Could Ditching Serums Actually Give You Better Skin?

Photographed by Anna Jay.
Gone are the days when the simple 'cleanse, tone and moisturise' routine was more than enough to look after skin. Now, social media trends, an abundance of brands, and a better understanding of the fabric of the skin has given us access to more products than we could ever have imagined. But if you ask dermatologists, one is arguably more popular than the rest: the targeted serum.
From hyaluronic acid to niacinamide, it seems as though there's a new serum to try almost every week. Not a fan of retinol? You could always try the plant-based alternative, bakuchiol. Find vitamin C irritating? Ascrobyl glycoside might be your best bet. While all of these ingredients have their benefits, it's clear that when it comes to serums, there's a lot of choice. Sure, that's a good thing. But how much is too much?

Are serums falling out of favour?

At the time of writing, search for skincare serums took a small decline according to Google Trends, while on TikTok, a handful of beauty enthusiasts are questioning our obsession with them. One viral video format sees TikTokers letting their followers in on the products they've ditched from their routines. "Goodnight bestie, but we can't be besties no more," plays the sound on top of a listicle of serums which users claim have caused redness, breakouts and irritation. "Skincare I Regret Buying" is also a popular trend in which a handful of trending serums tend to be the stars of the show.
In almost all of these viral clips, the serums in question contain active ingredients. Actives are meant to address certain skin concerns. Popular ones include vitamin C, exfoliating acids (such as glycolic and lactic acid), niacinamide and retinol to name a few. The strength of said ingredients varies in certain products, but serums offer targeted skin support and tend to deliver higher levels compared to most other products, like cleansers and moisturisers. Countless TikTok-trending serums boast particularly strong concentrations, for example 30% vitamin C or 30% glycolic acid.
Like TikTokers, dermatologists and skin experts are warning of the effects of over-using serums containing potent active ingredients, claiming to have seen patients with self-inflicted burns and rashes as a result. Dr Ana, cosmetic doctor and skincare expert, explains that social media has had a significant impact on the public interest in skincare over the last few years. She reveals that her patients cite a feeling of FOMO — the fear of missing out — for buying into serums with buzzy active ingredients. Consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto agrees that influencer culture and marketing perpetuates FOMO and encourages plenty of the serum purchases she sees in clinic.

One of the worst serum mistakes, which skincare experts are seeing unfold in their clinics, is excessive layering.

Is serum layering bad for your skin?

In reality, though, everyone's skin is different. The high-strength exfoliating serum that got rid of an influencer's acne scars might seriously irritate your face. The same goes for ingredients such as retinol, which can be notoriously aggravating when used incorrectly. But one of the worst serum mistakes, which skincare experts are seeing unfold in their clinics, is excessive layering.
From hyperpigmentation to dullness, you'd be forgiven for wanting to treat all of your skin concerns at once. But going all in could pose a problem. "There has been a surge in 'more is more' fuelled by social media, such as Instagram and TikTok, which sees individuals applying multiple products and often adding unnecessary steps into their skincare routine," says Dr Mahto. "I've seen some videos where people will use up to 5-6 different actives in one evening skincare routine — and it's not necessary."

Which skincare ingredients don't go together?

Before we go any further, a caveat: at R29, we often report on trends in skincare. If there's a new, promising ingredient or serum on the scene, we'll let you know about it. But everyone's skin needs are different and working out whether a product is right for you before buying it (such as contacting a skin specialist, reading detailed reviews, or researching the ingredients list) is a good place to start.
Dr Ana explains that your tolerance to mixing active ingredient serums depends on your individual skin type. But she says that certain combinations are known to cause irritation — even on their own, yet especially when combined with each other. She advises against layering retinoids and AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid) or BHAs (beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid), for instance. Other potentially irritating duos when layered directly on top of one another include: vitamin C and the above exfoliating acids; benzoyl peroxide and vitamin C or exfoliating acids; vitamin C and retinoids; benzoyl peroxide and retinoids.

Ironically, there's a reason why skincare brands are launching 'barrier repair' moisturisers left, right and centre. Serum overload means many of us have completely destroyed ours.

