10-step skincare routines are not for everyone—they can be confusing, complicated and difficult to adhere to. But even if you’re a fan of a short and snappy regimen, serums are essential skincare steps that form the most targeted step of your routine. Are they meant to moisturise? Do they go before or after your night cream? Why are they so much more expensive than other skincare products? We broke it all down.
What are serums and what do they do?
Serums are concentrated oil-or water-based products that are chock-full of active ingredients. These are in turn made up of smaller molecules that can penetrate deep into the skin. “Serums are super potent, and if you pick the right one for your skin, they can be a great addition. But you still have to cleanse, tone, moisturise and apply sunscreen properly,” says Dr Abhijit Desai. While serums can be confused with moisturisers sometimes, that is not all they do. If you do have dry skin, serums with humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid can bolster the hydration levels in the skin. But some serums may have Vitamin C to brighten, retinol or peptides to stimulate the product of collagen and elastin, niacinamide to decrease inflammation, or antioxidants like green tea extract and ferulic acid to fight free radicals. “Essentially, the right serum for you is the one that fights your main problem, like acne or fine lines,” says Dr Desai.
Where do they fall in a skincare routine?
Traditionally, serums were water-based and best applied between the toner and the moisturiser, as they have the smallest molecules and can nourish the inner layer of skin by penetrating deep. If the serum is oil-based, it can go above the cream because they are bigger molecules that seal in the product underneath. “It is more important to use the right kind of serum than to use too many different kinds. If you keep using the serum in a regular manner, you’ll see great results,” says Dr Desai.
Dermatologists suggest applying a pea-sized serum when the skin is still slightly damp after toning. Using too much, especially due to the gel-like consistency and the super concentrated ingredients, can cause irritation and redness, especially in sensitive, acne-prone or rosacea-prone skin. If you have more than one problem you want to treat—like hyperpigmentation and active acne at the same time—using too many strong exfoliating ingredients can result in a compromised skin barrier. This is why dermatologists suggest adding a serum slowly into your routine, to reduce the risk of a reaction. For example, using a Vitamin C serum all over for brightening and to reduce pigmentation, but then dabbing a salicylic acid serum on active pimples to calm them down.
There’s a serum for every skin type and issue
If your skin is dry or chapped, adding a serum with a hydrator like ceramides, hyaluronic acid and fatty acids help to fortify the skin barrier and protect against dryness. If a humectant-rich serum is applied to damp skin, it can pull moisture to create a hydrated barrier for the skin. Serums like The Inkey List Hyaluronic Acid Serum or the Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Capsules Daily Youth Restoring Serum work great under a day cream and makeup, as they help to leave skin bouncy and soft to the touch. However, make sure to let each layer dry before the next, because wet layers on top of each other can cause pilling of base makeup. If you’d rather a quicker application, the Milk Makeup Watermelon Brightening Serum is available in a handy stick form.
Acne-prone skin is more suited to light serums that unclog pores and calm inflammation. The Caudalie Vinopure Skin Perfecting Serum with natural salicylic acid or the Tata Harper Resurfacing AHA + BHA Serum works wonders to stop acne in their tracks, as well as calm any current red and inflamed pimples.
If anti-ageing is your main agenda, double up on hydrating serums to lend a supple glow to the skin, while adding tightening and collagen-building ingredients like peptides (try the Bioeffect EGF Serum) or retinol (reach for Sunday Riley’s A+ High-Dose Retinol Serum) and amino acid proteins (The Ordinary Matrixyl 10% + HA is great).
For dull skin that doesn’t have a natural glow, a Vitamin C serum usually does the trick. In fact, the ingredient works best in a serum formulation because it is the most stable form it can be in (and Vitamin C is notoriously unstable). The Mario Badescu Vitamin C serum is non-sticky and plays well with makeup when worn in the morning before sunscreen and moisturiser. Even if you just have ‘normal skin’ that is easy to maintain and doesn’t have a lot of issues, an extra serving of antioxidants, like in the Skinceuticals’ Phorectin CF, can’t hurt.
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