Facial Serums – What You Need To Know

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While flipping through a magazine might lead you to believe perfect skin is the norm, in reality, we all deal with totally typical and expected imperfections. Unlike the poreless, flawless, often-photoshopped and airbrushed models gracing billboards and magazine covers, us mere mortals sometimes have to  take extra steps to give our skin a boost.
From acne to enlarged pores, scars to sun spots, any blemish you find yourself obsessing over is ultimately, totally normal. No one is working with a perfect canvas, despite what heavy-handed editing might have us believing. If you’re feeling like your skin could be a little glowier and healthier though, and you’re open to adding an extra something to your skin care routine, a facial serum is one option you might want to look into.
While we all know there’s never a one-stop solution to heal all skin woes, a serum can play an important role in your daily routine. While we’re all for loving ourselves and accepting the skin we’re in, flaws and all, there’s nothing wrong with wishing your real-life completion looking just a smidge closer to the glow that ideal filter gives you (you know the one). At the end of the day, a facial serum might just get you a little closer to that.

Curious where in your routine a serum fits in, how it works, how it’s different from the gazillion other products on the shelf, and if it’s right for you? Read on!
Check out our in-depth review of some of the best Vitamin C serums

What Is a Facial Serum?

The last thing you need to feel when it comes to facial care is confusion, but let’s be honest, that’s all-too often the exact feeling wandering a drugstore aisle can give you. If you’ve ever roamed aimlessly through shelf after shelf of lotions and potions, only to leave empty handed and more confused than ever, you’re not alone. Add to the staggering array of skin product choices all the marketing hype telling us we need this, that, and the other, and it’s no surprise we’re confused.
While some facial care products are pretty straightforward, like a cleaner, eye cream, or moisturizer, serum is one of the more elusive categories. Is it a moisturizer? A night cream? And who needs it?
You’re definitely not alone if you have no clue about what it actually does or how it compares with what you’re already using.
Before we even delve into the ingredients and how it works, let’s break down what it even is. In a nutshell, serums are typically water-based products (though with the increase in popularity of oil products, this isn’t always the case anymore—more on that later though), that are able to more effectively penetrate the skin’s barrier and soak into the cells.
Since serums don’t include many of the heavier ingredients found in a more powerful moisturizer, they’re able to better seep into pores and do their magic. And what is that exactly? Primarily, a good serum can deliver you tighter pores, younger looking skin, a more supple, moisturized surface, and even less noticeable wrinkles.

How Does It Compare to Other Products?

When it comes to serums, it’s really more about what they don’t contain. Unlike a heavy moisturizing cream, serums are a bit more nuanced and work without any heavy oils or lubricators. Thanks to what their ingredient lists don’t have, serums allow tiny molecules to penetrate the skin. They’re light, fast, absorbing, and leave out things often found in moisturizers such as mineral oil or petroleum which sits on top of the skin and traps everything in, acting as a hindrance to absorption into the skin (WebMD).
Serums are designed to be a middle man between cleaning and before moisturizing with an actual honest-to-goodness moisturizer, as applying it in between will allow it to seep into the clean skin and do its thing, before you seal it all in with a traditional moisturizer (Huffington Post).

How to Use a Serum

Dr. Jessica Wu, a Santa Monica dermatologist, recommends for those with sensitive skin to wait 10-15 minutes after washing your wash to apply a serum (and if you also use a toner, do that first, and then begin your wait period). Use your fingers to apply the serum, massaging it into the skin thoroughly but gently. Once it’s had a chance to absorb, you can apply your regular moisturizer on top. Many derms recommend this process twice a day, but if the hefty price tag usually found on serums is a little much for you, once will suffice (WebMD).
It’s worth pointing out too, don’t confuse a serum’s job with that of your regular moisturizer. Think of it as a boost to your moisture game, but it plays a very different role in your overall skincare routine. However, as noted by dermatologist Dr. Adam Geyer, those dealing with especially oiler skin might find a serum to be sufficient on its own for a layer of moisture, if the idea of slathering on a heavier lotion on top of already-oily skin is too much for you to get on board with. Because of the higher concentration of ingredients, Dr. Geyer goes on to explain, less is more, and all you’ll need is just a few drops of the potent serum to get the job done.