Dr Derrick Phillips, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, explains that the right serum makes an excellent addition to any skincare routine, especially if you're keen to address certain skin concerns, such as breakouts or hyperpigmentation to name a few. But layering more than 2 or 3 products, or using thick serums, can clog the skin, which spells bad news for those who may experience issues like acne.
Dr Mahto explains that this sort of over-application can result in other skin conditions, two of the most common being eczema and perioral dermatitis (an uncomfortable red rash around the mouth). It's a widespread skincare concern, with the hashtag #perioraldermatitis amassing 66.9 million views on TikTok and counting. As well as this, Dr Ana has seen patients present with a compromised skin barrier — markers being itchiness, flakiness, redness, tightness and spots. Ironically, there's a reason why skincare brands are launching 'barrier repair' moisturisers left, right and centre — serum overload means many of us have completely destroyed ours.

Are serums even necessary?

No-one is suggesting you throw out your favourite serum. Depending on your skin concern, the right product can be transformative, and if it's working for you, that's great. But Dr Ana explains that depending on your time and budget, serums are not absolutely essential in comparison to daily SPF and cleansing. "These should never be omitted in my opinion," she says.
Indeed, TikTok's skincare enthusiasts are following suit. A quick search for "simple skincare routine" serves up countless, uncomplicated 3-step regimes, which omit fussy serums entirely. Instead, TikTokers like @stxph.h now favour a basic cleanser, a lightweight moisturiser and a sunscreen.
The expert consensus is that stripping things back to basics is your best bet to achieving happy skin. "A simple skincare routine (without layering or use of multiple active ingredients) is easier to adhere to," explains Dr Phillips. "It's also less likely to lead to breakouts from occlusion (clogging) of the skin, or redness and irritation from a combination of harsh ingredients."
@stxph.h sometimes simplicity is best! don’t be afraid to go back to the basics & figure out what your skin rly needs & what it doesn’t! saves me a whole lotta money on skincare now 😮‍💨 #fypシ #simpleskincareroutine #3stepskincare #morningskincareroutine ♬ original sound - stephhui

How do you use serums effectively & without irritating your skin?

Serums might still be a popular purchase, but DIY layering is risky business. With that in mind, Dr Mahto wouldn't recommend using too many products in one go. But if you did want to use two or more serums in your routine, you might like to keep them apart. "For example, if you want to use vitamin C and vitamin A (retinol), use the vitamin C in your morning routine [before SPF or moisturiser] and vitamin A in your nighttime routine [before moisturiser]," says Dr Mahto.
Dr Ana agrees. "If you don't have specific concerns and want to protect your skin from environmental damage, I recommend a simple ABC approach." The 'A' stands for vitamin A (retinol), 'C' is for vitamin C and 'B' stands for sunblock [or sunscreen]." Vitamin A should be used at night, and vitamin C and sunscreen used in the day.
Nowadays, says Dr Mahto, skincare formulations are so advanced that often brands will combine actives that work in harmony together in one single product. "Brands which I've found a particularly good at this include Paula's Choice, Medik8 and Omorovicza," she says. To get the most out of your serums in this way, ingredients should be chosen that complement each other, says Dr Phillips. "The combination of retinol and niacinamide works well, as the anti-inflammatory properties of niacinamide can soothe the sensitivity brought on by the exfoliative action of retinol." La Roche-Posay's Retinol B3 an Anti-Ageing Serum for Sensitive Skin, £38, marries both, as does Youth To The People's Retinal & Niacinamide Youth Serum, £59.
"The combination of niacinamide and vitamin C also works well together," says Dr Phillips, "particularly if the goal is to achieve skin brightening." R29 rates the Versed Stroke of Brilliance Brightening Serum, £18. Of course, Dr Ana points out that these hybrid serums should be used as directed, so always read the instructions to avoid skin issues down the line.
Serums certainly have their place in skincare. But the consensus from the experts and TikTok's beauty lovers proves that it's easy to get sucked into trying everything — and subsequently going overboard. If anything, consider the beauty industry's reconsideration of serums a positive. Both in regard to your skin (especially if you've noticed a handful of unexplained issues while using them) and, of course, your bank balance.
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