What Is Face Serum, And How Does It Work?

03/03/2015 07:00 am ET
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We're always on the lookout for beauty products that aid in our pursuit to age gracefully. Even though our medicine cabinets are equipped with essentials like sunscreen and eye cream, face serum is something we are gradually integrating into our rotation.

Adopting a facial serum seems intimidating at first with its hefty price tag. Then we are reminded of all the skincare benefits, from clearing blemishes to smoothing wrinkles, and feel compelled to give it a try.

To ensure that we were using the product correctly, we took our face serum concerns to three experts. We wanted to know how often we should apply the serum, which ingredients target our specific issues and more. Here's what we learned.

Face serums are lightweight moisturizers that penetrate deeper to deliver active ingredients into your skin.

"By leaving out many of the heavier ingredients that are found in traditional moisturizers, [face serums] contain a much higher proportional concentration of active ingredients," says Dr. Carlos A. Charles, founder and medical director of Derma di Colore in Chelsea.

Celebrity makeup artist Kristofer Buckle believes that using a serum regularly can give your skin a firmer, smoother texture, make pores appear smaller and increase moisture levels.

Serums will only moisturize to a minimal extent. Therefore, Dr. Charles recommends using them in conjunction with heavier moisturizers.

It is not necessary to have a serum in your skincare regimen.

"Serums are simply an added step for those that have the right skin type and are looking to go the extra mile in their daily routines," explains Dr. Charles.

"Of course, the better condition your skin is in, the more amazing your makeup looks and wears throughout the day," says Buckle. “It's simple math -- the less problems you have to cover, the less makeup you have to use. Serums help give your skin a fresher, younger and healthier appearance."

The most expensive serums aren't always the best, but they do tend to contain higher quality, more concentrated ingredients.

Dr. Charles notes that there are cost-effective serums on the market that provide all of the beneficial properties found in expensive formulas.

"You have to look at the ingredients to make sure that not only do they address your skin concerns, but also that the product includes ingredients that make skin healthy," according to Howard Murad, M.D., board certified dermatologist and founder of Murad, Inc.

Dr. Murad suggests keeping an eye out for the following ingredients (which he puts in every Murad formula):

  • Antixodants like pomegranate extract, vitamin C and grape seed extract help protect against possible sun damage and fight the damaging free radicals responsible for much of what we perceive as skin aging, including fine lines.
  • Anti-inflammatories, including zinc, arnica, aloe vera and goldenseal, neutralize redness and prevent inflammatory cell damage.
  • Hydrators such as ceramides, amino acids and essential fatty acids strengthen the skin's barrier and help build strong cell membranes. These ingredients protect against dryness and fine lines by replenishing naturally occurring skin lipids, improving moisture retention and protecting skin from the environment.

The right time to use a serum depends on the formula and your skincare routine.

A serum can be applied in the morning, at night or both, but Dr. Charles advises against applying a serum in the evening time if you are already applying a topical retinoid. The combination of the two products may lead to irritation.

He adds, "For those with drier skin, serum can be layered under the morning and/or night moisturizer."

If you have a chronic skin condition such as eczema or rosacea, serums may cause aggravation.

According to Dr. Charles, the gel-like consistency and high concentration of active ingredients can lead to irritation. Additionally, mature individuals tend to have drier skin and may need the heavier ingredients found in creams and moisturizers, which serums will not provide.

The most important rule to follow when it comes to serums: do not overuse the product.

Dr. Murad believes that a common misconception about serums is that more is better. Because serums are typically very concentrated, a little goes a long way.

Looking for the best face serum? Shop our editors' picks below.

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