What Is A Serum? Your Definitive Guide To The Skin-Saving Product, Plus How To Find The Right One For You

Certain skincare products are considered fundamental to an effective routine. Cleanser, sunscreen, and a quality moisturizer are all veritably crucial steps to great skin, but another ingredient will ensure a selfie-worthy glow: serum. Available at a steeper price than your average foaming cleanser and in a range of confusing iterations from clarifying to antioxidant, serums may be the most perplexing skincare product on the market. However, they are also produce the most noticeable results with consistent usage, and may be one of best non-invasive preventative measures against aging, sun damage, and  other skin woes. But what is a serum, and how do they produce such remarkable improvements in your skin? Lucky for you, dear reader, you've found the definitive primer on serums, how they work, and why you should have found your favorite version yesterday. 

While the supposedly beneficial cleansers stay on your face for a matter of seconds, many moisturizers hydrate your skin's epidermis but not much else, and sunscreen is more of a protective barrier against UV rays than a true remedy against skin issues, a serum actively targets your skin concerns with a cocktail of hard-working ingredients. Serums are typically thin solutions with low viscosity which are meant to reach far below the skin's surface with a mix of active ingredients. The ingredients in a serum work to address one or several skin concerns from dryness to dark spots. 

Facial serums aren't meant to replace any one step of your skincare regimen, but rather to enhance its positive effects. After cleansing, several drops of serum may be lightly tapped onto the face, followed by sunscreen, moisturizer, and whatever other products you use on a daily basis. 

Though a dermatologist or facialist may be your best bet for customized recommendations based on an in-depth skin analysis, consumers who are very aware of their epidermal shortcomings will be pleased to know that serums to suit every whim and skin type are being produced by the bushel each year, many with visible results after just several uses. Much like cleanser or moisturizer, serums aren't a "one size fits all" product; however, most are cleverly labeled to give you a quick and simple overview of their functionality. Serums fall into several major categories, of which clarifying and radiance-enhancing, antioxidant, anti-acne, calming, hydrating, and anti-aging are the most common. Let's break it all down, shall we?

1. Clarifying Serums

Occasionally referred to as brightening serums, clarifying serums serve to lighten dark spots from the sun or acne scars, and ultimately improve skin tone for a clearer complexion. Similarly, radiance-enhancing serums additionally seek to enhance the luminosity of the skin by targeting dullness and lack of hydration as well as decreasing the number of dark spots (aka give you that Kardashian-esque glow, sans bronzer). SK-II's Cellumination Aurabright serum contains Pitera, Niacinamide, and Ume Extract for reduced appearance of dark spots, and the product's pearlescent hue provides an enviable sheen to the skin.

2. Antioxidant Serums

C E Ferulic Serum, $165, SkinCeuticals

Antioxidant serums function for your skin in much the same way the component does in your diet: reversing free radical damage and preventing further damage from UV-ray exposure. Vitamins C and E, green tea extract, resveratrol, and ferulic acid are commonly utilized and beloved antioxidant ingredients in skin serums. SkinCeuticals' C E Ferulic Serum is a lauded cocktail of active antioxidant ingredients, producing effects from reducing spots to de-emphasizing lines and wrinkles.

3. Acne-Fighting Serums

Mario Badescu Anti-Acne Serum, $20, Urban Outfitters

Acne-fighting serums address imbalances within the skin which cause acne, targeting inflammation and irregular oil production. Salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, witch hazel, sulfur, and tea tree oil are acne-fighting superstars for those who crave clear, calm skin. Mario Badescu's Anti-Acne Serum battles stubborn breakouts with salicylic acid. 

4. Calming Serums

Peter Thomas Roth Cucumber De-Tox Hydrating Serum, $55, Amazon

Calming serums are a panacea for those with highly reactive skin, soothing inflammation and forming a protective barrier against environmental irritants. Ingredients like chamomile, aloe, cucumber, and feverfew provide skin-pacifying relief from redness reduction to cooling effects. Peter Thomas Roth's Cucumber De-Tox Hydrating Serum provides skin with a major dose of hydration, while cucumber refreshes and reduces irritation.

5. Hydrating Serum

Hydrating Serum, $25, Indeed Laboratories

If your daily moisturizer just doesn't cut it, a hydration serum may be the key to a dewy, sort complexion. In order to reach a healthy level of hydration, the skin must attract, bind, and retain hydration despite environmental factors which leech water. Hyaluronic acid, alpha hydroxy acids, urea, and rose extract each target dryness and flakes to refresh and rejuvenate skin's moisture. Indeed Laboratories make some of the most affordable serums on the market, and they're Hydraluron version uses red marine algae to keep your face moisturized, plus fight off signs of aging.

6. Anti-Aging Serum


Anti-Aging Daily Serum, $162, Lovely Skin

Anti-aging serums are perhaps the most notorious of the lot, targeting signs of aging from wrinkles and loss of elasticity to dark spots and sun damage. The best anti-aging serums infuse skin with hydration while lightening spots and decreasing the appearance of lines through a mix of antioxidants, moisturizing ingredients, and clarifying ingredients. Prevage's Anti-Aging Daily Serum does all of the above, pairing the antioxidant and brightening power of green tea with moisturizing bamboo extract and antioxidant amino acids.

Images: Giphy; SK-II Aura Bright, $235, ski-ii.com; SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Acid, $157, skinceuticals.com; Mario Badescu Anti-Acne Serum, $20, mariobadescu.com; Peter Thomas Roth Cucumber De-Tox Hydrating Serum, $65, dermstore.com; Indeed Laboratories Hydraluron Serum, $25, walgreens.com; Prevage Anti-Aging Daily Serum, $162, lovelyskin.com

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