Face serums are usually the most expensive types of skin care products, but are they worth it? There are many types of serums such as brightening serums, hydrating serums, and serums for glowing skin. Most of these are night serums. How do you find the best serum that really works for your skin concerns?
I'm a dermatologist and in this guide to serums I will discuss what a serum is, what they are used for, and the benefits of serums . My goal is to help you find the best serum for your skin type.
What is serum?
The name "face serum'" comes from the liquid texture of serums that resembles blood serum. In a scientific context, a serum refers to the clear, pale-yellow liquid in blood that remains after blood has clotted. This liquid lacks the cells and cellular components (like platelets) but retains many proteins, hormones, electrolytes, and other solutes. It is essentially blood plasma without the clotting factors.
The term "serum" in the context of serum skincare products has a different meaning, but face serums have a similar texture to blood serum which is where the name comes from.
Definition of Facial Serum
There is no exact scientific definition of a face serum. The meaning of the term applies to the texture of the product which is a jelly-like consistency. Face serums usually have a higher concentration of ingredients than other skin care products. Claims are made that they are more potent than other skin care products, but this is not necessarily true.
Serums are different than toners, and moisturizers such as creams and lotions. A serum is designed to deliver targeted cosmeceutical ingredients. They are typically lightweight and water based with a gel -like texture. They are often packaged in medicine bottles and applied with a dropper but may be in airless pumps.
Serum vs Toner
Toners and essences, have a high amount of water and may contain alcohol. These are meant to change the skin's pH or remove any detergents left on skin after cleansing. Much of the contents of toners and essences evaporate away quickly, while serums stay longer on the skin's surface. But because most serums are water based humectants, they also tend to evaporate fairly fast.
Serum vs Moisturizer
The difference in serums and moisturizers is that moisturizing creams, lotions, and oils contain occlusive lipids (fats) that stay on the skin's surface. This is why moisturizing crema and lotions should be used after serums to help keep the serums from evaporating and increase absorption of the serum ingredients.
Face Oil Serum
Some serums are actually oils. Oils have more lipids in them, are hydrophobic, and do not evaporate easily. I do not like to categorize face oil serums as serums. It is confusing because they do not have the other characteristics of serums. so I prefer to call these “oils”. You can learn more about face serums that are oils here. Oils do not need to be followed by a moisturizing lotion or cream the way true serums do.
Types of Serums
Below I list the different types of face serums and help you choose the best medical grade serum for you.
We can help you figure out which type of serum is best for you.
The Best Skin Lightning Serum for most skin types, is the new Alastin A-Luminate Brightening Serum. It is the best serum for skin brightening because it has interesting new technology. In the video below I discuss this serum in an interview with the plastic surgeon who developed it. We discuss the science behind what makes it special.
Brightening serums should be used when you have dark spot or hyperpigmentation or an uneven skin tone. They have skin lightening ingredients, antioxidants, and exfoliants that brighten the skin.
The best skin brightening and lightening serum depends on your skin type and what skin concerns you have. If you have melasma, you need very potent skin whitening serums.
There is no much difference between lightning serums for oily, combination, and dry skin types. However, the moisturizer you use after a serum should be chosen by whether you are oily or dry.
These are brightening serums for dry skin types:
These are brightening serums for oily skin types:
Vitamin C serums can also be used to brighten the skin, but they are not as effective at blocking the enzyme tyrosinase as other lightening serums are.
Hydrating serums have humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid that pull water on to the skin's surface. These are the best serums for glowing skin but you might not want to use them right before filming a video or taking a photo because they can make your face too shiny in photos. These are best for a dewy, glow when you are going to be seen in person.
If you have oily skin, these moisturizing serums will give you enough hydration that you may be able to skip a moisturizer.
If you have dry skin, these serums do not moisturize enough so follow with a barrier repair moisturizer to help slug these hydrating ingredients into the skin.
Serums For Sensitive Skin
Serums for sensitive skin should contain anti-inflammatory ingredients and should be chosen by the subtype of sensitive skin (or subtypes) that you have. It is hard to choose the best serum for sensitive skin because there are so many different things to think about.
You need to know which type of sensitive skin you have before choosing a sensitive skin serum.
Let me help you!
Take the quiz and see which sensitive skin serums will be best for you.
Serums for Oily Skin Types
Choose which serum to buy based on your skin's other needs such as:
To find the best serums for oily skin, look in the other sections of this blog to see what serums treat your other skin issues. Most serums will work well for oily skin unless they have a lot of oil.
Or even better-
let us help you shop!
Serums for Dry Skin Types
Hyaluronic acid is a great serum for dry skin if it is followed by a barrier repair moisturizer.
This is because HA serum effects are temporary while barrier repair moisturizer effects are long lasting.
If you have dry skin, consider using a facial oil rather than a serum.
