Serums vs. Essences vs. Emulsions vs. Moisturizers

Serum vs. essence vs. emulsion vs. moisturizer—what’s the difference between all these J-Beauty essentials? Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of each solution so you can make the most of your Japanese beauty routine.
serum vs essence vs emulsion vs moisturizer

American vs. Japanese Skincare Routines

skincare routine
Skincare routines, products, and ideologies from different cultures are gaining wider acceptance across the United States. But this influx of information can often be confusing, especially when it comes to the various types of solutions, their names, and how they should be used. In the case of Japanese beauty products, much of that confusion centers around not only the nomenclature (for example, serum vs. essence vs. emulsion vs. moisturizer), but also the added steps and skincare goals that can exist in opposition to traditional American skincare routines. However, successfully transitioning to a Japanese skincare routine isn’t hard—in fact, Japanese skincare is simple by design. Indeed, the biggest challenge is a slight shift in thinking, particularly about what happy, healthy skin really means.

Healthy Skin, From the Inside Out

American skincare is typically focused on fixing or hiding imperfections. It usually includes a standard 4-step routine featuring a makeup remover that does all the work of stripping makeup as well as cleansing; toner or astringents designed to kill bacteria; serum, which is considered supplemental care for repairing specific issues; and finally a moisturizer to hydrate the skin.
J-Beauty, on the other hand, is about prevention, maintenance, and embracing one’s natural beauty—all of which can be achieved with proper hydration. It features a unique double cleansing first step that typically includes a hydrating makeup remover and face wash in separate formulas; essence that is designed to replace moisture lost after cleansing; serums, which are often deep-penetrating and used to target and treat specific issues; and emulsions or creams, which help to lock in moisture and form a protective barrier against external stressors.

The Importance of Hydration

Why do Japanese skincare routines devote so many steps and products to moisturizing? Look no further than Japan’s centuries-old wisdom that the root of all skin troubles is dehydration and optimal skin health is typified by “mochi skin”—an extremely soft, yet firm, plump, and smooth texture that is achieved with meticulous and delicate layers of moisture. Serums, essences, emulsions, and moisturizers are J-Beauty essentials that might seem similar (especially in that they all usually feature moisture and hydration as a primary or secondary benefit), however, these solutions are actually completely different product types that are distinguished by their textures, viscosities, and purpose of use—all of which are crucial elements that need to be considered for a successful, individualized regimen of self-care.
In order of lightest in texture to heaviest (also the order in which these layers of hydration should be applied), here’s everything you need to know about essences, serums, emulsions, and moisturizers.
Japanese essence


Because facial cleansing involves water, it can be difficult for many people to believe that washing actually dries out their skin. This phenomenon is called transepidermal water loss (TEWL) and is caused by evaporation, a process that is accelerated by water on the skin’s surface. To keep levels of TEWL in check, use an essence to moisturize right after cleansing to nourish, soften, and enhance the health of the bare skin by restoring the optimal hydration balance. Essences also improve the function of all the skincare products used after them, so they’re an excellent place to begin your after-cleansing routine.

  • Essences are typically the lightest of all J-Beauty solutions, and have a watery texture.
  • Essences are sometimes referred to as lotions.
  • Since many skin issues are caused by dehydration, essences are a smart solution for all skin types.
  • Use an essence right after cleansing to rehydrate skin and prep it for serums and creams.
  • Apply essences all over your face, using a hand-press technique to increase the absorption rate.
  • While essences might be considered as an optional step to Westerners, most Japanese people consider them essential for achieving baby-soft mochi skin.


Shikō Beauty Collective’s Essence Recommendations


face serum


Serums are potent skincare products. Their formulations typically feature a smaller molecular structure that enables a very high concentration of ingredients to deeply penetrate skin, making them ideal for targeting specific skincare concerns like fine lines and wrinkles. General purpose serums, like those designed for night repair, are full of many nourishing active ingredients that provide restorative benefits throughout the day and night. Booster serums are typically designed with a high concentration of one or two specific ingredients, making it easier to layer into your routine (before cream) as needed to address specific issues.

  • Serums are lighter than creams but are typically slightly heavier than essences.
  • Because serums are designed for targeted treatment, you can often find many options to suit your specific needs with formulations to tackle everything from blemishes and fine lines to hyperpigmentation.
  • Booster serums are recommended for dry and irritated skin types.
  • Use serums after cleansing but before moisturizing.
  • Apply serums to areas of concern with a gentle hand-press technique to increase the absorption rate.
  • Warming the serum in your hands before application is recommended.
  • Reapply as needed around your eyes, cheeks, and mouth to help reduce wrinkles and promote hydration.


Shikō Beauty Collective’s Serum Recommendations

face emulsion


Here’s where things can get a little confusing: emulsions are closest to what’s known in America as “moisturizers”. Thicker than a serum but lighter than a cream, emulsions are like hybrid solutions that offer many of the same benefits as a heavier cream without the added weight. They contain highly emollient ingredients that create a protective barrier to seal in hydration along with all the nourishing benefits of the essences and/or serums that were applied earlier in your routine.

  • Emulsions are typically water-based, and can be thin and milky in appearance and texture.
  • There are emulsions tailored to all sorts of specific skin types or concerns.
  • They can be used on their own as the final moisturizing layer or in conjunction with creams to achieve the desired moisture balance.
  • Use an emulsion after essences or serums, but before a heavier cream.
  • Emulsions can be applied to your whole face, or as needed to target specific areas.
  • Use the Mariko Mizui method to gently massage and apply emulsion to face


Shikō Beauty Collective’s Emulsion Recommendations

Japanese moisturizer


If emulsions are akin to American moisturizers in texture, weight, and function, then Japanese moisturizers—or creams—represent the highest level of daily skincare moisturization available. Creams are heavier than emulsions, and are typically considered the final layer of moisture for every morning and evening skincare routine. Like emulsions, creams are designed to protect the skin and help cell repair, but their richer consistency makes them ideal for nighttime use or as an added protective layer for dry skin or skin that is exposed to drying weather or environments.

  • Creams are the heaviest of all the moisturization solution layers.
  • Like emulsions, creams are available with many formulations to accommodate specific skin types or concerns.
  • Because of their weight and function of creating a protective moisture barrier that keeps the skin safe from external stimuli (including additional skincare ingredients), creams are the last step in any morning or evening skincare routine.
  • Creams can be applied to your whole face, or as needed to target specific areas.
  • Use the Mariko Mizui method to gently massage and apply emulsion to face.


Shikō Beauty Collective’s Moisturizer Recommendations

Shop Curated Japanese Skincare Products 

While there might be a slight learning curve, J-Beauty remains one of the simplest and most accessible ways to embrace self-care and improve the health of your skin every day. And now that you know the difference between serums, essences, emulsions, and moisturizers, achieving mochi skin—or whatever your specific skincare goal might be—is ever more within your reach. For more information on the essential moisture layers that will help you make the most of your J-Beauty routine, check out the recommended products above or shop our favorite curated Japanese beauty products below.


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