Face Serums Explained: What Are They & How To Use Them

Face Serums Explained: What Are They & How To Use Them

We're always looking for that perfect skincare product that will bring us closer to clear, glowing skin. Whether you want to make your skin look younger and cleaner or reduce signs of aging, many products can help you achieve that.

There are also many amazing skincare products out there to help you tackle acne.

But today, we're talking about one specific class of skincare product: face serum.

What is a Face Serum?

Face serums, more often than not, come with a heavy price tag. Due to that high cost of entry, public knowledge of face serums is scarce, and myths abound. So, just what is a face serum?

Well, take your ordinary moisturizer, eye cream, or skincare product, and distill it down to its most effective, active ingredients. Remove all the oils and other heavy ingredients, and you end up with the product in its purest form. Or, in other words, you have a serum.

Face Serums Explained

Serums are usually non-comedogenic and lightweight, containing high concentrations of active ingredients. They aim to apply a highly concentrated blast of beneficial nutrients directly to your skin.

This no-nonsense approach of face serums is often targeted for different skin concerns. There are various types of serums out there (such as vitamin c serums or hyaluronic acid), and they all perform slightly different skincare tasks. For example, some facial serums offer fast and thorough hydration, but others may be very effective at skin lightening, improving the appearance of dark spots, and encouraging skin regeneration. 

Face serums are lean and lightweight, and they generally come in the form of clear liquids or clear gels.

Free of the heavy oil composition that creams usually have, the active nutrients in a face serum come into contact with our skin more directly and cover more ground. Their high concentration and liquid nature allow them to penetrate the skin's deepest layers and hydrate or repair it from the ground up.

This is why dermatologists recommend you only apply face serums after cleaning your face but before applying moisturizer. The face serum needs to penetrate your skin and start working its magic, and the moisturizer will maximize its effectiveness.

A good face serum will infiltrate your pores and induce hydration from within your skin. But if you apply it over your moisturizer - guess what? It won't be nearly as effective since the moisturizer and its compounds will block the serum from coming into contact with your skin.

Face Serums Explained

A face serum's chemical composition or formula will depend on its intended use. However, in general, the composition of most face serums overlaps in one area or another. For example, most serums contain powerful antioxidants such as vitamins C, A, E, and so on.

Additionally, serums often contain powerful retinoids for skincare (such as Retin A) and other topical ingredients that can help repair our skin, smoothen out wrinkles and fine lines, reduce redness and discoloration, deal with various kinds of hyperpigmentation, and more. 

Benefits of Using Face Serums

As we mentioned above, face serums have different uses. Because of this, they have different compositions (formulas), and naturally, they will provide different benefits.

Additionally, face serums are sometimes preferable to even the best skincare, anti-aging, or anti-acne products. The thick creams and heavy oils in some of those products can prevent the effectiveness of their own active nutrients, making them worse for acne-prone skin. What's the use if the ingredient that's supposed to enter your pores and clean them is floating above the skin's surface?

See, face serums don't have that problem because nothing stands between your skin and its active ingredients. 

That said, there are several more general categories in which we can categorize face serums regarding their intended benefits.

Face Serums Explained

Serums Offer Extra Hydration

That's right. This is particularly useful for people with typically dry skin. Although face serums can be useful for any skin type (such as oily skin or sensitive skin), dry skin has a whole host of different struggles.

As we mentioned above, face serums are (in a sense) superior to moisturizers because they can penetrate the skin deeper and moisturize it from within.

Face serums that offer extra hydration often contain essential fatty acids, ceramides, and a range of amino acids. These ingredients improve the skin's ability to retain moisture, regenerate its protective lipids (which make the skin softer and more flexible), and strengthen our skin barrier.

Additionally, a hydrating serum often contains hyaluronic acid, ensuring the water molecules remain attached to our skin and its cells. Hyaluronic acid is harmless and natural key ingredient in our own skin's hydrating mechanisms. Without heavy creams, face serums that contain hyaluronic acid are free to permeate the skin and rejuvenate it from the inside. 

Face Serums Explained

Serums Combat Signs of Aging 

Face serums often contain a hefty amount of vitamin C and other naturally derived antioxidant substances like grape seed extract, pomegranate extract, etc. These powerful antioxidants are crucial in the fight against photoaging or other types of premature aging.

But why?

