Good face serums are worth their weight in gold. Face serums are those pesky skincare products that are not really toners and are not really moisturizers. They cause a bit of confusion, but that’s why I’ll be clarifying their purpose for you. These rich liquids are skincare supplements – the role of serums is to cover the concerns your moisturizer isn’t treating in a powerful way, since they don’t have the double role of treating and moisturizing.
To help you figure out whether you should use a serum (tl;dr yes!), and if so, which one, I put together this article. I explain exactly what skin serums are and how they work, and I’ll help you choose the best serums for you, best on your skin type and concerns. I also have some handy tips and tricks, so you can get the most out of your face serums!
Guide to Face Serums: Contents
• What Are Face Serums and Why Should They Be Used?
• Serums vs. Face Oils – What’s the Difference?
• How to Choose the Best Face Serum for Your Skin Type
• How to Choose the Best Face Serum for Your Skin Concerns
• How to Use Face Serums
• Face Serum Tips & Tricks
• Best Face Serums to Try
Face serums are leave-on skincare products that come in the form of a thick liquid. Since they are thinner than moisturizers, they penetrate into the skin faster, and end up reaching deeper than a moisturizer would. This makes them a more ideal delivery system for potent actives than a lotion or cream.
Serums are a perfect addition to almost anyone’s beauty routine, since we can all benefit from a boost of protective antioxidants and hydrators. These kinds of ingredients are more effective in the form of a serum, and they can slow down the skin aging process while also strengthening and moisturizing the skin. Since most skin serums are water based, they are beneficial for both oily and dry skin types.
Those with more specific skin concerns can choose serums that do more than just provide nourishment and protection. They can choose serums with specialized ingredients that will help with their specific needs. In the light formula of a face serum, these ingredients will likely do a better job!
Many people that have never used face serums often end up wondering what the difference between serums and face oils is. It’s very easy to differentiate serums from face oils, and it all is due to the single ingredient they may or may not contain – water!
Skin Serums Are Water-Based
The majority of face serums are water-based, meaning that the first ingredient on their list of ingredients is water. This makes their texture light and liquidy (although not as fluid as a toner or face mists), and it allows them to sink into the skin very quickly.
In this water-based formula, lots of potent skincare ingredients can be dispersed, and it is the best way to hydrate the skin and fight all kinds of unique concerns.
Facial Oils Are Water-Free
In my opinion, oil-based serums should not count as serums. There. I said it. Fight me, marketing teams!
Bare in mind, this doesn’t mean that I don’t like these products – I think oil-based formulas are phenomenal for the skin! I just think that it is better to call these face oils, and be done with it.
Unlike water-based face serums, facial oils contain no water. They have a thicker, oilier texture, and they take much longer to sink into the skin. They don’t provide the skin with water, so they don’t hydrate it. Instead they create a barrier over the skin, preventing moisture from escaping.
Face oils are best used at the end of the skincare routine, to lock in all of the goodness in the water-based products you use. They are wonderful additions to the routine of anyone with dry skin, although some face oils are light and non-comedogenic and are therefore loved by oily and normal skin types as well.
I want to start with a quick reminder: skin type refers to the amount of oil your skin produces.
Pay attention to how shiny your skin gets throughout the day, on days when you don’t wear makeup. If your skin is very shiny by mid-day, then you have an oily skin type. If your skin remains matte, then you are dry. Most people land somewhere in between with normal or combination skin.
You can also determine your skin type by examining your pores: larger pores tend to correspond with an oilier skin type, while smaller pores correspond with a drier skin type. The exception is that as we age, sometimes our pores remain a little larger, even though our skin becomes dry.
Once you’ve determined your skin type, here is how you can choose the right serum for you!
Choosing Face Serums for Normal Skin
Chances are most face serums will work well with your skin! You might want a simple hydrating and protective serum with antioxidants and humectants, or you may choose a serum with specific ingredients to target specific skin concerns you might have.
