Serums 101: How to Know What’s Right For Your Routine

Serums 101: How to Know What’s Right For Your Routine

I get asked a lot of skin care questions in general, but I think if I took a tally, the topic of serums would easily be in the top three subjects I get asked about the most. And I understand why. The way that you can use them, the different types of serums, and the things they’re supposed to do vary so much that it feels like there are almost no parameters in what can be called a serum. Probably because there really isn’t.

The way that I personally classify serums are products that contain a concentrated dose of ingredients to target a specific concern you’re wanting to tackle. I know, that’s pretty broad and could apply to a lot of things, but that’s because serums can be so many different things. Generally, but not always, they’re going to be more high-powered than a moisturizer or a toner containing similar ingredients and usually fall somewhere in the middle of a routine, before a moisturizer but after a toner or mist.

Serums can deliver a wide variety of powerful ingredients to your skin, but the way a serum delivers them to your skin can vary quite a lot. That being said, before I can really talk about the best way to use a serum, we’ve got to go over the major types of serums that there are. I feel that the best way to use a serum really depends on what kind of formulation we’re talking about.

Serums can deliver a wide variety of powerful ingredients, but the way a serum delivers them to your skin can vary quite a lot.


Water-Based Serums

I see this type of serum more than any other kind on the market, and it’s highly likely that you’ve encountered this type of serum at some point if you’ve used one. Let me clarify though: When I say “water-based” serums, I’m referred specifically to a serum that doesn’t have a high proportion of oils (if any) and are primarily made of water, whether it’s plain water or something that has been extracted into water, like green tea extract.

The texture of these types of serums can vary quite a lot. Some are very thin and appear like water in the bottle, while others can be almost like a jelly that will sit in a blob on a flat surface until it’s spread out, and every variation of thickness in between. The experience of using them can vary a lot too, with some sinking in almost instantly while others can leave a tacky finish behind that some people don’t find the most pleasant thing in the world.



I tend to slot water-based serums in right after my toner step. In regards to texture, my preference falls somewhere in the middle of both spectrums. I tend to go for water-based serums that have a more gel-like texture rather than super liquidy and don’t instantly dry up on the skin because I feel like I have a little time to properly spread out and massage in the serum.


Emulsion Serums

The other major category of serums I see are ones that I think of as the emulsion category, with the word “emulsion” referring to the process of combining water and oil together into a creamy texture (think of a salad dressing of oil and vinegar or citrus juice). Side note, please do not put any citruses or vinegars from your kitchen on your face. You would be surprised by the weird things people online recommend.

When you pump these types of serums out of the tube, they have a much more “standard” texture than water-based serums do—you’re usually looking at something that’s almost the texture of a body lotion. However, the content and types of oils in these serums vary a lot, which can really change how moisturizing the serum can feel. That really helps me decide where in a routine and how serums like this are best used.

type of serum

The emulsion serums I’ve used have a large proportion of oils in them, which puts them in a weird territory between serum and moisturizer. I actually didn’t use a product labeled as a “moisturizer” for almost all of 2019 as my oily/combo skin is perfectly happy with one of these types of serums used as moisturizer during the day.


Oil Serums

The “green/clean” movement has been a champion of the concept of the oil serum, and it’s definitely something that’s newer to the mainstream market. Some people classify any oil as a serum because the large majority of oils that get used in skin care have their own unique, beneficial properties. However, for the sake of clarity, I think of oils that are purely for the purposes of moisturization and support the skin’s lipid barrier simply as facial oils. On the other hand, oils that fall in the serum category have more of an active ingredient in the formulation.

There are more and more of these oil serums coming out on the market with clinically proven active ingredients in their formulas like retinoids, vitamin C derivatives, and exfoliants like BHA. Delivering actives in this oil format can make them gentler on the skin by buffering them back a bit—that’s to say that you’ll still get the benefits from them, it’ll probably just take a little longer for you to see results. The gentler approach can help you sidestep some of the side effects these active ingredients can cause, which is always a huge benefit.

The most important thing with these oil-type serums for me is application. It took some experimenting for me to find how I like to get them on my skin best, and the way you apply them can actually make a huge difference. I found just taking a few drops and massaging them into my skin generally left me feeling a little greasy and overly shiny. I don’t mind looking like a glazed donut when I’m going to sleep, but the excessive shine made me feel like the oil wasn’t absorbing into my skin. When I started adding a few drops of oil into either a moisturizer or hydrating serum, it made a world of difference in helping them absorb into my skin.

Now that we’ve covered the three major types of serum formulations, in the next part of this series, I’ll go over the different skin care benefits serums can deliver.


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