Demystifying The Differences Between Face Oils & Serums

And how to use each in your routine.

Dermatologists compare face oils vs. serums and how to use each in your beauty routine.
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There are so many different skin care products to choose from that your routine could be 15 steps long if you wanted it to be. But if you find yourself mixing up all the elixirs out there, know that you’re not alone.

Two such skin-boosting power players, face oils and serums, are particularly effective for achieving a gorgeous glow, although they function in different ways. The main distinguishing factor? The weight of their molecules. “A serum would be more of an aqueous solution, so it’s inherently lighter, whereas with a face oil, the main component is the oil itself,” says Dr. Anthony Rossi, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist.

Face oils are typically used to moisturize and nourish the skin, explains Dr. Peterson Pierre, M.D., a Los Angeles-based board-certified dermatologist. “A serum is a very versatile product packed with a high concentration of active ingredients,” he says. These actives help target more specific skin concerns (think acne and hyperpigmentation). Read on to learn more about their differences and how to incorporate each product into your skin care regimen.

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What Is A Face Oil?

A face oil basically works as a moisturizer. “The oils inherently have emollient benefits, so these products tend to be moisturizing,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist. In other words, it can take the place of your daily moisturizer (aka your face cream).

These formulas include a range of botanical oils featuring hydrating properties — common examples include jojoba, hempseed, apricot, and evening primrose oils. “Face oils are a mix of heavy and light fatty acids that create a barrier on the skin and help trap moisture and prevent water loss,” says Dr. Purvisha Patel, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare.

You’ll often notice benefits besides hydration, too. “Some oils have more antioxidant properties, like evening primrose,” says Rossi. Patel says these skin perks come from the oil’s lipophilic actives, aka ingredients like tea tree oil and vitamin E, that support your complexion’s outer lipid barrier. For that reason, you won’t find many water-based ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and pure vitamin C in these products, says Zeichner.

And if you’re all about that dewy skin look, Rossi says a face oil will give you that, thanks to its rich moisturizing prowess.

What Is A Serum?

Serums work for a range of concerns, like acne, discoloration, fine lines, and dryness. “The benefit depends on what the active ingredient is,” says Zeichner, adding that you can find some with brightening, exfoliating, and collagen-stimulating effects, among other perks. “Think of your serum as your supercharged skin care product,” he says.

Since serums are lighter in weight compared to face oils, they’re more easily absorbed, explains Patel. That’s also why you’ll find water-soluble ingredients — like the ones mentioned above, along with retinol and azelaic acid — in these as opposed to oils, as they’ll be more stable, aka more effective, says Patel.

Face Oils Vs. Serums

Both types of products carry ingredients that can change your complexion, says Patel. And you can use both within your routine — just look for those targeted toward your specific skin type and goals.

If you’re using them together, follow the skin care rule of applying products in order from lightest to heaviest. “So the serum would go on first. Allow that to fully dry, then the oil would go on top of that,” says Rossi. This allows the serum to be closer to your skin’s top layer for absorption, adds Patel. “A face oil is more of an occlusive product and will trap the serum on the skin,” she tells Bustle.

You’ll want to apply the serum to your entire face as well as your neck and decolletage. “Those areas are all chronically hit with UV rays, so it’s important to get those areas,” says Rossi, who suggests two pumps of the product per use. A face oil, on the other hand, spreads really easily, so a little goes a long way to cover your skin. Both serums and face oils can be used in your morning and nighttime regimens — but Patel recommends using the latter in the evening as it can inhibit how effectively your skin absorbs your sunscreen. If you’re using both, Patel says to allow the serum to soak in before applying your oil.

Not every face oil and serum combo will play well together, however. “Sometimes people are trying to do too much with their skin care routines,” says Rossi. “You might find duplicate ingredients between your serum and face oil, so you want to make sure you’re not irritating the skin too much.” Using too many actives — like retinol or chemical exfoliants — at once can sensitize the skin and lead to irritation, breakouts, or redness, so be sure to space out when you’re using your active-spiked products.

Otherwise, both of these glow-enhancing power players can level up your beauty routine.

Studies referenced:

Lin, T-K. (2018). Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. Int J Mol Sci.

Sethi, A. (2016). Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian Journal of Dermatology.

Vaughn, A. (2018). Natural Oils for Skin-Barrier Repair: Ancient Compounds Now Backed by Modern Science. Am J Clin Dermatol. DOI: 10.1007/s40257-017-0301-1

Werschler, W. (2011). Enhanced Efficacy of a Facial Hydrating Serum in Subjects with Normal or Self-Perceived Dry Skin. The International Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology.


Dr. Anthony Rossi, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist

Dr. Peterson Pierre, M.D., a Los Angeles-based board-certified dermatologist

Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist

Dr. Purvisha Patel, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare