Until a few years ago, I didn't really see the point in using a serum. I thought my moisturizer could do everything my skin needed and it was just a ploy by skincare companies to steal all my money. Obviously, I was gravely mistaken. Those telltale late-20s fine lines (they were faint, but they were there) started to crop up, and I realized I hadn't been taking care of my skin as meticulously as I thought. It became very clear that serums are not only helpful but also vital in a skincare regimen that boasts the complexities mine did. For results, I had to start doing some research in the anti-aging sector of things, and I had to do it fast.
Over the course of those few years, I became a serum aficionado. I don't want to toot my own horn, but I tested hundreds of serums and noted which ones worked and which to move on from. I noticed differences in the brightness of my skin, the tone and texture, evenness, elasticity, plumpness, and, yes, a reduction in fine lines and wrinkles. Below, find the face serums I think are worth their salt. Because really, there's no need to waste your money on skincare that won't suit your needs (and will cost a pretty penny at that).
Best Overall: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic
Here it is, the GOAT: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is the love of my life and the only serum I could never live without. It has changed my skin completely over the last few years, offering a glowing, bright mug where tired, sallow skin used to be. It uses a synergistic antioxidant combination of ferulic acid and pure vitamin C and E to enhance your skin's protection against environmental damage caused by free radicals (so it's especially perfect if you live in an urban area) and improves signs of aging and photodamage all in one shot.
Best Budget: Rosen Skincare Paloma Serum
Without breaking the bank, this all-natural serum tackles texture, fades dark marks, and prevents future breakouts. The formula uses glycolic acid (AHA) and white willow bark (BHA) so that you get the best of both worlds of exfoliating acids. Grapefruit extract is also a hero ingredient with major healing properties, Vitamin C, and a natural fruity scent.
Best Anti-Aging: BioEffect EGF Serum
This one is a doozy. See, it's known for (and won awards for) replenishing your body's own natural supply of EGF (epidermal growth factor) and rejuvenates your skin cells, so it very literally helps to slow down the aging process. EGF is really important for your skin, as it helps skin cells boost the production of collagen and elastin to increase your body's capacity to retain water to maintain healthy, youthful skin. Another amazing thing to note? It's so potent you don't even need to apply moisturizer on top of it. Just cleanse, tone, apply, and go.
Best Calming: Dr. Barbara Sturm Calming Serum
I've sung the praises of Dr. Barbara Sturm's Calming Serum about a million times before, but really, there's no end in sight. It's just a perfect formula. The serum incorporates an active, plant-based complex of Cardiospermum, echium, and sunflower to rebalance and calm irritated skin and help to reduce redness and burning. Plus, it's chock-full of the brand's hero ingredient, purslane, to hydrate and protect sensitive cell membranes against free radical attack. I use it after a peel, any abundant sun exposure, a late night, and when I'm experiencing jet lag, too much air conditioning, or exposure to pollution. It's even helpful for when you're just generally stressed out (because that can, in fact, show up on your face). Fun fact: Hailey Baldwin uses it each time she travels.
Best Drugstore: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum
Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in the human body. It acts as a cushioning and lubrication agent for our joints, nerves, hair, skin, and eyes. When used in skincare, it acts as a moisture binder, which means that it will attach itself to the water in the cells (while also attracting and holding water from the air) making them plump.
For just-as-effective results (and far less money), try Neutrogena's well- reviewed option. It's a blend of accelerated retinol SA, an ingredient that works to fade crow's-feet and forehead and cheek wrinkles, as well as brighten your skin's tone and enhance its texture. Plus, it incorporates hyaluronic acid to plump and hydrate, replenishing moisture in your skin and soothing any irritation from the actives.
Best Exfoliating: Tata Harper Resurfacing Serum
Tata Harper's newest serum contains nine acids (incredible) made to create an instant glow on your skin. It's made with tomato carotenoids, an Israel-grown tomato that acts as a natural color corrector. It absorbs UVA and UVB, and when exposed to sunlight, it emits a green light (which neutralizes redness) to make your skin look brighter. The serum also includes squalane derived from olives, which conditions skin to restore softness and smoothness and helps keep your skin hydrated without leaving an oily residue.
Best for Breakouts: iS Clinical Active Serum
Another anti-aging, anti-acne goodie, IS Clinical's Active Serum also adds brightening to the equationmaking it pretty much a one-stop-shop for all skincare woes. Over time, it buffs away fine lines, reduces redness and breakouts, and even works on stubborn scars. Lindsey Metrus, our senior editor, is also a fan. She gushes, 'Using a serum that's a one-two punch in terms of hydration and skin clarification is just about all I could want in a formula, and this cult-loved variation from IS Clinical delivers just that. Not only does my skin look dewy and fresh after repeated use, but it also keeps my breakouts at bay, especially when my cycle rolls around.'
