Years ago in a meeting room in faraway Asia, hardworking cosmetics marketers discovered that the story they’d spun, of peasant sake brewers with mind-blowingly soft and youthful hands, could sell bottle upon bottle of the novel new skincare product they were tasked with promoting. And thus, the first essence (or fermentation essence, or facial treatment essence or first treatment essence or FTE) became a thing.
These confusingly named products are credited with near-miraculous powers of beautification. In addition to hydrating and balancing skin and preparing it for optimal absorption of other skincare products, first essences supposedly brighten skin tone, lighten dark marks, firm and tighten skin texture overall, smooth out fine lines and wrinkles and prevent future ones from appearing, and impart radiance, taking complexions from so-so to DAAAAAAMN DAT GLOW. In the last several months, I’ve used three different ones consistently, for several weeks each. Let’s talk (briefly) about the famous SK-II Facial Treatment Essence and more extensively about Secret Key’s Starting Treatment Essence (Rose Edition) and Naruko’s Face Renewal Miracle Essence!
Affiliate links are marked with an asterisk(*). One of the products discussed in this post was provided for review by a Fifty Shades of Snail sponsor and is disclosed in the text and marked with double asterisks(**).
First (fermentation/facial) essence 101, plus SK-II Facial Treatment Essence Micro-Review
I find the first essence category one of the most interesting in Asian skincare. It’s oddly specific–the vast majority of first essences are thin, watery brightening/anti-aging products composed of very high concentrations of some kind of fermented ingredient, meant to be applied to skin immediately after cleansing–yet wonderfully diverse, with versions available at just about every price point from a huge variety of brands. There are fermentation essences available for under $20 and fermentation essences that cost upwards of $150.
Arguably the most recognizable fermentation essence is the SK-II Facial Treatment Essence, which Kerry from Skin and Tonics reviewed against the much more affordable OG Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence. I loved the original Missha FTE enough to have finished off at least a couple of bottles of it. I ragequit the whole FTE thing for over a year when The Reformulation happened. SK-II wasn’t ever really on my list of things to try, though.
(What? Kerry said it didn’t do as much for her as Missha’s product! Kerry is my idol. I LOVE YOU KERRY.)
I am blessed with awesome friends with awesome beauty stashes that occasionally undergo awesome destashings, however, so I eventually got to use a couple of generously sized travel bottles of the SK-II Facial Treatment Essence, courtesy of Tracy from Fanserviced-B and the Snailcast.
Happily for my wallet, the SK-II didn’t do much for me at all, but using it got me back into the FTE game and reminded me of what distinguishes first essences from their very close cousins, toners.
Don’t let their similar consistencies fool you. In my experience, fermentation essences and toners aren’t the same thing at all. The key difference lies in the way they’re best used. I’ve used and enjoyed plenty of toners in my time–mostly hydrating or moisturizing toners, but a couple of cleansing and pH-adjusting ones as well–and found little to no change in results whether I patted them in with my hands or swiped them over my face with a toner, or whether I used a little or a lot. Toners do their toner thing no matter how they’re applied. I like patting them on with my hands unless I’m using them as an extra cleansing step (why waste a cotton pad when I can moisturize my dry-ass palms instead?), but like I said, the method doesn’t change the results.
Not so with first essences. With those, I’ve found that applying them generously with hands consistently produces the best results. It’s weird. I’m not the only one, either. I remember reading a vague reference to the phenomenon on another blog. Swipe it on with a cotton pad, get hardly any effect whatsoever. Really splash it on, get lots of the famous FTE Glow. Weird.
I have an idea of why this may be.
If you look closely at the information brands give on their first essences, you’ll notice that most of them claim to contain at least 90% of their featured fermentation ingredient. It’s pretty unusual for a brand to make a big deal out of the top-listed ingredient in a product being pretty much the only ingredient included in any significant amount. 90+% of one thing leaves very little volume for anything else. You wouldn’t see a toner advertised as ¡¡¡95% WATER!!!, for example. Even though the vast majority of them probably are. It is even rarer to see any kind of extract-type ingredient used in such a high concentration. With most products, one’s lucky to see any single non-snail extract listed at higher than 1%, if that.
The high concentration improves the chances of the yeast extracts actually doing something good for skin. The studies Kerry cites in her SK-II vs. Missha FTE review suggest that yeast ferment ingredients may improve wound healing, which is important to anti-aging, as well as stimulate hyaluronic acid production in skin. Fermentation in general seems promising for skincare, thanks to its ability to improve the concentrations of beneficial compounds over unfermented ingredients. Fermentation also shows potential for skin brightening and the treatment of hyperpigmentation. It’s good stuff, and when a brand is willing to throw in over 90% of that good stuff in a single product, that’s a great start! It helps make up somewhat for the fact that we can never be quite sure just how much of that ingredient is the actual ingredient and how much is the water or other solvent used to make the extract. Ha. Kill me now.
