What Is a Face Serum, and Should I Be Using One?

Over the past decade, we’ve seen face serums experience a well-deserved rise to fame. From Vitamin C and D to Squalane, Retinol, and more, there’s certainly no shortage of powerful ingredients promising to enhance hydration, reduce the signs of ageing, improve pigmentation, boost skin texture and brightness, and much more. 

Yet, with more choices than ever before, it can be hard to decipher the varying types, quality, benefits, and how exactly you should incorporate a serum into your AM and PM ritual based on your skin type and concerns. 

If you’re looking to add a serum to your daily skincare ritual but aren’t sure how to distinguish between quality and hype, here’s everything you need to know about these incredible elixirs — from what they are and how they work to finding the right ingredients for your skin type. 

What is a face serum?

A face serum is a lightweight, concentrated formula containing one or two core active ingredients. Unlike a moisturiser, serums are designed to target specific skincare concerns and needs, such as ageing, pigmentation, hydration, sun damage, and more. 

While serums will vary in quality and benefits, it’s common to find the following ingredients in many formulas: 

  • Vitamin E — An antioxidant that protects and moisturises the skin. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and is critical in collagen synthesis and elastin production. 
  • Vitamin C — An antioxidant known for its skin-brightening properties. Just about everyone can benefit from adding a Vitamin C serum to their AM ritual. 
  • Retinol — An antioxidant widely adored for its anti-aging benefits. Retinol, a form of Vitamin A, helps to stimulate the production of new skin cells and collagen, reducing the appearance of fine lines and ageing. 
  • Hyaluronic acid — While naturally found in your skin, hyaluronic acid diminishes as you age. This incredible ingredient plays an essential role in keeping skin hydrated and moisturised. 
  • Peptides — The building blocks of protein, peptides play a beneficial role in collagen production. Due to their small size, peptides can penetrate the skin deeply. 

The recap: Serums are skincare products carefully formulated to target specific skin concerns. For example, a Vitamin C serum may help improve skin brightness and UV damage, while a retinol serum will support anti-aging. 

What is the difference between a moisturiser and a serum? 

While many believe that moisturisers and serums offer the same benefits and can be used interchangeably, this isn’t quite the case. These products have completely different formulas and benefits, thus most powerful when stacked together. Let’s take a closer look at the difference between moisturisers and serums:

  • Serums are lightweight and absorb rapidly into the skin, while moisturisers are generally a little heavier and slower to absorb. 
  • Serums contain a high concentration of active ingredients that target specific skin concerns and penetrate the skin easily due to their small molecules. On the other hand, moisturisers are generally a thicker formula designed to keep the skin hydrated by creating a physical barrier that locks in moisture and prevents dryness. 
  • Serums are generally more expensive than moisturisers because of their highly concentrated formulas. 

When it comes to questioning which is more beneficial, there is, unfortunately, no simple answer as it isn’t a fair comparison. While both types of products are incredible in their own ways, when paired together, the benefits will be more substantial than using any one of these products alone. They’re designed to work side by side to improve your overall skin condition and health. 

The recap: serums are lightweight, fast-absorbing active ingredients formulated to target specific skin concerns, while moisturisers are generally thicker formulas designed to hydrate the skin and lock in moisture to avoid dryness. Serums and moisturisers are different products, and while you can use one without the other, you won’t reap the full benefits of either. 

What are the benefits of using a face serum?

As previously mentioned, serums’ benefits, intent, and quality will vary from product to product. It’s important to consult your skincare professional before using a new serum to ensure it’s compatible and beneficial for your skin type and your areas of concern. 

While no one serum will correct all skincare concerns, here are just a few of the common reasons why serums are widely adored:

1. They’re quickly absorbed and utilised

The idea behind a serum is that larger amounts of small active molecules are available to penetrate the skin’s surface quicker, resulting in optimal efficacy. 

Likewise, the higher concentration of active ingredients suggests that users should theoretically see faster results than simply relying on a moisturiser, which is heavier and thicker, and thus can’t penetrate as deeply. They offer strong anti-ageing properties

Specific face serums, such as those containing ingredients like Retinol, caffeine, green tea, and hyaluronic acid, are known for their anti-aging properties that reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Many anti-aging serums promote skin renewal and collagen production, which can result in younger-looking skin. 

While you might think anti-aging serums are for mature skin, you can use them in your 20s for preventative measures. Start with a low dose (consult with your skincare professional) to assess your skin’s tolerance, increasing the amount as you go. Starting slow and steady is essential when using something like a retinol serum, particularly if you have dry skin. 

2. They keep your skin hydrated

Serums that contain ingredients like hyaluronic acid can help improve your skin’s hydration, plumpness, and nourishment. As hyaluronic acid locks in skin moisture, it may even enhance the appearance of your skin, making it a potentially beneficial option for those who suffer from dry and rough skin and are seeking a little extra radiance. 

3. They offer free radical protection

Face serums that contain ingredients such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Ferulic Acid, Niacinamide, and Resveratrol, to name a few, are suggested to play a role in helping to prevent oxidative damage caused by UV light and pollution. 

Unfortunately, free radicals break down your skin’s collagen, resulting in signs of premature ageing (fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, loose skin, etc.). Several antioxidant-rich serums are available to help protect your skin from the free radicals you’re exposed to daily and offer additional skin-repairing benefits. 

Antioxidant-rich serums are suitable for all skin types, as free radicals affect everyone. However, it’s important to consult your healthcare professional before trying new products, as certain ingredients may irritate sensitive skin types, particularly serums containing fragrances, dyes, and sulphates. 

