If you’re doing all the right things—cleansing, exfoliating, moisturizing, SPFing—and your skin is still looking blasé with a side of meh, a face serum could be exactly what you need. “Face serums are thinner than a traditional moisturizer and contain higher concentrations of active ingredients,” explains Sapna Palep, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Spring Street Dermatology in New York City. The specific benefits of a serum depend on the actives in the formula, but all are meant to help you hone in on particular issues, such as fine lines, discoloration, and dryness.
The best part is how easy they are to integrate into your skincare routine. “Serums are most effective when applied after an exfoliating cleanser to enhance penetration, and before an emollient moisturizer that will seal the serum in the skin,” says Illinois-based board-certified dermatologist Jessie Cheung, M.D.
Apply your “protective” antioxidant serums in the morning (vitamin C, for example) and your “repair and regenerate” serums at night (hello, retinol), when your skin is resting. As for what you should look for in the serum itself, that depends on the specific skin woes you’re looking to conquer.
How to choose the best face serum for your skin type
✔️For wrinkles: Retinol, glycolic acid, growth factors, and bakuchiol will help build collagen and improve skin texture, says Melanie Palm, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and clinical professor at Scripps Encinitas Memorial Hospital in California. Hydrators, like hyaluronic acid or ceramides, will also plump skin and reduce irritation.
✔️For daily protection: Look for a serum that contains antioxidants, such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E (tocopherol), vitamin B3 (niacinamide), green tea polyphenols, and resveratrol. They act as a shield against environmental and lifestyle elements (UV rays, air pollutants, alcohol, smoking) that suck the life out of your face.
✔️For dark spots and uneven skin tone: Antioxidants brighten skin while also protecting against environmental factors. Other color-correcting ingredients that get the job done include kojic, glycolic, and lactic acids, as well as licorice root, mushroom extract, and botanical extracts, like soy.
✔️For dryness: Look for a creamier serum that contains hyaluronic acid to pull water to the skin, niacinamide to boost ceramide levels (a natural component of the skin barrier), and vitamin E to soothe and protect your skin from environmental damage, says Ramya Kollipara, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Texas.
✔️For redness and inflammation: “Sensitive skin types should look for anti-inflammatory ingredients like zinc, green tea, licorice root, and aloe vera,” says Dr. Kollipara. Opt for a fragrance- and preservative-free serum to reduce potential irritation. “Avoid using retinoids or acids too frequently if your skin is sensitive,” says Dr. Cheung.
✔️For breakouts: Acne serums should be noncomedogenic (meaning they won’t clog pores) and oil-free. Look for exfoliators like glycolic acid, says Dr. Palep. Retinol is also handy, since it increases cell turnover and improves absorption of your other acne treatments in the process. Seek out hydrators, like hyaluronic acid, and inflammation-fighters, like niacinamide.
✔️For overall radiance: If you don’t have specific skin issues per se, but want to spruce up your skin in general, look for serums that contain hydroxy acids, which exfoliate skin and may improve collagen production.
Phew, got all that? It’s a lot to take in—but now that you know what to look for, you can get to the fun part. Here, the best face serums for every skin type and budget, according to top dermatologists.
“This serum activates skin estrogen receptors to help restore lost collagen, and improve dryness, dullness, and laxity,” says Dr. Cheung. It also contains peptides and antioxidants to give your skin added oomph.”