Some beauty products are the show ponies of your skincare routine. Like sheet masks – nice for your Instagram feed but not exactly essential. And then there are the workhorses, those hard-grafting products like the best face serum, which actually make a difference to your skin.
While most skincare is straight forward, serums are still shrouded in mystery. Cleansers cleanse; moisturisers moisturise, but serums? Not so obvious.
Let us explain. Serums can be water based or more of an oil. But they are always applied after toner and before moisturising with the intent of treating skin concerns – everything from dehydration and wrinkles, to dullness and pigmentation.
Put another way, serums make you glow like the galaxy and your skin texture look like the surface of a plum.
Precisely why skin experts agree it’s the single most important product in your skincare regime and the one you should invest most in.
Here’s everything you need to know about these skincare shots…
What is face serum?
Due to their high concentration and potency, serums are the most effective way of delivering active ingredients into the skin.
‘With a much lighter consistency than your face cream, serums are made up of tiny molecules that absorb into the skin on a deeper level,’ says consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk.
Moisturiser is thicker and sits on the surface of your skin where, among other things, it seals moisture and all the goodness from a serum into your skin.
The best way to apply it
Twice a day is the golden rule but the serum you apply in the morning should differ from the one you use before bed.
‘During the day, the priority is protecting against inflammatory and oxidizing elements,’ explains Dr Barbara Sturm. ‘This means anti-pollution protection, UV protection, and using a hyaluronic acid-based serum. At night, it’s essential to use active ingredients that assist the body’s reparative processes while you sleep.’
To that end she has invented the Night Serum with the antioxidant plant purslane to help repair environmental damage, cotton thistle to counteract dryness, beta-glucans to reduce redness and a high dose of hyaluronic acid, which, Sturm says, ‘works throughout the night to replenish moisture reservoirs in multiple skin layers.’
How to choose the best face serum
There are so many serums out there it’s tricky knowing which one is right for you. ‘Almost any active ingredient can be harnessed in a serum formulation,’ Dr Kluk explains. ‘Some examples include hyaluronic acid for smoothing and plumping; vitamin B5 for hydration; vitamins C and E to protect from UV radiation and city pollution; niacinamide for pigmentation and peptides for improving firmness.’
If you’re thinking, ‘These sound great! I should use them all,’ not so fast.
‘Incorporating too many different ingredients into a routine at any one time can causes irritation,’ says Kluk. ‘It’s better to make a list of the goals for your skin. Focus on the top one or two priorities and select agents that tackle these first. You can always adjust them as your needs change.’
Below are some of the most common skin concerns and the best serums to treat them.
Best Vitamin C Serum – If your skin is dull with patches of pigmentation
Vitamin C is one of skincare’s heavy hitters when it comes to brightening and evening out skin tone. However, as an ingredient, vitamin C’s efficacy is matched only by its instability. If you’ve ever used a vitamin C serum and the smell or colour has changed over time, then it’s likely deteriorated as a result of being exposed to air, light or water. To combat this problem, Charlotte Tilbury has used ‘golden vitamin C’ in her hotly anticipated new Charlotte’s Magic Serum Crystal Elixir. ‘This is a conjugated form of vitamin C, bound to gold for added stability and enhanced penetration into the skin,’ says dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto.
Charlotte Tilbury Charlotte’s Magic Serum Crystal Elixir, £60
Best Anti-ageing Serum With Retinol – If you have sensitive skin and wrinkles
Retinol is the only ingredient clinically proven to prevent and improve the appearance of fine lines. But it can be harsh on sensitive skin. Enter La Roche-Posay Retinol B3. ‘It contains a combination of both corrective and compensating ingredients,’ says cosmetic and medical doctor Dr Ewoma Ukeleghe. ‘Retinol is corrective, specifically pure retinol at 0.1% and 0.2% gradual release retinol. Niacinamide calms irritation and glycerin is amazing for hydrating the skin.’
La Roche-Posay Retinol B3, £38, Lookfantastic
Best Hyaluronic Acid Serum – If your skin is dry or dehydrated
Applied topically, a single gram of hyaluronic acid can hold up to six litres of water, which makes it one of the best hydrating ingredients out there.There’s just one thing to remember: it’s important that hyaluronic acid molecules in your skincare are formulated in a mix of high and low weight forms. ‘The low molecular weight allows for easier penetration into the skin,’ says Sturm. ‘Once it has reached the collagen and elastin fibres it can bind them with water, improving skin elasticity. The higher weight molecules feed the surface with hydration.’ You’ll find both in Dr Barbara Sturm’s Night Serum.
Dr Barbara Sturm Night Serum, £245, Cult Beauty
Here’s our round-up of the best of the rest…