Experts Demystify Face Serums of 2021

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / Honayst

When considering the best face serums, industry experts have gotten used to a certain level of confusion. “A lot of times clients don’t know if serums are worth it, they may see the price and think that it is a step that they will skip,” says Lakeisha Dale, licensed esthetician and founder of New York’s MelaSkin Studio. “It helps to take time to educate clients on what serums are and the role that they can play in their personal skincare routines.”

So, what does face serum do for your skin?

Put simply, Dale describes serums as “medicine” for your skin. And everyone has their own way of breaking down their power: “Serums deliver more concentrated versions of active ingredients to the skin,” explains Dr. Julius Few, M.D., a plastic surgeon and founder of The Few Institute in Chicago and Los Angeles. “The purpose of the active ingredient can vary, from hydrating to skin brightening to wrinkle-reducing.” A serum’s thin, concentrated formula allows it to treat skin concerns in a more targeted way than other products in a daily routine. “Serums can make the skin look and feel better with just a small amount —a little goes a long way,” says Dr. Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of Dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. “They’re a worthwhile addition and I often recommend them to my patients.”

Compared to even the best moisturizer, serums are supercharged, and “meant to deliver their specific skin-care benefit straight to the skin in a more potent, effective dose than a moisturizer,” according to Charlene Valledor, cosmetic chemist and president of SOS Beauty. And for forward-thinking brands, new formulations offer an opportunity to swap out other products. “Our serum, for instance, is multi-use to allow for our community to choose how it fits into their skin-care routines,” says Stephanie Lee, founder of skin-care brand SelfMade, which is named in WGSN’s 2022-23 Trend Report. “It can be used as a night cream; it can be used as a primer for your daily makeup routine, and it can be used as a daily moisturizer for your skin.” Lee says it’s up to the consumer to determine the use.

In that case, what serum should I use?

The range of options now encompasses solutions for a range of skin concerns. “Serum offerings were a bit limited in the past, we didn’t have acne serums or serums for skin during pregnancy. Today, serums are more nuanced, appreciating one size doesn’t not fit all here,” says Dr. Gohara.

Gavin McLeod-Valentine, the Los Angeles-based facialist who treats actors like Halle Berry, Allison Janney, and Olivia Colman (he served as skin advisor for three seasons of The Crown), trains regulars on what to use, and how to use it. “I explain to my clients that serums can be used to target specific concerns like wrinkles, dehydration, tone, elasticity, etc.,” he says.

For application, newcomers can go by feel: “Simple rule of thumb, the lighter a product’s texture or more intense its use of active ingredients dictates the order of application with these being used first and each subsequent product being layered on top,” says McLeod-Valentine. “Cleanser, then toner or essence, then serum, and then cream.” At night, you can stop there. For day, experts recommend adding on an SPF as the final flourish.

Below, an expert’s guide to the best face serums for modern skin concerns:

Hydrating Serums

“Hydration is the key to healthy skin, no matter what skin type or conditions you have,” says Dale. “Our body needs water, but because our skin is the last organ to reap the benefits of the water we drink, we have to apply it topically.” Dr. Gohara points out that once we reach our 40s, we start to lose hydration, making this a simple step that can make a significant difference in skin. “Due to serums’ ability to penetrate the skin and hydrate at a deeper level, they are often more effectively hydrating than some of the richest creams when used layered together,” she says.

Winky Lux’s clean Orchid Gelée Serum relies on a special orchid extract for intense moisture, Sacred Nature’s Youth Serum forgoes synthetic hyaluronic acid for tamarind (a plant-based alternative), and SerumKind’s Chaga Charging Drop infuses Siberian chaga mushrooms for deep hydration.

Night Serums

Your skin does some of its most important work while you rest, which means that night serums can provide valuable assistance during its busiest hours. “The skin regenerates itself at night, so when the proverbial factory is open is the time to use actives that will do work to increase collagen and eradicate free radicals,” says Dr. Gohara. “Beauty sleep means beauty sleep.”

She likes Omorovicza’s Midnight Renewal Serum for its star ingredients like retinol to build up collagen, plus microalgae to decrease inflammation. With an innovative water-to-oil texture, McLeod-Valentine recommends Chanel Sublimage L’Extrait de Nuit for its “sophisticated cocktail delivering collagen-boosting actives to the skin with the use of stem cell technology.”

