What is an emulsion, and how is it different from a moisturizer? Here, we break down everything you need to know about emulsions, a hero product in the K-beauty routine.
Emulsion is a word that seems to get thrown around a lot in the K-beauty world, but no one ever seems to be able to give a straight, consistent answer of what it is or why you should use it.
I remember the first time I got a sample emulsion and I had no clue what to do with it, and to my shock, neither did the salesperson who gave it to me. However, emulsions are actually a staple in Korean skin care routines and offer a whole range of benefits. So I decided it was time to break down what an emulsion is, what it does, and how it can be used.
What is an emulsion, and how is it different from a cream?
In a nutshell: Emulsions are lighter versions of moisturizing creams. Unlike most heavy facial creams, emulsions are typically water-based, which means they go on lighter and thinner than creams. In some cases, emulsions come in gel or almost liquid forms. On the whole, emulsions absorb into the skin much more quickly and don’t sit on top of the skin the same way some creams do.
In this photo, an emulsion is on the left and a moisturizer is on the right:
So what do emulsions do?
Emulsions offer many of the same benefits of a cream, just in a lighter formula. They’re formulated to act as a moisture lock that seals in all the hydration and benefits of your essence and serums.
However, many people use emulsions as a continuance of their treatment products, not just as a moisturizer.
When do you use it?
Emulsions are the in-between product between serums and creams. It’s not quite as light as a serum, but not quite as heavy as a cream. Similarly, it isn’t as concentrated as serums, but more targeted than heavy creams. And so, that’s right where it goes in the skin care routine—after serum and (optionally) before your final moisturizer. But how you use an emulsion really comes down to your skin type.
Emulsions for each skin type:
For very oily skin, emulsions can be an great option as your final moisturizing step before applying SPF. The fact that emulsions are lighter, water-based, and more easily absorbed make them attractive to people with oily skin as a way to get the hydration your skin needs without the weight and sheen of a cream. And if you live in a place that gets hot and humid, an emulsion can be a great option to keep your skin cool and light in the heat, while still delivering the hydration it needs.
However, you should make sure that the emulsion you’re using is specially targeted for hydration to be sure your skin doesn’t get the short hand on moisture. The Dr. Oracle A-Thera Emulsion is a great option since it’s formulated with bamboo extract to hydrate the skin while balancing oils, and green tea to soothe, refresh, and depuff. It’s lighter than a moisturizer, so you get all the benefits of hydration and moisture without feeling greasy or blocking your pores. It feels thin, smooth, and water-like; with its lightweight texture, it’s perfect for oily skin types who want to hydrate without producing or provoking acne.
For combination and acne-prone skin, you can use an emulsion to target oil, blemishes, and excess sebum. This can be done by applying an emulsion to the whole face or to specific areas, like the T-zone. The Cosrx Natural BHA Skin Returning Emulsion has natural BHAs that keep the skin clear of dead skin cells and excess sebum, while centella asiatica extract water and hyaluronic acid deliver hydration and moisture without producing more oils. You can put it on your whole face or you can use it on its own. Or, if you feel like your skin needs more moisture, you can follow it up with a cream—it’s ultimately up to you! This emulsion is more lightweight than a moisturizer but still extremely hydrating to the skin, and it soothes dry patches while keeping sebum and acne in check. This emulsion has a serum-like texture and feels light thanks to the hyaluronic acid, so it’s ideal for hydrating skin and cleaning pores without producing irritation.
Normal skin types can still obtain benefits from emulsion even if they don’t have a skin concern they want to target. The SUR.MEDIC+ Super Hyaluronic 100TM Aqua Emulsion gives skin a hydrated, dewy glow and keeps it looking bouncy and refreshed. The thin, quick-absorbing formula is both soothing and hydrating, making it perfect for year-round use; while it will hydrate in the winter, it’s still lightweight enough not to burden or stifle your skin throughout the summer. Formulated with hyaluronic acids and ceramides, it also prevents the loss of moisture to keep you looking as young as ever.
For sensitive skin, emulsions are perfect to promote healthy, nourished skin without irritating it or penetrating deep enough to provoke inflammation and redness. The Re:P Nutrinature All in One Multitem is ideal to balance the skin’s pH, brighten, and moisturize without irritating the skin. It’s perfectly lightweight and doesn’t feel too heavy, yet the addition of niacinamide adds a reinforcing barrier to protect the skin and make it stronger while antioxidants get to work nourishing and clearing sensitive skin. This product acts as a toner, essence, and emulsion all in one, and promotes elasticity and an even skin tone and texture. It also passed the “Skin Irritation Test,” making it ideal for sensitive skin types.
And if you’re in my camp and struggle with dry skin, emulsions are seriously a life-saver. When you double up on emulsion and cream, the emulsion locks in the moisture from your prior steps and the cream can be focused on just soaking into the skin and hydrating it even further. For dry skin, the Etude House Moistfull Collagen Emulsion is perfect to adhere moisture and nutrients to skin and leave it feeling hydrated and elastic. The emulsion has small particles of super collagen water and baobab water which absorb quickly into skin; it’s lightweight yet moisturizing, and with a jelly-like consistency and smooth formula, you’ll feel your skin become hydrated and refreshed immediately.
For even more moisture, you can also mix a facial oil into your emulsion since emulsions are water based and mixing in an oil means your skin gets both water and an oil-based moisture.
Ever since I started using an emulsion, my skin wakes up feeling hydrated and supple, and I certainly feel it has helped my night cream be more effective. And during the winter months when my skin is fighting against freezing New York City winds, I apply the emulsion in the morning too and that extra layer of moisture really saves the day.
At the end of the day, it makes sense why emulsions have been so hard to pin down: because they have different uses and purposes for everyone.
Just like treatment products, what emulsion you use and how you use it really depends on your specific needs. But whether you’re trying to find a lighter moisturizer for humid weather, or you’re looking for another layer of moisture to keep your skin from drying out, emulsions can certainly find a way into your routine. And, take it from me, you’ll be happy once they do.