The cornerstones of a good skincare routine may be the basics of cleansing and moisturising, but if you really want to level things up and target your specific skin type, this is where serums come into play. “Serums are thinner topical skincare products that often contain more concentrated, targeted active ingredients,” explains consultant dermatologist Thivi Maruthappu. “You can tailor your serum to address your individual skin concern.” Packed with high-strength active ingredients, like retinoids, vitamin C, and niacinamide, serums are the powerhouses of your skincare routine. While moisturisers focus on hydration and cleansers help to ensure pores are clear, applying a serum is your opportunity to hone in on your unique skin concerns. Choose the right formula and a serum can help you to reduce sensitivity, prevent dehydration, clear breakouts, and even reduces the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and enlarged pores.
If you’re wondering when and where within your skincare routine to apply a serum, remember the key rule of skincare layering—thin textures first, building up by thickness. “Serums should be applied to cleansed skin before moisturising,” advises Maruthappu. “Leave for ten minutes or so before following with a moisturiser.” Most serums will need to be applied daily in order for you to see results within a few weeks and you may be able to apply some twice daily (just check the application instructions).
The best way to introduce serums into your skincare routine is to think of your main skin goal or concern and choose a serum to help you address it. If you’re struggling to choose between two, then use one serum in your morning skincare routine and one in the evening—but be careful of layering multiple serums together at once, since not all ingredients may be compatible.
Over the years, my own skin concerns have ranged from oiliness and breakouts through to sensitivity, redness, and hyperpigmentation, and more recently, dryness and dehydration—so it’s fair to say I’ve tried my fair share of serums. Since it can be hard to choose the right one, I’ve rounded up some of my tried-and-tested favourites below, broken down by skin types and concerns, so you can easily find the best serum for you. Start scrolling.
When you have dry skin, it can be tempting to skip serum and reach for heavy-hitting moisturisers instead, but they key to targeting dryness is applying multiple layers of moisture—so a serum is key. I always describe this Paula’s Choice serum as having the potency of a moisturiser, but delivered in serum form. The silky gel texture is lightweight and easily absorbs, but is packed with nourishing ingredients like shea butter, ceramides, and omega-rich linoleic acid.
Zinc, niacinamide, and PHAs (poly hydroxy acids) are key ingredients to look out for if you have oily skin—zinc reduces inflammation, niacinamide regulates oil production, and PHAs gently exfoliate pores. This serum combines all three, along with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and ceramides, to help restore balance.
The effects of using probiotic skincare benefits pretty much every skin type and concern, but they’re especially beneficial if your skin is easily prone to flare ups of sensitivity and irritation. The probiotics in this particular serum are chosen to soothe inflammation, balance moisture levels, and strengthen the skin barrier (reducing future sensitivity).
Niacinamide is one of those rare but wonderful ingredients that has benefits for both dry and oily skin, making it an excellent choice if you experience a mix of the two skin concerns—what’s known as combination skin. Formulated with 12% niacinamide, this serum helps to regulate oil production, reduce the appearance of enlarged pores, and strengthen the skin barrier to prevent dehydration.
Hyaluronic acid works by drawing moisture into the skin, so if you suspect dehydration (skin feels tight and itchy, and looks dull), it’s an important ingredient to look out for. This lightweight serum contains two types of hyaluronic acid in order to target dehydration in multiple layers of the skin—resulting in improved skin hydration, texture, elasticity, and firmness.
Although this serum contains just twelve ingredients, each one has been handpicked in order to deliver really intense results—especially when it comes to addressing the five key signs of ageing. It tackles wrinkles, fine lines, loose skin, pigmentation, and dryness—and clinical studies show improvements of up to 72% in just three months.
Retinoids may be best known as an anti-ageing ingredient, but they’re also great for addressing the concerns associated with acne-prone skin, such as congestion, breakouts, and post-inflammatory pigmentation. They help to reduce the dead skin cell build up that clogs pores and leads to breakouts. This intermediate level serum is idea for those who have used retinoids before, but there’s also a beginner level version for retinoid newbies.
NIOD serums may be expensive, but they’re formulated with high quality and super innovative ingredients which make them worth every single penny. While most serums for hyperpigmentation work by exfoliating skin or inhibiting melanin production, this one utilises copper peptides, which repair damaged skin and stimulate collagen production for healthier-looking skin.
If you have sensitive skin then you may already be familiar with cica (also known as tiger grass or centella asiatica), which helps to soothe, calm, and reduce redness. With its watery gel texture, this serum feels cooling upon application, so if your redness is also accompanied by irritation, it offers instant relief.
Vitamin C is well known for being a skin brightening ingredient, but not all types are created equally… I’ve tried many versions over the years that have either had no impact, or worse, have irritated my skin. Dermalogica’s was the first vitamin C serum I tried that actually proved to me just how effective the ingredient can be. Using an ultra-stable form of vitamin C, it helps to brighten dull skin instantly, while also working in the long term to target uneven skin tone and pigmentation.
Iraye is the first skincare brand to support the skin’s lymphatic system—which is responsible for clearing bacteria and toxins, delivering nutrients to cells, and preventing puffy skin. This first-of-its-kind serum enhances lymphatic activity, helping to drain excess water retention and slowing down collagen break down, so skin appears sculpted and firmer.
Glycolic acid—an AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) which breaks down dead skin cells—is front and centre in this skin-smoothing serum. The acid works to resurface skin by exfoliating, so touch, coarse, uneven, and congested skin don’t stand a chance. In addition, it also helps to brighten skin and address wrinkles, fine lines, and hyperpigmentation.
If you’re a skincare minimalist, or you simply want a do-it-all serum to target multiple concerns at once, look no further. This iconic serum combines a cocktail of effective ingredients (including hyaluronic acid and peptides) to target dryness, wrinkles, dullness, uneven skin tone, dehydration, and loose skin, all in one go. Clinical trials show that 91% noticed their skin having a healthy glow after three weeks, but it’s the rave reviews that really sell this serum.
Heritage beauty brands like the Dior have money to invest in research and formulation, so you can always guarantee that their skincare products will be worth the price tag. This luxurious serum feels like silk on skin, and has impressive data to show that it significantly improves the appearance of pores, wrinkles, fine lines, elasticity, radiance, and firmness.
Stella McCartney’s vegan serum works in synergy with your skin to support and protect. It can be used on the face, neck and eye area, and is ultra-nourishing and moisturising, without being heavy on the skin. Plus, 99% of its ingredients are of natural-origin and the product is refillable too.
This story was originally published at an earlier date and has since been updated.