Face serums are the most effective skincare products when it comes to addressing skin issues. When your cleanser, toner, or moisturizer doesn’t seem to care, a serum is the first thing you should reach for to achieve your skin goals. But which one? What serum should you use? With all the different types of serums, things can get confusing really easily and really fast. If you’re not sure which type of serum you should use, below is your guide on face serums and how to choose one depending on your skin concerns.
What Is a Face Serum?
A face serum is a skincare treatment that usually contains potent ingredients to target prominent skin issues. These issues can be acne, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, dullness, and congestion.
Texture-wise, a face serum has a very light, thin consistency. Ingredient-wise, a face serum contains a high concentration of certain active ingredients.
In terms of packaging, serums come with droppers. But they can also come in single-use forms like ampoules or capsules.
Serums penetrate the skin better and make your products work more efficiently. That results in quicker results in skin improvement.
These properties are why serums are among the most effective products to treat any skin problem and why they’re usually more expensive than other skincare products.
What Are the Benefits of a Face Serum?
The benefits of a face serum usually depend on the ingredients it contains. But all serums have certain things in common. These are the bare minimum. From there on, the benefits increase depending on the ingredients of the serum.
Most face serums are either water-based or made with something hydrating like hyaluronic acid or aloe juice. That gives them that light consistency. And because of that, almost all face serums are practically hydrating for the skin.
That hydration gives you instant benefits like plumping the skin and reducing the visibility of fine lines. Even if that’s not the main purpose of the serum, it’ll still provide a certain amount of hydration for the skin.
Serums are weightless.
Though you need to be pickier when it comes to moisturizers and consider the finish of the product, you don’t usually need to worry about that with face serums.
Serums tend to disappear into the skin. You apply and you forget. Even though there are dewy-finish or glass-skin face serums, they don’t feel heavy or uncomfortable.
Serums are more effective.
Face serums give faster results. Because serums don’t contain emollients, aka creamy substances, or occlusives, aka oily substances, they penetrate the skin better.
When products penetrate better, they work better. When they work better, they give faster results in the form of even skin texture and tone with reduced acne or wrinkles.
What Are the Different Types of Serums?
You’ll see that serums are usually categorized depending on the benefits. The most common types of serums are hydrating serums, anti-aging serums, brightening serums, exfoliating serums, and acne-fighting serums.
Other times, serums are classified depending on the ingredient. There are vitamin C serums, retinol serums, and hyaluronic acid serums.
But I don’t think this is a helpful generalization to rely on when choosing a serum. Even though looking for an anti-aging serum for wrinkles is a good starting point, it’s not the whole story.
Because there is a lot of overlap too. A brightening serum made with vitamin C is also an anti-aging serum. Similarly, a soothing serum made with green tea is technically an antioxidant and anti-aging serum too.
Also, a retinol serum is both an anti-aging serum and an anti-acne serum. So here’s how to choose a serum to make an informed decision.
How to Choose a Face Serum
You should choose your face serum depending on your skin concern and what you want to treat. Choosing products depending on skin type is secondary when it comes to serums.
For example, you pick a moisturizer depending on the skin type, right? If you have oily skin, you start by finding out if the product is oil-free. After that, you look for what’s in it and if you like/need those ingredients.
For face serums, you start with the ingredients. Don’t worry. If you’re not sure how to choose a serum or what serum should you use for your concerns, keep reading to find out what type of serum to use for your unique skin issues.
What Serum Should I Use For Dry Skin?
If you have dry skin, look for hydrating serums. Hydrating serums contain humectants to attract water and bind it to the skin.
Some of the ingredients to look for in your serums are hyaluronic acid, sodium PCA, glycerin, panthenol (vitamin B5), glycerin, and amino acids (1).
Additionally, hydrating serums can contain lactic acid, gluconolactone, or lactobionic acid. Even though these are exfoliants, they work as humectants depending on the pH of the serum.
In a hydrating serum, they are there to hydrate and not to exfoliate. But again, make sure the serum is a hydrating serum.
What Serum Should I Use For Oily Skin?
If you simply want to manage excess oil and reduce sebum production, look for mattifying, and oil-controlling serums. These types of serums work by preventing or reducing excess oil production.
Some of the most effective ingredients to look for in your serums to control oil are niacinamide (vitamin B3), and green tea (2). So a niacinamide serum will balance your complexion and can reduce acne in its tracks.
You can also look for additional anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial ingredients like witch hazel or tea tree oil. And if you have sensitivity and want to cover all your bases, it’s best to make sure your serum is oil-free.
And because fragrance and essential oils can sometimes trigger acne on sensitive skin, you might as well make sure your serum is fragrance-free too.
But usually, oily skin types are concerned with oil because excess oil causes congestion, enlarged pores, and acne or blackheads. So you look for serums to treat those specific issues. And that brings us to our next point.
What Serum Should I Use For Acne?
If you’re dealing with acne, go for anti-blemish serums, clarifying serums, or pore-minimizing serums. Acne serums work by preventing excess oil, reducing inflammation, and eliminating acne-causing bacteria.
Some of the ingredients to look for in your serums are exfoliants like glycolic acid and salicylic acid. But salicylic acid makes the best ingredient in acne treatments.
