Serums Simplified: How to Choose and Use Face Serums

Today, serum bottles sit prominently on our bathroom shelves, and you're probably the proud owner of a few of your own. A serum is a skincare product which you can apply to your skin after cleansing, but before moisturising, with the intent of delivering powerful ingredients directly into the skin. With a smaller molecular structure, serum formulas penetrate the skin deeply to deliver a very high concentration of active ingredients. So, it makes them “hero” products for the treatment of just about every skin concern, from wrinkles and dehydration to pigmentation and acne-prone skin. What’s not to love, right?

But serums belong to a category of skincare which is full of contradictions; they’re moisturising, but you still need to apply a moisturiser. They can be oily, but not necessarily a face oil. They can be watery, but yet aren’t classed as an essence. There are so many variables to tackle before choosing the correct serum for your skin type.

Here is my simplified guide to serums to help you decide.


Yes and no. Serums can be chock-full of moisturising ingredients (including hyaluronic acid, collagen, peptides, ceramides, and vitamin A, C and E) to help skin retain moisture. But, that doesn't make them moisturisers in the traditional sense. Whether you have dry or oily skin, you'll need to apply a face cream or lotion following your serum in order to create a barrier on top of the skin, locking in all the good stuff. Ever heard of TEWL? Trans-epidermal-water-loss is not an agricultural term, it refers to your skin's moisture evaporating through it's outermost layer. Skin needs both hydration and moisturisation to maintain desirable levels of TEWL.

So think of your serum as providing internal hydration to the skin, and the following layer of cream then provides a barrier of moisturisation, keeping your skin healthy and functioning at its best.


Face serums are traditionally water-based, which makes them lean and lightweight. They generally come in the form of clear liquids or gels. Free of the heavy oil composition that creams usually have, the active nutrients in a face serum can come into contact with our skin more directly, and therefore cover more ground.

The confusion stems from the fact that more and more face oils are marketed as “serums”. You have the water-based serums and the oil-based serums. But what's the difference?  

Water-based serums go under the cream and are super important. They nourish the inner layer of the skin because the molecules are so small, therefore can penetrate deeper. So, if you're looking to target a specific skin condition like ageing, pigmentation, blemishes, these work best.

Oil-based serums go on top of the moisturiser because they have a bigger molecule. They're supposed to keep the cream and whatever else you put underneath it moist throughout the entire day. So these work better for those who have concerns such as dehydration, dullness and first signs of ageing.


Not really. Though serums and essences are very similar, they differ significantly in texture. Essences, generally, are thinner, less viscous, and more water-like. That’s because they contain a lower level of active nutrients and other substances, making them a “lite” version of your typical serum.  

The order of application is also different. Since essences are more watery than face serums, they should actually be applied after a cleanser, and always before a serum.

So does that mean that essences are worse product or less efficient? No, that’s far from the case. The advantage of an essence is that they are more suitable for people with sensitive skin, or those requiring an extra layer of hydration.


Get to know your skin first. Book a consultation or skin analysis with a professional aesthetician or dermatologist before investing in an arsenal of products, and be clear on your skin's current concerns. You'll find skin analysis devices like Visia imaging system in most good dermatologist clinics. They will help to identify the problem before investing in treatment.

Here's my breakdown of what to look for once you've identified your skin type / concern:


The goal is really to prevent breakouts before they form. Look for vitamin C (to increase collagen production, enhance skin’s repair process, and reduce inflammation), retinol (for antioxidant properties and to reduce inflammation), zinc (to soothe irritation and regulate oil production), and BHA salicylic acid (for unclogging pores).

ZO SKINHEALTH Self Activating Vitamin C Serum is a versatile serum that can be layered under a cream, blended with hydrating serum, or used as a spot treatment cure.


To increase moisture in thirsty skin, look for ingredients such as argan oil, glycerine, hyaluronic acid (which retains moisture), aloe vera, rosehip oil, ceramides, rosewater, sea kelp, jojoba, vitamin E (an antioxidant which protects cells from oxidative damage), niacinamide (which improves skin elasticity and increases ceramide levels in skin), and glycolic acid (which gently exfoliates and lightens discolouration).

DR BARBARA STURM Hyaluronic Serum Ampoules to boost the skin with intense hydration.


Ingredients for lightening and brightening are kojic acid, ferulic acid and peptides. These are all light reflectors and optical diffusers which instantly give you an impeccable glow. Look for antioxidants like green tea extract, resveratrol, ferulic acid (which combat free radicals and increase effectiveness of sunscreen by day and promote cellular repair and healing by night).

DR BARBARA STURM Glow Drops to revitalise dull and tired complexion.


Anti-aging serums also focus on promoting increased cell turnover, aiding cell repair, and overall cell renewal. Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, is a commonly used and notable ingredient for its powerful anti-ageing effects. Other common anti-ageing ingredients include; fruit stem cells, evening primrose, grape seed extract, vitamin C, peptides, growth factors, and Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs).

DR BARBARA STURM Super Anti-Aging Serum with a potent cocktail of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredients.

 Keyword: Top celebrity facialist

Be skin smart.

Words by Adeela Crown.

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