Well, there are almost innumerable environmental factors, both out in the wilderness and in our civilized cities, that can harm our bodies and make them age prematurely. Pollution from the air and random dust, smog, smoking, and the sun's harmful UVA and UVB rays accumulate and damage our skin.

The specific chemical substances that do this are called "free radicals." They're dangerous because they can infiltrate our cells, slow down collagen production, and damage our DNA. This can do serious harm to our skin health. Damaged DNA means one of two things: broken self-repair mechanisms that lead to premature aging (if you're lucky) or random and uncontrollable mutations of the cells, which is also known as cancer. 

But this is where face serums come in; they are loaded with antioxidants. Antioxidants counter the harmful effects of free radicals, otherwise known as "oxidative stress." Antioxidants sweep our bodies - skin included - and eliminate free radicals. In short: they reduce and prevent aging, keep our bodies safe and ensure our skin looks young and healthy. Say goodbye to aging skin, dark spots, dark circles, and uneven skin tone.

Face serums are rich in antioxidants. In fact, they're richer in antioxidants than your general skincare product. This is another reason why face serums are beneficial for your skin. Have a look at the shelves in your nearest supermarket - you'll find a plethora of anti-aging serums for mature skin.

Face Serums Explained

Face Serums Repair Scarring and Prevent Acne

Besides containing tons of antioxidants that make our skin resistant to damage, some face serums contain a fair amount of anti-inflammatory ingredients too. Aloe vera extracts, zinc, goldenseal, arnica, and other anti-inflammatory substances can heal our skin, reduce scars, and calm our immune system.

This reduces the likelihood of acne and aids our skin in its natural cycle of regeneration, called desquamation. By helping our skin rebuild itself, face serums that contain aloe vera and other anti-inflammatory ingredients can reduce the appearance of even severe scars and prevent acne inflammation

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of serums on the market, with each company designing them to tackle a specific issue. It would be almost impossible to list all the face serum benefits in this article (unless you want to scroll down for months), so let's turn to the other peculiarities of face serums.

How to Use Face Serums  

We mentioned peculiarities, didn't we? And for a good reason. Besides being expensive, and highly-concentrated clear liquids, face serums are also odd in other ways. For example, the way they are used.

Face Serums Explained

The composition of face serums needs a bit of preparation to actually work their magic. Merely pouring some of that expensive serum on your face while wearing makeup or on a face that hasn't been cleaned won't do anything. See, face serums require some preparation before use.

Generally, face serums should be used in the following way:

  1. Hopefully, it’s needless to say: you need to wash your face first.
  1. Secondly, you should also clean your face by using a quality cleanser. Using a cleanser will disinfect your skin from harmful bacteria, get rid of excess oil, unclog your pores, and make your face suitable for applying a face serum.
  1. Apply a few drops of face serum right after using the cleanser. The skin is clean and exposed for the serum to work. If you use anything else between the cleanser and the face serum, the face serum will be practically useless because it's isolated from your skin. (Except when using other products between the cleanser and serum, like exfoliators or any water-based products.) But if you're doing a simple serum application, then ensure the cleanser is followed by a serum. The order of application can be tricky, but you can read more about it in our article on skincare routines.  
  1. Finally, apply moisturizer. While the face serum will moisturize dehydrated skin from within, the moisturizer will protect and hydrate it from above, doubling the benefits of these skin care products.

Layering makes the best use of face serums. Do it in any other way, and you're just wasting an expensive skin product.

Face Serums Explained

How to Choose the Best Face Serum For Your Skin Type

As mentioned prior in the article, serums are highly specialized products. They are usually very precisely made to perform a very specialized role and are generally targeted at different types of skin. There are so many different types, from dark spot control serum products to those that target wrinkles.

If you have sensitive skin, you'll have no problem finding an appropriate face serum specifically designed for that type. The perfect one for you will hydrate your face without irritating the skin barrier. The same goes for people with dry or oily, acne-prone skin. 

The skincare and cosmetics industry is on top of its game. They're trying to cover all skin types, exhibiting products that offer all kinds of specialized services. And that's even truer when it comes to face serums. Visit any well-equipped cosmetics store, and you'll find exactly what you need. 

If that's not an option for you, then there's always the internet and online shops - you can get a face serum delivered right to your door.

Face Serums Explained

Types of Serums

Just like with all skin care products, there are different serums to suit different skin types. Here's a quick breakdown to make things easier when incorporating them into your routine.

