It’s true that there are so many skincare product options—moisturizers, face oils, creams, retinols/retinoids, eye creams, face masks… It can get pretty overwhelming at times. You probably know you always need the basics like a moisturizer, a cleanser, and sunscreen, but what about the rest? Are you just wasting your money on products that you don’t really need?
There are a lot of differing opinions on this, and personally, I think a lot of it depends on your skin’s needs. But one skincare product that my skin needs is a face serum, and I like to use ones that have brightening and hydrating effects. the thing I love most about the product is that they’re normally lightweight and absorb into the skin quickly, which means they work fast.
“A face serum is a highly concentrated topical therapy that is on the lighter end of the thickness spectrum,” explains Corey L. Hartman, MD, FAAD, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology. “Serums can be water, gel, or oil-based and include one or several potent active ingredients that are targeted to a particular skincare concern. They generally come in a liquid to gel-like texture and consist of smaller molecules that are able to penetrate the skin and go to work at a deeper level where they can create change.”
Not every serum is created equally, of course. Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD, FAAD, founder and CEO of Vibrant Dermatology and Skin Bar MD, says, “There are many different types of face serums, all geared towards addressing different skin concerns. Most commonly, you’ll find antioxidant serums, anti-aging serums, and serums that improve hyperpigmentation.”
Some serums can also provide hydration, but they differ from a moisturizer. While a moisturizer might be thick and creamy, a serum will be lighter and thinner. “Serums are intended to penetrate deeply into the skin to deliver targeted active ingredients, whereas moisturizers help to fortify the surface of the skin, bind skin cells together more effectively, and work at the surface of the skin to increase hydration.”
But since there are so many different variations of serums out there, you might be wondering how to actually shop for one. “Choose your face serum based on the concern that you wish to address,” recommends Imahiyerobo-Ip. “Serums are generally pricier than the average over-the-counter skincare cream. How do you know if the serum is worth purchasing? Look at the ingredient list. The active ingredient should be at the top of the ingredient list. If it’s not, then you’ll know that the serum isn’t going to deliver the results you desire.”
When it comes to choosing an effective face serum, Hartman says to keep these three things in mind:
1. Active Ingredients: “Choose active ingredients that target your skin concerns and dermatologic conditions,” Hartman says. That might mean vitamin C to brighten and even skin tone, or hyaluronic acid for hydration.
2. Your Skin Type: For oily skin, consider a lighter and more aqueous serum. For dry skin, try an oil serum. “Those with sensitive skin must avoid serums that contain too many acids,” Imahiyerobo-Ip says. “Acids such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid, citric acid, or retinoic acid all exfoliate the skin. If your serum contains acids and you have sensitive skin, you may experience skin irritation and redness.”
3. Consistency of the Serum: Again, go with a lighter formula if you have oily skin and an oil-based formula for drier skin.
When it comes to applying serum, normally you’ll want to put it on right after you cleanse the skin. “In general, skincare products are layered from thinnest to thickest with the thinnest products being applied to the skin first,” Hartman explains. “If you think about the intended goals, it makes sense. Serums are intended to deliver active ingredients deep into the skin and the moisturizer forms a seal to make the serums more efficacious.”
And as for if you can ditch your moisturizer for a serum, both derms say you still might want to keep both around because each has a different role to play in your overall skincare routine. “The purpose of a moisturizer is to protect, hydrate, and lubricate the skin,” Imahiyerobo-Ip explains. “Serums are focused on transforming the skin by providing potent, active ingredients. While there are some serums that are meant to enhance the skin’s moisture barrier, such as hyaluronic acid, I generally consider these as adjuncts to a moisturizer.”
Take a look at some serum options below, categorized by skin type.