Antioxidant serums have many benefits that depend upon which antioxidant ingredients are in the serum. In general, they are anti-aging serums that help prevent wrinkles but do not treat wrinkles you already have. The best antioxidant serum is Essopi Triple Antioxidant Serum because it has green tea, caffeine, and resveratrol and works for most skin types. (It is best for oily and combination aging skin). More dermatologist-recommended antioxidant serums are shown below,
Some antioxidant serums will also have these benefits:
Serums with collagen are a waste of money because collagen is too big to get into the skin.
If you want to increase skin collagen, the 3 best type of serums to do this are:
I interview a cardiologist who developed an exciting new exosome serum called Plated Skin Science Intense that increases skin collagen. This is much better than using a collagen serum.
There are many different wrinkle serums and how they work depends upon which antiaging ingredients they contain.
Types of Antiaging Serums:
- Ascorbic acid / Vitamin C serums
- Exosome serums
- Firming/ FaceLift Serums
- Glycosaminoglycan serums
- Growth Factor Serums
- Hyaluronic acid serums
- Peptide Serums
- Retinol Serums
- Stem Cells
Don't you want me to help you navigate all these antiaging serums to find the best for your skin care routine? I just need to know your Baumann Skin Type to give you good advice.
Your skin has a circadian rhythm and turns on it’s protective mechanisms in the morning, so your morning serums should help give nutrients to these protective processes.
Night serum needs to target skin damage that happened in the daytime. The circadian rhythm of the skin focuses on repair mechanisms at night. So - serums used in the night skin care routine should help the skin with repair processes or give skin the energy it needs to repair itself.
When you start a retinol serum, make sure you start with a low strength one every third night and work your way up to avoid side effects.
Here are some low strength retinoids:
What does serum do for your face?
Benefits of facial serums
Face serum benefits depend upon what ingredients the serum has. These are the types of ingredients you will see in serums:
- Humectant and Moisturizing
- Skin Lightening and Brightening
You can see that there are a lot to issues to consider before buying a face serum.
Let me help you shop for the best serums for your skin type!
Disadvantages of Facial Serums
One disadvantage of facial serums is the cost. Drugstore serums are not really worth it because the ingredients are not in very high concentrations. Medical grade serums, although more expensive, are generally better-especially exosome and Vitamin C serums.
There are a few downsides to facial serums but there are so many it is hard to generalize.
Here are a few general tips on the disadvantages and safety of serums:
- If you use a retinol, follow these instructions to prevent side effects.
- Avoid retinyl palmitate
- If Vitamin C serums turn dark, don't use them.
- Avoid growth factor serums with EGF which may cause cancer.
- Plant derived exosomes are useless
- Plant derived stem cells are a waste of money
- HA serums can increase side effects of other products in your routine.
Look up the individual ingredients to get a better description of the safety and risks of any serums you are thinking about buying.
Here are a few disadvantages.
What serum should you not use if you have rosacea?
If you have rosacea, these are the types of serums you should not use:
- AHA serums
- Strong exfoliating serums
- Vitamin C serums
Can I use a retinol serum if I have rosacea?
Use the custom routine we prescribe for one month. iI your skin has calmed down, you can add a low strength retinol in step 5 of your routine.
If you use a low strength retinoid serum and closely follow the retinoid directions you may be able to tolerate a retinoid.
The best low strength retinol serums:
There are many serums to choose from and it is very important to choose the right one.
Stop wasting time and money on the wrong serums and shop by your Baumann Skin Type.
Best References and Scientific Publications on Face Serums:
- Baumann L. Antiaging Ingredients in Ch. 37 of Baumann's Cosmetic Dermatology Ed 3. (McGraw Hill 2022)
- Baumann, L. Cosmeceuticals and cosmetic Ingredients (McGraw Hill 2015)
- Baumann, L. (2007). Botanical ingredients in cosmeceuticals. Journal of Drugs in Dermatology: JDD, 6(11), 1084-1088.
- Baumann, L., Woolery-Lloyd, H., & Friedman, A. (2009). " Natural" ingredients in cosmetic dermatology. Journal of drugs in dermatology: JDD, 8(6 Suppl), s5-9.
- Baumann, L. S. (2007). Less‐known botanical cosmeceuticals. Dermatologic therapy, 20(5), 330-342.
- Baumann, L. (2018). How to use oral and topical cosmeceuticals to prevent and treat skin aging. Facial Plastic Surgery Clinics, 26(4), 407-413.
- Baumann, L. (2007). Skin ageing and its treatment. The Journal of Pathology: A Journal of the Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 211(2), 241-251.
- Grunebaum, L. D., & Baumann, L. S. (2014). Nonprescription topical treatments for skin rejuvenation. Facial plastic surgery, 30(01), 003-011.