A Brief Dictionary Of Korean Skincare Terms

by Maxine Builder

There are few feelings more frustrating than reading words in your native language yet feeling like you have no idea what they mean — something that used to happen to me whenever I read the labels of Korean beauty products. I would see the words "essence" or "serum," and feel like an idiot. Though I knew the formal dictionary definitions, I could not tell you what these words meant in this context or what exactly each product did. However, rather than be scared off by unfamiliar K-beauty terms and products, I took the time to learn the lingo. Let me assure you: It's much less complicated than it seems at first.

While certain phrases are pretty self-explanatory, like "sheet mask," which is literally a sheet that you put on your face, or even "anti-blemish patch," which are stickers you put on zits, other products — like serums, ampoules, and toners — need some explanation. Once you learn what each of these words mean in this context, though, you'll have a better sense of what each product does. Then you can take control of your Korean-inspired skincare routine and customize it for your own needs.

There's a bit of a learning curve with figuring out these product names and types, but if you want to become an expert in K-beauty, you have to learn how to talk about K-beauty. These seven terms are ones you'll come across often.

1. Ampoule

LJH LeeJiHam Vita Propolis Ampoule, $31, Amazon

The word "ampoule" literally refers to a small, sealed glass container, often found in pharmaceutical settings and containing "solutions for hypodermic injection," according to But the ampoules you see listed among Korean beauty products are not meant for injection of any kind.

Instead, ampoules are a super concentrated liquid with an almost oily consistency that are often described as a "beauty boosters." They come in small bottles, but you only need a few drops of liquid at a time to jumpstart your skincare routine.

2. Cushion Compact

IOPE Air Cushion Sunblock, $28, Amazon

If you watch any K-beauty vloggers on YouTube, you'll quickly see that loads of them swear by cushion compacts. What separates these from regular compacts is their spongy consistency, which all but guarantees flawlessly blended foundation. (Basically, replace the word "cushion" with "sponge," and you get the idea.)

Cushion compacts can be used in place of your favorite BB or CC cream, generally result in more even coverage than their purely liquid counterparts because of the way they're dispensed, and often include SPF to protect from sun damage.

3. Essence

MISSHA Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence, $28, Amazon

Essences are often lauded as the secret to dewy and flawless skin and, for lack of a better adjective, are an essential part of a good Korean skincare routine. The question is, of course, what exactly is an essence?

Essences are concentrated liquids packed with ingredients that are meant to have a specific effect on your skin, which can range from reducing the appearance of wrinkles to simply moisturizing. Think of essences as sheet masks without the mask. They should be applied after using a toner (which I'll get into later) but before slathering on a moisturizer. This essence from MISSHA has received something of a cult status as a perfect dupe for an essence from SK-II that costs nearly twice as much.

4. Pack

Innisfree Green Tea Sleeping Pack, $13, Amazon

Whenever you see the word "pack" in reference to Korean skincare products, replace it with the word "mask," and you'll get the basic gist. Two of the most popular types of packs are sleeping packs (which are meant to be applied before going to bed and then rinsed off after waking up) and shower packs (which are meant to be applied and rinsed off while in the shower.)

As with all of these products, there are a plethora of types of packs, each with different promised effects that can be customized depending on your skin's needs. The general goal of packs, however, is simply to keep skin hydrated.

5. Oil

LJH LeeJiHam Cellabel MC Cleansing Oil, $42, ljhusa

When you see "oil" in the K-beauty vernacular, it's usually a cleansing oil. If you have oily skin like me, probably the last piece of advice you want to get is to rub down your face with more oil to help get it clean, but that's exactly what oils do. These are not meant to sit on your skin for long periods of time and should be rinsed off immediately after application on dry skin. The best cleansing oils will break down even the most stubborn makeup, likely leaving your skin cleaner than you thought possible.

6. Serum

SkinFood Gold Caviar Collagen Serum, $17, Amazon

A serum is a more concentrated version of an essence, but less concentrated than an ampoule. It actually has many of the same benefits as an essence or even a sheet mask. It's another thick liquid packed with ingredients to brighten or hydrate your skin, depending on what you're looking for, and meant to be applied after cleansing and toning.

There is some debate that the difference between "essence" and "serum" is all but meaningless, since both serve similar functions. But that really depends on which product you're purchasing and how intense you want your routine to be. If you've found a serum you love, you might be able to forgo the essence, and vice versa.

7. Toner

Be The Skin Botanical Nutrition Toner, $50, Amazon

Toners have a similar watery consistency as essences, but they serve a very different purpose. Though many Americans have a tendency to freak out at the mere mention of toner, in Korea it's an integral part of a well-rounded skincare routine. Toner is applied with a cotton ball after cleansing, and it helps close your pores and prep your skin for all the other essences, serums, and ampoules you're about to apply.

Mastering these seven terms should help you feel empowered to go out and experiment with the myriad of Korean skincare products that are available on the market. Having the vocabulary will help you find what you want, so make some flash cards and get to learning.

Images: Courtesy Brands