Best for Discoloration: SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense
As someone who suffers from sun damage and discoloration, I've found this SkinCeuticals offering to be a godsend. It uses 3% tranexamic acid to minimize the recurrence of discoloration, 1% kojic acid to boost your skin's brightness, 5% niacinamide (which is vitamin B3) to further reduce skin discoloration, and 5% hepes, which activates natural enzymes in your skin to help break the bonds that bind dead skin cells to the surface for a thorough, even exfoliation. In fact, in a 12-week clinical study, participants noticed an average improvement of 60% in the appearance of their stubborn brown patches. I use it each night before retinol and notice a real difference by morning.
Best for Large Pores: Rene Rouleau Pore + Wrinkle Perfecting Serum
One of ishonest's most beloved estheticians, Rene Rouleau knows her stuff. So there was no doubt her Pore + Wrinkle Perfecting Serum was going to impress me. It's an exfoliating anti-aging serum, so it balances the needs of breakout-prone yet aging skin types, which is a sector of skincare that is surprisingly rare. Usually, you have to choose one or the other. Our contributor Erin agrees. 'Even though it's pretty potent, it's one of the only serums I've tried in which I notice an actual difference in the brightness, clarity, and tone of my skin. I use it for three nights straight and then swap in another one for three nights, but this one always keeps my skin glowy while keeping my small (easily clogged pores) in check', she says.
Best for Rough Texture: Shani Darden Texture Reform
Shani Darden, a facialist to stars including Chrissy Teigen and Jessica Alba, created this beloved product. Texture Reform is a gentler retinol serum, formulated with retinyl palmitate, which doesn't cause all that peeling, dryness, and irritation you may have experienced with other, more intense retinol products. It also has sodium PCA to help your skin hold on to moisture, lactic acid to gently exfoliate, and aloe to soothe. When I use it, I wake up with brighter, more glowing, more luminous-looking skin.
Best for Scars: Biologique Recherche Serum Placenta
Meant to heal and repair, Biologique Recherche's unique serum addresses stubborn skincare concerns like post-acne scarring, dark circles, and pigment spots. What's more, it actually works. I'd never noticed a difference in my dark circles (they're genetic) until I started using this serum. It reconstructs your skin, expediting its natural healing process and restoring suppleness and tone where it once was.
Best for Oily Skin: Plant Apothecary Superfacial Organic, Superlight Oil Moisturizer for Oily Skin
You may think that adding oil to oily skin would be counterproductive, but the right oil can actually help your skin stay hydrated and blemish-free without appearing greasy. This formula features antibacterial, soothing, and antioxidant-rich ingredients that discourage the over-production of natural oils, but don't skimp on hydration.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: THE ORDINARY Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%
Both of the namesake ingredients in this blemish buster help to keep skin clear in their own way. Niacinamide (also known as vitamin B3) is a top pick for helping to reduce redness and inflammation (both of which often come with a pimple), and also brightens skin tone, too.
Meanwhile, zinc is a mineral that helps balance out oil production, always a good thing if you're acne-prone. Use a few drops all over, though it's worth noting that if you're using any other skin products with vitamin C, it's best to alternate since niacinamide can affect the integrity of vitamin C. Reviewers comment on not only how it keeps their skin clear, but also how much it tamps down oil and minimizes the look of their pores.
Best Hydrating: SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel
So yes, I added another SkinCeuticals product. But I just can't get enough of its serums. They are genuinely incredible and work so well together or separately. I use this one like a shot of moisture to my thirsty skin. It's formulated with a rich dose of hyaluronic acid and tissue-repairing vitamin B5, and it's so refreshing to apply. It works to restore and bind moisture to your skin, adding suppleness and bounce. I layer it on top of my vitamin C serum in the morning and post-retinol at night.
Best Organic: Vintner's Daughter Active Botanical Serum
A cult-favorite serum in its own right, Vintner's Daughter Active Botanical Serum offers 22 active, organic, and wild-crafted botanicals to nourish your skin. It includes antioxidants to protect; brightening vitamins to stimulate cellular turnover; phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory benefits; and essential fatty acids and omega-3, -6, -7, and -9 to nourish, heal, and repair. It's the real deal, folks. So much so the brand only makes two products. That's how well it works.