Choosing Face Serums for Combination Skin
There are a few ways you can use serums to get your skin balanced. You can use one serum all over the face that has hydrating properties (and perhaps some additional properties to target your specific skin needs). Then, follow it up with moisturizer only on the drier parts of your face.
You can also use one light serum on the oily parts of your face, and a richer serum only on the parts of your face where you are dry.
Choosing Face Serums for Dry Skin
Your skin type thrives with face serums, and the more the better! In fact, layering serums and moisturizers is likely the best way to get your skin super hydrated and moisturized from top to bottom.
Opt for serums with blends of humectant ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, along with a few occlusive ingredients like botanical oils. Skin-repairing antioxidants and ceramides will also make a big difference!
Choosing Face Serums for Oily Skin
Those with oily skin can actually use serums instead of moisturizers! If the serum you like has lots of hydrating ingredients, it might give your skin enough moisture and render creams and lotions unnecessary.
Serums with niacinamide, specifically, will greatly help to control and minimize the amount of oil your skin produces. You might want to avoid finishing face serums that are oil-based.
Skin concerns are where serums can make radical differences, because they can really feed the skin with active ingredients and make radical changes.
Choosing Anti-Aging Face Serums
There are so many incredible anti-aging ingredients out there that it can be hard to choose from. While many fancy sounding ingredients might sound good, the strongest proven ingredients are peptides and vitamin A. Other vitamins will provide antioxidant protection which is very useful, and the addition of plant extracts and oils could boost it as well.
Additionally, as we age, our skin starts to lose hydration, so humectants like panthenol and hyaluronic acid will make a big difference. If you want an exfoliating serum, then lactic acid is your friend here, since it exfoliates gently without drying out the skin.
Choosing Face Serums for Hyper-Pigmentation & Dark Marks
There are many skin-brightening serums out there, because serums are probably the best way to deliver those agents to the skin. Look for ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin A, licorice root extract, mulberry extract, arbutin, and alpha lipoic acid to brighten your skin, as well as to rejuvenate it and fight premature aging.
Exfoliation also makes a big difference for fading pigmentation, and glycolic acid tends to be the best for dark marks.
Choosing Face Serums for Dehydration
Serums are amazing at replenishing the skin with water. You want to find for yourself face serums rich in humectant ingredients like hyaluronic acid, panthenol, and glycerin. Gentle antioxidants like vitamin E will also help repair your skin and prevent moisture from evaporating.
Choosing Face Serums for Acne & Clogged Pores
Skin serums can deliver all kinds of ingredients to improve the look of acne-prone skin. Salicylic acid is an exfoliant that can unclog pores while fighting the inflammation so common with breakouts.
In general, anti-inflammatories are key here to reduce the pain, redness, irritation, and swelling caused by acne, so have no fear of water-based ingredients like green tea extract or willow bark extract.
Choosing Face Serums for Scarring & Uneven Skin Texture, Sensitivity & Redness
Soothing botanical extracts can immediately improve your skin tone and calm your irritation. Calendula and green tea are the first extracts to come to mind.
Additionally, skin that has been fortified with antioxidants and humectants will generally be stronger and more resistant to irritation, so look for the same ingredients that will repair dehydrated skin.
Depending on the face serums you choose, you might want to include them in different parts of your routine. However, what is always true is that a real serum (i.e. a water-based serum) should always go on the skin at some point after cleansing, and before moisturizing.
The following order outlines all of the places where a serum might fall into your routine:
• Cleanse your skin, ideally with a face wash with a pH below 5.6. You may also choose to double cleanse, or do an oil cleanse. Make sure to cleanse every evening, although it’s an optional step in the morning.
• Apply a pH-adjusting toner, especially if you are going to be using pH-dependant actives, or if your cleanser has a pH higher than 5.6. If your cleanser is gentle and pH balanced, then a toner is optional.
