It's not always easy finding the best face serum, you've got to track down a formula that's right for your skin type (whether that's oily, dry or combination skin), whilst also making sure it fits your budget...
Chances are, you've already tried a LOT in your quest for perfect skin. But did you know that a great serum will make the biggest difference when it comes to overhauling your complexion? Yup, whether you're looking for an anti-ageing elixir or a super hydrating potion, a high-quality face serum has the power to transform your skin's health. This is because most serums tend to be packed with the potent ingredients in lightweight formulas, this ensures they deliver all that good stuff deep down into the dermis.
"The main reason serums are able to do this is because of what they do not contain," says Kenneth Howe, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "In contrast to moisturizers, serums don't contain air-tight, occlusive ingredients, which allow them to penetrate more deeply into the epidermis, carrying their active ingredients with them."
Another reason why serums are a mainstay for skin-care novices and lovers alike? The good 'ol feel factor. "Serums are the new moisturizers," New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Ellen Marmur tells Allure. "They are perfect for layering — like a primer on clean skin before makeup or sunscreen."
What is Face Serums?
A serum is a highly concentrated liquid that delivers a big dose of nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants to the skin. Most serums are water based and have a thin consistency although some are oil based. Because serums are highly concentrated, they can deliver a big dose of good-for-you ingredients that penetrate deeply into the skin.
There are serums designed for every skin type and condition, and at every price point from wallet friendly drugstore buys to luxury brands, but the most important thing to do is choose the right serum for your skin. Depending on your skincare needs, you may need a daytime serum in addition to a night serum.
Serums do tend to be pricey but they last for a long time; if you break down a bottle into a per use cost, the sticker shock is softened. Another way to think about the price is that serums are highly potent so you’re getting a lot of ingredients for your money.
How to Apply Face Serums
Serums need to be applied in a specific way. They should be applied after cleansing but before moisturizer. They should not be rubbed into the face like a cream. Instead, they should be patted or pressed into the face. After applying the serum, let it sink into the skin and get absorbed before moving on to the next step in your routine.
What Can Face Serum Do?
Different serums can do different things, and there’s a serum for just about every skin type and concern. Many of them are multi-taskers, addressing more than one skin issue, but they can help with anti-aging, dryness, fine lines, protection and acne. They’re suitable for any age but can be especially helpful for anti-aging and prevention. In a news release from the American Academy of Dermatology, Dr. Lauren Eckert Ploch, suggests that women in their 30s use “a light antioxidant serum to protect their skin from the elements and improve signs of early skin aging.
Ingredients to Look for in a Face Serum
What to look for in a serum will largely depend on your skin concerns but if you’re on a mission to get glowing skin, a serum can help. Anyone with dry skin should look for moisturizing hyaluronic acid, which can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water, and glycerin, a humectant. Vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps protect the skin, and niacinamide, another moisture booster, can also help thirsty skin. Dull skin can benefit from a dose of vitamin C, a skin brightener, as well as glycolic acid, which helps to gently exfoliate the skin. For anti-aging concerns, look for retinol, which encourages cell turnover, along with peptides. Acne prone skin can benefit from a dose of salicylic acid, which helps unclog prone, along with retinol.
Related: Best retinol night creams uk
How to Choose The Best Face Serums for Your Skin Type
For wrinkles: Retinol, glycolic acid, growth factors, and bakuchiol will help build collagen and improve skin texture, says Melanie Palm, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and clinical professor at Scripps Encinitas Memorial Hospital in California. Hydrators, like hyaluronic acid or ceramides, will also plump skin and reduce irritation.
For daily protection: Look for a serum that contains antioxidants, such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E (tocopherol), vitamin B3 (niacinamide), green tea polyphenols, and resveratrol. They act as a shield against environmental and lifestyle elements (UV rays, air pollutants, alcohol, smoking) that suck the life out of your face.
For dark spots and uneven skin tone: Antioxidants brighten skin while also protecting against environmental factors. Other color-correcting ingredients that get the job done include kojic, glycolic, and lactic acids, as well as licorice root, mushroom extract, and botanical extracts, like soy.
