Some beauty products are the show ponies of your skincare routine. Like sheet masks – nice for your Instagram feed but not exactly essential. And then there are the workhorses, those hard-grafting products like the best face serum, which actually make a difference to your skin.
While most skincare is straight forward, serums are still shrouded in mystery. Cleansers cleanse; moisturisers moisturise, but serums? Not so obvious.
Let us explain. Serums can be water based or more of an oil. But they are always applied after toner and before moisturising with the intent of treating skin concerns – everything from dehydration and wrinkles, to dullness and pigmentation.
Put another way, serums make you glow like the galaxy and your skin texture look like the surface of a plum.
Precisely why skin experts agree it’s the single most important product in your skincare regime and the one you should invest most in.
Here’s everything you need to know about these skincare shots…
What is face serum?
Due to their high concentration and potency, serums are the most effective way of delivering active ingredients into the skin.
‘With a much lighter consistency than your face cream, serums are made up of tiny molecules that absorb into the skin on a deeper level,’ says consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk.
Moisturiser is thicker and sits on the surface of your skin where, among other things, it seals moisture and all the goodness from a serum into your skin.
The best way to apply it
Twice a day is the golden rule but the serum you apply in the morning should differ from the one you use before bed.
‘During the day, the priority is protecting against inflammatory and oxidizing elements,’ explains Dr Barbara Sturm. ‘This means anti-pollution protection, UV protection, and using a hyaluronic acid-based serum. At night, it’s essential to use active ingredients that assist the body’s reparative processes while you sleep.’
To that end she has invented the Night Serum with the antioxidant plant purslane to help repair environmental damage, cotton thistle to counteract dryness, beta-glucans to reduce redness and a high dose of hyaluronic acid, which, Sturm says, ‘works throughout the night to replenish moisture reservoirs in multiple skin layers.’
How to choose the best face serum
There are so many serums out there it’s tricky knowing which one is right for you. ‘Almost any active ingredient can be harnessed in a serum formulation,’ Dr Kluk explains. ‘Some examples include hyaluronic acid for smoothing and plumping; vitamin B5 for hydration; vitamins C and E to protect from UV radiation and city pollution; niacinamide for pigmentation and peptides for improving firmness.’
If you’re thinking, ‘These sound great! I should use them all,’ not so fast.
‘Incorporating too many different ingredients into a routine at any one time can causes irritation,’ says Kluk. ‘It’s better to make a list of the goals for your skin. Focus on the top one or two priorities and select agents that tackle these first. You can always adjust them as your needs change.’
Below are some of the most common skin concerns and the best serums to treat them.
Best Vitamin C Serum
Vitamin C is one of skincare’s heavy hitters when it comes to brightening and evening out skin tone. However, as an ingredient, vitamin C’s efficacy is matched only by its instability. If you’ve ever used a vitamin C serum and the smell or colour has changed over time, then it’s likely deteriorated as a result of being exposed to air, light or water. To combat this problem, Charlotte Tilbury has used ‘golden vitamin C’ in her new hotly anticipated serum. ‘This form of vitamin C is bound to gold for added stability and enhanced penetration into the skin,’ says dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto.
Best Anti-Ageing Serum With Retinol
The brainchild of skin-obsessed Tina Craig (also known as Bag Snob), U Beauty literally broke the internet with more than 20,000 pre-sale orders in around 24 hours. And with good reason. This serum gives new meaning to the phrase ‘one-hit-wonder’ by resurfacing, hydrating, brightening and tightening all thanks to a blend of AHAs, antioxidants, vitamin C and, of course, retinol. What’s more, this serum is the only brand in the world to use Siren Capsule Technology. ‘It’s like a siren attracting free radicals,’ says Craig. ‘They chew through the capsule wall, releasing the ingredients on the areas of skin where these free radicals are causing damage. The ingredients only go where they are needed, which is how we avoid irritation.’