• Apply face serums that contain pH-dependant actives like vitamin C, salicylic acid, or glycolic acid. You can apply them either by pressing them into the skin with the beds of your fingers, or using a clean foundation brush. If you can, let each one of these actives sit on the skin for around 10-20 minutes before applying the next layer.
• Now you may apply hydrating layers of skin care. This can include hydrating toners and essences.
• Next, apply your skin serums that are not pH-dependant. If you only use one serum, go ahead and put it on! If you have multiple serums that you would like to use, first apply the ones with thinner, more liquid-y texture. Thicker or oilier serums can be applied afterwards.
To apply, squeeze a couple drops of serum into your hands. Using the pads of your fingers, press the serums into your skin without rubbing too hard – they will become absorbed quickly. If you do feel the need to massage them in a bit, do so gently in circular, upward motions, to ensure optimal penetration.
• Finish off with your favorite moisturizer, applying it much in the same way as you did the serum. If you have oily skin, or your serum is very moisturizing, then you can actually skip the moisturizer!
• So while in my opinion calling these kinds of products serums is misleading, I can’t help what the beauty industry does. If you have a water-free serum that is composed of oils or silicones, you should apply it to your skin after moisturizer. Water-free formulas are usually occlusive, so they help lock moisture into the skin, even if their texture is fluid.
• If it is daytime, make sure to apply at least a ¼ teaspoon of sunscreen to your skin, especially if you use products with exfoliating actives like glycolic acid.
• If you’re in a rush, or you don’t like the multiple skincare steps, you can still enjoy the benefits of a serum. Squeeze out a drop of serum and mix it with your moisturizer right before applying, to boost the amount of active ingredients your skin receives!
Don’t do this with pH-dependant serums with vitamin C or exfoliating acids, and avoid doing it with a day cream with SPF, since the serum will dilute the efficacy of the sunscreen.
• It is important to know which serums belong when. Resurfacing actives like glycolic acid and retinol are best in the evening, since they make the skin more sensitive to sun exposure. Antioxidant skin serums, on the other hand, are best in the daytime because they boost the efficacy of your sunscreen and keep your skin looking younger for longer.
• While it might be tempting to make a custom blend of all the serums and moisturizers you have in your arsenal, remember that each product had to be crafted delicately by a professional. Mixing face serums in the hand right before applying it is usually safe, but don’t become your own chemist or you will disrupt the products’ preservative system and put your own health at risk.
• Skin-soothing and hydrating face serums are perfectly safe to put around the eyes! Layer them under your eye cream for a hydrating boost. Active serums, on the other hand, should be used with care. The retinoids and acids that will radically transform your face are likely to be too harsh for the delicate eye area.
• Give your neck and chest the same love you give your face! Those serums that make your skin look so good will also keep your neck and chest looking healthy and smooth.
Best Face Serums for Dehydration
1. Dermalogica Skin Hydrating Booster
If you are dealing with dry skin, then the easiest solution is a serum loaded with humectants. These water-attracting ingredients, like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and panthenol plump up the skin, saturate it with water, and make it seem healthier and happier. This simple yet incredible serum can be bought at Ulta.
2. CosRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence
The new thing in skin protection and hydration is snail secretion filtrate – don’t worry, no snails are killed in the making of this ingredient! In addition to the ski- soothing, hydrating, and brightening ingredient, there are also exceptional humectants like betaine and hyaluronic acid, to truly boost the skin’s moisture content. You can purchase this serum through Ulta.
Best Anti-Aging Face Serums
1. Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair Synchronized Recovery Complex II
This serum has been around for a long time, and for just as long it has been an anti-aging staple. It renews the skin with a collection of ferments, extracts, vitamins, and peptides, leaving the skin bright, hydrated, and, of course, youthful. In the long term it slows down skin aging by triggering regeneration. You can purchase a bottle of this serum at Nordstrom.
2. Paula’s Choice Resist Intensive Wrinkle-Repair Retinol Serum
Retinol is a mandatory ingredient for an anti-aging routine, and it penetrates so much better in the form of a serum. This silicone-based serum is super concentrated, to radically renew the skin and stave off signs of aging like fine lines and hyper-pigmentation. You can find yourself a bottle at Nordstrom.