For dryness: Look for a creamier serum that contains hyaluronic acid to pull water to the skin, niacinamide to boost ceramide levels (a natural component of the skin barrier), and vitamin E to soothe and protect your skin from environmental damage, says Ramya Kollipara, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Texas.
For redness and inflammation: “Sensitive skin types should look for anti-inflammatory ingredients like zinc, green tea, licorice root, and aloe vera,” says Dr. Kollipara. Opt for a fragrance- and preservative-free serum to reduce potential irritation. “Avoid using retinoids or acids too frequently if your skin is sensitive,” says Dr. Cheung.
For breakouts: Acne serums should be non comedogenic (meaning they won’t clog pores) and oil-free. Look for exfoliators like glycolic acid, says Dr. Palep. Retinol is also handy, since it increases cell turnover and improves absorption of your other acne treatments in the process. Seek out hydrators, like hyaluronic acid, and inflammation-fighters, like niacinamide.
For overall radiance: If you don’t have specific skin issues per se, but want to spruce up your skin in general, look for serums that contain hydroxy acids, which exfoliate skin and may improve collagen production.
What Are the Best Face Serums of 2021?
No matter what your budget or skin concern is, we’ve rounded up the best serums of 2021. Here’s our look at the top all-around serums along with ones targeted for specific skin issues.. In fact, we've got 31 of them below, so keep scrolling to find your new favorite.
For Dry Skin: SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic
Name one dermatologist who doesn't have a bottle of SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Acid in their skin-care lineup — we'll wait. The potent vitamin C, E, and ferulic acid skin-brightener, texture-smoother, and 2021 Readers' Choice Award winner is a skin-care gold standard.
"The antioxidant combo reduces fine lines and wrinkles and reverses environmental aging," says New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman. The topical antioxidants are backed by copious clinical studies and are greatly effective in fighting free-radical damage. But what makes it ideal for dry skin, according to board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein, is the fact that it has such an emollient base.
For Dry Skin: Neocutis Bio Serum Firm
It may seem like a no-brainer when you have dry skin, but board-certified dermatologist Heidi Prather says seeking out a serum with more hydrating factors is a must. Luckily, if skin thirst isn't your only concern, a formula like Neocutis Bio Serum Firm can address any unwanted signs of aging, too. "You get the benefits of hydration with sodium hyaluronate," a form of hyaluronic acid, "while boosting your collagen and elastin through the patented formulation of growth factors and peptides," she says.
For Dry Skin: SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator
Silver bottle of SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator on white background
"Look for serums that are for sensitive skin and have hydrating ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and squalene," says Engelman, who recommends SkinMedica's HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator to patients because it has a gel-like consistency and five different types of hyaluronic acids. Fellow New York City board-certified dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali has also come to love HA5 for dry skin, telling Allure it has a "nice balance of hydrating without feeling heavy."
For Dry Skin: Dr. Nigma No 1 Serum
Small white bottle with black box of Dr. Nigma No 1 Serum on white background
Yes, it's pricey — but it has Los Angeles-based aesthetician Shani Darden's stamp of approval for good reason. "This is an amazing hyaluronic acid serum that plumps the skin through use of plant stem cells and marine peptides," she says. "Anyone can benefit from this, but those with dry or mature skin will really love it."
For Dry Skin: Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum
Best Hyaluronic Acid Serums 2021 Drunk Elephant BHydra Intensive Hydration Serum
Laced with sodium hyaluronate (a salt form of hyaluronic acid that has a smaller molecular weight) and pineapple-derived ceramides, Drunk Elephant's B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum is a must for anyone in need of a little (or rather, a lot of) hydration. "It contains vitamin B5, as well as a watermelon rind, lentil, and apple complex, which combine to deeply hydrate and soothe irritated skin," Howe explains.
