It's true that there are so many skincare product options—moisturizers, face oils, creams, retinols/retinoids, eye creams, face masks… It can get pretty overwhelming at times. You probably know you always need the basics like a moisturizer, a cleanser, and sunscreen, but what about the rest? Are you just wasting your money on products that you don't really need?
There are a lot of differing opinions on this, and personally, I think a lot of it depends on your skin's needs. But one skincare product that my skin needs is a face serum, and I like to use ones that have brightening and hydrating effects. the thing I love most about the product is that they're normally lightweight and absorb into the skin quickly, which means they work fast.
"A face serum is a highly concentrated topical therapy that is on the lighter end of the thickness spectrum," explains Corey L. Hartman, MD, FAAD, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology. "Serums can be water, gel, or oil-based and include one or several potent active ingredients that are targeted to a particular skincare concern. They generally come in a liquid to gel-like texture and consist of smaller molecules that are able to penetrate the skin and go to work at a deeper level where they can create change."
Not every serum is created equally, of course. Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD, FAAD, founder and CEO of Vibrant Dermatology and Skin Bar MD, says, "There are many different types of face serums, all geared towards addressing different skin concerns. Most commonly, you'll find antioxidant serums, anti-aging serums, and serums that improve hyperpigmentation."
Some serums can also provide hydration, but they differ from a moisturizer. While a moisturizer might be thick and creamy, a serum will be lighter and thinner. "Serums are intended to penetrate deeply into the skin to deliver targeted active ingredients, whereas moisturizers help to fortify the surface of the skin, bind skin cells together more effectively, and work at the surface of the skin to increase hydration."
But since there are so many different variations of serums out there, you might be wondering how to actually shop for one. "Choose your face serum based on the concern that you wish to address," recommends Imahiyerobo-Ip. "Serums are generally pricier than the average over-the-counter skincare cream. How do you know if the serum is worth purchasing? Look at the ingredient list. The active ingredient should be at the top of the ingredient list. If it's not, then you'll know that the serum isn't going to deliver the results you desire."
When it comes to choosing an effective face serum, Hartman says to keep these three things in mind:
1. Active Ingredients: "Choose active ingredients that target your skin concerns and dermatologic conditions," Hartman says. That might mean vitamin C to brighten and even skin tone, or hyaluronic acid for hydration.
2. Your Skin Type: For oily skin, consider a lighter and more aqueous serum. For dry skin, try an oil serum. "Those with sensitive skin must avoid serums that contain too many acids," Imahiyerobo-Ip says. "Acids such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid, citric acid, or retinoic acid all exfoliate the skin. If your serum contains acids and you have sensitive skin, you may experience skin irritation and redness."
3. Consistency of the Serum: Again, go with a lighter formula if you have oily skin and an oil-based formula for drier skin.
When it comes to applying serum, normally you'll want to put it on right after you cleanse the skin. "In general, skincare products are layered from thinnest to thickest with the thinnest products being applied to the skin first," Hartman explains. "If you think about the intended goals, it makes sense. Serums are intended to deliver active ingredients deep into the skin and the moisturizer forms a seal to make the serums more efficacious."
And as for if you can ditch your moisturizer for a serum, both derms say you still might want to keep both around because each has a different role to play in your overall skincare routine. "The purpose of a moisturizer is to protect, hydrate, and lubricate the skin," Imahiyerobo-Ip explains. "Serums are focused on transforming the skin by providing potent, active ingredients. While there are some serums that are meant to enhance the skin's moisture barrier, such as hyaluronic acid, I generally consider these as adjuncts to a moisturizer."
Take a look at some serum options below, categorized by skin type.
For Normal and Combination Skin
1. HydroPeptide Hydrostem Stem Cell Antioxidant Serum
This one is Imahiyerobo-Ip's favorite antioxidant serum. "It contains a blend of botanicals stem cells to protect and revive the complexion. It's formulated with peptides, plant extracts, and antioxidant-rich stem cells which help to nourish and protect your skin," she says.
2. TruSkin Vitamin C Serum
TruSkin's vitamin C serum is a big hit on Amazon with over 85,000 ratings and 4.5 out of 5 stars. In addition to vitamin C, it contains hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, witch hazel, and jojoba oil to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and dark spots. Plus, it will leave you skin just glowing.
3. SheaMoisture Brighter Days Ahead Serum
"This serum contains a potent blend of papaya, vitamin C, and yuzu lemon, and helps to brighten and hydrate skin," says Imahiyerobo-Ip. "Unlike many vitamin C serums, it is not too irritating and can be used on most skin types."
4. Tatcha The Dewy Serum Resurfacing and Plumping Treatment
This three-in-one serum pretty much does it all: It smooths fine lines and texture, plumps the skin, and locks in moisture. Ingredients include lactic acid, hyaluronic acid, and squalane.