Ingredients and Types to Look For

Any browsing through a drugstore or beauty store aisle will inform you that as with any skincare product, you’ll have more choices of potential serums to try than shows on Netflix, and there are new products popping up seemingly every day. Where should you even start?
The first choice you’ll need to make is if you want to try a water or oil-based serum, though even with the rise in popularity of oil-based products, most serums do remain water-based. As you’d probably guess, if your skin is on the oily side, you’ll be better off opting for water-based, and those with drier or more mature skin can benefit from the richer oil-based options. Regardless of base, any effective serum will have the same lineup of key ingredients. So, when you’re choosing which one to try, make sure you look for these basic ingredients: antioxidants, peptides, retinol, growth factors, alpha and beta hydroxyl acids, and botanicals (MakeUp.Com).
Dr. Murad, creator of the famous skincare line, also breaks down the basics components of a good serum into overall categories, in his case, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and hydrators such as amino acids or essential fatty acids (Huffington Post).
Armed with all the info, what should you look for when you’re browsing the beauty aisles?
If your main priority is to fight Mother Nature and smooth out a few wrinkles, your best bet is to grab a serum featuring vitamin C and other antioxidants, which will help to prevent the stress and strain from UV rays and pollution, which are the culprits of facial wrinkles to begin with.
If you’re feeling a little less than glow-y and want to boost the brightness of your skin and get some overall rejuvenating benefits, a serum that includes retinol is going to help your skim to have that dewy glow, thanks to its ability to help ramp up cell renewal rates.
If your skin is a little worse for wear and needing some serious renewal and TLC, one rich in essential oils and omega-3 fatty acids are going to be your best approach, since these rich ingredients can help repair a damaged skin barrier, which will in turn allow anything else you slap on it to be better absorbed (MakeUp.Com).

Vitamin C Serums

There’s one particular sub-type of serum that deserves a mention of its own, and that’s a vitamin C serum. As is the case with most any good quality serum you find on the shelf, vitamin C serums aren’t cheap and will definitely run you a pretty penny, so are they worth it?
One selling point that’s hard to argue with when it comes to a vitamin C serum specifically, is that vitamin C is one of the few vitamins our bodies can’t produce on their own. Since we can’t produce it naturally, we have to either ingest it in the form of vitamin C rich foods like citrus, a vitamin C supplement, or in this case, we can slather on a bit topically and allow it to absorb into our skin. You’ve no doubt heard since you were a kid that vitamin C helps us from catching the common cold, but aside from an immunity boost, why is this vitamin so crucial for our skin care exactly?
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid as it’s technically known, doesn’t just magically help us to get over colds, but repairs our bodies from the inside out, and is crucial for growth of skin tissues. Because of this, on our faces, it helps any wound healing and helps to repair acne scars. Board-certified dermatology Jennifer Linder suggests using a vitamin C serum to help stimulate new collagen growth, smooth out wrinkles, brighten up discoloration and other signs of wear and tear from environmental pollutants.
If a vitamin C serum sounds like the perfect fit for you, be sure to look for a few key things when purchasing. Not all “vitamin C” is created exactly equally, says Dr. Linder. To make sure you’re getting the most potent stuff possible, be sure to look on labels for a serum that contains pure L-ascorbic acid. This is the most bioavailable form of vitamin C, meaning your body will be better able to use it for what you want it to. Amount also matters here, so scan for one that contains a higher amount, around 15-20 percent, and ideally will also include around 5 percent pure vitamin E, as this pairing will work optimally. Once your serum has started to become discolored or brown at all, you’ll know it’s time to replace.
Check out our in-depth review of some of the best Vitamin C serums

Should You Be Using One?

At the end of the day, what skincare techniques and products you use is entirely up to you, and there’s no rulebook saying you have to use a serum, though the advertising you’ve seen might have you feeling otherwise.
The happier and healthier your skin is, the smoother your palate, the better, obviously, so if you’re feeling like your routine is missing a little something, or that your old product just aren’t cutting it any longer, trying out a serum is a good idea. Aging, moving to a drier climate, or any changes in your skin health might lead to you needing a little extra boost, and serum could be that missing step.
A couple important exceptions to this rule would be if you’re already using a heavy-duty retinoid in the evenings, for example, when a serum on top could lead to irritation. Similarly, if you’re dealing with a chronic skin condition that’s making your face irritated, such as from rosacea or eczema, you might want to avoid adding any other ingredients to the mix, which could further the already upset skin.
It should go without saying but is worth the reminder, that no one should ever overuse a serum, more is not more! Especially since a serum is so packed with powerful and highly concentrated ingredients, a little is all you need.


While navigating the beauty store aisles can be a headache, armed with this knowledge you should be a little clearer on at least what a facial serum is, how it works, and how it differs from the other bottles and jars. As with any beauty goals, there’s no magic potion to your dream complexion, and optimal skincare and health is the result of many steps and approaches. Serum can certainly give you an extra boost, and quench thirsty skin, ease signs of aging, and smooth and brighten skin. What’s not to love about that?
Check out our in-depth review of some of the best Vitamin C serums

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