For Dry Skin: Paula's Choice Resist Omega+ Complex Serum
Small silver bottle of Paula's Choice Resist Omega Complex Serum on white background
Shea butter and jojoba oil are some of the best natural ingredients to help soothe and nourish dry, dehydrated skin. You'll find both (plus omega fatty acids — hence the name) in the Paula's Choice Resist Omega+ Complex Serum.
For Combination Skin: Revision Skincare C+ Correcting Complex 30%
Revision Skincare C Correcting Complex 30 on a white background
This is truly a do-it-all serum for a skin type that does the most. Prather says Revision C+ Correcting Complex 30% is a great choice for combination skin because its potent tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate formulation — that's an oil-soluble form of vitamin C — that allows the product to stay pH neutral, preventing irritation from the start. "It is also packed with ingredients that work hard to protect, brighten, and boost your skin health without breaking you out," she explains.
For Combination Skin: Shani Darden Texture Reform
Got combination skin? Look for a serum that will do it all, and then some. "Texture Reform is a true multitasker," Darden says of the Shani Darden Texture Reform from her eponymous range. "It boosts collagen in the skin, minimizes fine lines, and wrinkles, reduces hyperpigmentation, and smooths the texture of the skin." We can confirm this to be true, as the serum is one of our associate beauty director Sarah Kinonen's favorites.
For Combination Skin: Clarins Double Serum
Gold and copper bottle of Clarins Double Serum on white background
It brightens. It hydrates. It firms. In a nutshell, it's easier to list what the supercharged Clarins Double Serum can't do. "The serum is great for people with combination skin because it hydrates dry areas and is not too heavy for oily areas," says Joshua Zeichner, a dermatologist and director of the cosmetic and clinical research department of dermatology at Mount Sinai hospital in New York City. "It contains a variety of soothing and brightening botanicals, including its hero ingredient, turmeric, which has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties."
For Oily/Acne-Prone Skin: PCA Skin Acne Gel
PCA Skin Acne Gel on white background
Although it's called Acne Gel, this PCA Skin treatment feels more like a serum, Bhanusali tells Allure. "It's a nice option for those who don't want to feel dried out but still want the efficacy," he says, pointing to the formula's two-percent salicylic acid, which has been stabilized for better penetration by the brand's proprietary OmniSome delivery system. The result is unclogged pores and noticeably less oiliness.
For Oily/Acne-Prone Skin: SkinCeuticals Silymarin CF
SkinCeuticals Silymarin CF on white background
One of Prather's top tips for choosing a serum for oily skin is avoiding anything with tocopherol, also known as vitamin E, in order to prevent breakouts. "I recommend Silymarin CF by SkinCeuticals for my acne-prone patients [because] it has a straightforward ingredient list with plant-based antioxidants, vitamin C, and beta hydroxy acids for extra exfoliation, acne treatment, and prevention," she says. Silymarin is the main aforementioned plant-based antioxidant — a milk thistle extract lauded for its anti-inflammatory properties.
For Oily/Acne-Prone Skin: Kypris Clearing Serum
In addition to just being plain chic, Kypris's Clearing Serum helps curb oiliness and gently treat breakouts, thanks to ingredients like lilac leaf stem cells, zinc, and quinoa.
For Oily/Acne-Prone Skin: Caudalie Vinopure Skin Perfecting Serum
Light green bottle of Caudalie Vinopure Skin Perfecting Serum on white background
"A high concentration of natural salicylic acid, grape seed polyphenols, and organic essential oils, give this product the power to unclog blackheads and remove excess oil," says Howe. We love the Caudalie Vinopure Skin Perfecting Serum so much, it took home a Best of Beauty Award.
For Oily/Acne-Prone Skin: Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hydrating Serum
Best Hyaluronic Acid Serums 2021 Neutrogena Hydroboost Hydrating Serum on a white background
"Many of my adult female patients with acne also suffer from dryness," says Zeichner. "Plus, many acne medications can dry out the skin. A light, hydrating serum can be useful even if you have acne. Neutrogena Hydroboost Serum delivers hyaluronic acid to the skin to draw in water to hydrate and plump the outer skin layer."