Best Multitasker: Coola Organic Sunless Tan Anti-Aging Face Serum
What's better than an anti-aging serum? An anti-aging serum that leaves you glowing, as if you've just come back from a week at the beach. This vegan and lightweight serum contains hyaluronic acid for hydration and plant cell cultures to smooth and add elasticity to the skin. An Eco-Cert approved natural tanning ingredient will provide a gradual tan and glow.
Best Splurge: La Prairie Skin Caviar Crystalline Concentr
At first glance, this serum literally shimmers. The formula is infused with plant extracts, vitamin C, and licorice to brighten; and diamonds (!), liquid quartz crystals (!!), and caviar extract (!!!) to reignite your skin's luminosity. It strengthens the moisture barrier, firming and smoothing, and lifting existing wrinkles, preventing new ones, and offering a subtle glow immediately after application. It's luxury at its finest (which explains the price), and it really, really works.
Runner-Up, Best Splurge: SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum
A favorite of more beauty editors than I can name in one sitting, SkinMedica's TNS Essential Serum is shockingly effective. It's practically mind-blowing. It has growth factors and antioxidants to help reduce inflammation and regenerate skin cells, as well as a protein- and amino acid-rich complex to anti-age, strengthen, and restore that ever-elusive glowy, youthful flush.
Best for Hyperpigmentation: Rose Ingleton MD Complexion Brightening Booster
Dealing with acne-prone skin often creates a cycle of trying to prevent new breakouts while healing the scarring from past blemishes, and this serum tackles both concerns. The highly concentrated formula uses the collagen-stimulating benefits of peptides to brighten and smooth discolored skin without ever clogging your pores. The results: a glow that you're sure to notice.
Okay, so rest assured Hallie's list is FULL of A-grade serum options. It's hard to play favorites, but because we have to, we're going to call out the Skinceuticals CE Ferulic for its unmatched brightening and skin-evening powers, the IS Clinical Active Serum for being one of the greatest clarifying serums out there, and Dr. Barbara Sturm's Calming Serum. Not only is it milky and light, but it contains a cocktail of plant actives to truly calm and soothe the complexion.
What to look for when buying a facial serum
This will really depend on your skin concerns and goals. You can buy a serum that focuses on a single ingredient, or combines a few. Another option is to use one formulation in the morning, and something different before bed. Nourishing, hydrating, protective ingredients are great during the day (think hyaluronic acid and antioxidants like vitamin C) whereas resurfacing or super nourishing options work a treat at night (vitamin A, AHAs, BHAs, and peptides are all great).
To help you get started, Dr. Barbara Strum, aesthetics doctor and founder of her eponymous skincare line, recommends hyaluronic acid as a great ingredient for almost all skin types, especially those prone to dehydration. For skin types that are prone to congestion, zinc, niacinamide, and salicylic acid (a form of BHA) are all great options. For uneven skin tone, vitamin C, vitamin E, ferulic acid, and niacinamide will help. Finally, for those concerned with lines and wrinkles, vitamin A and its many derivatives (retinol, retinoic acid, retinoids) will be your best friend. You can also try peptides and amino acids for an extra boost.
It's important to keep in mind that because serums often contain higher concentrations of active ingredients, the price point is generally higher. That's not to say you have to fork out an arm and a leg for a quality product, but they tend to sit higher than a cleanser or sunscreen.
What is a face serum?
Think of a face serum as a skincare category, similar to a cleanser or moisturizer. Serums specifically are results-driven and designed to really target certain skin concerns. They are thinner in texture, and typically formulated so that they can penetrate the deeper layers of the skin. They typically contain a combination of efficacious and/or active ingredients too, like vitamin C, vitamin A, niacinamide, or hydroxy acids.
How do you apply face serum?
According to Dr. Sturm, you should apply serums onto cleansed skin immediately after drying to avoid trans-epidermal water loss, and before a day or night cream. Sturm explains that serums precede but do not replace a moisturizer. If using more than one serum, the order in which you apply is important, too: When layering serums, always take clear formulas first before lipid-based serums and wait until each serum is dissolved into the skin before adding another one. Then, to seal it all in, you should always apply a moisturizer or face cream over the top.
How often should you use face serum?
As often as your skin requires it, explains Sturm, who layers her Hyaluronic Serum twice daily, plus the Super Anti-aging Serum and Night Serum additionally before bed. A good rule of thumb is to use a serum both morning and night as part of your skincare routine. You might use the same product, or switch it up depending on your skin's needs.
Do I even need a face serum?
No one really needs a face serum, but if you're hoping to achieve a certain skincare goal or improve skin health, a potent, targeted serum is probably your best bet.
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