Like booster supplements in smoothies and freshly pressed green-drink orders, the use of serums in skin care can at first seem like a superfluous, if not costly indulgence. Sure, these shots of concentrated nutrients might add extra oomph to our complexions, but if we’re already keeping our skin clean and hydrated, can adding a serum to the mix make that much of a difference?
According to Dr. Alexander Rivkin, a Los Angeles-based cosmetic surgeon, and New Orleans-based dermatologist Mary Lupo, MD, just like the maca we might add to our juices for better health, serums can deliver a concentrated level of nutrients to the skin that can penetrate better than many moisturizers.
Whereas creams sit on top of the skin to form a
protective barrier of hydration, serums are typically made from active ingredients that contain molecules small enough to penetrate the outer layer of the skin and deliver intensive doses of collagen builders, antioxidants, and other anti-aging ingredients deeper in the epidermis. And, as Lupo points out, because many formulations are water based, serums can also serve as great vehicles to deliver water-soluble ingredients, like vitamin C, beyond the skin’s surface for deeper absorption and to provide a brightening effect.
In fact, serums can be such heavy hitters, Rivkin doesn’t just see them as an added bonus to a skin-care routine, but as being “very essential.” Which isn’t to say that a serum should replace your moisturizer. Rivkin notes that after delivering such concentrated active ingredients, a moisturizer is needed to lock in hydration and provide a protective barrier. To really maximize these complexion boosters, he recommends cleansing with warm water (to maximize the products' absorption), applying a serum to a slightly damp face, and following with a moisturizer a few minutes later.
So, now that we know that serums should be an integral part of our skin-care regimen, how do we find our skin-boosting soul mate? Ahead, we asked Rivkin to identify the best active ingredients for each of the nine most common skin types. Read on to find out which one you should be adding to your daily routine.
The easiest way to make sure you're getting enough SPF? Slather it on with your serum. This bottle from Supergoop! delivers an SPF of 30. Just make sure to carry some extra protection to reapply throughout the day if you're going to be active.
City Sunscreen Serum SPF 30, $42, available at
This serum and moisturizer duo packs on enough hydration to last all day and protects you from the bad, bad sun. (But it's only SPF 15, so make you to re-up throughout the day.)
Total Effects 7-in-One Moisturizer + Serum Duo with Broad Spectrum SPF 15 , $14.49, available at
Photo: Courtesy of Sephora.
For those fighting shine, adding an oil-based serum to their skin-care routine can result in a finish so slick, makeup can’t hold on. Luckily, the silicone derivatives in this vitamin-, and yes, oil-rich formula (it counts 10 plant oils among its ingredients) take the shine right out of the equation and help keep your makeup in place.
No 28 Primer Serum, $65, available at
This lightweight serum contains a host of ingredients meant to hydrate and brighten the skin, including rose water, peat extract, and fermented soy bean.
Peat Miracle Revital Serum Concentrate, $60, available at
"After washing my face, I usually slick on a little bit of vitamin C serum," beauty writer Khalea Underwood says. "My face looks so glowy and radiant, I don't even need highlighter."
Acne Skin Brightening Serum, $48, available at
As this serum's name would suggest, the liquid is indeed full of free radical-fighting antioxidants, like vitamins C and E. It's also incredibly lightweight and hydrating, meaning it absorbs quickly while lending a luminous finish to the skin.
Antioxidant Dew, $67, available at
Photo: Courtesy of La Prairie.
Sure, it’s stocked with humectants designed to mimic the body’s natural ability to moisturize. And it boasts lipids like ceramides, which can improve texture by penetrating beneath the skin’s surface. But this pricey serum won us over with its ability to hydrate — and heal — skin so freakishly dry, it's practically peeling.
Cellular Hydrating Serum, $210, available at
Even if you typically have oily skin, this hydrating concentrate never makes you feel like you're slick. It dries matte, but penetrates deep into the skin for long-lasting moisture. For people with extra dry, patchy skin, load this on underneath your daily lotion and trust that it will keep you looking radiant, not dull.
Lucent Facial Concentrate, $115, available at
If you're in the market for a pricey (repeat: very pricey) serum, this one from Dr. Sturm is great. The hyaluronic acid-rich formula is incredibly lightweight, yet wards off flakes and dryness so well you might be tempted to skip moisturizer altogether.
Hyaluronic Serum, $300, available at
Hyaluronic acid has been
en vogue ingredient for calming dry and dull skin woes as of late. If those concerns resonate with you, try Skin Inc.'s aptly named Hyaluronic Acid Serum. With a patented Japanese seaweed, we're ready to slather it on our faces every night.