For Oily/Acne-Prone Skin: Paula's Choice Defense Antioxidant Pore Purifier
Red tube of Paula's Choice Defense Antioxidant Pore Purifier on white background
If you deal with regular, stubborn breakouts, focusing on prevention is the name of the game. Ward off future flare-ups and address current blemishes by keeping your pores clear while gradually brightening any marks from your skin's history. Paula's Choice Defense Antioxidant Pore Purifier does all this and more.
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For Sensitive Skin: Alastin Regenerating Skin Nectar
Alastin Regenerating Skin Nectar on a white background
Whether your skin is chronically sensitive or experiencing temporary irritation or fragility after an in-office treatment, Prather says Alastin Regenerating Skin Nectar is the way to go. The water-free formula is so much more than just a soother. "It is preservative-free, bacteriostatic, and the patented TriHex technology is packed with peptides that boost elastin while calming inflamed skin and decreasing downtime post-procedure," she tells Allure.
For Sensitive Skin: Institut Esthederm Intensive Vitamin E² Serum
Institut Esthederm Intensive Vitamin E Serum on a white background
For sensitive skin that isn't breakout prone but still craves the free-radical-fighting benefits of a powerful antioxidant, Bhanusali recommends Institut Esthederm Intensive Vitamin E² Serum. "It's a great antioxidant and doesn't have vitamin C, which many of my patients — and I — sometimes have trouble tolerating."
For Sensitive Skin: Skinbetter Alto Defense Serum
Skinbetter Alto Defense Serum on a white background
This Allure Best of Beauty Award winner favorite antioxidant serum of Marchbein's because it helps improve both uneven skin tone and redness. "Skinbetter Alto Defense Serum] combines vitamins C, E, and multiple antioxidant fruit and plant extracts, including licorice root extract, ubiquinone, and superoxide dismutase," she says, noting that she especially likes it for rosacea-prone skin.
For Sensitive Skin: Dr. Jart+ Cicapair Tiger Grass Serum
Green bottle of Dr. Jart Cicapair Tiger Grass Re.Pair Serum on white background
Soothe redness and blotchy skin with Dr. Jart+'s so-good-they-can't-keep-it-in-stock Cicapair Tiger Grass Serum, formulated with centella asiatica, copper, zinc, and selenium. (For Allure contributing editor Jessica Chia, it made makeup virtually optional.)
For Sensitive Skin: Amorepacific Moisture Bound Rejuvenating Serum
For his patients with sensitive skin, Howe recommends Amorepacific's Moisture Bound Rejuvenating Serum, which disappears into skin and contains bamboo leaf extract, cactus fruit, green tea, wild soybean, and water lily to boost cell regeneration and minimize fine lines without causing irritation.
For Sensitive Skin: La Roche-Posay Rosaliac AR Intense Visible Facial Redness Serum
White bottle of La RochePosay Rosaliac AR Intense Visible Facial Redness Serum on white
Redness? What redness? Here's looking at you, sensitive skin types. Incorporate a serum laced with soothing natural extracts and visible light reflectors, both of which are found in La Roche-Posay's Rosaliac AR Intense Visible Facial Redness Serum.
For Mature Skin: SkinMedica TNS Advanced+ Serum
SkinMedica TNS Advanced Serum on a white background
Prather has noticed that newer, more technology-driven serums are starting to focus on elastin and collagen, which is one of the reasons SkinMedica TNS Advanced+ Serum, an update to the long-loved TNS Essential Serum, has become so popular in her Texas practice. "The new formulation feels silky and smooth on your skin and provides a powerful combination of growth factors and plant-based antioxidants to boost collagen and elastin."
For Mature Skin: Pond's Rejuveness Skin Tightening Serum
Ponds Rejuveness Skin Tightening Serum on a white background
A hard-working serum doesn't have to be expensive, as proven by Pond's Rejuveness Skin Tightening Serum. For mature skin that also happens to be dry or reactive, Marchbein says it's a great choice — even if you're new to skin care. "It combines retinol, niacinamide, and glycerin — especially good for beginners or those with sensitive skin since they are a lower strength than prescription versions," she tells Allure.