Anti-Aging Serums

Anti-aging serums reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, making dry skin dewy and glowing. A good anti-aging serum protects against free radicals that break down collagen and cause fine lines, dark spots, and wrinkles. You'll often find ingredients such as vitamin A in these types of serums.

Hydrating Serums

If you have a dry or a combination skin type, then a hydrating serum can do wonders for your complexion. Look for ingredients such as hyaluronic acid. A good hyaluronic acid serum will lock in moisture and help you achieve glowing, radiant skin. However, keep in mind that although a hyaluronic acid serum will hydrate your face, you still need to use a moisturizer with it.

Brightening Serums

Brightening serums do exactly what the name suggests - they brighten skin. So if you suffer from dark spots, hyperpigmentation, sunspots, patches left by acne, dull skin, or anything else that makes your complexion look and feel lifeless, this is the best option for you. Look for ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin E, and green tea extract, as these will all help you achieve brighter skin.

Exfoliating Serums

These types of serums whisk away dead and old skin cells, revealing the new skin underneath. They're a great option if you have hyperpigmentation, dark spots, or acne, as they will get rid of that top layer where the problem is. These usually contain alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid.

Sensitive skin types might struggle with harsher acids, so look for options with more gentle acids, such as lactic acid. Although this alpha hydroxy acid might not be as effective as glycolic acid, lactic acid won't irritate your sensitive skin type.

These types of serums might also include salicylic acid. This beta-hydroxy acid is also a great option for clearing away dead skin cells, dirt, and debris and is suitable for almost every skin type.

Exfoliating serums are also good for oily skin types, as they're known to improve the appearance of acne.

Firming Serums

Firming serums will target skin laxity, helping the appearance of sagging skin. These types of serums include ingredients that promote collagen building and skin hydration - we're looking at you, hyaluronic acid. Retinol serums are also popular for a mature skin type, as they will firm your complexion.

Don’t Confuse Serums With Essences

But did we forget about something? Hmmm. Oh, that's right, the weirdness of serums brings yet another odd challenge to the table. See, skin care is one of the world's largest industries. Naturally, tens of thousands of companies offer hundreds of thousands of skincare and cosmetics products.

But these are all very similar. Or at least, very similar at first glance. One such case is the similarity between any serum and a class of skincare products called essences. They're often packaged similarly, and by the time you've come home with a shopping bag full of new goodies after a long day, you realize that what you got was an essence instead of a face serum. 

So, what gives? What are the differences between essences and face serums, and how can you tell?

Face Serums Explained

Face Serums and Essences Have Different Textures

Essences, generally, are thinner, less viscous, and more water-like. That's because they contain fewer active nutrients and other substances, making them a "lite" version of your typical serum.

But does that mean that essences are worse or less efficient? No, that's far from the case. In fact, the advantage of essences is that they are more suitable for people with sensitive skin.

Order of Application Will Vary Between Face Serums and Essences

Another difference between face serums and essences is the way we use them. As we explained above, serums are best used after the cleanser but before the moisturizer, as this will make the best use of its properties.

However, the order of application is different when it comes to essences. Since essences are more watery than face serums, they should be applied after a cleanser but always before a serum. In short, the order of application is as follows: cleanser, essence, serum, and, ideally, moisturizer. 

Additionally, essences can sometimes resemble toners, and you can easily be tempted to replace one with the other. However, toners perform very different functions than essences; an essence can't substitute for a toner or vice versa. If you're trying to combine toners, serums, and essences, the order of application is as follows: cleanser, toner, essence, serum, and finally, moisturizer.

Face Serums Explained

Are Face Serums Safe? Here Are Some Precautions

Well, are they? With so many highly concentrated active ingredients, you might be wondering whether serums are safe to combine with other products.

Generally, the answer is yes: you can combine serums with other products. That's why there's even a well-developed order of application for them - because they have been tested and tried out millions of times. 

However, that doesn't mean that's 100% the case. In some situations, an ingredient in the serum will clash with an ingredient in the cleanser - or the essence, the moisturizer, and so on. Above, we mentioned combining face serums with essences, toners, moisturizers, and more. But please check their label first.

If you're looking to update your skincare routine, try this acne-busting system. It's perfect for acne-prone skin. The salicylic acid cleanser will get rid of dead skin cells, preventing future breakouts, and the moisturizer will smooth skin texture.

