A serum is a skincare product that you can apply to your skin after cleansing but before moisturizing with the intent of delivering powerful ingredients directly into the skin. Serums are particularly suited to this task as they’re made up of small molecules that can penetrate deeply into the skin to deliver a very high concentration of active ingredients, which makes them a great tool for targeting specific skincare concerns like wrinkles and dark spots. In this blog, we will explore serums, their benefits, and how to use them, along with spotlighting EWG-Verified serums that may be perfect for your skin type.
A Look At Serums
A serum is a lightweight, quick-absorbing skincare product that contains a large amount of active ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid, or vitamin C. Due to their concentration, serums are typically the most effective and fast-acting skincare products available.
Well-designed face serums are lightly viscous, which means they have a thinner consistency than creams and lotions, to absorb into the skin quickly, delivering beneficial nutrients and hydration at the cellular level. They also contain fewer fillers, thickeners, and lubricating agents than moisturizers, so the beneficial ingredients can absorb faster to optimize performance.
“Often, a serum can hydrate more effectively than even the heaviest creams. The molecules can truly penetrate the skin and hydrate on the deepest level, while the heavier creams more so sit on those top layers.” says celebrity esthetician Karee Hays. “Serums do not necessarily replace your moisturizer, but can boost the hydrating effects of your moisturizer.”
In fact, a study featuring thirty-two women aged 25 to 55 years with Fitzpatrick skin types I to V and normal or self-perceived dry skin, found that layering facial serum with a moisturizer provided rapid and long-lasting benefits in maintaining skin hydration. Additionally, 82% of the participants believed that the serum and moisturizer combo improved the appearance of their skin overall.1
Pictured: A participant before trying the serum layered with moisturizer (left) and after two weeks of treatment (right) Source: National Library of Medicine
Pictured: Reductions in investigator-graded dryness Source: Source: National Library of Medicine
The Benefits of Serums
When you use a serum that’s well suited for your skin, it can have numerous benefits. Here’s a closer look at some of the key benefits of adding a serum to your skincare routine:
Serums Can Deliver Vitamins and Nutrients
For starters, a face serum, by definition, is a skincare solution that includes core vitamins and nutrients your skin cells can use to thrive. The exact ingredient make up of a given face serum will vary from product to product, but most face serums use these common ingredients:
- Vitamin C and E are antioxidants and may contribute to long-term skin health, especially protection from free radicals.2
- Niacinamide reduces inflammation, which may help ease redness from eczema, acne, and other inflammatory skin conditions. It also minimizes pore appearance and keeps skin smooth and moisturized.3,4
- Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, is a gold-standard ingredient in skincare as can increase production of collagen in the skin. This results in a reduction of fine lines and wrinkles by improving elasticy.5,6
- Glycolic acid stimulates fibroblasts in the dermis to produce increased amounts of collagen. Additionally, its small molecular makeup also allows it to penetrate the skin and treat acne and other skin concerns.7,8,9
- Hyaluronic acid is a powerful humectant commonly found in face moisturizers. It helps hydrate the outer layers of skin, thereby improving the skin’s appearance.10,11
While our skin cells get a lot of nutrients from our diets and sunshine, as in the case of vitamin D, giving your skin cells additional nutrients through topical absorption may allow those vitamins to be more directly usable by those cells.
In other words, a face serum directly provides your skin cells with core nutrients without those nutrients being absorbed by other bodily tissues first. Plus, since serums are applied topically, your skin cells may receive those benefits more quickly.
Serums Can Improve Hydration
With the use of cleansers and exfoliators, your skin can easily dry out, leaving your face more susceptible to wrinkles and dehydration. Many serums are formulated to improve hydration, and by using them, they can potentially alleviate these side effects or prevent them from happening all together.
Serums with hyaluronic acid, for example, can help your skin’s hydration level. “Hyaluronic acid can draw moisture from the air and keep your skin moist, holding almost 1000 times its weight in water,” explained Kerry Benjamin, esthetician and the founder of best-selling hyaluronic acid serum creator, Stacked Skincare.
Serums May Reduce Acne Flare-Ups
Serums could contribute to a long-term solution if you suffer from regular acne flare-ups, which result from hormonal shifts or an overproduction of sebum. When your skin produces too much sebum, it can collect debris and clog your skin’s pores. Over time, this can form blemishes like pimples and pustules. However, the right serum could prevent your skin from producing too much sebum.
