Is Serum the Secret Anti-Aging Weapon That’s Missing From Your Skin Care Routine?

Last Update: May 13, 2024

It’s fair to say skin is under attack every day. The damage-causing enemies? Free radicals and environmental stress. Moisturizers and other treatments try to keep the peace, but to effectively tackle skin issues, special ops might be in order.

The most highly “specialized” beauty product? Serum—an ultra light, quick-absorbing fluid that can be used in addition to moisturizer or on its own. It differs from other moisturizers because it doesn’t contain any thickening agents or emollients. What’s left is a high concentration of active ingredients, which usually include anti-agers, a heavy dose of free radical–fighting antioxidants, peptides (which stimulate collagen production), and skin brighteners.

Whereas thicker creams form a moisture-locking barrier on skin, serums are meant to penetrate it. “Serums are typically [made up of] smaller molecules of targeted, more concentrated ingredients. This allows for a deeper penetration at a cellular level,” explains Amy Halman, resident formulator for Acure Organics. (As a sidenote, essences—a staple in Korean skin care—are starting to gain traction stateside. These highly concentrated liquids are meant to be used along with serums to restore moisture that’s lost from the skin after cleansing.)

“Incorporating serums can be a great boost to your regular regimen and an accelerated way to tackle specific skin issues,” says Halman. Right away, the right serum can help soothe redness and brighten skin, but when used regularly, over time, it may even help repair environmental damage (from UV exposure and air pollution) and fade acne scars. A small clinical trial of one commercially available serum (containing natural extracts and peptides including sodium ascorbyl phosphate, Panax ginseng, white mulberry, white lupine, vitamin E, palmitoyl oligopeptide, palmitoyl tetrapeptide-7, alfalfa, and retinyl palmitate) conducted on 10 men and women with photoaged skin saw positive results after use over 12 months.

Serums can also help boost the hydration factor of moisturizers applied afterwards. And those that are water-based work beautifully to hydrate oily or combination skin without greasiness. Serum, however, may not be ideal for dry skin—especially for those with eczema or rosacea.  These conditions can weaken the skin barrier and cause serum to penetrate too quickly, leading to irritation. Have dry skin but want to try serum anyway? Experiment with a formula comprised of antioxidant-rich plant oils, or try a lightweight oil like rosehip seed or argan as an alternative.

While serums are known primarily for reversing the effects of aging and free radical damage, they can also help prevent these skin issues in the first place. It’s not a bad idea to start applying it during teen years, but younger skin will do best with gentler, more natural, plant-based formulas. When shopping for serum, always look for two things: one, antioxidant-rich ingredients like vitamin C and resveratrol; and two, cell-communicating ingredients like retinol (aka vitamin A) and linoleic acid.

Once you find the perfect serum for your skin, here’s the proper way to use it:

  1. Cleanse the skin.
  2. Apply a pea-sized amount to your finger, then pat it evenly all over your face.
  3. Allow the serum to fully absorb for a minute or two, then apply moisturizer. (Note: According to Halman, it’s best to apply oil-based serums on top of moisturizer.)
  4. For day, always apply an SPF of 30 or more—sun protection is one of the most important steps in anti-aging skin care.
  5. Use serum continuously in the morning and at night, or both, and you should notice a difference in your skin’s texture over the course of several weeks.

So, real talk: Do you need a serum or not? Technically, no. But if you’re after a youthful glow, it’s a definite game changer.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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