Beauty Glossary

Do you speak skincare? Sometimes, it can seem like skincare is a foreign language, and it can be completely overwhelming. Lotion vs. toner vs. essence? Moisturiser vs. cream? Are they different? Or all the same? Here’s our handy guide to cracking the skincare code.

#1: Toner vs Lotion vs Essence

These products are similar in the sense that they are designed to go onto your skin straight after cleansing. But they tend to be rather different in what they do. Historically, toners like the Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Purifying Toner ($59, Robinsons) “complete” your cleansing step by clarifying and refreshing your skin, after it’s been cleansed. This is great for people with oily skin, or those who use cleansing creams or balms, and might want a toner to get rid of any remaining impurities on the skin. But for people with normal skin, a toner is not essential.

Like toners, essences go onto the skin right after you cleanse. But the similarities stop there. Toners are usually applied using a wiping motion with a cotton pad. For essences, you want to pat it on using your fingers. That’s because essences are packed with hydrating ingredients—some of which can cost a bomb! You don’t want a cotton pad to be soaking up your SK-II Facial Treatment Essence ($179) for example.

So what’s the difference between lotions and essences? This is tricky, because different brands tend to use different terms—even for products that sometimes do the same thing. Many products that are called lotion are similar to what we call essences. For instance, the Shu Uemura Tsuya Skin Refining Vita-Glow Lotion Moist ($75)  has the same function as SK-II’s essence, but a different name. However, sometimes lotions can also refer to a light, milky moisturiser, which is additionally confusing. There is no universal terminology that all brands use, so you’re going to have to figure out by thinking in terms of function, not just the label.

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#2: Emulsion

Confused as to what an emulsion is? Let’s get a little science-y here: technically speaking, an emulsion is a fine suspension of one liquid within another that is mixed to a homogenous consistency. E.g. salad dressings and mayonnaise are emulsions.

When it comes to skincare, the thinking is similar; emulsions are fine suspensions of one liquid—usually an oil—in another liquid (usually water). The result is a fluid that is hydrating (because of the oil) but also lightweight (because of the water). These types of formulas are more common amongst Japanese and Korean brands. You can imagine how it would be helpful to use the Laneige Perfect Renew Emulsion, $55 in the summer, before switching the moisturiser in winter. In Singapore, it’s more likely that you would use an emulsion as a lightweight substitute for moisturiser.

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#3: Moisturiser / Cream / Cold Cream

We all know what moisturisers are. They’re a category of products designed to hydrate and, well, moisturise the face. Creams and cold creams are types of moisturisers. There are also gel moisturisers, emulsions, lotions and more.

Creams are usually thick moisturisers formulated with plenty of rich oils. They should be used as the last step in your routine, because they help to lock in all the goodness from your other skincare products. In Singapore, creams like the Antipodes Avocado Pear Nourishing Night Cream, $67.80, Guardian, are best for dry or mature skin types, or for heavy-duty night-time hydration.

Cold cream is a specific type of cream moisturiser that is not only rich in oils, but usually contains an even firmer thickening ingredient – such as beeswax, jojoba or shea butter. Cold creams deliver intense hydration and tend to leave a greasy layer on the skin, which can be helpful if you’re traveling to a very dry, cold climate (although that’s not why it’s called cold cream). If the formula is too rich for your face, try a cold cream like the Weleda Cold Cream, US$27.99, Weleda on your cuticles, elbows, knees or any other chapped parts of your body.

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#4: Sunscreen vs sunblock


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If really you want to test a skincare geek, ask her the difference between sunscreen and sunblock. And if she tells you that sunscreen protects against UVA rays and sunblock protects against UVB, then you know that she really knows her stuff. However, most modern sunscreen/sunblocks actually do both, regardless of what the bottle says. That’s what the SPF and PA stuff means on the label – PA indicates UVA protection, and SPF indicates UVB protection. As long as you see both, you’re well covered. (Pictured: Sigi Skin Morning Glow Physical Sunscreen, $58 and CNP Laboratory Omega Perfection Sunblock SPF50 PA+++, $57.90, Guardian)

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