Serums 101: Everything You Need to Know

Serums, oils, oil-serums, gels, moisturizers, rich creams… skincare can be confusing!

Which do you use and when, what goes first, and do these even go together, are just a few of the questions we're sure you ask yourself when staring into your growing beauty arsenal at night—so we want to help clarify a few things

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Serums is one of the larger skincare categories because there's one for just about any condition your skin needs. They can help with brightening, clarifying, anti-aging, hydration and radiance, but obviously shouldn't be used all at the same time. Before we break down the most common serums, let's first explain where you should use a serum in your skincare routine.

You should be applying your serum on freshly cleansed skin. If you use a toner or essence, those would also go on beforehand. A good rule of thumb: thinnest formulas applied first, heaviest formulas applied last. Serums have a consistency thicker than a toner, but lighter than oils, which is why they fall in between.

Now even though serums and face oils might look the same, they do have some differences (although admittedly the area is getting more and more grey). Serums are skin treatments that contain highly concentrated and active ingredients. You might be thinking, so are face oils, which is true. But the difference is, serums are comprised of smaller molecules, which increases their ability to sink deeper into the skin. Serums are usually made up of water, plus actives including peptides, vitamins, or glycolic/alpha hydroxy acids.

Face oils, on the other hand, tend to be made up of larger molecules (proteins), and provide nutrition, antioxidants, vitamins and hydration to the skin. Facial oils are usually comprised of plant seed oils and essential oils that flood the skin with proteins. These lipids help strengthen the moisture barrier and keep your skin balanced and mega-hydrated. They also help protect it from environmental damage, which can lead to acne and premature aging. Both are incredibly important for a well-rounded skincare routine.

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Below, the different types of serums:


There are several amazing ingredients that help brighten your complexion. The term brightening is loose and has a variety of sub meanings like improving dullness, reducing hyperpigmentation and evening your skin tone. Vitamin C serums are the most popular here and offer a wide variety of benefits for your skin like fighting free radical damage and boosting, yes, brightness.

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For those who want to eradicate dull, congested skin, an exfoliating serum might be your new secret weapon. Filled with either glycolic acids, alpha hydroxy acids or lactic acids, these serums are intended to slough away dead skin cells and debris, and they decongest pores to exfoliate your complexion.

However, the biggest mistake people make here is exfoliating too much! If you're using a daily exfoliating toner, or even an exfoliating face wash, you wouldn't want to use this on the same day. Essentially, you're brushing off the top layers of your skin and you don't want to take too many off because that can damage it. You also wouldn't want to use this the same night as a retinol product. Think of this as a treatment and incorporate it max two to three times a week. Also check with a dermatologist before adding this into your routine if you're on prescription acne medication like Retin-A or Accutane. Skin Laundry makes one of our go-to glycolic serums (and it also brightens).


If you struggle with acne or breakouts, a clarifying serum might be a game changer. Similar to an exfoliating serum, a clarifying serum usually focuses on salicylic acid which is amazing for treating pesky blemishes. These can be intense for your entire face, so we recommend spot treating sections. For example, if you tend to get hormonal acne around the time of your period, start using this a few days prior to the beginning of your cycle to control congestion and breakouts. Our top pick is the Sunday Riley Clarifying Oil Serum.


If you're after that lit-from-within glow, you're looking for a radiance serum. Similar to a hydrating serum, radiance serums focus on keeping moisture in the skin and strengthening your complexion's barrier function. These can also be used in tandem with hydrating serums for added moisture and glow. A cult classic is Caudalie's Vinoperfect Radiance Serum that rids your skin of dullness and dryness.


Anti-aging is such a large category and has so so many subcategories. You most likely aren't too focused on anti-aging just yet, but it's never too early to incorporate peptides into your skincare routine, which help boost the skin's collagen production. Collagen is what keeps your skin looking soft, supple and youthful—but sadly, as you get older your body begins to lose collagen and stops producing it all together by the time you hit 30. So, it's important to start using peptides in your teens. This one from The Ordinary includes peptides and copper.


We hope you enjoyed our serums crash course—THIS full-body serum made of rose quartz is said to help you attract love!