I love helping people figure out the puzzle that is skincare. On a daily basis, I answer countless emails from customers who are confused about where and how a product fits into their existing routine. Nowhere is that confusion more acute than when it comes to toners, mists, and essences. Frankly, I’m not surprised. Brands feel pressure to release a constant stream of new products, consumers feel pressure to purchase all these new products, and we end up 12 step skincare routines that require a flow chart to navigate.
The simple truth is this: mists, toners, and essences are all basically the same thing. Their base formulas are virtually indistinguishable from one another. The only real differences lie in their application methods.
Once upon a time, cleansers had insanely high pH levels (thanks to the use of strong alkalis like lye in soap-making) and an acidic or astringent toner was necessary to help rebalance skin’s pH and remove any last traces of soap residue. Modern cleansers are more pH balanced, so the role of toners has shifted. They now offer a little boost of hydration and help prepare skin for the rest of your products. They’re generally swept on with a cotton pad.
Mists, like modern toners, are water-based hydrators. They are generally light in texture since they need to flow through the mist mechanism without clogging it (though there are some exceptions that prove the rule—I’ve seen some interesting gel-textured mists, but they are far less common than the watery-mist norm). Mists can be applied as a sort of refresher throughout the day, but as part of a morning or nighttime skincare routine, they serve the same function as a toner. If you put a toner into a mist bottle, you’ve got yourself a mist.
An essence is also a water-based hydrator. It’s intended to prepare skin for the next step in your routine. If I want to get nit-picky, I would say that essences generally (though not always) have a slight higher concentration of targeted ingredients like antioxidants than their mist or toner counterparts. Traditionally, essences are patted onto the skin with clean hands.
The Common Denominator
Mists, toners, and essences all feature similar formulas and achieve the same purpose. All three products are water-based and boost hydration. None of them are particularly concentrated. Most notably, they all share an intended purpose: moistening the skin to prepare it for the next layer (usually a serum). Damp skin is more permeable and allows the following serum to penetrate better. At the end of the day, the variations between them are so minor that if a toner, mist, and essence were all packaged identically and applied the same way, they’d be fundamentally interchangeable.
So what should you do if you have a separate toner, mist, and essence? I’m of the opinion that we’re all doing too much to our skin. We over-process it with too many products and overly concentrated percentages of actives.
With that in mind, I would suggest taking a critical look at your routine to see if you can edit down to just one. If you can’t bear to part with your collection, apply them in order of viscosity. The adage “lighter products before thicker ones” will answer almost any question you have about the order of operations for your skincare routine!