Meet the single most important product in your skincare regime...
Some beauty products are the show ponies of your skincare routine. Like sheet masks, for example. 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. So why exactly aren’t we dousing our skin in this liquid elixir?
Outside of beauty circles, serums can still be confusing. Cleansers cleanse; moisturisers moisturise, but serums? Not so obvious.
So, let us explain. Serums can be water-based or more of an oil. But always apply them after your best 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 make your skin texture look like the smooth 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 the most money in. Here’s everything you need to know…
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 in moisture and all the goodness from a serum into your skin.
How often should you apply face serum?
Twice daily 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 oxidising 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 repair processes while you sleep.’
To that end she has invented the Night Serum (from £90, Cult Beauty). It contains the antioxidant 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 for your skin type
‘Make a list of goals for your skin – for example brightening or hydrating,’ says Kluk. ‘Focus on the top one or two priorities and select ingredients 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.
Charlotte Tilbury Magic Serum Crystal Elixir, from £25 | Cult Beauty
Vitamin C is one of skincare’s heavy hitters when it comes to brightening and evening out skin tone. But its 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 serum with retinol
La Roche-Posay Retinol 0.3% + Vitamin B3 Serum, £28.50 | Lookfantastic
The only ingredient clinically proven to prevent and improve the appearance of fine lines is retinol – 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 and founder of SKNDOCTOR, 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 anti-ageing serum
Avon Skin Reset Plumping Shots, £18 | avon.uk.com
Here’s something we bet you didn’t know. Avon has one of the most cutting-edge research facilities in the world, where beauty boffins are developing high-tech products. That includes these Plumping Shots, which don’t disappoint. Our skin is made up of two types of collagen: collagen 1, or adult collagen, and collagen 3, otherwise known as ‘baby collagen’ because it’s responsible for a baby’s plump, juicy skin. We need both types for bouncy skin, as baby collagen provides the framework on which adult collagen is built.
Avon’s new ingredient Protinol works by increasing the amount of baby collagen in the skin, which then increases the ratio of adult collagen. In fact, this seven-day course claims to restore a whopping seven years of collagen loss, with fewer wrinkles and less sagging to boot. Pretty impressive, right?
Best serum with hyaluronic acid
Dr Barbara Sturm Night Serum, £245 | Cult Beauty
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: the hyaluronic acid molecules in your skincare should be a mix of high and low weight. ‘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.
Keep scrolling for our round-up of the best of the rest…
Suffering with stressed-out skin? Let this serum step in. For starters, it's packed with a potent in-house blend of hyaluronic acid at just the right molecular size to penetrate the skin and keep it hydrated. There’s also a herbal adaptogen complex, which includes holy basil, red ginseng root, and schisandra berry — all ingredients to help strengthen skin against the effects of pollution and UV rays. Think renewed suppleness, improved clarity and mega-watt radiance.
Still having a hard time pronouncing ‘bakuchiol’? You’re not alone. All you need to know is that this plant extract functions in the same way as retinol. It stimulates collagen production, improves skin elasticity and the look of wrinkles, but minus any unwanted side effects like irritated skin. In this powerhouse serum bakuchiol works alongside mid-strength retinol and collagen-boosting peptides to tighten and smooth, making it a serious contender in your anti-ageing arsenal.
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 feels 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.
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.
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, and the formula has been patented until 2033.
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.'
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.
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 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.
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 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.
There is a shift away from ‘plus beauty’ – using everything on the bathroom shelf – to ‘minus’ beauty, AKA 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 this brand with being the crème de la crème 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.