If you were going to splurge on one item in your beauty arsenal, you’d be wise to make it your serum. Why a serum? They’re the workhorses of any skincare routine. No matter what skin issue you’re trying to address, from anti-aging to acne or you just want perfectly glowing skin, there’s a serum that can help. Here’s a look at what exactly is a serum and what they can do, and our top picks of the best serums of 2021.
What is A Serum?
A serum is a highly concentrated liquid that delivers a big dose of nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants to the skin. Most serums are water based and have a thin consistency although some are oil based. Because serums are highly concentrated, they can deliver a big dose of good-for-you ingredients that penetrate deeply into the skin.
There are serums designed for every skin type and condition, and at every price point from wallet friendly drugstore buys to luxury brands, but the most important thing to do is choose the right serum for your skin. Depending on your skincare needs, you may need a daytime serum in addition to a night serum.
Serums do tend to be pricey but they last for a long time; if you break down a bottle into a per use cost, the sticker shock is softened. Another way to think about the price is that serums are highly potent so you’re getting a lot of ingredients for your money.
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How to Apply A Serum
Serums need to be applied in a specific way. They should be applied after cleansing but before moisturizer. They should not be rubbed into the face like a cream. Instead, they should be patted or pressed into the face. After applying the serum, let it sink into the skin and get absorbed before moving on to the next step in your routine.
What Can A Serum Do?
Different serums can do different things, and there’s a serum for just about every skin type and concern. Many of them are multi-taskers, addressing more than one skin issue, but they can help with anti-aging, dryness, fine lines, protection and acne. They’re suitable for any age but can be especially helpful for anti-aging and prevention. In a news release from the American Academy of Dermatology, Dr. Lauren Eckert Ploch, suggests that women in their 30s use “a light antioxidant serum to protect their skin from the elements and improve signs of early skin aging.
Ingredients to Look for in a Serum
What to look for in a serum will largely depend on your skin concerns but if you’re on a mission to get glowing skin, a serum can help. Anyone with dry skin should look for moisturizing hyaluronic acid, which can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water, and glycerin, a humectant. Vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps protect the skin, and niacinamide, another moisture booster, can also help thirsty skin. Dull skin can benefit from a dose of vitamin C, a skin brightener, as well as glycolic acid, which helps to gently exfoliate the skin. For anti-aging concerns, look for retinol, which encourages cell turnover, along with peptides. Acne prone skin can benefit from a dose of salicylic acid, which helps unclog prone, along with retinol.
Related: Best Niacinamide Serums
What Are the Best Serums of 2021?
No matter what your budget or skin concern is, we’ve rounded up the best serums of 2021. Here’s our look at the top all-around serums along with ones targeted for specific skin issues.
Carrot & Stick The Repair Serum
Apply this serum daily to keep skin hydrated and protected from free radical damage. The Repair Serum by Carrot & Stick helps lift, tighten and firm the look of skin thanks to seven plant-based neuropeptides while synthesized growth factors help keep skin looking its radiant best.
Formulyst Ultimate Youth Concentrate
Stave off the signs of aging with Formulyst’s Ultimate Youth Concentrate. This silky serum is bio-engineered from plant stem cells and loaded with a concentrated combination of five peptides. The deeply hydrating formula helps soften and smooth skin, and is formulated to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Formulyst Active Serum
Is packed with good for you ingredients, such as nourishing vitamins B and E, and skin brightening vitamin C. Rounding out the all-star list are ferulic acid and niacinamide. The antioxidant ferulic acid fights helps prevent free radical damage and works to stabilize vitamins C and E, and boosts their potency. Niacinamide also plays a key role- this antioxidant is anti-inflammatory and helps reduce redness. This powerful ingredient is a version of vitamin B3, which works to leave skin looking brighter and smoother.
Related: Best Vitamin C Serums
Advanced Dermatology’s Super Youth Serum
Advanced Dermatology’s Super Youth Serum does a little bit of everything, and only a few drops are needed. It tackles fine lines and gives the skin a nice big dose of powerful antioxidants. The Super Youth Serum is a lightweight, free radical fighter that helps keep skin nourished and hydrated while plumping, firming and repairing skin. Skin is left flawless, luminous and super soft.
Ole Henriksen Truth Serum
This silky serum glides on to the skin and has a bright, citrusy scent. Ole Henriksen’s Truth Serum is spiked with skin brightening vitamin C, as well as collagen to help firm skin and leave it looking more luminous. Aloe juice and green tea extract nourish and hydrate the skin.
Caudalie Vinoperfect Radiance Serum
Caudalie’s serum harnesses the power of viniferine, which is derived from grapevine sap and is believed to be a brightening powerhouse. The oil free, lightweight formula sinks into the skin and tackles dark spots, acne scars and melasma. Skin is left nourished and soothed thanks to olive squalane, organic chamomile and organic grape water.
Biossance Squalane + 10% Lactic Acid Resurfacing Night Serum
This clean beauty brand is an Instagram favorite, and its devoted fans say it helps leave skin look and feel softer and smoother. The serum is formulated with 10% vegan lactic acid made from sustainably sourced sugar which helps exfoliate the skin, clover to add moisture boost as well as hydrating squalane.
Related: Best Hyaluronic Acid Serums
Sunday Riley Good Genes Lactic Acid Treatment
One of the first Sunday Riley products to launch was Sunday Riley Good Genes With Lactic Acid. The company describes this serum as an “all in one lactic acid treatment,” and it’s meant to help exfoliate the skin. It can be used as a mask or left on the skin overnight.
Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair
Advanced Night Repair is a face serum developed by Estée Lauder over thirty years ago. This product is credited with being the industry’s first serum. The concept behind Night Repair is that the best time to repair and heal the skin is while you sleep. The key ingredients in this face serum include bifida ferment lysate, baobab seed oil, tripeptide-32, and sodium hyaluronate. Overall, Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair is said to help with loss of firmness lines and wrinkles, dryness, dehydration, dullness, loss of radiance, and uneven skin tone.
Clarins Double Serum
Double Serum is Clarins #1 best selling anti-aging serum that is said to visibly firm, smooth, and boost radiance in just seven days. This serum comes in a dual-chamber that is claimed to house the perfect ratio of water-soluble and oil-soluble ingredients, similar to the skin’s hydrolipidic film. Once dispensed, the two concentrates combine together into one serum that is said to easily absorb into the skin and effectively target all visible signs of skin aging. Honestly, we doubt that dispensing the ingredients separately really matters for the skin. Rather, what truly matters is the ingredients in this serum.
Unfortunately, the majority of the Clarins Double Serum formula consists of synthetic emollients, glycerin, wild teasel extract, and parfum/fragrance. The brand claims that the 21 plant extracts — such as turmeric, beautyberry, goji berry, horse chestnut, and others — are the key ingredients in Clarins Double Serum. However, all of these “key” ingredients are used in very low concentrations (less than 1%). We know this by looking at the ingredient list. All of these ingredients are listed after the preservative phenoxyethanol, which cannot be used in concentrations more than 1%.
iS Clinical Pro Heal Serum
iS Clinical Pro Heal Serum is an antioxidant facial serum that is claimed to treat everything from acne to rosacea to aging skin and even insect bites. The formula is pretty simple, featuring a blend of antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E, as well as olive leaf extract. Unfortunately, this serum contains a high concentration of denatured alcohol. While alcohol gives the product a weightless feel and helps to reduce excess oil, continued use of alcohol-based products can lead to skin dryness, irritation, and even disruption of the skin barrier over time. In fact, alcohol can dry out the skin so much that the skin will produce more oil over time to compensate for the dryness. This can lead to clogged pores and breakouts.
Related: Best Hydrating Serums
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum
CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum is a facial serum formulated specifically for those with post-acne marks, uneven skin tone, and visible pores. It is said to help refine, smooth, and improve skin texture without compromising its protective barrier. The CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol face serum is non-comedogenic, paraben-free, and fragrance-free.
The CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol face serum includes encapsulated retinol, which is simply retinol that has been housed in a delivery system to protect its integrity and improve its ability to penetrate into the skin effectively. Retinol is known to minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improve uneven skin tone, restore skin firmness, and shrink the appearance of enlarged pores. Additional key ingredients in this face serum include niacinamide, ceramides, and dipotassium glycyrrhizate.
Clinique Smart Custom Repair Serum
Think of this product as a “smart serum.” It’s packed with a cornucopia of ingredients to tackle everything from inflammation and dark spots, but is formulated so that your skin only gets the ingredients that it needs. Licorice and red-algae extract tackle inflammation while salicylic acid leaves skin looking brighter and smoother.
Skinmedica TNS Essential Serum
Apply this serum for a one-two punch against the signs of aging. Skinmedica’s TNS Essential Serum contains two powerful formulas in separate chambers. The APS Corrective Complex contains antioxidants and peptides to improve skin’s appearance and firmness. The TNS Recovery Complex is a mix of proteins and antioxidants to soften fine lines and wrinkles. It’s also deeply hydrating, thanks to olive oil and shea butter.
Rodan and Fields Active Hydration Serum
This oil free serum delivers all day hydration thanks to a combination of expected ingredients (hyaluronic acid) plus some surprising ones (salt). The formula contains 30% glycerin which acts as a “water reservoir” while lactic acid helps to smooth out skin tone through gentle exfoliation.
Dior Capture Youth
Dior’s Capture Youth is a collection of five targeted serums specific to various skincare needs, such as oily skin, redness, dullness or dryness. What they have in common is that they are infused with naturally derived ingredients, such as antioxidant-rich iris extract. The formulas can be mixed and matched. Plump Filler Serum gives skin a firmer, fuller look and is spiked with hyaluronic acid to hydrate skin and plump it up.
Related: Best Anti Aging Face Serums
Skinceuticals C, E, Ferulic
This serum is arguably Skinceutical’s most famous product. When it debuted in 2005, it was a game changer for combining vitamin C, ferulic acid and vitamin E. This trio is meant to be more powerful than vitamin C used on its own, and the formula has an optimal pH balance. This super serum helps protect the skin from environmental aggressors while softening the look of fine lines.
Chanel Blue Serum
The inspiration for this serum comes from the “Blue Zones,” geographic areas with high life expectancy rates, including specific parts of Greece, Sardinia and Japan. Chanel used three active ingredients found in the diets of the Blue Zone population – including olive oil, green coffee and lentisk gum which help improve skin texture and smooth out wrinkles. Chanel fans can also try Le Lift, whose hero ingredient is an extract from the edulis morning glory.
Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum
The star ingredient in this cult favorite serum is skin brightening vitamin C. The serum contains 15% L-ascorbic acid along with ferulic acid to help make skin look glowing. Pumpkin ferment and pomegranate extract help dissolve dead skin cells while a version of hyaluronic acid adds a moisture boost.
Tatcha Violet-c Brightening Serum
What makes Tatcha’s Violet-C Brightening Serum unique is that it combines 20% vitamin C with 10% AHA (alpha hydroxyl acid) to help leave skin look glowing and feel smooth and soft. Another key ingredient is Japanese angelica root extract, which helps with hyperpigmentation.
The Ordinary Buffet
The Ordinary’s Buffet is a multi-purpose serum that comes with a wallet friendly price tag (about $15). It’s designed to combat dry and dull skin with peptides, amino acids and multiple hyaluronic acid complexes. Only a few drops are needed and it can be used twice a day.