After just a single search for face serums online brings up a confusing barrage of options.
Whether it’s anti-pollution, brightening, anti-ageing, moisturising, or stress-reducing, there doesn’t seem to be much a facial serum can’t do and prices for such “miracle” products range from a few pounds to an incredible £650. SIX HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS. For that price, we’d expect someone to come and apply it for us.
To avoid you overspending or choosing the wrong serum for your skin type, below we’ve explained the science of serums – from what serums do, to what ingredients you should be looking out for and which is the best serum on the market.
We are here to help you to avoid shelling out almost the UK’s average monthly rent for something that won’t work for your skin.
While cleansers, toners and the best moisturisers are designed to help clean and hydrate the upper layers of the skin, a serum works below the surface to target the layers you can’t see. Serums are typically concentrated liquids, as opposed to creams, that are quickly absorbed into your skin and tend to be applied via a dropper if oil-based, or a pump if water-based.
Two of the most common ingredients listed in serums are retinol and niacinamide. Retinol is another name for vitamin A, and it is marketed as a solution to fine lines and wrinkles, whereas niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3 found in green vegetables, meat, fish and eggs that can help additionally tackle dehydration and pigmentation.
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According to Dr Abigail Waldman, serums are especially good for people who are worried about signs of ageing. The concentrated nature of serums work well in delivering anti-ageing ingredients, like antioxidants, that will help slow down DNA damage in your skin which is what causes your skin to slump, sag and look sallow or dull.
First developed as an acne treatment 40 years ago, retinol in serums and other skincare products can help even out pigmentation and stimulate the production of collagen. A study in 2006 by researchers in India and Germany found “amongst various anti-ageing agents, retinoids are the most promising agents.”
Niacinamide works by stimulating the production of ceramides, which provide the skin with a barrier to the outside world. Anti-pollution serums will often contain niacinamide for this reason. This is also where it’s anti-ageing properties come in, as our natural ceramide barriers weaken with age and too much exposure to sunlight.
According to some companies, niacinamide can help treat wrinkles, dehydration, oily skin and pigmentation, and is often marketed as a treatment for acne and eczema. The clinical research available to back this up is less clear-cut than for retinol and ageing, but with niacinamide serums available for reasonable prices, from brands like The Ordinary for £5 for example, it might be worth a try.
Elsewhere, another popular serum ingredient – Vitamin C, also known as salicylic acid – is proven to reduce brown spots and reverse damage caused by sunlight while stimulating the growth of collagen. You’ll also find the antioxidants Vitamin E and ferulic acids in many serums and skincare products because of their similarly protective, anti-ageing properties. Ferulic acid is found in plants, including oats, which is also commonly used to firm the skin.
We absolutely swear by the Clarins Double Serum because it’s packed full of natural ingredients – from ginger to edelweiss, avocado and more – and having since introduced this serum into our routine, we’ve noticed a sharp reduction in oil and blemishes as well as a clearer complexion.
In terms of a routine, serums are used on clean skin – so after you’ve cleansed, exfoliated and toned the skin – but before you apply your moisturiser. This gives the serum chance to soak into the skin when it’s fresh and clear before a layer of moisturiser is added which can prevent the serum working as effectively, and may even stop it from penetrating the lower layers of your skin.
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When it comes to combining different ingredients across your cleanser, toner, moisturiser and serum – especially when they are acidic – be careful to avoid irritation. This is where serums that contain a mixture of active ingredients are good because you know they work together well. It’s also good practice to apply serum to a small area of the skin first and wait to see if there is any irritation before using it on your face.
What’s more, introducing retinol into a skincare routine can sometimes cause irritation or dry skin, so it’s a good idea to start using it every few days and increase its use gradually. This is particularly the case when it comes to hair care products. You can read more about the latter in our How to grow your hair faster explainer.
Abigail is a leading science journalist writing about space, sustainability, technology and culture. She is author of The Art of Urban Astronomy, a must-have guide to the night sky that guides you through the seasons and learn about the brightest stars and constellations, the myths and legends of astronomy and how to identify star clusters and galaxies.