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  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

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Our 8 picks for the best night serums to improve your skin while you sleep

Some ingredients are better used at night. Here’s what you need to know about beauty sleep-boosting serums.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on May 30, 2024 • 11 min read
Medically reviewed by Maria Borowiec, NB-BC
Woman with night serum on her hand
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on May 30, 2024 • 11 min read
Medically reviewed by Maria Borowiec, NB-BC
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

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The key takeaways

  • Serums may help you target specific skin issues, but they aren’t an essential part of a skincare routine.

  • If you do use a serum, look for one with active ingredients proven to help you meet your skincare goals.

  • Some ingredients, such as alpha-hydroxy acids or retinol, are best used at night because they can make your skin sensitive to the sun. 

  • Apply your serum after cleansing your face and before applying moisturizer.

  • If fading discoloration is one of your goals, try Curology’s Dark Spot Serum with a blend of 5 clinically tested, dark spot-fighting acids and antioxidants.

While you’re sound asleep, your body works overtime to repair and revive itself inside and out. Getting a good night’s rest can help keep you looking younger, so it’s no surprise some people try to give their skin an extra boost to support it during its nighttime regeneration process with night serums for the face.¹ 

Ready to upgrade your nighttime skincare routine? Level-up with a Custom Formulaᴿˣ built just for your skin goals.*

Serums are formulated to target specific skin concerns, like acne and aging, but they’re a completely optional step in your skincare routine. At Curology, we believe the best skincare routines are the simplest—cleanse, moisturize, and protect with SPF at the beginning of the day, and cleanse, treat, and moisturize before bed. Serums are fine to use, but again, they’re not an essential part of your skincare journey.

Should I use different serums day and night?

Generally speaking, applying a serum is okay at any time of day, be it day or night. But some face serums contain ingredients that can increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV radiation, such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)² like glycolic acid and lactic acid or retinol.³ When exposed to sunlight, your skin may be more likely to burn when wearing products with these ingredients. 

Other serums, with ingredients like hyaluronic acid or vitamin C, are marketed as night or day serums, but the truth is it really doesn’t matter—you can use products containing these ingredients whenever. For the record, neither hyaluronic acid nor vitamin C are known to make the skin more sensitive to the sun.

What does a night serum do?

Serums are marketed to treat or help prevent specific skin problems and blemishes. For example, to offset the signs of aging, a serum rich in hyaluronic acid can help hold onto the moisture in your skin,⁴ which can help improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

Night serums may be packed with many components, but what they actually do depends on the active ingredients. But take it from us—a few key aspects to every nighttime skincare routine are cleansing, applying treatment, and taking care to get your beauty sleep.

Active ingredients to use at night

Serums contain powerful active ingredients, and which night facial serum you choose depends on your skincare goals. So, here we’ll tell you about ingredient powerhouses you can use and which ones you should choose based on the results you want. 

AHAs are chemical exfoliants that can gently boost skin cell renewal. Over time, AHAs can improve the appearance of your skin’s texture, pigment, fine lines, and wrinkles.⁵ However, AHAs can leave your skin sensitive to UV radiation.⁶ That’s why AHAs make a great nighttime serum. Examples of AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and citric acid. 

Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A available over-the-counter to help address signs of aging. As an anti-aging ingredient, retinol promotes skin cell turnover, stimulates collagen production, and improves skin elasticity.⁷ Retinol also has anti-inflammatory properties, which can improve the symptoms of photoaging.⁸ Retinol is another ingredient that should be used only at night, as it can make skin more sensitive to the sun.⁹

Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3, is a powerful antioxidant that can improve the skin’s epidermal barrier function and help decrease hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and wrinkles.¹⁰ It works partly by increasing the synthesis of fats and other lipids that help form the natural skin barrier and maintain its strength and function.¹¹

Vitamin C is an antioxidant and free radical scavenger.¹² It helps protect the skin against sun damage, reduce the signs of aging, and even skin tone.¹³ A vitamin C serum can also help promote collagen formation, which can help improve the appearance of wrinkles.¹⁴ Vitamin C won’t increase photosensitivity, so it’s fine to also use during the day.

Hyaluronic acid (HA) retains water and is vital for maintaining the skin’s moisture.¹⁵ Hyaluronic acid serums have been shown to improve the appearance of wrinkles and roughness by increasing the skin’s hydration and moisture content.¹⁶ It’s great for sensitive skin, and like vitamin C, it won’t cause photosensitivity, so it’s also okay to use during the day.

Top night serum ingredient combinations

Of course, as dermatology providers, we have our favorite serums. But if you want to mix and match, here are some combinations to look for in a night serum:

  • Glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid gently exfoliate without drying out your skin. This combo tends to work well for any skin type

  • Retinol and niacinamide are a great combo to help improve skin texture and fade dark spots. 

  • Hyaluronic acid and vitamin C reduce signs of photoaging and boost hydration, which is ideal for people living in drier climates or harsh winter environments.

  • Hyaluronic acid and retinol can be a good option for those with dry skin looking for anti-aging benefits.

How to apply night serums

It’s common to wonder if you use a facial serum before or after moisturizer. The answer is: typically before! Face serum goes on after washing your face (and after applying toner if you use one), but before your moisturizer. Another way to remember is to apply your products from thinnest consistency to thickest. 

