How To Use Face Serum

Face serums are great to treat acne, wrinkles, facial redness, and dark spots- but they need to be applied properly. This blog will discuss what face serums are, the benefits, and how to apply them.

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How to apply face serum

When you splurge on expensive face serums, you want to make sure you get your money's worth by applying the serum correctly.

Most face serums evaporate quickly, are unstable in light and air, react with other products in the regimen, and won’t work if they are applied at the wrong time in the skin care routine.

I am a dermatologist and these are the tips and advice that I give my patients on how to apply face serum correctly. Keep reading to learn how much serum to apply, how long to wait after serum before applying moisturizer, and when to use face serums in your skin care routine. 

Before you use any serums, make sure you are using the correct serum for your skin type. 

There are 16 Baumann Skin Types and each has different serum needs.

What is the definition of a serum?

There are many types of products that call themselves serums- but what is a serum and what serum should I use?

There is actually no set definition of a serum. The name implies the liquidy hydrophilic substance that remains behind when solid components are removed. The name “serum” comes from blood serum which is the  liquid left behind when platelets and blood cells are removed.

Face serums often contain hydrophilic liquids extracted from plants and other beneficial substances. Serums are usually water soluble but in some cases may be oil-based. Whether a serum is oil based or water based can effect how you use them.  For example- you might want to keep water based serums in the fridge.  Although you can put oil based serums in the fridge, it is only necessary in very hot conditions.

When to apply face serums in the skin care routine?

At what step do you apply serum?

Face serum should be applied at step 3 in your morning and night skin care routine.

This is the step-by-step skin care product order for most skin types:

  1. Cleanser
  2. Eye Cream or Serum
  3. Face Serum
  4. Moisturizer
  5. Sunscreen or Retinoid

Your skin care routine should be customized for your Baumann Skin Type.

Once you take the quiz we tell you the exact skin care routine step order to use your products.

use serums step 3 in morning and night routine

Should I use a face serum before or after moisturizer?

Moisturizers with humectants like hyaluronic acid can go before serums.

But most types of moisturizers have both humectants and occlusives. So to be sure follow this advice.

Always use face serum before a moisturizer.

There are two exceptions to this rule:

1. If the serum is an oil or contains many fatty acids, it can be applied before or after moisturizer.

2. Retinoids such as retinol serum are always applied after a moisturizer until you get used to them. See specific retinoid serum instructions here.

All serums that meet the classic definition of a serum and are not oils or retinoids should be followed with a moisturizer that is right for your Baumann Skin Type.

When I discuss if you should use a moisturizer after a serum, I am referring to the classic definition of serums as a water soluble concentrate.  Some products that claim they are serums are actually oils. (Note that essential oils are not the same as oils.)

You do not need to use a moisturizer after using an oil serum because  oil serums contain occlusive ingredients.

Most serums do not have many fats or oils, so they do not have much occlusive effect and will evaporate off of the skin and not penetrate well into the skin unless they are covered by a moisturizer.

Occlusive ingredients do 2 things:

  1. They help keep water from evaporating off of the skin
  2. They push ingredients into the skin.

How well they do this depends upon the types of fatty acids in the occlusive and what other ingredients are in the occlusive.

To slug serum into your skin to boost absorption, apply an occlusive moisturizer after the serum.

There is no need to stress about choosing serums and deciding when to use them in your skin care routine. We do it all for you!

Our dermatologists have developed over 40,000 regimen templates that will be customized for you based on your skin type and how you answer the quiz questions.

All you have to do is take the skin care routine quiz.

How To Use Face Serums Correctly?

Apply 1/8th of a teaspoon of serum to the back of your hand. Use your fingers to pick up the serum and apply it in circular motions over your cheeks, chine, nose and forehead.

Make sure you apply the serum at the correct step in your skin care routine.

When to use Serum Day or Night?

When to use a face serum depends upon your custom skin care routine. Protective serums are used in the day and repair serums are used at night.

Can I use a different serum day and night?

Yes you can! In face if you have many barriers to skin health that you need to treat, you may need one serum in the am and a different serum at night.

Which serums to use in the am and pm depends upon your Baumann Skin Type.

You want to use protective ingredients like antioxidants such as Vitamin C in the morning and reparative serums like niacinamide and coenzyme Q10 in the evening before bed.


Can I use two serums together?

You can use two serums together but this will decrease the effectiveness of both of them.

Some cosmeceutical ingredients in the serum react and cancel each other out.

if you must use 2 serums at the same time, use them one after another. Never mix them together before applying.

How many face serums should I use?

The number of serums you should use in your skin care routine depends upon how many barriers to skin health you have.

In general you need 1- 2 serums in your skin care routine.

Barriers to skin health

Make sure that you are using the right serum for your Baumann Skin Type, otherwise it is a waste of time and money and may actually increase your skin’s barriers to skin health- making your skin worse.

Our scientific and validated skin type quiz will tell you which brands of face serum are right for you and will tell you when to use each one in your routine.