Best Serum For Sensitive Skin
Retinol is the only ingredient clinically proven to prevent and improve the appearance of fine lines. But it can be harsh on sensitive skin. Enter the latest addition to the La Roche Posay ‘retinol but make it soothing’ family. ‘It contains a combination of both corrective and compensating ingredients,’ says cosmetic and medical doctor Dr Ewoma Ukeleghe. ‘Retinol is corrective, specifically pure retinol at 0.1% and 0.2% gradual release retinol. Niacinamide calms irritation and glycerin is amazing for hydrating the skin.’
Best Hyaluronic Acid Serum
Applied topically, a single gram of hyaluronic acid can hold up to six litres of water, which makes it one of the best hydrating ingredients out there. There’s just one thing to remember: it’s important that hyaluronic acid molecules in your skincare are formulated in a mix of high and low weight forms. ‘The low molecular weight allows for easier penetration into the skin,’ says Sturm. ‘Once it has reached the collagen and elastin fibres it can bind them with water, improving skin elasticity. The higher weight molecules feed the surface with hydration.’ You’ll find both in this serum.
Here’s our round-up of the best of the rest…
While it's technically called a cream, the consistency screams refreshing serum, making it ideal for lightweight hydration in summer. With skin-strengthening amino acids, hydrating hyaluronic acid and calming aloe vera, the Zen part is no joke.
Serum isn’t just for the face. The delicate skin around the eyes can also benefit from this lightweight liquid. L’Occitane has taken the marjoram from its Reset Face Serum, which helps to produce skin-healing proteins, and combined it with caffeine, horse chestnut and butcher’s broom to reduce dark circles. We love.
This fast-absorbing water-gel is packed to the brim with hyaluronic acid alongside just 10 other ingredients so there’s little chance of irritation upsetting your skin’s moisture barrier. Think minimal formula but maximum results in the hydrating stakes. The transparent texture is a dream under foundation, too, with zero pilling.
Our favourite irreverent spa brand has just launched three serums – our favourite being this protective day serum. A host of plant extracts helps defend the precious collagen in your skin from environmental aggressors. It also plays nicely on both oily and dry skin.
With 20 potent plant extracts, this watery brown serum firms skin with continued use and satisfies thrill seekers by leaving skin immediately brighter and dewier.
There is a shift away from ‘plus beauty’ – using everything on the bathroom shelf – to ‘minus’ beauty and applying only what your skin craves right now. Caudalie has bottled all you need to fight spot-causing bacteria - grape polyphenols and purifying organic essential oils - in this non-greasy serum.
It's pricey but celebrities including Blake Lively credit the brand with being the creme de la creme of skincare. Containing a high concentration of sea kelp and vitamins, this anti-ageing skin serum plumps skin, leaving it feeling softer after the first use. Best for dry, mature skin.
A cult classic serum and one of the most affordable anti-ageing products that really delivers on the market. Giving skin an instant anti-ageing boost, fine lines and wrinkles appear reduced after a few uses, and results improve over time. Add a little into your foundation to increase its skincare benefits and give a sheer, radiant finish.
This beauty editor favourite contains sea buckthorn and skin-repairing reishi, irritant-soothing chaga and cordyceps mushrooms, which are used in Chinese medicine to heal, promote longevity and improve health. The soft and smooth formula is easily absorbed into skin and over time reduces redness and gives skin a more even appearance.
You know that feeling when you touch your skin and it feels like there are tiny bits of sand just under the surface? When it feel rough to the touch? If that's you, use this every night for about a week to let the resurfacing acids buff away dead skin cells.
The original. The classic. Here are a few facts about the serum that everybody loves. In one year, Estée Lauder sold over 5.7 million bottles of ANR globally. It reduces the appearance of the key signs of ageing, it hydrates and illuminates. It was the first skincare product to use hyaluronic acid. The formula has been patented until 2033.
This newly reformulated version does the same incredible work at fighting signs of sun damage, brightening and generally decongesting the skin as the original. But by swapping out lactic acid in favour of glycolic acid, which penetrates deeper into the skin, the effects are more dramatic. If you were a regular user of the original, we recommend using it every other day to let your skin get used to it.