For Mature Skin: iS Clinical GeneXC Serum
Dark blue bottle of iS Clinical GeneXC on white background
Darden reaches for the iS Clinical GeneXC Serum for her mature clients, thanks to its potent yet non-irritating formula that addresses visible signs of aging from the inside out.
For Mature Skin: Sunday Riley A+ High Dose Retinol Serum
Dark blue bottle with white pump cap of Sunday Riley A High Dose Retinol Serum on white background
Sunday Riley's buzzy A+ High Dose Retinol Serum packs a punch when it comes to gently smoothing fine lines over time. Unlike traditional retinols, this one is suitable for even sensitive skin types, like Allure's Sarah Kinonen.
For Mature Skin: Mario Badescu Peptide Renewal Serum
Dark green bottle of Mario Badescu Peptide Renewal Serum on white background
In addition to providing hydration benefits to the skin, peptides can be a real tour de force when it comes to giving an instantly plumped and radiant effect to the skin. Mario Badescu's fan-favorite Peptide Renewal Serum contains the hero ingredient, plus chamomile extract, aloe vera, and green tea for a botanical boost.
For Every Skin Type: La Roche-Posay Hyalu B5 Serum
La RochePosay Hyalu B5 Serum on a white background
Deanne Mraz Robinson, a board-certified dermatologist in Connecticut, says that no matter your skin type, La Roche-Posay Hyalu B5 Serum is a great place to start when it comes to inserting serums into your routine. "This serum combines concentrated pure hyaluronic acid, madecassoside, and vitamin B5 for tons of hydration without the irritation," she explains.
For Every Skin Type: CeraVe Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Serum
CeraVe Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Serum on a white background
Marchbein is a fan of CeraVe's Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Serum — and hyaluronic acid serums in general — because HA is a humectant that attracts and binds to water molecules and increases the water content of the skin. And that's something everyone can benefit from. "Skin hydration is important because hydrated skin looks more plump, healthier, and more vibrant," she tells Allure, noting that it's an especially high priority in colder months.
For Every Skin Type: Naturium Quadruple Hyaluronic Acid Serum 5%
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Marchbein says every skin type — including oily — needs to keep skin hydration up. Nature's Quadruple Hyaluronic Acid Serum 5% does exactly that with hyaluronic acid at four different molecular weights. In addition to deeply hydrating, it promises to plump skin into a smoother state — not to mention it throws in a little vitamin C for good measure.
For Every Skin Type: Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules
Best Ceramide Skin Care Products for 2018 Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules
"The Elizabeth Arden Retinol Ceramide Capsules are a favorite for everyone as the ceramide acts like a buffer to prevent any irritation from retinol," Engelman explains. "It's incredibly effective at restoring skin cell turnover while keeping the skin firm and hydrated."
For Every Skin Type: PCA Skin C&E Strength
Small white tube of PCA Skin CE Strength on white background
PCA Skin's C&E Strength contains a power duo of 15 percent stabilized vitamin C and five percent vitamin E to address sun damage, dark spots, and give you the glass skin of your dreams.
For Every Skin Type: L'Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 1.5% Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum
Best Hyaluronic Acid Serums 2021 L'Oreal's new Derm Intensives 1.5 Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum
L'Oréal Paris's Revitalift Derm Intensives 1.5% Pure Hyaluronic Acid Serum has been known to hold the top spot among mass-market serums, and according to Nielsen, one bottle is sold every minute. Consider us impressed.
For Every Skin Type: Ole Henriksen Truth Serum
Small orange bottle of Ole Henriksen Truth Serum on white background
Another favorite of Murmurs is Ole Henriksen's Truth Serum, which continues to be one of the most popular vitamin C formulas on the market. Come for the citrusy scent, stay for the glow-boosting effects on your skin.