Additionally, vitamin A derivatives like retinol are also great for treating blemishes (3). A retinol serum can help oily skin with acne, acne scars, blackheads, and clogged pores.
In sum, consider retinol serums, salicylic acid serums, and also azelaic acid serums, which help with inflammation too.
What Serum Should I Use For Hyperpigmentation?
If you’re dealing with hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, and dark spots, look for brightening serums. A brightening serum usually reduces hyperpigmentation by reducing melanin production (4).
In your face serum, look for antioxidants like vitamin C, ferulic acid, and resveratrol. Additionally, you can consider arbutin, azelaic acid, tranexamic acid, and kojic acid.
These are gold when it comes to directly targeting hyperpigmentation. But an indirect way to target hyperpigmentation is by using exfoliating serums like a glycolic acid serum or a lactic acid serum.
They get rid of dead skin cells and promote skin turnover. That way, they get rid of surface pigmentation and help you with skin discolorations.
What Serum Should I Use For Wrinkles?
If you’re dealing with wrinkles, fine lines, and other age-related skin issues, go for anti-aging serums. Anti-aging serums aim to speed up skin turnover, stimulate collagen formation, neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals, soften the look of wrinkles, and firm the skin (5).
Lots of ingredients can do that. But some are more effective than others. So if your skin can tolerate it, go for a retinol serum to improve skin texture and boost collagen.
If retinol is too much, go for an exfoliating serum like a glycolic acid serum to accelerate skin turnover, which tends to slow down with age.
A gentler alternative would be an anti-aging vitamin C serum to reverse sun damage on the skin or peptide serums that promote collagen formation.
Additionally, you can try other antioxidant serums made with resveratrol, green tea, coenzymeQ10, or bakuchiol, which work by neutralizing free radicals that damage your skin.
And lastly, if you can afford to do so, you can try growth factor serums. These are really potent serums you can use to boost collagen production.
What Serum Should I Use For Sensitive Skin?
If you’re dealing with sensitivity and redness, look for soothing and calming serums. These types of serums work by calming inflammation, therefore reducing redness and sensitivity.
Some anti-inflammatory ingredients to look for in your serums are green tea, oatmeal, Centella Asiatica, aloe, and licorice extract.
These types of serums tend to be very gentle on the skin. They hydrate and soothe the skin at the same time. They’re immensely helpful when your skin is sensitive or sensitized.
How To Use a Face Serum
The ingredient of your serum has a defining role in how to use it or how often to use it. Usually, you can use your serum once/twice daily in the morning and at night.
However, you should check the instructions of your serum. For example, a hydrating hyaluronic serum is almost always safe to use twice a day.
An anti-aging retinol serum, on the other hand, is usually for two/three times a week application. And that is so only if you’re a regular retinol user.
For a beginner, you should use your beginner-friendly retinol serum once a week at first and go up to twice a week after 4 weeks.
It’s the same for exfoliating serums too. These are the ingredients that require the most caution. You can use your vitamin C and other antioxidant serums, depending on your skin’s sensitivity, once a day in the morning.
How to Apply a Serum
Serums have the thinnest consistency among skincare products. You should apply your serum on your clean, dry skin after you cleanse and apply your toner.
Get a few drops of your serum and gently dab it on your cheeks, forehead, and chin. Wait for it to absorb. And remember to apply your moisturizer.
Because serums don’t moisturize. They hydrate. You still need to apply your moisturizer to lock that water in and prevent dehydration.
Can You Use Multiple Serums?
Layering different serums is the most fun part of a skincare routine. Yes, you can use multiple serums at the same time as long as you’re aware of the ingredients. In fact, try layering your serums to maximize your results. But there are things to consider.
Ideally, you can use a hyaluronic acid serum and then top it off with anything you want including a retinol serum. If you’re interested in combining active ingredients, you can check our guide on ingredients to mix for better results.
But know that using multiple serums at the same time always has the potential to irritate your skin. Some obvious no-nos are combining a pure vitamin C serum with retinol or exfoliants like glycolic acid or lactic acid.
As a general rule of thumb, try to use a certain serum in the morning and another one at night to avoid irritation and sensitivity.
- Purnamawati, S., Indrastuti, N., Danarti, R., & Saefudin, T. (2017). The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clinical medicine & research, 15(3-4), 75–87. https://doi.org/10.3121/cmr.2017.1363
- Endly, D. C., & Miller, R. A. (2017). Oily Skin: A review of Treatment Options. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 10(8), 49–55.
- Fox, L., Csongradi, C., Aucamp, M., du Plessis, J., & Gerber, M. (2016). Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 21(8), 1063. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules21081063
- Sarkar, R., Arora, P., & Garg, K. V. (2013). Cosmeceuticals for Hyperpigmentation: What is Available?. Journal of cutaneous and aesthetic surgery, 6(1), 4–11. https://doi.org/10.4103/0974-2077.110089
- Ganceviciene, R., Liakou, A. I., Theodoridis, A., Makrantonaki, E., & Zouboulis, C. C. (2012). Skin anti-aging strategies. Dermato-endocrinology, 4(3), 308–319. https://doi.org/10.4161/derm.22804