The journey to perfect skin begins with a single step, and we’re always on the lookout for that one, perfect skincare product that will bring us closer to it. Regardless if you’re looking to make your skin look younger, cleaner, or reduce signs of aging, there are many products that can help you achieve that. But today we’re going to talk about one specific class of skincare products: the face serum.
Face serums are not easy to get into, because more often than not, they come with a heavy price tag. Due to that high cost of “entry” so to speak, public knowledge of face serums is scarce, skincare tips are scarce, and myths abound. So just what is a face serum?
Well, take your ordinary moisturizer, or eye cream, or skincare product, and distill it down to the most effective, active ingredients in it. Remove all the oils and other heavy ingredients, and what you end up with is a distillation of the product in its purest form. Or in other words, you have a serum.
Serums are then, basically, lightweight, usually non-comedogenic products that contain high concentrations of active ingredients. The purpose behind them is to apply a highly concentrated blast of beneficial nutrients directly to your skin. This no-nonsense approach of face serums is often precisely targeted, though. There are various types of serums out there and they all perform slightly different skincare tasks. For example, some facial serums may offer fast and thorough hydration, but others may be very effective at skin lightening, skin regeneration and so on.
Since face serums are lean and lightweight, they generally come in the form of clear liquids, or clear gels. They’re not creams or gels, however, but more closely resemble clear liquids. Free of the heavy oil composition that creams usually have, the active nutrients in a face serum can come into contact with our skin more directly, and cover more ground so to speak. Their high concentration and liquid nature allow them to penetrate the deepest layers of the skin, and hydrate it, or repair it, from the grounds up.
This is why dermatologists recommend that you only apply face serums after you have cleaned your face but before you’ve applied moisturizer to it. The face serum needs to penetrate your skin and start working its magic, while the moisturizer will maximize its effectiveness and finish the job. Because it’s not prevented by heavy creams and oils to float on top of your skin, the 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 it from coming into contact with your skin.
The chemical composition or formula of a face serum will depend on its intended uses. However, in general, the composition of most face serums overlaps in one area or another. For example, most serums contain powerful antioxidants such as Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin E and so on. Additionally, face serums often contain powerful retinoids for skincare (such as Retin A) and other topical ingredients, that can both help repair our skin, smoothen out wrinkles, reduce redness, discoloration, deal with various kinds of hyperpigmentation and so on.
As we mentioned above, face serums have different intended uses. With that, 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 out there. The thick creams and heavy oils in some of those products are sometimes preventing the effectiveness of their own active nutrients. What’s the use if the ingredient that’s supposed to enter your pores and clean them is floating above the surface of the skin? See, face serums don’t have that problem, because nothing stands between your skin and their active ingredients.
With that being said, there are several more general categories in which we can categorize face serums regarding their intended benefits.
That’s right, and this is particularly useful for people with typically dry skin. Although face serums can be useful for people with any skin type (such as oily skin, or the sensitive skin type), at the end of the day, the struggles with dry skin are best known by those of us who typically have it.
But relax, because hydrating face serums are here for the rescue! 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 own protective lipids (which make the skin softer and more flexible), and strengthen our skin barrier.
Additionally, hydrating face serums often contain the goody hyaluronic acid, which makes sure the water molecules remain attached to our skin and its cells. Hyaluronic acid is harmless and natural, and a key ingredient in our own skin’s hydrating mechanisms. Free of the heavy creams, the face serums that contain hyaluronic acid are free to permeate the skin and rejuvenate it from inside.
Face serums often contain a hefty amount of Vitamin C, and other, naturally derived antioxidant substances like grape seed extract, pomegranate extract, and so on. And these powerful antioxidants are crucial in the fight against photoaging, or other types of premature aging. But I hear you ask that eternal question: why?
Well, there are almost innumerable factors in the environment, 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,” and they are dangerous because they can infiltrate our very cells and damage our DNA. And 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 tons of antioxidants. Antioxidants are called that because they counter the harmful effects of free radicals, which is called oxidative stress. Antioxidants sweep our bodies - skin included - and get rid of the free radicals. In short: antioxidants reduce and prevent aging, and keep our bodies safe and skin looking young and healthy. And 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.
Besides containing tons of antioxidants that make our skin resistant to damage and healthy, some face serums contain a fair amount of anti-inflammatory ingredients too. Aloe vera extracts, zinc, goldenseal, arnica, and other anti-inflammatory substances can both heal our skin, reduce our scars, and calm our immune system. This reduces the likelihood of the formation of acne, and helps 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.
Needless to say, there are hundreds, if not thousands of serums on the market, with each company designing them to tackle a specific issue. It would be nigh on impossible to list all the possible 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.
We mentioned peculiarities, didn’t we? And for 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.
See, if you’re just sitting in your office right now, or make a run to the bathrooms to drop some of that gorgeous, luxurious serum on your cheeks, you would be burning money. Why?
