is a slight lack of uniformity in the beauty market when it comes to ampoules, serums and what not… And, a few of the top trending ingredients like Vitamin C, Retinoids and Niacinamide actually don’t work effectively in concentrations higher than 20%. In fact, these ingredients aren’t able to absorb into the skin in such high concentrations. 

So, you’re better off finding a nice Vitamin C serum or cream instead of investing in a “magical ampoule with 60% Vitamin C which will vanish your pigmentation and wrinkles”.

Instead, ampoule tend to contain at least 40% of an ingredient and they tend to be more natural with proven effects. Some examples include ginseng, propolis, green tea, snail mucin, centella and liquorice just to name a few. Just remember to check the ingredients label!

So, do I need them all?

The answer is no. It’s important to remember that your skin is unique, and you need to figure out which ingredients, which texture and which concentration suits the best. It’s a little like dress shopping… one dress fits perfectly but isn’t the right colour, one dress has a stunning bodice but its too long, and another is your ideal design but doesn’t come in your size. 

This is when the mixing and matching comes into play. Unfortunately, with the dress shopping, not everyone has a personal designer to mix and match designs, colours and sizing. But with skincare, everything exists on a continuum, so you can always find something that’s richer or lighter or has your favourite ingredient etc.

Another thing to remember is this general rule of thumb:

To apply the thinnest, most watery product first and the thickest, richest product last. 

You know the continuum? Yeah, so with essences, serums and ampoules, you might find that some of the textures overlap; like a thicker essence, or a watery ampoule. In that case, don’t worry. Just apply your product from lightest to thickest.

For some recommendations of first serums, essences, serums and ampoules, follow the links below to see the goodies we have in store for you!

Related Articles:

- First Serums
- Essences
- Serums
- Ampoules

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