All About Serums

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on May 02, 2014

Good skin care is pretty simple: All you probably need for a clear complexion is the right cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen. But if you like trying different types of products, serums may give your skin some extra TLC.

What is a serum? It’s a gel that you rub on your face or neck. Serums can help with skin problems like wrinkles, acne, redness, or dryness, for example.

“There is a serum for virtually every skin type, and they give an extra level of treatment for specific skin needs,” New York dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, says.

Here's what you should look for and expect if you try one.

Serums are rich in nutrients that are good for skin. Most are water-based, so your skin absorbs them quickly. They usually don't have heavy ingredients like petrolatum, mineral oil, or other oils.

“They are the workhorses of most skin care regimens, in that they deliver the most powerful results,” says New York dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD.

Look for a serum that matches your goals for your skin.

For instance, if you are targeting wrinkles and other signs of aging, “serums that contain growth factors or peptides are ideal” -- and they’re gentle, too, Bowe says. “Those with less sensitive skin can reach for serums with more varied ingredients, including retinol, antioxidants, vitamin C, and kojic acid.”

An antioxidant serum might be a good choice for daytime wear, as it helps protect the skin. And “the evening is the time to repair damage from the day and help stimulate collagen, so ingredients like retinol, growth factors and peptides are great,” Zeichner says.

Serums should work with your other skin care products, but they don’t replace them. “In general, a serum is not designed to hydrate the skin the way a moisturizer does, even if it’s packed with ingredients like hyaluronic acid,” Zeichner says.

Serums may cost more than other skin care products, too. That’s because they have more nutrients and fewer of the fillers used in products like moisturizers. The price shouldn’t be your only consideration; you should look for a serum that has proven effectiveness from a brand you and your dermatologist trust.

To get the most benefits from a serum, use it as the label recommends. In general, you should put on serum before heavier products.

In the morning: Apply serum after cleansing, but before moisturizer and sunscreen.

In the evening: Apply serum after cleansing but before night cream. “Always put the serum on first after cleansing, because you want those expensive, active ingredients to penetrate as deeply as they can prior to applying other creams that might create a barrier,” Bowe says.

“Serums penetrate more deeply when applied after using an exfoliating cleanser or a sonic skin-care brush,” Bowe adds. “But if your skin is sensitive, skip that step.”

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Whitney Bowe, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, New York.

Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York.

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