Hyaluronic Acid Serum Long-Lasting Hydration, $45, available at
Dr. Dendy Engelman,
director of dermatologic surgery and laser medicine
at Metropolitan Hospital, recommends this serum because it's hydrating, as well as for its ability to repair and protect, thanks to a ceramide complex, vitamins, and antioxidants, which plump fine lines and combat free radicals from environmental damage.
Antioxidant Hydration Serum, $120, available
Rivkin points to calming ingredients — like the arnica and green, white and red teas found in this preservative-free formula — as helpful anti-inflammatories for those with rosacea. But, this serum does reddened complexions one better by packing mulberry root and bearberry extracts, thought to further reduce redness, while also wielding a free radical-fighting triple-threat, thanks to goji berry, pomegranate, and grapeseed extracts.
Redness Diffusing Serum, $60, available at
Diane Berson, MD
, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, recommends
because it combines caffeine, moisturizer, and a vasoconstrictor to target redness from multiple sources.
Peche, $78.75, available at
Photo: Courtesy of H20+.
“Drying out acne-prone skin will only make your skin produce more oil,” Rivkin warns. So, he suggests those with blemish-prone skin seek a serum that both exfoliates and hydrates — like this one, which contains glycolic and salicylic acid, plus glycerin to moisturize.
Calming Corrector, $25, available at
Another great option for breakout control comes from aesthetician Renée Rouleau. It's formulated specifically to target wrinkles
acne thanks to a blend of acids (salicylic, lactic, and glycolic), niacinamide, and allantoin.
Pore + Wrinkle Perfecting Serum, $48.50, available at
Dry, acne-prone skin types will revel in this formula. Why? It hydrates skin without being greasy — and helps nix breakouts.
Blemish Remedy Anti-Imperfection Serum, $42, available at
Photo: Courtesy of Net-A-Porter.
Those with sensitive skin are generally instructed to ease up on the retinol so as not to agitate their already delicate complexions. But, this dry oil — comprised of nine cold-pressed superfood seed oils, and free of allergen-inducing essential oils — boasts natural retinol by way of broccoli oil, to help soothe skin and minimize the look of pores. Plus, it’s packed with anti-inflammatories, which Lupo recommends.
Juno Hydroactive Cellular Face Oil, $125, available at
Ideal for sensitive skin, this non-greasy serum is infused with extracts of peony root and red seaweed, which work together to make skin more radiant as it moisturizes. It also has aloe leaf extract that helps repair collagen and elastin.
Moisture Boost Serum,
A heavy dose of hyaluronic acid and milk proteins soothe and hydrate sensitive skin.
Evercalm Anti-Redness Serum, $46, available at
As a more affordable option, this serum works well for those who have dry, sensitive skin. Enriched with tried and true hyaluronic acid, as well as collagen and aloe, the serum is calming and soothing.
First Aid Beauty
Ultra Repair Hydrating Serum, $36, available at
Photo: Courtesy of DermaQuest.
We can’t totally undo skin damage caused by SPF-free afternoons spent as kids, but as Rivkin and Lupo note, vitamin C can help lighten discoloration, while brightening the overall complexion as well. This C-stocked formula also includes moisturizing glycerin, and retinol, another Rivkin favorite, to help exfoliate dead skin cells.
C Infusion Serum, $88, available at
Gentle enough to use both in the morning and at night, this serum targets brown spots, sun damage, and discoloration with a non-retinol formula. It features brightening ingredients like
, which are found in Australia and are considered the world's highest natural source for Vitamin C.
Even Tone Correcting Serum,
The serum contains a potent blend of exfoliating acids (glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric, and salicylic) along with hydrators like raspberry extract and horse chestnut. And yet, it's still gentle enough to use every night. One beauty editor recently finished the bottle and noticed that the dark spots that had developed after a bad reaction to a facial months prior had almost completely disappeared.
T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, $90, available at
Photo: Courtesy of Eminence.
Rivkin suggests those fighting the visible effects of time seek a serum with retinol, as it "reduces pore size, smoothes texture, and lightens brown spots, and vitamin C to strengthen the skin and protect it from further damage.” This organic, all plant-based serum boasts vitamin C via coconut water and retinol by way of tara tree and chicory root.
Bamboo Firming Fluid, $58, available at
shoppers, this ultra lightweight serum promises firmer skin in just four weeks with help from its own Amino-Peptide Complex II, which is designed to deliver moisture deep into the skin's surface.