But anyway! Maybe the ingredient is present in such high concentrations because it isn’t particularly effective in smaller doses. This reminds me of sheet mask essence, which tends to be quite watery, not particularly concentrated, and really most effective when absorbed in the large quantities that mask sheets allow, rather than applied sparingly like a regular skincare product. Similarly, for me first essences have always worked better when I really soak my face in the stuff.
Not all first (fermentation/facial) essences are created equal, though. As I mentioned, SK-II didn’t do much of note for me at all over three or so weeks of twice-daily use. It lightly hydrated my skin and caused no problems, but that’s about it. The two first essences I got my hands on after finishing the SK-II fared better.
Review: Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence (Rose Edition)
I picked up the rose version of Secret Key’s Starting Treatment Essence a few months back in a giant Memebox haul and promptly forgot about it for several weeks. Once I started using it, though, I remembered why I clung so hard to my Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence.
Purpose: Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence (Rose Edition) is a fermentation essence that claims to soften, hydrate, and brighten skin while providing anti-aging benefits.
Best suited for: All skin types.
Do not use if: You are sensitive to niacinamide, botanical extracts, or anything else in the ingredients list.
When and how to use: Apply immediately after cleansing, or after actives when using those. Shake a generous amount of product into cupped palm and pat into skin. Continue with the rest of your skincare routine.
Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence (Rose Edition) ingredients: Galactomyces ferment filtrate, dipropylene glycol, niacinamide, glycerin, citrus grandis (grapefruit) seed extract, acorus gramineus root/stem extract, perilla ocymoides leaf extract, rosa centifolia flower water, adenosine
Notable ingredients: The ultra short and simple ingredients list is pretty par for the course for a first essence. It makes sense and feels honest, given that first essences are supposed to be almost all BLAHBLAH FERMENT FILTRATE and not much else. Based on the marketing images on this KoreaDepart listing for the product, the rose version of the Starting Treatment Essence is 94% galactomyces ferment filtrate. There are also token amounts of niacinamide for brightening, adenosine for anti-aging, and rose water to…um…make this one different from their regular Starting Treatment Essence, I imagine.
Performance: The Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence is a very standard thin, watery FTE with a fainter scent than many similar products. Since they’re made from a byproduct of sake (or in some cases beer) fermentation, first essences tend to have a yeasty odor, like stale beer. I barely smelled it with Secret Key’s product, which was nice.
As for results, I was pleasantly surprised! This is one of the most inexpensive first essences I’ve seen, and though I generally don’t think that higher prices equal better products, I do tend to find that midrange products work better for me than very very budget-friendly ones like this one. During my first week of use, Secret Key’s rose FTE reminded me of exactly why I liked Missha’s so much. It’s all about that glow.
I keep talking about the FTE Glow because for my skin, it’s a whole separate thing from the effects of other types of products. An FTE that works for me will calm any redness in my face while intensely hydrating the upper layers of my skin. This combination makes my complexion look calm, even, and translucently bright. The closest thing I can think of to the FTE Glow is the glow that comes from a good sheet mask, but even then, there’s a certain liveliness a first essence gives my skin that most sheet masks don’t. Also, it only takes a few seconds versus the much larger time investment of a sheet mask.
Secret Key’s Starting Treatment Essence (Rose Edition) is definitely one of those that are good to me, in case you couldn’t tell. That glow came back to me during the first week of use and stayed with me throughout the testing period. I also found it hydrating enough to skip a layer or two of skincare on many days without sacrificing softness.
The hydration and the glow are the main reasons I use first essences, so I’m very happy with the Secret Key rose first essence. I also appreciate its low price, since I go through it quickly due to my liberal application technique. While I didn’t see any acceleration in the gradual spot lightening and skin-firming effects of the rest of my routine, I wasn’t counting on the Secret Key fermentation essence to provide those effects anyway.
Review: Naruko Face Renewal Miracle Essence**
Can a first essence deliver substantial brightening and anti-aging effects, though? They aren’t something I’d typically look for in anything but a very targeted serum or ampoule, but Taiwanese brand Naruko claims that its Face Renewal Miracle Essence does do more than just hydrate and give the FTE Glow. Naruko Boutique USA provided me with a bottle, and, after taking a short break from the Secret Key essence, I incorporated it into my routine.
Purpose: Naruko Face Renewal Miracle Essence is a fermentation essence that claims to soften, smooth, hydrate, balance, and firm skin as well as fade hyperpigmentation and reduce the appearance of enlarged pores.
Best suited for: All skin types.
