Serums do so much for the skin. Some deeply hydrate dry skin fast by absorbing quickly. Others, like antioxidant serums, fight off environmental damage and target fine lines and wrinkles. And some are great to even your skin tone, smooth texture, and make your face look more radiant.
That all sounds great, right? But when you have sensitive skin, you know you have to tread lightly with any kind of product. You can't pick up just any serum and apply it to your face because it might cause irritation, more dryness, or even breakouts. So I asked some dermatologists and aestheticians for their tips on choosing a serum for sensitive skin.
Luckily, there are a lot of options for someone who has sensitive skin, says dermatological nurse and celebrity aesthetician Natalie Aguilar. "All of my clients have a serum in their routine, as serums are fluid-like in nature and can deliver active ingredients deeper into the skin," she explains. "This allows actives to treat and calm my clients' sensitive-skin conditions such as redness, dryness, irritation, and inflammation."
Anthony Rossi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who has a skincare line launching in 2022, says serums that are devoid of irritating filler ingredients, such as parabens and sulfates, and ultra-concentrated additives, such as retinol, work well for sensitive skin. "Even though retinol has benefits, it may be too harsh for those with sensitive skin," he says.
Serums are usually higher in active or absorbable beneficial ingredients than heavy creams. And because of that, SkinSpirit lead aesthetician Karen Fernandez says that it's important that your serum is high quality with natural and medical-grade ingredients.
How to Shop for a Serum
For sensitive skin, Rossi says you'll want to look for serums that are hydrating and moisturizing instead of ones with acids or exfoliants. And all the experts pretty much agree on the less-is-more approach, so something with a simple formula is best.
"Look for very simple serums that focus on hydrating or, in some cases, calming (like reducing inflammation)," Fernandez says. "Many of the other serums will have active or what I call 'corrective' ingredients that help propel change. For sensitive skin, the main goal is to keep skin balanced, hydrated, and happy." Most sensitive-skin serums also work to strengthen and protect the skin against external stressors.
Serum Ingredients to Prioritize
Since the ideal serum for sensitive skin is something that's soothing and hydrating, you'll want to look for ingredients that have those benefits. "Niacinamide is helpful, as it is a potent antioxidant but also not as irritating," Rossi says. "Also look for serums that have humectants and moisturizers in them such as hyaluronic acid." Fernandez seconds the hyaluronic-acid recommendation, saying it's the best because it is naturally occurring in the skin already, and "it's basically a water molecule, which the skin loves and almost never causes a negative reaction."
Other helpful ingredients include calendula, arnica, chamomile, and cornflower—all of these are soothing and hydrating. And Aguilar suggests looking for skin-strengthening ingredients like beta-glucan, lipids, and peptides.
Serum Ingredients to Avoid
As for what to avoid, you can probably guess what is off-limits here—anything that can dry out or irritate the skin. Rossi cautions that high concentrations of retinol or vitamin C may be too harsh for sensitive skin. And certain acids, like glycolic, salicylic, citric, and lactic, that are supposed to brighten the skin might be too active for sensitive skin, Fernandez adds.
"It's important to abstain from any ingredient that you're sensitive or allergic to," Aguilar says. "Generally, my top ingredients to avoid are perfume, fragrance, parabens, phthalates, and high alcohol, as many of my clients find they are most sensitive to these."
And if you're ready to shop for a serum with all of this new info, take a look at some recs below.
Best Serums for Sensitive Skin
1. PCA Skin Dual Action Redness Relief
"This serum helps to reduce redness and sensitivity while improving the skin's barrier function," Aguilar says. "It provides instant and long-term relief from discomfort and starts reducing redness and inflammation on contact with the skin. It calms and soothes compromised skin, even after professional treatments. I like that it uses a time-released OmniSome delivery system to deliver results throughout the day."
2. SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel
"A tried-and-true favorite that soothes any and all skin (I can say for sure after using it for almost 20 years!) is SkinCeuticals' B5 serum, which delivers hyaluronic acid in a medical-grade (pure) form that hydrates and soothes with no extra fuss. It is what is not in it that is so magical," Fernandez says.
