The biggest difference between a serum and a cream or lotion is what the formulation doesn’t include. Serums leave out occlusive, or airtight, moisturizing ingredients such as petrolatum or mineral oil that keep water from evaporating. They also contain fewer lubricating and thickening agents, like nut or seed oils. Most serums are water-based, eliminating oils altogether.
Serums are a top pick of many skin care pros, including Ni’Kita Wilson, a cosmetic chemist and vice president of research and innovation at Englewood Lab. Wilson chooses a serum instead of a cream for her own at-home regimen: “It works better for my oily skin, and it has every ingredient I need.”
Esthetician Veronica Barton-Schwartz, owner of Veronica Skin and Body Care Center in Malibu, Calif., who counts celebrities Olivia Newton-John, Suzanne Somers, and Cher among her clients, is also a fan. “I think everyone is doing their skin a disservice if they don’t have a great serum.”
“The beauty of a serum is that most of the fluid is eliminated,” Wilson says, “so what you’re left with is a high concentration of active ingredients.” Serums contain the most potent dose of anti-aging ingredients — antioxidants, peptides, and skin brighteners such as kojic acid — you can find in nonprescription products. “They’re the true workhorses of any product line,” Wilson says.
Serum Costs, Serum Benefits
Because active ingredients are more expensive than thickeners, serums are also the costliest product in many skin care lines. But when applied properly, a 1-ounce container of serum should last months. Many brands come in pump bottles or have medicine-dropper applicators to dispense just the tiny amount you need.
Those few concentrated drops are super-efficient. Serums are made of very small molecules, so the skin absorbs them quickly and deeply. “The thicker, heavier ingredients in creams form a barrier on your skin,” Wilson says. “That’s great for locking moisture in. But it can also lock active ingredients out. Without these hindrances, the active ingredients in a serum penetrate your skin faster and more effectively.”