Do not use if: You are sensitive to ethanol, papain or other fruit enzymes, citrus, botanical and herbal extracts, carrageenan, or anything else in the ingredients list.
When and how to use: Apply immediately after cleansing, or after actives when using those. Shake a generous amount of product into cupped palm and quickly pat all over face. Follow with whatever else you wish to use.
Naruko Face Renewal Miracle Essence ingredients: Ystract(TM) (oryza sativa lees extract), purified water, ethanol, glycerin, phenoxyethanol, chlorphenesin, propanediol, yeast extract, sodium lactate, achillea millefolium extract, actinidia chinensis (kiwi) fruit extract, aesculus hippocastanum (horse chestnut) extract, alchemilla vulgaris extract, aloe barbadensis leaf extract, ananas sativus (pineapple) fruit extract, arctium lappa root extract, arnica montana flower extract, artemisia umbelliformis extract, calendula officinalis flower extract, camellia sinensis leaf extract, centella asiatica (gotu kola) extract, chamomilla recutita flower extract, chondrus crispus (carrageenan) extract, citrus grandis peel extract, corallina officinalis (algae) extract, cucumis sativus (cucumber) fruit extract, dioscorea opposita (wild yam) root extract, epilobium fleischeri extract, equisetum arvense (horsetail) extract, equisetum hiemale (horsetail) extract, gingko biloba leaf extract, glycyrrhiza glabra root extract, hamamelis virginiana (witch hazel) extract, jobs tears (coix lacryma-jobi) water, kalanchoe pinnata leaf extract/kalanchoe spathulata leaf extract, ledebouriella divaricata root extract, leontopodium alpinum extract, malva sylvestris (mallow) extract, mentha piperita (peppermint) leaf extract, melissa officinalis extract, morus alba (mulberry) root extract, narcissus tazetta bulb extract, oryza sativa (rice) bran extract, panax ginseng root extract, papain, peony (paeonia suffruticosa) root extract, peucedanum ostruthium leaf extract, pisum sativum extract, plantago major seed extract, polygonum cuspidatum extract, poria cocos extract, pueraria lobata root extract, rhodiola rosea extract, rosa damascena flower water, rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) leaf extract, sakura (prunus yedoensis) leaf extract, salvia officinalis (red sage) leaf extract, sambucus nigra flowers, saxifraga sarmentosa extract, scutellaria alpina flower/leaf/stem extract, snow fungus (tremella fuciformis) extract, thyme (thymus serpillum) extract, tilia cordata (linden) extract, triticum vulgare protein, undaria pinnatifida extract, veronica officinalis (common speedwell) extract, vitis vinifera (grape) fruit extract, willow (salix alba) bark extract, zingiber officinale (ginger) root extract, iodopropynyl butylcarbamate, soy amino acids, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate
Notable ingredients: Well. That’s a monster of an ingredients list, worlds away from the Secret Key rose FTE’s brief INCI. Naruko loves their proprietary ingredient blends. The Face Renewal Miracle Essence comes from Naruko’s premium-priced La Creme skincare line, whose claim to fame is a complex of dozens and dozens and dozens of extracts drawn from traditional Chinese medicine. The good news is that some of these extracts come backed by research. We’ve delved extensively into the brightening and anti-aging powers of ginseng, for example. Licorice root contributes brightening and anti-inflammatory benefits. And mulberry extract contains arbutin, a very mild hydroquinone derivative widely used for skin lightening. Naruko also includes papain and pineapple extract in this product, providing a possible bit of extra exfoliation through the fruit enzymes.
The bad news is that there are just so many different extracts in this product that I don’t see how any single one of them could be present in a meaningful concentration. The extracts may have a cumulative effect within the overall extract complex, however. Skincare is a freaking mystery.
The extract complex is blended into an unusual base ingredient for a first essence: rice lees extract rather than straight-up yeast ferment extract. Lees are the sludge (sorry, sediment) left behind when pressing rice to make sake. They’re used in cooking and said to contain abundant amino acids and B vitamins, which may make them beneficial in skincare as well. They also make the Face Renewal Miracle Essence kind of like Horchata, as my snailboo Chel of Holy Snails pointed out when we talked about this product. So what we have here is fancy herbal Horchata for your face.
Performance: We can talk about the ingredients all day long, but the fact is that an ingredients list is just words on paper. There are far too many uncertainties to make any conclusive statements about the way the product works without actually using it. The proof, as always, is in the rice pudding.
Luckily for this particular review and comparison, at the time I started using this product, I wasn’t really in an experimenting mood and didn’t alter my skincare stash or routine, putting me in a good position to see what the Face Renewal Miracle Essence, with its outrageously bold name, might do. I also happened to be doing something else at the time that resulted in me inadvertently getting a decent B&A picture! You’ll see it farther down.