Pregnancy-Safe Serums

Even with new innovations in pregnancy-safe serums, experts agree that you should still check with your doctor before starting any new product. “That being said, Vitamin C and other antioxidants and peptides are what you should be looking for when shopping for pregnancy serums,” says Dr. Gohara, who suggests avoiding retinoids and beta hydroxy acids as a rule. McLeod-Valentine also suggests checking ingredient lists on your current routine as well. “If you use products with hydroquinone to treat pigmentation this will have to stop, as your body absorbs a large percentage of the ingredient,” he says. “The Mutha No.1 serum is the perfect combination of hydrators, actives, antioxidants and skin nourishers to leave skin conditioned, balanced, restored and protected!”

True Botanicals includes chebula in its new serum, a powerful ayurvedic antioxidant, to address multiple concerns like fine lines, skin tone, roughness, firming, and brightening. It’s also Made Safe certified, aka free of toxic chemicals and endocrine disruptors.

Blue Light Serums

There’s still research rolling in on blue light, though from what experts can see, there’s a chance that rays emitted from screens and certain light bulbs can photoage the skin, meaning it can break down collagen and create pigmentation. “There are two types of blue light: Blue light that comes from the environment, and blue light that comes from our screens. Both can be combated with serums that are high in antioxidants,” says Valledor. “Blue light has been pegged to break down collagen, so stem cells and ingredients that increase collagen production are good to incorporate.” Using a blue-light-specific SPF is helpful, as well as layering serums that contain protective ingredients. “The Goodhabit product is fantastic. It protects against blue light but also is extremely hydrating leaving the skin with radiance and glow,” says Dr. Gohara. “It helps to enhance the skin barrier, leaving irritants less likely to inflame the skin.”

Calming Serums

“Calming serums are designed to do just as the name suggests: calm the skin,” says Dr. Few. “For consumers with sensitive, dry skin, a calming serum is an amazing addition to their daily skin-care regimen. The ingredients in a calming serum work to reduce redness and strengthen the skin’s naturally protective layers.” McLeod-Valentine likes

The Organic Pharmacy Skin Rescue Serum, which he considers “a perfect soothing serum using tamanu and chamomile and hyaluronic acid,” as well as Naturopathica Marshmallow & Ceramide Sensitivity Soothing Serum for its lightweight, milky formula. The CBD in Brown Girl Jane’s Glow Serum works as an anti-inflammatory to soothe skin. Dale suggests looking for familiar remedies: “If you have really sensitive skin that tends to be a bit reactive, you want to look for soothing ingredients like aloe, arnica, calendula, colloidal oatmeal. These are ingredients that help reduce redness and inflammation.”

Firming Serums

“Firming Serums are some of the most popular on the market,” says McLeod- Valentine. “The primary purpose is to restore lost collagen and elastin through the aging process.” As skin ages, its levels of collagen and elasticity drop while cell turnover slows down. “This is where your firming serums come in,” says Dale. “You want ingredients that are going to speed up your cell turnover (aka trick your skin), stimulate collagen production and hydrate your skin.” She suggests looking out for ingredients that have an impact over the long term like retinol, peptides, AHAs & BHAs, and antioxidants.

Even in the short term, Dermalogica’s Neck Fit Contour Serum uses signature Flex Lift Contour Technology for an “invisible mesh” effect that visibly tightens, while La Prairie’s Skin Caviar Liquid Lift offers a milky emulsion that instantly tenses skin.

Repairing Serums

“Everyone has the ability to keep their skin youthful and mobile with supportive care in the form of high quality products that protect and repair the skin,” says Dr. Few. Scarred skin can benefit from growth factors found in Symbiome’s The Answer Reparative Serum, which includes 50% stem cell conditioned media and regenerative peptides. Dr. Gohara likes the antioxidants in BareMinerals SkinLongevity Long Life Herb Serum as well as the formula, which she says “blends well, is easy to layer, and absorbs quickly yet leaves the skin dewy and very soft, all while being reasonably priced!”

Her home remedy includes more of what comes for free: “Our skin naturally regenerates itself! Sleep well for healthy skin,” she suggests. “Disruptions in sleep can create spikes in cortisol, a proinflammatory hormone.”

