Serums Simplified: How to Choose & Use Face Serums

Today serum bottles sit prominently on our bathroom shelves and you're probably the proud owner of a few. A serum is a skincare product 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 wonder products to target and treat just about every skin concern, from wrinkles to dehydration, pigmentation to acne-prone skin. So far so straightforward, right?

But Serums belong to a category of skincare which is full of contradictions: It's moisturizing, but you still need to apply a moisturizer. It can be oily, but it's not necessarily a face oil. It can be watery, but is it an essence? So many questions to tackle before you choose the correct serum type for your skin. Here my simplified guide to Serums, to help you best decide the right formula for your skin.


Yes and no. Serums can be chock-full of moisturizing ingredients (hyaluronic acid, collagen, peptides, ceramides, Vitamin A, C &E) to help skin retain moisture. But, that doesn't make them moisturizers in the traditional sense. Whether you have dry or oily skin you'll need to apply a face cream or lotion chosen according to your skin type to create a barrier on top of the skin to keep all that good stuff in. 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 providing the internal hydration to the skin and a cream providing a barrier moisturisation to keep your skin healthy and functioning to its best.


Face serums are traditionally water-based, which makes them lean and lightweight and they generally come in the form of clear liquids, or clear 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 cover more ground so to speak.

The confusion stems from the fact that these days 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 they are so important. They nourish the inner layer of the skin because the molecule is very small so it penetrates deeper. So it's better if you're looking to target a specific skin condition like ageing, pigmentation, blemishes.

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


Essentially yes. Based on where they come in the routine, serums and essences are very similar. If anything, they differ in texture. Essences, generally, are thinner, less viscous, and more water-like. That’s because they contain a lower amount of active nutrients and other substances, making them a “lite” version of your typical serum.

However, when it comes to essences, the order of application is different. Since essences are more watery than face serums, they should, likewise, be applied after a cleanser, but always before a serum.

But does that mean that essences are worse or less efficient? No, that’s far from the case, but the advantage of essences 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 and before investing in an arsenal of products be clear on the skin's current concerns. You'll find skin analysis devices like Visia imaging system in most good dermatologist clinics. Help identify the problem before investing in treatment.

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

Acne-prone: The goal is really to prevent breakouts before they form. Look for vitamin C (increases collagen production, enhances skin’s repair process, and reduces inflammation), retinol (also an antioxidant, reduces inflammation), zinc (soothes irritation, regulates oil production), and BHA salicylic acid (unclogs 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.

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

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

Brightening: Ingredients for lightening and brightening are kojic acid, ferulic acid, peptides, and light reflectors or optical diffusers that instantly give you an impeccable glow. Look for antioxidants like green tea extract, resveratrol, ferulic acid (these combat free radicals, 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-ageing: Anti-aging serums also focus on promoting increased cell turnover, aiding in cell repair, and cell renewal. Retinol (a derivative of Vitamin A), is a commonly used and notable ingredient for powerful anti-aging effects. Other common anti-aging 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.

Be skin smart. Be Skincredible™

written by Adeela Crown