First things first. The Face Renewal Miracle Essence has, like so many other first essences, that runny, ever-so-slightly-thicker-than-water consistency. It also smells intensely of sake. Let me revise my description above. It’s like sake-scented fancy Horchata for your face. The unnerving sake smell fades quickly as I pat the product in, but it does take a bit of getting used to and still catches me off guard sometimes.
As far as results go, I was pretty bummed during my first week or so of using the Face Renewal Miracle Essence. Since I have a good track record with Naruko products, I’d had high hopes for my fancy herbal Horchata. I found, however, that the Face Renewal Miracle Essence didn’t give me quite the same immediate FTE Glow as the Secret Key product. This may be because the Face Renewal Miracle Essence relies on a different base ingredient than the typical yeast ferment extract found in fermentation essences. It’s possible that the saccharomyces/galactomyces extracts affect skin differently than the rice lees extract.
Over the course of the next few weeks, though, I did notice some interesting changes to my skin. Moisture retention appeared to improve, for example. I found myself needing fewer and fewer hydrating layers as I continued to use the Face Renewal Miracle Essence–far fewer even than at the height of my Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence use. A couple of weeks in, meanwhile, I had started developing a distinct radiance. It took longer to appear but looked very similar to the Secret Key glow in that it was a combination of very hydrated skin and very calmed skin.
The interesting thing about the glow I got from the Face Renewal Miracle Essence was that it persisted not just for the hours in between application and cleansing, but straight through to after the next cleansing. I don’t think I’m being clear. My point is that after a few weeks with the Face Renewal Miracle Essence, I started noticing that juicy, hydrated FTE Glow on my face even immediately after washing my face, long, long hours after using the product. That’s a consequence of the improvement in my skin’s moisture retention, I assume. Now that the temperatures and humidity are dropping where I live, I appreciate this a lot.
The Face Renewal Miracle Essence had another effect that I didn’t even notice until I was putting together some before and afters for my upcoming eyelash extension post. Here, I’ll show you. Then I’ll explain.
I took the first picture the day I went in to get my first set of lash extensions, right at the end of July–coincidentally, right around the same time I started using the Naruko Face Renewal Miracle Essence. The second picture is from yesterday, about four weeks later, right before I went to get a fill. I did both photographs around midday in my bathroom (90% artificial light, 10% natural light).
The before and after isn’t perfect, especially since I didn’t intend to use those pictures to illustrate the effects of my skincare. There’s a slight lighting difference, which you can see by the color of my eyes in the after picture. The lighting difference isn’t enough to account for the surprising difference in my skin tone between the two, though. It’s noticeably fairer, and the spots on my cheekbones look softer and more faded as well. The eyelid area is what really sold me on the change: I don’t put makeup or sunscreen on that area, especially not the day of a lash extension procedure, so my eyelids are a good reflection of what’s actually going on with my skin tone.
Since neither my sunscreen usage nor my beachgoing habits have changed in the four weeks, and I haven’t made any notable adjustments to the brightening items in my skincare routine either, I’m confident giving the Naruko Face Renewal Miracle Essence most of the credit for these unexpected results. Now that I think about it, my face milk sunscreens have been coming out less white cast-y and my slightly-too-light Gudetama cushions have been matching much better than they did a few weeks ago. I should have realized this was happening. I’ve been a little slow on the uptake lately.
There are a lot of skin-lightening extracts in the Naruko herbal complex for sure, but it seems more likely to me that the surprise (and slightly noncon) skin lightening I experienced here may be due to that rice lees extract. Rice is a common and traditional skin-lightening remedy in East Asian countries, with some research indicating effectiveness in that area. Like I mentioned, having the key ingredient present in such a high concentration (94.9% here, according to Naruko) likely boosts the chances of the ingredient actually doing the thing it is claimed to do. For me, it looks like it definitely did.
Conclusion: Both the Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence (Rose Edition) and the Naruko Face Renewal Miracle Essence worked well for me. They performed the basic fermentation essence functions of hydrating and softening my skin post-cleanse and provided that glow for which first essences are known. While I currently prefer the Naruko for its more substantial effects on my skin, I do like the Secret Key quite a lot for its more immediate results. The Secret Key would also make a great “beginner” fermentation essence, since it’s simple, inexpensive, and doesn’t have quite as much of that strong sake smell as many other FTEs do. I like both! The real lesson here, however, is this: No way am I ever going without a first essence again.
Where can I buy Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence (Rose Edition) or Naruko Face Renewal Miracle Essence?
Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence (Rose Edition) is available at:
Naruko Face Renewal Miracle Essence is available at:
Do you use a first essence? What has it done for you?