Well, the composition of face serums, such as it is, needs a bit of preparation for them 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 at all. See, face serums require some preparation before use. Here’s how.
Generally, face serums should be used in the following way:
See, this layering makes the best use of face serums. Do it in any other way and you’re just wasting an expensive skin product.
As it was mentioned prior in the article, serums are highly specialized products. They are usually very precisely targeted to perform a very specialized role, and rest assured, they are generally targeted at different types of skin. If you have sensitive skin, then you’ll have no problem finding an appropriate face serum specifically designed for sensitive skin. Same goes for people with dry, or oily skin.
The skincare and cosmetics industry is on top of the game, and they are trying to cover all skin types, offering products that try to offer all kinds of specialized services. And that’s even more true when it comes to face serums. Visit any well-equipped cosmetics store and you should be able to find exactly what you need.
If that’s not an option for you, then there’s always the internet and its online shops - you can get a face serum delivered right at your door.
But did we forget about something? Hmmm. Oh, that’s right, the weirdness of serums brings yet another odd challenge to the table. See, the cosmetics and skincare industries are one of the largest industries on the planet. Naturally, the tens of thousands of companies offer hundreds of thousands of skincare and cosmetics products. Thankfully, they’re not all put in one place so it doesn’t make our head spin.
But this immense amount of products out there, thanks to the intense competition between skincare and cosmetics companies, can lead to some very similar products. Or at least, very similar at first glance. One such case is the similarity between face serums (or any other type of serum, for that matter) and a class of skincare products called essences. They often look like one another, 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 to tell?
For one, there is a difference in texture. Essences, generally, are thinner, less viscous, and more water-like. That’s because they contain a lower amount of 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, but the advantage of essences is that they are more suitable for people with sensitive skin.
Another difference is the way we use them. As we explained above, face serums (and other serums) are best used when they come after the cleanser, but before the moisturizer. That order of application will make the best use of the serum’s properties.
However, when it comes to essences, the order of application is different. Since essences are more watery than face serums, they should, likewise, be applied after a cleanser, but always before a serum. So, the order of application would be cleanser, essence, serum, and ideally moisturizer.
Additionally, essences can sometimes resemble toners, and you can easily be tempted to replace one for the other. However, toners perform very different functions in comparison to essences, and really, an essence can’t substitute for a toner or vice versa. (And likewise, toners can’t be a substitute for serums, for example.) If you’re trying to combine toners, serums, and essences, the order of application is as follows: cleanser, toner, essence, serum, and finally, moisturizer.
Well really, are they? With so many active ingredients, and so highly concentrated, it’s sensible to wonder whether serums are perfectly safe to use, and combine with other products.
Generally, the answer is yes: you can combine serums, and face serums, with other products. That’s why there is even a well-developed order of application of them - because they have been tested and tried out millions of times.
However, that doesn’t mean that’s 100% the case. There are situations where an ingredient in the serum will clash with an ingredient in the cleanser, or the essence, or the moisturizer and so on. Above, we mentioned that you can combine face serums with essences, toners, moisturizers and so on. But please check their label first, and be on the lookout for retinoids.
See, it’s not advised to combine face serums with retinoid creams (or other topical products that contain retinoids), and especially not in the evening. The clash is mainly on the side of the retinoid product, since retinoids are powerful and penetrate the skin to the deeper levels as well. So, combining topical retinoids with face serums is not a very good idea, since the two products will clash, and can lead to irritation. This combination is to be particularly avoided at night, since our body and our skin’s regeneration processes then kick into high gear. (And yes, you can use serums at any time of day you please.)
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 in which the body attempts to help itself. So what happens if you pour a face serum on a patch skin irritated due to eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis?
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 are experiencing. If you still want to try though, you should perform a patch test first (more information on that 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 and the environment.
Remember, everyone’s skin is slightly different and can react to different things. Regardless of how widely used, hyped up, or safe they are for other people.
As the saying goes, there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. You should use skincare products in moderation, and this is especially pertinent when it comes to using face serums. Due to their high concentration, repeated and excessive use of face serums can lead to irritation, so you should always follow the instructions on the label and the dosage prescribed.
But generally speaking, you should always be mindful of what you’re putting on your skin, and ideally, 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 (like the name suggests) are simple, easy steps where you apply a small amount of any substance, or product, on a small patch of skin. This is to see if your skin will have any adverse reactions to the ingredient, or product you’re testing before you start using it.
Typically, anywhere between 24 and 48 hours is enough time to tell if your skin will show any adverse reactions, or not. If not, you can start using the product or ingredient. But if yes, and if you’re experiencing redness, itching, a sensation of burning, irritation, swelling, flaking, or other negative side effects, you should wash the area immediately, stop using the product or ingredient, and schedule an appointment with your doctor or dermatologist.
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.