When you shop by your Baumann Skin Type - we will give you an exact customized skin care routine with steps that will answer these questions. You will be able to choose products from many brands that are right for YOUR skin type.

We will tell you if you need any serums in your routine. It is possible that:

You will not need a serum

You need the same serum for morning and night

You need one serum in the morning and a different serum at night.

You need two serums

How to wash your face before using a serum?

How you wash your face, which facial cleanser you wash your face with, and what type of water you use will affect how well your serum works.

What cleanser is best to use before a serum?

Cleanser choice dramatically affects how well your serums work. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Cleansers have a huge effect on your skin’s pH
  2. Cleansers either deposit fatty acids on the skin or strip fatty acids off the skin
  3. Cleansers and the way you cleanse will affect the stratum corneum layer of the skin and how much the ingredients in the serum can penetrate into the skin

This is why every single skin care product in your skin care routine should be chosen carefully to make sure they are increasing the efficacy of each other and not decreasing the effectiveness of each other. There is a lot of evidence- based research about this. The bottom line is- cleansers should be chosen by Baumann Skin Type and what skin care products come after the cleanser in the regimen. The goal is to choose the right cleanser to make your expensive treatment serums work better.

Do I apply serum to wet or dry skin?

Serums will penetrate into the skin better when skin is damp. If you use warm water to wash your face, your skin will be slightly warm and damp. This is the prefect environment to apply a serum. After cleansing and rinsing off the cleanser, pat gently to remove any excess water on the face. Your face should not be dripping- it should just be damp. Apply the serum immediately while skin is still wet.

What to do after applying serum on your face?

Apply the next step of your skin care routine. Our routines are designed so that you do not need to wait in between routine steps.

Can I mix two serums together in my hand?

Never mix two serums in your hand and apply them both at the same time.

You will be causing a chemical reaction between the serums that will actually change the serums into something different that could be dangerous or irritating to your skin.

How to apply face serum with a dropper?

These are the best steps when using a dropper to apply serum to the face:

  1. Wash face gently with the appropriate cleanser for your Baumann Skin Type.
  2. After cleansing face, pat skin gently with towel once or twice so skin remains damp.
  3. Dispense or drip 1/8th of a teaspoon of serum (3-5 drops or 1- 2 pumps) onto your fingertips or the back of your hand.
  4. Use your pointer finger and middle finger to pick the serum up from the back of your hand and apply to your face
  5. Apply serum to the face immediately using a small circular tapping motion with your fingertips.
  6. Cover your entire cheeks, forehead, under eye area, nose and chin.
  7. Be careful using serums near the eyes because if they have alcohol they can sting your eyes when they evaporate.
  8. Follow with the next step of your skin care routine

How to apply face serum from a pump?

Measure out how much comes out with one pump. We suggest 1/8th of a teaspoon total which can be 1-3 pumps depending on the packaging.

Apply the same way as discussed above.

How much serum should I apply?

You should use 1/8 teaspoon of serum on your face for each application.

Most instructions tell you to apply 2 pumps or a pea size amount, but not all serum pumps dispense the same amount. Pump serum into a measuring spoon to see how much your pump dispenses. You should apply 1/8 teaspoon of serum to your entire face. If your serum comes in a medicine dropper, this is probably 3-4 drops of serum.

How long to wait after using my serum to apply moisturizer?

Many blogs on how to apply a face serum give instructions that tell you to wait 5 minutes because they do not want the serum to be affected by the products that follow it.

However, if you skin care routine is designed properly so that your moisturizer helps your serum work, there is not a need to wait.

In fact, applying your moisturizer right away will help prevent evaporation of some of the serum’s important ingredients.

Our regimens are designed to apply the moisturizer immediately after applying the serum.

Shop for serums by skin type

What Water do I Use to Wash my Face Before Using a Serum?

Learn about how water affects your serum's effectiveness here.

Shop by your Baumann Skin Type to find the best serums for you and to know exactly what other products to use with the serums and when to apply the serum and moisturizer.

level up your skincare knowledge with dermatologist advice on serums

References and scientific publications on how to use a face serum:

  1. Baumann L. Ch 35 Skin Care Regimen Design and Product Layering In Baumann’s Cosmetic Dermatology 3rd Edition (McGraw Hill 2022)
  2. Baumann, L., & Weisberg, E. (2010). Olive oil in botanical cosmeceuticals. In Olives and olive oil in health and disease prevention (pp. 1117-1124). Academic Press.
  3. Touitou, E., Godin, B., Karl, Y., Bujanover, S., & Becker, Y. (2002). Oleic acid, a skin penetration enhancer, affects Langerhans cells and corneocytes. Journal of controlled release, 80(1-3), 1-7.
  4. Yamane, M. A., Williams, A. C., & Barry, B. W. (1995). Effects of terpenes and oleic acid as skin penetration enhancers towards 5-fluorouracil as assessed with time; permeation, partitioning and differential scanning calorimetry. International Journal of Pharmaceutics, 116(2), 237-251.

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