Best Face Serums for Sensitive Skin
1. SkinCeuticals Phyto Corrective Gel
This is one of the best serums for sensitive skin, because it takes down redness overnight. It is oil-free, so it’ll work for both oily and dry skin, and will help to significantly rehydrate with a dose of hyaluronic acid. The botanical extracts in it will soothe the skin and fortify it. It is available for purchase through Dermstore.
2. REN EverCalm Anti-Redness Serum
This serum turns blotchy skin into clear, smooth skin in no time. It contains beta glucan, polypeptides, and hyaluronic acid, so it is ultra-soothing and hydrating, and yet it has a very light texture that penetrates into the skin very quickly. It can work for all skin types, but it is especially popular for those with rosacea. Grab it for yourself from Sephora.
Best Face Serums for Acne-Prone Skin
1. DermaDoctor Ain’t Misbehavin’ Acne Control Serum
The two acne-fighting superstars in this serum are salicylic acid and azelaic acid. One declogs the pores gently, while the other eliminates acne bacteria, making for a lovely serum that gets the skin clear and smooth. A thin layer of this serum is all it takes, ideally in the evening. You can buy it from Sephora.
2. bareMinerals Blemish Remedy Anti-Imperfection Serum
Salicylic acid was combined with licorice root and zinc in this serum, to make a skin-hydrating serum that clarifies the pores and keeps breakouts at bay. It is super gentle with some soothing ingredients, so it’s great for sensitive and inflamed skin. You can purchase a bottle from Sephora.
Best Face Serums for Oily Skin
1. Philosophy No Reason to Hide Multi Imperfection Transforming Serum
This super-light serum is one of the best for oily skin, because it feels wonderful and sinks in quickly. It contains a generous amount of skin-mattifying (and beautifying) niacinamide, as well as some skin-brightening and acne-fighting properties. You can pick up one of these potent serums at Nordstrom.
2. DDF Wrinkle Fighting Plus Pore Minimizer Moisturizing Serum
This serum works for oily skin in two ways: it mattifies cosmetically, so it is perfect for daytime to keep those oils in check. It contains sebum-reducing niacinamide to mattify in the long term, along with loads of hydrating and anti-aging actives. This miracle treatment is up for sale at Ulta.
Best Face Serums for Hyper-Pigmentation
1. Peter Thomas Roth Camu Camu Power C x 30 Vitamin C Brightening Serum
Vitamin C is the first thing that pops to mind when I think of effective skin brightening. It is a fantastic antioxidant to boost that radically improves skin functioning on all fronts. This serum helps to hydrate and fortify the skin to boot, and it works for all skin types. It is available for sale through Sephora.
2. Murad Rapid Age Spot & Pigment Lightening Serum
This skin-brightening serum is super effective thanks to the somewhat controversial presence of hydroquinone – a proven skin lightener that does require careful handling. There is also a touch of glycolic acid to resurface the skin, and anti-aging peptides, so it can also combat other signs of premature aging. Pick up a bottle for yourself from Nordstrom.
Best Face Serums for Exfoliation
1. Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
This is one of the best serums when it comes to exfoliation, because it combines both salicylic acid and glycolic acid. It removes dead skin from within and without irritating the skin. It is great for anyone except for those with extremely sensitive skin, because it brightens the skin, fights premature aging, unclogs pores, and fades acne. You can purchase this serum from Sephora.
2. Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment
If you have sensitive skin, and are trying to find an exfoliant that will work to improve dullness, dryness, or redness, then this product from Sunday Riley is probably one of the best face serums for you. It contains gentle lactic acid, along with all kinds of skin-brightening and soothing extracts. It is available for sale at Sephora.
Are you using face serums in your skincare routine? Which ones? Share your favorites!
Photos via @prettylittlefawn, @simplysona, @liza_lash