Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist - Written by Nancy Agrahari (Journalist) on 24th Oct 2020

How do face serums work? Find the right face serum for your skin!

How do face serums work?

A shiny, tiny bottle covering every skincare problem is what a face serum looks from outside. From inside, a serum is made up of small molecules that penetrate deep into the dermis to deliver a high level of active ingredients.

Although serums are the new ‘it’ of the skincare regimen and stand as proud collectors in carts or on our bathroom racks, there isn’t much we actually know about them.

Serums are pretty complicated (yes, we agree), but they are so good for our skin! They are better than moisturizers, shinier than highlighters, and fancier than an essence. Even though we know the names of popular serums, we hardly know their purpose. In this article, you will find all the answers you have ever had related to face serums.

We reckon you are as excited as us. Play Alexa and nod along while we tell you the difference between daily, acidic, and treatment serums. Every FAQs about serums and their many uses. So, let’s do this. 

What is a face serum?

Scientifically, serums are concentrated liquids that penetrate deep into the many layers of the skin. Unlike creams and moisturizers, serums work below the surface and target the layers of the dermis. They are light, easily absorbed oil or water/gel-based liquids spread on the face.

Serums are applied after the cleansing but before moisturizing the face. The science behind the layering of the serum is in its formulation. You see, serums are very small molecules designed to sink deep into the dermis to deliver a high concentration of active ingredients. So they easily target your specific skincare concerns like wrinkles or dryness.  

Do I need both face serum and moisturizer?

Yes, for healthy, glowing skin, you need both serums and moisturizers in your everyday skincare routine. Even though your serum is made to moisturize your skin (like Hyaluronic acid serum), it needs a moisturizer along.

Typically creams and moisturizers are made of dense ingredients. This makes them richer and helps the creams create a barrier on the surface to keep all the good stuff.

Serums and moisturizers work well together. When you apply the serum, it digs inside the layers and releases the active ingredients, while on the surface, the moisturizers form a seal to stuff everything in.

On the contrary, using a serum after you have applied your moisturizer will affect the efficiency and might even stop the serum from penetrating deeper into the skin. So, apply the heavy creams/moisturizers after serums. 

Minimalist Tip

Always select a light moisturizer with non-comedogenic ingredients (Check declarations and claims), which does not leave a sticky or oily residue. 

Are face serums different from my night or day cream?

Face serums are typically made of one ingredient, while creams have a combination of formulas. Serum might also have more than one ingredient, but it will still be very focused on specific skin issues.

Serums sink in quickly due to their lightweight and small molecule size and thus provide more active ingredients deep into epidermis and dermis layers. But, they might not be suitable for sensitive skin as they can irritate.

Creams are usually heavy and more suitable for dry skin. Definitely not a good option for oily or combination skin. Active ingredients present in creams are less effective as they do not penetrate deep due to heavy formulation and are usually less concentrated. They are suitable for sensitive skin.

Even though serums moisturize or, more specifically, hydrate our skin, they are not a substitute for moisturizers. On the other hand, you might not need a moisturizer with cream. 

Can we use the serum daily on the face?

Serums are used on clear skin, so after you have cleansed and pat dry your face, you can apply the serum. Some serums can be used twice a day (both AM and PM).

The application of the serum also depends on the label. So, read the label, run a patch test, and, when all-is-clear, apply the serum. If you are a couch potato, then you can apply the serum once in a day too.  

What is the right age to use the face serum?

That is a tough one; serums are ideally used after the age of 20. When the first signs of aging appear, in the 20s or late 30s anti-aging serums can be used. For glow or hydration, you can use Hyaluronic acid serums or other acid serums after the age of 20.

After your 20s, your skin’s natural ability to restore moisture and repair starts degrading, and that is when you need external support to boost your dermal immunity.

Some serums such as benzoyl peroxide or Salicylic acid can be used in your teens to win your teenage acne battle.

Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum
Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum
Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum
Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum

Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum

₹ 545

When to use: PM

Frequency: Alternate days

View details

Why is face serum essential for the skin?

Serums are light, fast, absorbing liquids that work like heaven on the skin. According to a study in 2011, regular use of serums improved the texture and complexion of the skin. Our skin is the largest organ in our body.