Barrier Serums

The skin’s natural barrier is a force in itself, and smart serums protect it for a reason. “As we age, we lose ceramides, the building blocks of our skin barrier, starting as early as 20,” Dr. Gohara says. “Typology’s Lipid-Restoring Ceramide 1% has biosimilar ingredients which are ingredients similar to our natural skin composition—very efficacious!” SelfMade’s serum is formulated with plant-derived squalane to enhance skin barrier integrity, and marine plant extract to enhance moisture barrier function. “Our Secure Attachment Comfort Serum+ has been clinically proven to improve moisture barrier over time,” says Lee. She suggests avoiding alcohol as an ingredient altogether, as it “tends to be in products that ‘flash off,’ quick dry, or are cooling—it strips off your natural moisture barrier.”

Acne Serums

“Acne is not something that comes from dirt, so do not scrub your skin!” Dr. Gohara insists. “Acne comes from increased oil production and hormonal triggers which create the accumulation of bacteria and inflammation. Scrubbing and irritating, over-drying ingredients just stoke the fire.” She likes Avène’s Cleanance Concentrate Blemish Control Serum for its hydrating glycerin and thermal spring water that “helps to quell inflammation so the skin barrier has a chance to heal.”

McLeod-Valentine is used to clients requesting effective fixes for breakouts, and considers First Aid Beauty Fab Skin Lab Retinol Serum 0.25% Pure Concentrate his go-to. “The combination of retinol, hyaluronic acid, Vitamin C, colloidal oatmeal, ceramides and Vitamin E are the perfect cocktail to treat excess oil, restore balanced moisture within the skin, address free radical protection and soothe stressed skin.”

Brightening Serums

One of the most-requested categories of serums, brightening options are designed to break up pigmentation in the deeper layers of the skin to eventually brighten the surface. The process takes time. “Whenever you are using any kind of product to brighten the skin and address pigmentation issues, it’s critical to use sun protection—as the skin cells turnover, they are more vulnerable to UVB and UVA corruption,” warns Mcleod-Valentine, who points out that there are many ingredients, clinical and natural, that can be brighten, including glycolic acid, lactic acid, azelaic acid, and licorice root. The secret to Ranavat’s ayurvedic formula includes saffron threads, which are believed to create a more even-toned complexion.

Eye Serums

“The skin surrounding the eye area is thinner than the skin on the remaining parts of your face, so the products designed for eyes more often come in the form of light, fast-absorbing serums versus thicker creams,” Valledor explains. “In addition to having a thinner viscosity, eye serums are packed with higher- concentrated actives, with smaller molecules so they can penetrate deeper into the skin and address issues that are more common in that area like dark circles and puffiness.” Dale notes that the eye area can be difficult to treat, which makes these concentrated serums a valuable tool. “Ingredients in serums penetrate better than most cream formulations,” she says.

Vitamin C Serums

Vitamin C serums are the LBD of skin care; everyone should have one,” says Dr. Gohara. Dr. Few, who launched his own version, agrees. “As a pillar of any highly effective skin-care ritual, topical Vitamin C calms and cools the skin while providing a layer of protection from free radicals and environmental pollutants,” he says. “Arguably the most important ingredient to maintain healthy skin long-term, antioxidants work to neutralize aging free radicals like pollution, smoke, and the main culprit, UV rays.” He suggests applying it daily underneath sunscreen to stimulate cell oxygenation to revitalize and firm texture.

Hyaluronic Acid Serums

“Hyaluronic is a glycosaminoglycan (a very large sugar) that occurs naturally in the body,” says Dr. Few. “Roughly half the hyaluronic acid in the body is present in your skin, where it binds to water to help retain moisture. As we age, the production of hyaluronic acid slows down and our complexion becomes drier and loses firmness. The right hyaluronic acid helps to increase moisture, diminish wrinkles and age lines. It also tightens, plumps, and firms the skin.” Modern formulations like Glow Recipe’s Plum Plump Hyaluronic Serum often visibly smooth skin on contact. “These types of serums draw moisture from the air and from the deeper layers of the skin,” says Dale. “That is why when using hyaluronic acid you want to make sure that you are sealing in that hydration with a good moisturizer.”

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