How To Find The Right Serum To Transform Your Skin

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 Alexander Rivkin, MD, 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.
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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 Dr. 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, Dr. 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. Dr. 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 Dr. 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.
At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.
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SPF

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.
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This serum packs on enough hydration to last all day and protects you from the bad, bad sun.
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Photo: Courtesy of Sephora.
Combination

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.
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This lightweight serum contains a host of ingredients meant to hydrate and brighten the skin, including rose water, peat extract, and fermented soy bean.
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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.
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Photo: Courtesy of La Prairie.
Dry

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.
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If you got one too many sunburns this summer and are now battling super-dry skin as the temperature drops, this serum may be your savior. With plant- and vitamin-derived antioxidants that work together with vitamin C to restore hydration, it's gentle enough to use twice a day.
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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.
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Dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, of Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery 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.
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Rosacea

Dr. 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.
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Diane Berson, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, recommends Neocutis Pêche for treating rosacea because it combines caffeine, moisturizer, and a vasoconstrictor to target redness from multiple sources.
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Acneic

A great option for breakout control comes from aesthetician Renée Rouleau. It's formulated specifically to target wrinkles and acne thanks to a blend of acids (salicylic, lactic, and glycolic), niacinamide, and allantoin.
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Dry, acne-prone skin types will revel in this formula. Why? It hydrates skin without being greasy — and helps nix breakouts.
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Sensitive

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 Dr. Lupo recommends.
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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.
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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.
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Photo: Courtesy of DermaQuest.
Pigmentation

We can’t totally undo skin damage caused by SPF-free afternoons spent as kids, but as Dr. Rivkin and Dr. 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 Dr. Rivkin favorite, to help exfoliate dead skin cells.
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Vitamin C isn't just great for brightening: It also contains powerful antioxidants that "fight and reverse damage from free radicals that wreck your skin cells," says Dr. Engelman. This one, by SkinCeuticals, is a derm favorite.
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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.
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Aging

Dr. 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.” With an unstoppable cocktail of lactic acid to exfoliate the skin, a mild retinoid to encourage cell turnover, and aloe vera to keep the skin calm, this serum was a clear winner for the best anti-aging product in this year's Beauty Innovator Awards.
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Not formulated with retinol but potent all the same, this serum from dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, MD, is packed with lilac stem cells to control excess oil, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (try saying that five times fast) to brighten the skin, and marine extracts, which increase collagen and elastin.
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Beloved by Ulta 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.
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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 is lightweight, so it absorbs almost instantly and won't leave behind a sticky residue.
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Photo: Courtesy of Osmia Organics.
Oily

“Serums are designed to go underneath a moisturizer, but for someone with very oily skin, a serum alone may be enough to hydrate,” Dr. 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.
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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.
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Dull

Safe for sensitive skin types, 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.
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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.
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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 a lot.) 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.
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