How and when should you use a face serum?

Optimal skin health is just as much about how and when you apply your product as it is about the quality of the product itself. When introducing a new serum into your skincare ritual, particularly if it means layering it with other skincare products, there are a few critical best practices to consider when getting started. Let us unpack this in a little more detail:

When to apply your face serum

Face serums can be used once or twice a day (i.e., either AM, PM, or both), depending on your specific skin concerns and serums. 

For example, certain serums can only be applied at specific times of the day due to their chemical makeup. Ingredients, such as Retinol, should be applied at night as they make your skin hypersensitive to the sun, potentially counteracting the anti-ageing benefits and causing more harm than good. 

Whereas, an ingredient like Vitamin C is an antioxidant that protects your skin from free radicals and pollutants, meaning it’s most effective when worn during the day, especially when paired with SPF30+ to help protect your skin from photodamage (Vitamin C also makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, so layering with sunscreen is a must). 

How to apply your face serum

Generally, skincare products should be layered from thinnest to thickest. Wondering why? Serums are lightweight and can deeply penetrate the skin to deliver active ingredients to deeper layers of the skin. Whereas more viscous products, like moisturisers, are heavy and designed to seal the skin to improve the serum’s efficacy. 

Here is a simple step-by-step guide to effectively add a serum to your routine:

  1. Face wash — Use a good quality face wash (we love our Miracle Cream Cleanser) to cleanse your face. When cleansing at night, we recommend doing a double cleanse to remove the day’s bacteria and makeup. 
  2. Serum — Using the serum applicator, place a few drops on your fingertips or onto your face and gently massage it into the skin. Give your serum a couple of minutes to absorb before starting your next step. If your serum takes quite a while to absorb, it may mean you need to exfoliate more regularly to remove dead skin buildup or that you’re applying too much serum. We recommend the Dr Tanya Holy Basil Serum for everyday use, or for something a little more targeted, opt for the Dr Tanya Night Repair Serum
  3. Moisturiser — Apply a good quality moisturiser (our go-to is Dr Tanya Day and Night Cream). 
  4. Eye cream — Apply a potent eye cream like Dr Tanya Eye Lift Tightening Serum (this step is optional, but we highly recommend it given the skin around your eyes is the thinnest on your body, thus more susceptible to premature ageing).
  5. Sunscreen — Apply a broad-spectrum SPF30+ sunscreen (during the day only).

Where to apply your face serum

Face serum should be applied to your entire face and neck for the best results. With the excess serum left on your fingertips, we recommend gently massaging this into your decolletage and the back of your wrists, which are often exposed to the sun and susceptible to premature ageing.

What face serums should I use for my skin type?

It’s important to remember that all skin is unique and thus requires a personalised treatment plan. Please use the following information merely as an educational guide, and be sure to always seek professional advice from your skincare professional before adding any new serums or products to your skincare ritual:

Skin Type:

Key serum ingredient to look for:

Acne-prone skin

Several types of face serums can help minimise the impact and severity of acne. Ingredients like AHAs, particularly lactic acid, help to gently exfoliate dead skin cells, reducing the likelihood of excess sebum blocking pores and causing acne breakouts. The goal is to look for components that control oil, fight bacteria, and reduce inflammation and redness. 

Additionally, lactic acid is also a great option for those with sensitive skin who are easily irritated by other exfoliating acids. Lactic acid is generally considered an even less irritating option than glycolic and salicylic acids. 

As mentioned above, please seek one-on-one skincare advice before trying new products, particularly for acne-prone skin. 

Our recommendation: Lactic acid 

Dry skin

Look for hydrating serums containing antioxidants and moisturising ingredients, such as cacay oil. This nourishing ingredient has three times more vitamin A (i.e., the anti-aging ingredient retinol) than rosehip oil, and more vitamin A and F than argan oil. In a four week study, participants who used cacay oil twice daily saw an increase in hydration and firmness. 

Our recommendation: Cacay oil (you’ll find this ingredient in our nourishing Holy Basil Face Serum)

Oily skin

For those with oily skin, the goal is to eliminate excess sebum production and shine with the help of a suitable oil-controlling serum. Look for serums containing ingredients like niacinamide, enantia chlorantha extract, zinc, and lactic acid, which play a role in either reducing sebum or absorbing oil. 

Our recommendation: Niacinamide 

Combination skin

For those who experience both dry and oily skin, it’ll be in your best interest to source serums designed to handle both skin types. This might mean using a hydrating serum on the dry areas of the face, such as hyaluronic acid, and oil-reducing ingredients, such as niacinamide, on oilier sections. 

Our recommendations: Hyaluronic acid and niacinamide 

Normal skin 

This skin type has the benefit of taking their pick of face serums. As irritation or excess oil isn’t a concern, normal skin types have the luxury of choice. 

Our recommendations: The world is your oyster. You get the pick of the bunch. We always recommend Vitamin C!

The recap

Everyone can benefit from adding a face serum to their skincare ritual. Whether you’re trying to target acne, improve your skin’s hydration, add radiance to dull and dry skin, or rewind the clock on ageing, you’ll find potent formulas to address just about every skin concern. 

Yet, like with any new skincare product, it’s important to start small and ease into your new regime to ensure your skin has time to respond and adapt to the changes. We recommend always consulting your skincare professional to ensure the information you’re receiving is tailored to your skin type and concerns and always doing your own independent research to equip yourself with the knowledge needed to help your skin thrive. 

For a customised treatment plan personalised to your skin, please book a skin consultation with our expert Dr Tanya skin specialists at our Hope Island clinic today.