Regenerist Regenerating Serum,
Afraid of tech neck, under-eye bags from staring at a screen all day, or lines on your forehead from glaring at the ceiling during yet another company meeting? This serum is made for that — and city dwellers especially. The best part? The formula islightweight, so it absorbs almost instantly and won't leave behind a sticky residue.
Vine Activ Glow Activating Anti-Wrinkle Serum, $52, available at
If most retinol-infused serums are too drying for you, try out this formula from Trufora. The vitamin A active is just as effective as retinol, and is balanced with hydrating hyaluronic acid to coddle your skin while it goes to work. (Even better, the formula is free of all harsh chemicals, sulfates, and detergents, so even the most sensitive type can use it.)
Night Serum 85, $50, available at
Plumping any fine lines is all about intense levels of hydration — and this serum has got it. It's formulated with three different sizes of hyaluronic acid so it doubles as your daily dose of moisturizer
Wrinkle Warrior 2-in-1 Plumping Moisturizer + Serum, $95, available at
Photo: Courtesy of Osmia Organics.
“Serums are designed to go underneath a moisturizer, but for someone with very oily skin, a serum alone may be enough to hydrate,” Rivkin says. We found this quick-absorbing, oil-based serum actually helped regulate our own oil production and negated the need for a moisturizer, allowing us to skip straight to an SPF.
Face Calibration Serum, $50, available at
If you have oily skin, you know how wary you feel to try anything that's meant to hydrate and nourish — god forbid our T-zones go into grease hyperdrive. But this oil-free formula brightens with vitamin C and delivers just enough hyaluronic acid to leave skin softer than if you slept in a sheet mask.
Skin Drink Concentrate, $42.50, available at
This formula contains a peptide inspired by the muscle-freezing effect of snake venom, so it claims to tighten skin and smooth fine lines over time. Plus, it has blurring capabilities and dries quickly, making it a perfect primer.
Snake Serum O2, $162, available at
Photo: Courtesy of Lierac.
The French may not get facelifts, but they certainly indulge in mesotherapy — vitamin and mineral injections that are believed to brighten and lift the skin. This serum acts as an echo-meso, delivering calcium, copper, and zinc, along with brightening vitamin C and hydrating hyaluronic acid, which Rivkin notes, “draws moisture to the skin.”
Concentré Mésolift Toning Radiance Serum, $60, available at
If your skin feels and looks lackluster, then load on the vitamin C. An added bonus: gallic acid brightens skin while vitamin E supplies your daily dose of hydration.
Vitablast Serum, $92, available at
Safe for sensitive skin sets, this brightening formula immediately goes to work on lightening acne scars and evening out your skin tone. Even better, it's hydrating enough to take the place of your daily moisturizer.
Vinoperfect Radiance Serum, $79, available at
The best things come in threes, and this serum is packed with brightening vitamin C, gently exfoliates your skin all day long, and offers up serious antioxidant protection for a smoother, more even toned complexion.
Powerful-Strength Line-Reducing Concentrate 12.5% Vitamin C, $62, available at
Not to sound like a broken record that’s being played on repeat by every beauty editor ever, but this skin-transforming liquid deserves every ounce of praise it gets. (Which is
.) The texture is more of a weightless essence than a traditional serum, but it imparts just the right amount of moisture that you’ll only need SPF over top for daytime. But you’re not here for the hydration: You’re here for the bright, clear complexion, the barely-there pores, and the soft, fresh, youthful skin that’s at the bottom of every bottle of this stuff.
Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid, $29, available at
This serum immediately makes your skin look brighter while vitamin C and glycolic acid improve tone and texture over time.
C.E.O. Rapid Flash Brightening Serum, $85, available at
Exfoliation is important to promote cell turnover (which leads to brighter skin), and this Sunday Riley chemical exfoliant with lactic acid is magical because it creates a soft, smooth complexion in the most gentle way — while you sleep.
Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment, $158, available at
"Ovine and plant placenta stem cells are at the heart of
Rest & Revive Night Serum, an ultra-light, moisture-boosting formula that stimulates collagen and elastin and has made my dullish, reddish winter skin look brighter and healthier — like I haven't been boozing harder than ever this month and snacking on sugar gummies as I type this — in a mere two weeks' time," R29 senior beauty editor Alix Tunell says. "In conjunction with the brand's
vitamin C serum
, which has significantly reduced the melasma around my eyes after almost three months, I've never felt better about skipping foundation (
Rest and Revive Restorative Placenta and Stem Cell Night Serum, $320, available at
Like this post? There's more. Get tons of beauty tips, tutorials, and news on the
Refinery29 Beauty Facebook page
. Like us on Facebook — we'll see you there!