Exposure to the environment causes loss of water (dryness) and other skin problems (acne, pimples, or blackheads). With time the skin appears dry, rough, and flattened with loss of elasticity. Regular use of serums helps to refresh and replenish the skin, bringing back the youthfulness.

Serums are of different types and are designed to deal with various skin problems. There are Daily Vitamin Serums, Hydrating Serums, Exfoliating, and Treatment serums.  

How To choose the right skin serum

Imagine serums and skin as BFFs but fancier. When selecting the serum, look for your ‘target points’. Take your time and read the ingredients mentioned in the bottle. That step is super important! If you wish to target acne, look for treatment serums with Benzoyl peroxide or Salicylic acid.

For dull, dry skin, look for serums with ingredients of Glycolic acid, Vitamin E, Hyaluronic acid, Ferulic acid, and other antioxidants like Vitamin C.

You can also layer multiple serums to target more than one goal, but before that, you should know which one goes together and which do not.

Below is your 101 guide to face serums you will ever need. 

Daily vitamin Serums

Daily Vitamin Serums are made of antioxidants that are important for the skin like Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Niacinamide, Green Tea Extracts, etc. Include Vitamin C in your daily skincare routine.

They are daily face serums as Vitamins except fat-soluble ones do not get stored, and you need a regular supply. Similarly, your skin needs daily replenishment of these super ingredients. 

Vitamin C Serums

Vitamin C serums are popularly known as the ‘instant brightening serum.’ Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that effectively boosts collagen formation and reduces your signs of aging. If you have been worried sick about those weird tans, uneven skin, and texture, go ahead and grab yourself a bottle of Vitamin C serums.

The only caution is to choose serums that offer 10-20% Vitamin C concentration. As the efficiency of topical Vitamin C depends on the right concentration and stable formulations.

20% is a magical concentration for Vitamin C. To know more about Vitamin C, read our full Vitamin C guide

Niacinamide Serums

Niacinamide (Form of Vitamin B3) is the talk of the town. It is one of the most popular serums in the skincare regimen. When taken as a serum, it helps to keep your skin hydrated, glowing, and healthy.

Research shows that regular usage of Niacinamide can protect the skin from environmental damage. This serum will boost immunity, minimize fine lines, blemishes, and leave your skin all plump and young. How cool is that!

10-12% Niacinamide is proven to reduce acne marks and blemishes.

Niacinamide is a best friend of all skin types, even sensitive skin. Find out more about this magical ingredient here.

For smoother, younger-looking skin use retinol serum every night. If it is your first time trying retinol, then a guide to retinol will give an insight on the antioxidant. 

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Direct Acids exfoliating face serums

Our skincare world is full of surprises. Using acids gives you a thumbs up in the race of ‘beauty and products.’

There is a list of good skincare acids that you can find, use, and fall in love with. In fact, according to Mellisa from Lab Muffin Beauty Science,  

Acids are not about bubbling test tubes or chemical burns. The right acid ingredients used in the right amounts can be beneficial for the skin.

Further explaining the science behind it, she says that our skin is naturally acidic, and acids released from sweat and sebum are essential to keep the right balance of bacteria and other microorganisms on the skin.

Some of the direct acids for serums act as exfoliators, prevent acne, hyperpigmentation, and more. 

Beta-Hydroxy Acid/ Salicylic Acid Serums

The salicylic acid serum is great for anyone who has oily or acne-prone skin. Honestly, if you have tried every product and still can’t get rid of blackheads, whiteheads, dark spots, or acne, then using Salicylic acid will change your world.

Every oily skin has dreamt of a day with no mirror-like shiny face. It can come true by including salicylic acid into your routine.

They have a small molecule size, which means they get the deepest into the many layers of the skin and start working. Salicylic acid or beta-hydroxy acid(BHA) is an age-old remedy that works by dissolving dead skin layers inside pores.

2% Salicylic acid is proven to eliminate acne and any redness and make sure that they don’t appear in the future, without causing any dryness or irritation.

Read through our BHA guide to know more about this pore cleansing face acid

Glycolic Acid (AHA) Serums

Glycolic Acid is a type of Alpha-hydroxy acid(AHA) with the smallest molecular weight of all the other acids out there.