Serums formulated with retinol, for example, can reduce acne flare-ups by literally getting under your skin as retinol consists of tiny molecules that penetrate the middle layer of your skin and stimulate the production of collagen and elastin. Both of these compounds reduce the appearance of pores and acne scarring over time.
Serums May Protect Skin from Certain Damage
Many of the core ingredients in serums are antioxidants, which are known to neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that can damage skin cells and other tissues as they bounce around in your body.
Antioxidants like CoQ10 can stabilize those free radicals by donating an electron, preventing them from causing damage. Free radicals are responsible for skin irritations and may contribute to many signs of aging or general skin cell degradation.
Some serums may also provide ancillary protective benefits against harm from toxins, environmental pollutants, and even UV radiation from the sun. If you use a face serum, you may be at less risk of sun damage to your skin, including burning, but you should always read the label of your specific product to confirm this.
Serums May Reduce Signs of Aging
Many signs of aging, including wrinkles, aging spots, and sagging skin, result from long-term skin cell degradation and dryness. While face serums can’t prevent your skin from aging overall, they may help to reduce the severity of some of those symptoms. Serums that contain vitamins C, B, and E with ferulic acid and hyaluronic acid, especially, can help to deeply hydrate skin and minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
How to Apply Serum
Everyone’s skin is different, but on average, you should use a serum for about seven weeks to see how your skin responds. Depending on the serum and the current state of your skin, you might see initial results — like slightly more hydrated skin — in just a few days, according to Dr. Craig Kraffert, a board-certified dermatologist.
It’s important to note that before applying a new product, you should perform a patch test. Try the product on a small area of your skin to see how it reacts, such as the inside of your elbow. Keep in mind that some serums will naturally leave your face slightly pink, but this should subside after about 10-15 minutes. If you’re having a reaction, consult your doctor.
Pictured: How to perform a patch test Source: Chagrin Valley Soap and Salve
Step 1: Cleanse
To allow the key ingredients to be effectively absorbed, a serum should always be applied to clean skin. Before applying serum, cleanse with a gentle face wash to help dissolve makeup, impurities, and pollutants.
Step 2: Tone
A facial toner plays an important role in preparing the skin for serum application. Not only will it help to rebalance the skin after cleansing, but it can help sweep away remaining traces of dirt and makeup, removing all barriers on the skin’s surface, and allowing the serum to effectively penetrate the different layers of the epidermis.
Apply the toner onto a cotton pad, then sweep it over your skin in an upward motion. Toners can also help reduce the appearance of pores and even out skin tone.
Step 3: Apply Serum
Dispense a pea-sized amount of serum into your palms, then gently rub your hands together to warm and activate the serum. Lightly press your palms onto your skin and pat in outward and upward motions until fully applied to your face and neck.
Step 4: Moisturize
Allow the serum to absorb into your skin for at least 90 seconds, then massage a moisturizer over your face and neck to lock in those key ingredients. This also helps protect and hydrate the skin’s surface.
From fine lines to the most sensitive skin types, adding a potent serum before your moisturizer can help boost the healthy look and feel of your skin. However, there are hundreds — if not thousands — of different serum types on the market, making choosing a single one for your skincare routine a daunting task.
“The key is to look for serums that deliver a ton of botanicals, antioxidants, and hydration — they can deliver a concentrated dose of nutrients, and when applied on just-cleaned skin, the serum will penetrate more deeply,” said Dr. Kraffert.
To make choosing a serum easier, check out these EWG-Verified, nutrient-rich serums that’ll make an excellent addition to your skincare regime:
To shop the Be Natural Organics Hyaluronic Serum, click here.
To shop the Live Ultimate Camu Advanced Youth Recovery Facial Serum, click here.
To shop the Sea Kind Elysium Perfecting Facial Serum, click here.
To shop Sally B’s Peptide Collagen Booster Serum, click here.
To shop the Versed Sunday Morning Antioxidant Serum, click here.
Serums are lightweight products that contain a high concentration of active ingredients. They are often seen as one of the more rewarding steps in your beauty routine as they come with major skin benefits and absorb quickly into your skin . If you’re not sure if a face serum is right for you, or which type to use for your skin, talk to a board certified dermatologist for more information.
What’s your favorite serum? Let us know in the comments.