Smiling woman applying face cream to cheek

If you’re familiar with the multi-step Korean skincare regimes you may have heard of skin conditioners or skin essences. Popular in Asia for years they are still a relatively new addition to western beauty routines. So, what are they and do you need one?

Not to be confused with a toner, a skin conditioner, also known as a skin essence, has a specific function to hydrate and soften skin. Applied after cleansing and before serum or moisturiser, it’s typically lightweight like a liquid so it’s quickly absorbed by skin. The best way to apply a skin essence is to soak a cotton pad or ideally, sprayed into hands and massaged or patted directly onto the face.

Antonia Burrell, founder of Antonia Burrell Holistic Skincare was one of the first to develop a skin essence for the UK market. ‘It’s more than a toner and not quite a moisturiser or serum’, she says of her bestselling Forest Dew Skin Conditioner (£25.50). ‘The Swiss alpine extract will help to balance out oil levels if skin is too oily or add moisture if it’s too dry. The French polysaccharide will work on hydrating the skin for longer than hyaluronic acid, which is the more commonly used ingredient in skin conditioners.’

According to Burrell, French polysaccharide has been proven in studies to increase hydration in skin by up to 84 percent after four hours and up to 88 per cent after eight hours. This makes it a great travel companion, especially on long haul flights where air conditioning sucks moisture from the air for hours on end. Complexions in heavily heated environments or very dry climates would also benefit from a hard working hydrator.

Another way to reap the benefits of a skin essence is to let it work its magic overnight. Margo Marrone, co-founder of The Organic Pharmacy, developed Night Conditioner (£31.95) as an alternative to a traditional night cream.

She explains why:

‘Most of us have been taught to use a heavy cream at night. This in fact is not great as an emollient on the skin overnight can force oils back into the skin leading to puffiness. A skin conditioner is a water-based product with no occlusive ingredients so it’s super light and suits all skin types.’ With glycolic acid to exfoliate, vitamin C to brighten, hyaluronic acid to hydrate, and retinol and jasmine to help repair, this is a power-packed beauty water. You can also try Jurlique Activating Water Essence (£40) with botanicals such as nettle, rosemary and sage.

Not all skincare experts are fans though, such as clinical facialist, Kate Kerr. ‘Skin conditioners or essences aren’t really known or used in the clinical world, but are becoming more prevalent in beauty circles, stemming from Korean regimes. They tend to be heavily plant-based so might be irritating to some skins. On the positive side, they do not usually contain oils or moisturising agents that can impact the skin’s natural moisturising function, however, with the correct use of serums, an essence is often an unnecessary extra step.’

To support skin’s natural hydration, Kerr favours serums over moisturisers as they are manufactured without occlusive ingredients. ‘Moisturisers contain a blend of proteins, lipids and water like lanoline, squaline, petroleum, mineral oils or shea butter. These particular ingredients flood the upper layers of the epidermis and while they prevent water loss they also mimic skin’s natural moisturising processes. Skin is tricked into thinking it has enough moisture so the natural hydrating processes go into hibernation making skin sluggish and lacking in moisture. So we reach for more moisturiser, thus exacerbating the problem.’

The solution, according to Kerr? Stick to products that contain water and hyaluronic acid that are involved in natural hydrating mechanisms and do not interfere with the skin’s natural hydration processes. ‘Water and hyaluronic acid which can penetrate more deeply into the skin, assuming they are the ideal molecular size or with the right carrier mechanism,’ she adds.

So this could well include a skin conditioner, if you fancy adding that extra step to your skincare routine.