It is derived from sugarcane and known for being the potent exfoliator. It is one of the most loved serums out there due to its dual properties. This acid works both on the surface and under the layers of the skin. It gives you an even tone while reducing signs of aging.

Our skin can tolerate only little concentration of Glycolic acid as a leave-on face serum, so they are best used as peeling solutions to reap full benefits without making skin sensitive.

Peeling solutions are washed off after 8-10 minutes. Find out about Glycolic acid as a peeling active

AHA PHA BHA 32% Face Peel
AHA PHA BHA 32% Face Peel
AHA PHA BHA 32% Face Peel
AHA PHA BHA 32% Face Peel

AHA PHA BHA 32% Face Peel

₹ 689

When to use: PM

Frequency: Once in 2 weeks

View details

Lactic Acid Serums

Is your skin dry or patchy? Then pamper yourself with a tiny yet powerful bottle of Lactic acid serums. Let’s say these acids are mildest in Alpha-hydroxy acid family trees, making them the perfect choice for sensitive or dry skin.

Lactic acid works by exfoliating the top layer of your skin and then sinking deep to break down all your dead skin cells, oils, bacterias that clog your pores slowly. Using lactic acid serum regularly will not just reduce those dark spots, and acne scars but sun-tan and wrinkles too.

10% of Lactic acid can be your very first direct acid.   

Treatment Serums

Say hello to these scientific beauties that target your skincare problem. Treatment serums are your personal assistant that does precisely what they promised you. Serums like retinol, or kojic acid sink deep into the dermis and fight the impurities.  

Retinol/Vitamin A serums

Retinol reduces fine lines and wrinkles, making your skin look younger.

Retinol falls under the treatment face serum category used to treat acne or pimples as it is an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties.

If you are in your mid 20’s and want to prevent aging, you would love to read more about this anti-aging serum

Kojic Acid serums

Kojic acid is popular due to its skin lightening properties. Unlike ingredients like Hydroquinone, Kojic acid is milder in nature, thus works well on sensitive skin. It lightens hyperpigmentation by inhibiting the formation of tyrosinase, an enzyme responsible for melanin production.

Those who have acne or oily skin this acid works wonders as it has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal properties. When buying KA serums, look for lower concentrations of 1% or less. Studies suggest that using more than recommended 1% of KA may lead to side effects like skin irritation, redness, or dermatitis.

But, there is a safer alternative of pure Kojic acid that can be easily tolerated by skin up to 5%. Look for Kojic Acid ester instead of pure Kojic acid. Find out more about Kojic acid ester

Benzoyl peroxide serums

If your skin feels crowded and full of acne, then you need the magical Benzoyl Peroxide serums. It is a powerful oxidizer that brings oxygen and creates an oxygen-rich atmosphere in the pores, thus killing the P. acne from the roots.

It is best for acne-prone skin, it also gently exfoliates for cleaner, smoother skin.

Benzoyl peroxide serum can be used to treat acne on other parts of the body such as the back.

OTC benzoyl peroxide serum usually contains 2% concentration.  

Daily Hydrating Serums

Hyaluronic Acid serums

Ladies, you will LOVE Hyaluronic Acid (HA) serums! Use it beneath your makeup or just a few drops on your cheekbones for that ‘goddess shine.’ Hyaluronic Acid is a powerful humectant that draws water to itself.

It is an extraordinarily versatile and hydrating ingredient that gives you a dewy, angelic glow. It is your golden-ticket to bring back baby-soft skin that screams perfection.

Hyaluronic acid does not interact with any other serum and is usually considered to increase the delivery of other face serums when applied before. It prepares skin to absorb other treatment serums.

Learn more about this ultra-hydrating serum here

The Bottom Line

In terms of following a routine, always apply serums or any creams on a clean face. Wash your face, cleanse, tone, exfoliate, and then use the serum.

Minimalist Tip

If your toner contains acids like Glycolic acid or BHA, it should be avoided before exfoliation

Use a few drops of serum, gently rub it on the face, and then apply creams and other treatments. Apply sunscreen before stepping out of the house. And above all, love your skin and always keep it hygienic and healthy.

Choose what works best for you, and then use them. Try to use serums that are odor-free to avoid irritation.