Face Serums Explained

Don’t Combine Serums With Retinoids

It's not advised to combine serums with retinoid creams (or other topical products containing retinoids). The two products will clash and can lead to irritation. The clash is mainly on the side of the retinoid product since retinoids are powerful and penetrate the skin to deeper levels as well.

Avoid this combination at night. This is because our body and skin's regeneration processes kick into high gear. (And yes, you can use serums at any time of day you please.)

People with Rosacea, Eczema, or Psoriasis Should Avoid Serums

Chronic skin conditions, such as rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, or others, are not your ordinary wrinkle or patch of dry skin. These otherwise common, chronic skin disorders have their own deeper systemic causes, and their manifestations on the skin are ways the body attempts to help itself.

So what happens if you pour a face serum on a patch of skin that's irritated due to eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis?

Face Serums Explained

Well, with some exceptions, it's usually nothing good. The high concentration of serums will cause additional redness, itching, and further irritation. It can also dry up your skin excessively and exacerbate the already difficult symptoms you're experiencing. If you still want to try, you should perform a patch test first (more information below).

For people with chronic skin conditions such as these, it's better to use products that aren't clear and watery. Thick creams and heavy moisturizers can be more helpful in lubricating their skin and providing added protection against irritation. 

When in Doubt, Do a Patch Test

Remember, everyone has different skin types and can react to different things, regardless of how widely used, hyped up, or safe the products seem for other people.

As the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing. Use skincare products in moderation. This is especially important when it comes to using serums. Due to their high concentration, repeated and excessive use can lead to irritation, so you should always follow the instructions on the label.

Face Serums Explained

Generally speaking, be mindful of what you're putting on your skin, and read the label carefully to check for any irritants or allergic ingredients. If you suspect something might irritate your skin, it's always best to do a patch test first.

Patch tests are simple and easy to conduct. All you do is apply a small amount of any substance or product on a small patch of skin. This is to see if your skin will react adversely to the ingredient or product before you start using it properly.

Typically, anywhere between 24 and 48 hours is enough time to tell if your skin will show any adverse reactions. If not, you can start using the product or ingredient. But if yes, and if you're experiencing redness, itching, burning, irritation, swelling, flaking, or other negative side effects, wash the area immediately, stop using the product or ingredient, and schedule an appointment with your doctor or dermatologist.


What are the best serums for your face?

Serums come in all shapes and sizes, and the best serums for your face will depend on your skin concerns and type. For example, do you have sensitive skin? Dull skin? Dry skin?

Dry skin types will be better off using a hydrating hyaluronic acid serum, as this will keep your skin moisturized.

If you have mature skin, look for an anti-aging serum to help protect against fine lines and wrinkles, keep the skin hydrated, and help you achieve plump, firmer skin.

How do I choose a face serum?

With the number of face serums on the market, it might be overwhelming to choose the best one for your skincare routine. Some might come with green tea extract, whereas others may contain salicylic acid or glycolic acid. Think about your own needs - are you looking for something that evens skin tone or a product with anti-aging benefits? This will help you choose the best one for you.

Should I use face serum every day?

Although serum products contain a high concentration of active ingredients, they're still safe to use every day. It's even recommended, especially if you have dry or combination skin. With continuous use, serums can get rid of dark spots, fine lines, and wrinkles. They can brighten skin and are great for evening skin tone.

Final Thoughts

Finding the right face serum for your face can be tough, and knowing where to put it into your skin routine can be even tougher. From vitamin E and vitamin C to lactic acid or hyaluronic acid, there are so many ingredients out there, and it can be hard to know how to choose the best for your skin concerns.

As long as you stick to our guide, you should be able to navigate the world of serums and find the best one for you.


Efficacy and Tolerability of a Facial Serum for Fine Lines, Wrinkles, and Photodamaged Skin

Enhanced Efficacy of a Facial Hydrating Serum in Subjects with Normal or Self-Perceived Dry Skin

Skin serum: What it can and can’t do

This information is meant to supplement, not replace advice from your doctor or healthcare provider and is not meant to cover all possible uses, precautions, interactions or adverse effects. This information may not fit your specific health circumstances, and its goal is to offer a general view of the subject. In case you are suffering from a severe case of acne, you should consult with a dermatologist or a certified medical professional.

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