5. Glossier Super Bounce
Glossier's Super Bounce serum contains 2% hyaluronic acid and pro-vitamin B5 to hydrate the skin fast. It's great for all skin types, fast-absorbing, and silky-smooth (aka not sticky).
For Oily, Acne-Prone Skin
6. SkinCeuticals Silymarin CF
You probably know about SkinCeuticals's cult-favorite C E Ferulic serum, but did you know that it has a sister product that's great for acne-prone skin? "It combines vitamin C, ferulic acid, and salicylic acid to fight breakouts and silymarin to control oiliness," Hartman says. "This potent antioxidant serum addresses the needs of the oily, acne-prone person while also providing antioxidant protection."
7. IS Clinical Active Serum
This serum has anti-aging, anti-acne, and brightening benefits. It's a favorite of senior beauty editor Erin Jahns. Use it to deal with hyperpigmentation, breakouts, and redness.
8. SkinBetter Science AlphaRet Clearing Serum
"SkinBetter's acne clearing serum contains a prescription-like retinol, salicylic acid, beta hydroxy acid, alpha hydroxy acid, and lactic acid," Hartman says. "It is a mainstay of acne treatment. It delivers results in a non-irritating formulation that also fights fine lines, wrinkles, and pigmentation."
For Dry Skin
9. Isdin Melatonik Recovery Night Serum
"Isdin's Melatonik is my favorite all-in-one product for the busy professional with dry skin," Hartman explains. "It contains a retinol alternative, bakuchiol, and two antioxidants—one direct, vitamin E, and one indirect, melatonin. It's in a moisturizing oil serum that provides just the right amount of moisture and that dewy look that everyone wants."
10. Versed Sunday Morning Antioxidant Oil-Serum
A hybrid oil-serum formula, Versed's product is ultra-hydrating, thanks to vitamin E and sodium hyaluronate. It also reduces redness. and strengthens the skin barrier. I slather this on my skin when it's dry and it always comes through for me.
11. SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator
This serum has five—yes, five—types of hydrators. They work to replenish your skin's hyaluronic acid and provide up to eight hours of continuous moisture.
12. Vichy Mineral 89
Made with hyaluronic acid and volcanic water, this extremely lightweight serum will plump and hydrate your skin. It provides up to 24 hours of hydration, so you're covered for a long time.
13. L'Oréal Paris Revitalift 1.5% Pure Hyaluronic Acid Face Serum
With over 25,000 ratings and 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon, this serum comes highly recommended. One reviewer wrote, "The serum is clear, scent-free, and slippery when applied. I use about two to three drops and rub it all over my face and neck. I'm already seeing a noticeable difference in my skin—it feels much more supple, and the surface is smoother and softer to touch."
For Mature Skin
14. Heraux Molecular Anti-Inflammaging Serum
"It contains not only hyaluronic acid, but also a patented HX-1 anti-inflammaging active ingredient to slow inflammation that contributes to skin aging," Hartman says. "The combination of vitamin C and E and peptides makes for a potent cocktail to keep the skin firm, plump, and smooth."
15. Tata Harper Rejuvenating Serum
Tata Harper's serum contains Spanish lavender, which is a natural neuropeptide that maintains moisture and smooths fine lines and wrinkles. It also contains other ingredients to soothe dry skin, like hyaluronic acid and larch tree.
16. Shani Darden Retinol Reform
Jahns's 73-year-old mom is a big fan of this product. "I definitely saw a decrease in fine lines after using this product, but I was puzzled as to why it was working," she says. "Usually, if I even just see the word retinol, my skin starts to turn red and flake. But there was no redness or irritation! There was no flaking! Yet I was seeing a decrease in fine lines. This formula is effective yet gentle. To me, it's pure magic, and the hype and buzz are 110% warranted. There are no two ways about it—I love this product."
17. Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Retinol Face Serum
This lightweight retinol serum works to smooth fine lines and texture, while also brightening and evening the skin tone. One reviewer says, "Within days (yes, days), the deepest crease above one eye is gone, not diminished or better but gone. My forehead lines look like they did in my thirties, and my smile lines are diminishing daily."
For Sensitive Skin
18. Aveeno Calm + Restore Triple Oat Hydrating Face Serum
Aveeno's calming serum was formulated especially for sensitive skin. It has a triple oat complex (a combo of oat flour, extract, and oil) to soothe irritation and dryness.
19. Dr. Jart+ Cicapair Tiger Grass Serum
You can say goodbye to redness with this serum. It contains Centella Rx to soothe and protect the skin, plus other ingredients to strengthen the skin's defenses and repair any damage.
20. La Roche-Posay Rosaliac AR Intense Visible Redness Reducing Serum
In addition to dealing with redness, this serum also moisturizes and smoothes dry skin. One reviewer wrote, "I have had rosacea most of my adult life. I'm generally ruddy, I sunburn easily, and the moment I get hot, I'm very red. I started seeing results after only using this for a few days, amazingly. I didn't actually know my face was this color! The results have been dramatic."