There are many buzzwords in beauty, but few have arrived on the scene with as much force as "serum." Almost overnight it seemed like the three-step cleanse-tone-moisturize system was abandoned in favor of a more elaborate skin care routine involving this mysterious new liquid. Many of us still are shaky on what serums actually do and when they should be worked into our routines. But serums are not only simple to use, but you'll find they’re even easier to understand as we break down the purpose of using a serum and how to apply it.
We’ve had cleansers and moisturizers since the dawn of time, but there were no products that addressed skin concerns by delivering high concentrations of ingredients. Enter: serums. Packed with actives, botanicals and antioxidants like Vitamin C, A and E, serums target specific skin concerns like dark spots, fine lines and wrinkles or acne.
In terms of texture, serums are generally water-based and come in liquid or gel form, making them incredibly lightweight. While many moisturizers are so emollient that they can only sit on the outer layers of the skin, serums absorb quickly into the deeper layers of the skin. They’re non-comedogenic, which means they don’t block pores or leave any residue, but their molecules are also small enough to really penetrate pores and work their magic from the inside out. As such, they’re able to target your skin concerns with impressive precision, and are known to be among the most effective topical skin care products on the market. In short: Serums get you what you want out of your skin, and faster.
Serum is often mistaken with another late arrival: face oil. While they might be from the same family, serums and oils are very distant cousins and not to be confused. Remember those small molecules in serums? Well, the molecules in oils are often much larger, although there can be a variation in size. While facial oils are chock-full of antioxidants, nutrients and fatty acids that nourish the skin, the oils with larger molecules will sit on the outer layer of skin. Other oils, like jojoba, have a smaller molecular size and can penetrate the skin deeply. Facial oils that absorb easily can be applied before your moisturizer, whereas other oils, which sit on the skin, can be used as the final flourish of nutrition and protection from environmental stressors.
If oils are serum’s cousins, what does that make concentrates? Well, more of an older sister. While the two products are very similar in appearance and consistency, a concentrate usually only offers an intensified dosage of one ingredient (read: Vitamin C or rosehip) to address one particular skin issue. Serums can target a multitude of concerns at once, like acne, hyperpigmentation, redness, wrinkles and dryness. For those looking to revitalize their skin with a one-two punch, serums and concentrates can be used in conjunction with each other.
Now we’ve covered the what and why, you’re probably wondering how and when to apply a serum. The serum step falls right after you cleanse, exfoliate, tone and apply an essence. You can use a serum morning and night with your regular skin care routine to achieve stellar results. Ensure you start with a freshly-washed face so that your skin is free from product or daily build-up, which allows serum to more effectively penetrate the outer layers of the skin. You can use a toner and essence, but nothing more emollient should come in between your cleansed face and the product. If you’re using multiple serums to address different skin needs, start with the lightest formula and work your way up to the heaviest — the same principle of the remainder of your skin care products.
You only need to apply a thin layer because serums are concentrated — a small, pea-sized amount should do. Serums can also be applied to your neck and chest, to fight the visible signs of aging. For even more detailed information, read this guide on how to apply serums, oils and concentrates. Or watch this In The Mix video that explains what a serum is used for and how to fit one into your skin care routine.
Whether you’re wrestling with aging, sensitivity or breakouts, Eminence Organics Senior Product Development Manager Colette Lieberman has a serum to suit any skin concern.
Perhaps you’re dealing with dull, dehydrated skin instead? Botanical hyaluronic acid (from marshmallow plant extract) is deeply hydrating as well as the delicious-smelling strawberry. You may be surprised to learn that strawberry is a great serum ingredient that contains salicylic acid to gently exfoliate and remove impurities to brighten the look of skin and shrink the appearance of pores.
Worried about wrinkles? If you’re hoping to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, choose a serum with peptides which can significantly smooth the skin’s appearance. Algae extract is another ingredient to search for as it is nutrient rich and contains vitamins, minerals, and amino-acids to increase the look of firmness on the skin and minimize the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.
Citrus fruit oils are a useful serum ingredient to tone and refresh the skin. They are sourced from naturally occurring Vitamin C that helps protect skin against the visible signs of aging.
If skin has lost its natural radiance and luminosity, it may be because of a compromised skin barrier due to an unbalanced microbiome. You can apply probiotic skin care such as a serum that contains pre, pro* and postbiotics. These ingredients are important for restoring the microbiome and enhance the skin’s luminosity.
Stabilized Vitamin C (L-Ascorbic Acid) brightens the look of skin and minimizes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as does Vitamin C salt (also referred to as Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate). Both versions of Vitamin C can assist with improving the appearance of the skin. For fighting the appearance of hormonal problem skin, organic phytoestrogens are active ingredients that can help target problem areas as well as the visible signs of aging. Remember, you never have to stop at one serum — layer according to your needs, and enjoy a fully refreshed visage.
Do you have a good understanding of the differences between serums and other products? Find out which Eminence Organics serum targets your specific skin concern in our guide. You can also visit your favorite authorized Eminence Organics Spa Partner to learn about serums, oils and concentrates.
This article was originally written in March 2021.