3. Biologique Recherche Sèrum Biosensible
"My favorite serum for sensitive skin is the Sèrum Biosensible by Biologique Recherche," Aguilar says. "This beautiful soothing facial serum treats sensitive and reactive skin types. It is formulated with 11 active ingredients to bring a calming effect to the skin. With consistent use, this serum decreases redness, soothes, and moisturizes sensitive skin to leave skin feeling soft and calm."
4. Éminence Organic Skin Care Calm Skin Arnica Booster-Serum
"I can't leave out Éminence Organic Skin Care's Calm Skin Arnica Booster Serum!" Aguilar says. "It brings relief to redness, inflammation, and irritation for a smooth and balanced complexion. Arnica extract and lavender combine in this facial serum to boost circulation and promote wound healing while ultimately restoring lost moisture. Peppermint creates a cooling sensation, improves dull skin, and reduces blotchiness. It also has the Éminence BioComplex, which is a booster of antioxidants, coenzyme Q10, and alpha-lipoic acid to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and improve the appearance of skin."
5. SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum
"SkinMedica has reformulated its world-famous anti-aging TNS serum into a serum free of any dyes or fragrances, so it is now excellent for sensitive (or post-treatment sensitized skin!) that also wants to be fed all the nutrients needed to combat aging," Fernandez says.
6. DMK Beta Gel
"Beta Gel is a powerful serum designed to revitalize, relieve, and soothe the skin," Aguilar says. "The formulation contains beta-glucan, which is essential for relieving redness, soothing and strengthening dry skin, and revitalizing tired and aging skin. It is especially good for acne-prone skin, making it an ideal serum for all sensitive skin types tackling unique skin conditions. The Beta Gel is one of DMK's signature products that all of my clients love."
7. La Roche-Posay Hyalu B5 Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum
This serum has not one but two types of hyaluronic acid to hydrate and plump the skin. It also contains vitamin B5 to soften and smooth plus prebiotic thermal water for antioxidant benefits.
8. The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 Hydrating Serum
The Ordinary's hydrating serum is made for all skin types, even sensitive skin. It contains an ultra-pure, vegan hyaluronic acid plus vitamin B5 for more hydration.
9. Paula's Choice Clinical Niacinamide 20 Treatment
The star ingredient in this serum is niacinamide, which minimizes the appearance of enlarged pores, improves skin tone and texture, and smooths any blemishes. Other ingredients include acetyl glucosamine and vitamin C, which brighten the skin, plus green tea to defend and repair skin damaged by the sun.
10. CeraVe Skin Renewing Vitamin C serum
Some vitamin C serums can be harsh on sensitive skin, but this one is formulated with essential ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin B5 to soothe and hydrate. It's also fragrance-free, paraben-free, and noncomedogenic.
11. Dr. Jart+ Cicapair Tiger Grass Serum
Designed for sensitive skin, this serum strengthens the skin's defenses while also soothing irritation and repairing any damage.
12. Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum
The sodium hyaluronate in this serum has a smaller molecular weight than hyaluronic acid, so it's able to penetrate the skin more deeply to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. It also contains pineapple ceramide to improve the skin texture and tone and provitamin B5 to trap and hold moisture.
13. CeraVe Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Serum
CeraVe's lightweight gel serum quickly absorbs into the skin to moisturize the skin and actually keep it hydrated for up to 24 hours. And like all CeraVe products, the formula has essential ceramides to restore the skin barrier.
14. IS Clinical Hydra-Cool Serum
While this serum has hyaluronic acid and vitamin B5 like many of the others on this list, it also contains the healing antioxidant Centella asiatica for protection. Plus, it has kojic acid and soothing menthol to refresh the skin. Use it on sensitive skin and even sunburns!
15. Kiehl's Midnight Recovery Concentrate
I love using this serum when my dry skin is freaking out. Whenever I apply it at night, I wake up with softer and smoother skin. It contains squalane to hydrate plus lavender and evening primrose oils to soothe, firm, and calm.
16. L'Oréal Revitalift Hyaluronic Acid Serum
This drugstore find is formulated with 1.5% pure hyaluronic acid plus vitamin C to hydrate, plump, and boost radiance. It's a lightweight gel consistency, so it will absorb into the skin quickly without leaving any stickiness.