What does a serum actually do?

A quick cheat sheet, plus six of the best for different skin concerns

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By Elle Turner on

Toners, primers, serums – all operate within the realms of beauty products we know we should use. But they’re actually quite a head-scratcher when it comes to pinning down why we really need them. Serums aren’t quite a moisturiser or an oil or a lotion. So, what exactly are they?

Put simply, a serum is a more potent version of your regular skincare, which means that, by volume, they have a much higher concentration of active ingredients. These could be things like vitamin C, hyaluronic acid or retinol. While moisturisers may have these strong ingredients in the mix too, they’re surrounded and diluted by emollients with larger molecules that help to moisturise and create a protective barrier over your skin. Serums tackle "more specific concerns, such as visible lines, intense dehydration and uneven skintone," says dermatologist Dr Nowell Solish. They’re much more lightweight, with smaller molecules, and therefore more easily able to penetrate down deeper into your skin. "For example, a serum can help stimulate collagen beneath the skin's surface, rather than sitting on the skin's surface," Dr Solish explains. They're most effective when applied before your moisturiser and, as a general rule, it’s best to apply products from thinnest to thickest.

Because serums are the strongest product you're likely to use on your face, they tend to be the priciest. So, if you're going to spend on any of your skincare products, I'd say serums are the place to do it. However, with more choice than ever, brands like The Ordinary and Indeed Labs are leading the way for effective, yet (more) affordable, solutions.

Here are six of the best

Best for hydrating: Indeed Labs Hydraluron

Cheating a bit here, as there are two offerings which are equally excellent if your face is feeling a bit sapped. You can't really go wrong with Vichy's Aqualia Thermal Dynamic Hydration Serum, £22.50. Or, for a simple, non-faffy formula that feels instantly hydrating (and eschews animal-derived raw materials, making it suitable for vegetarians), try Indeed Labs Hydraluron. Both contain – you guessed it – hyaluronic acid. Since hyaluronic acid's genius is that it can hold as much as 1,000 times its weight in water, you can really only make the most out of it when you layer a (water-based) moisturiser, such as Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel, £12.99, over the top – creating for yourself a wonderful skincare sandwich. Yummy.


Best for brightening: Superfacialist Vitamin C+ Brighten serum

This is one of those instant-impact products. One application will leave you Iooking refreshed and glowy. It goes on silky, sinks in quickly and moisturiser sits on top easily. A great one for dull winter skin.


Best for wrinkles: The Ordinary AdvanceD Retinoid 2%

Esteé Lauder's Advanced Night Repair, £52, is the don of youthifying serums. It can soften fine lines, soothe tired-looking skin and rehydrate dry complexions. And No7's Lift & Luminate Triple Action Serum, £27, went down a storm in the office. However, The Ordinary's new utilitarian, no-nonsense product range is just plain brilliant. Their Retinoid 2% serum takes a few days to take effect but, given a chance to kick in, makes a clear improvement to wrinkles and skin elasticity. The price is very reasonable and, clinically, it seems to stack up. It gives pricier brands a run for their money.


Best for spots: CLINIQUE ANTI-BLEMISH solutions

This contains an effective combination of anti-bacterials, exfoliating salicylic acid and soothing evening primrose. It reduces the production of excess sebum (which causes spots) while boosting cell renewal to clear away existing marks quickly. You can apply it all over your face if you're oily, but for drier skins, squeeze a couple of drops from the pipette and apply it topically to the areas you need it most.


Best for soothing: Merumaya Iconic Youth Serum

Perfect if you suffer from sensitivity. This serum is jam-packed with soothing, anti-inflammatory ingredients, such as omega-rich echium oil. It gently stimulates the skin's proteins and collagen for bouncy, fresh-looking skin and smells lovely and calming, too. The consistency is surprisingly thick and luxurious but, once applied, it melts into a silky oil that absorbs well into skin, providing a smooth base for make-up.


Best for protecting: Hylamide c25 Booster

Antioxidants are the best at protecting our face against daily woes such as sun damage, wind and pollution. They occur naturally in our body but, as always, it's nice to have a top-up. Hylamide's C25 Booster serum contains 25 per cent vitamin C as well as resorcinol (two cracking antioxidants), which can neutralise free-radicals (groups of atoms that can damage cells). The texture is a bit strange – more like a dry oil – but it absorbs fairly quickly and, within a few minutes, leaves skin looking brighter, smoother and well rested.



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