So, starting with a clean face, toner would be next in line (if you’re using one—it’s not necessary), followed by a serum. Finish with moisturizer, which is typically the richest (thickest) product you use. Don’t forget, during the day, you also need to apply sunscreen, which is your best anti-aging product. 

Here are a few other tips for applying serums.

  1. Apply at night. Ingredients in serums are fine to use day or night, except those that can make your skin sensitive to the sun such as AHAs and retinol.¹⁷ But if you’re looking to keep your serum usage as stress-free as possible, stick to using them at night and let them do their work while you sleep.  

  2. Use the right amount. This can vary from person to person. In general, use enough to spread a thin layer over your face. Remember, a little goes a long way, so start with just a few drops or one pump—about the size of a pea. 

  3. Lock in hydration. After applying serum, lock in hydration using a moisturizer for your skin type.  

  4. Be patient with results. It’s human nature to want results fast, but it takes time. Give yourself at least 4-6 weeks to start seeing results. Whatever you do, don’t give up.

Wondering if you can use a serum with your personalized Curology formula? You can! It's fine to use a serum once you’ve adjusted to your formula without dryness or irritation. A serum is optional but not necessary—it just depends on your skincare goals. For example, if you’re concerned about dark spots, you can add a vitamin C serum in the morning to help with dark spots and boost sun protection. When in doubt, consult your Curology provider for advice!

Our picks for best night serums

Tired of reading labels? Although we think you should always read the label of your skincare products, we’re here to share some helpful recommendations.

Here’s a list of 8 dermatology provider-approved face serums we recommend to our members (and here’s a link to 10 face serums under $30).

  1. Curology Dark Spot Serum: This serum features a unique blend of brightening niacinamide and our Discoloration Fading Complex, which includes glycolic acid, tranexamic acid, kojic acid, and licorice root extract. Together, this blend of ingredients helps visibly fade discoloration. 

  2. Carrot and Stick Repair Serum: This hydrating serum is formulated with hyaluronic acid. 

  3. The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% Exfoliating Serum: This option gently exfoliates and hydrates to improve visible signs of aging while reducing signs of inflammation and sensitivity associated with exfoliation. 

  4. Paula’s Choice Niacinamide 20% Treatment: This concentrated formula is used to visibly tighten and minimize the look of pores and rough bumps due to age and sun damage, helping to improve the appearance of blotchy skin tone and dark spots.  

  5. Olay Wrinkle Correction Serum: Full of peptides and niacinamide, this serum is formulated to help address signs of aging, like wrinkles. 

  6. Pixi Overnight Glow Serum: This nighttime serum helps brighten your complexion while you sleep. It’s also enriched with vitamins A, C, and E to help nourish and soothe your skin.

  7. Alpha-H Liquid Gold Midnight Reboot Serum: Glycolic acid and granactive retinoid in this serum work together to give your skin a plump, glowing appearance.

  8. Dermalogica Overnight Repair Serum: This formula contains argan oil, rose oil, and peptides to help fight signs of aging.

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FAQs

Which serum is best for nighttime?

Generally, any facial serum can be used in the morning or night. However, there are some serums that contain ingredients that may make your skin more sensitive to light, such as AHAs (glycolic or lactic acid)¹⁸ or retinol.¹⁹ These serums may be better to apply at night to reduce your chance of sunburn (and be sure to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day!).

Is it OK to use face serum at night?

Absolutely, you can use face serum at night. Most serums are versatile and can be applied either in the morning or evening. After cleansing your face, apply the serum and then follow up with a moisturizer to lock in the serum’s benefits and hydrate your skin.

What should I use at night for my face?

We’re big fans of a simple skincare routine—we think a gentle cleanser, your Curology custom treatment, and a rich moisturizer are all it takes at night. However, if you want, you can add in a night serum after your skin has had a few weeks to adjust to your treatment formula.

Is it necessary to apply moisturizer after serum at night?

Yes, it’s necessary to apply moisturizer after using a serum at night. Moisturizers play a crucial role in locking in hydration. Serums often contain humectants that hydrate the skin. However, in environments with less than 70% humidity, humectants can end up drawing water from the deeper layers of the skin.²⁰ This may actually end up making water loss and dry skin worse unless you use an occlusive moisturizer to stop it.²¹

Is night serum necessary for dry skin?

While night serums aren’t strictly necessary, they can be very beneficial for dry skin when they contain the right ingredients. Hyaluronic acid, for instance, is a humectant that excels in attracting and binding water to the skin. So, using a serum with hyaluronic acid may enhance the hydration of dry skin.²²

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Oyetakin-White, P., et al. Does Poor Sleep Quality Affect Skin Ageing? Clinical and Experimental Dermatology. (January 2015).

  2. Kornhauser, A., et al. The Effects of Topically Applied Glycolic Acid and Salicylic Acid on Ultraviolet Radiation-Induced Erythema, DNA Damage and Sunburn Cell Formation in Human Skin. Journal of Dermatology Science. (July 2009).

  3. Skin Cancer Foundation. When Beauty Products Cause Sun Sensitivity.Sun & Skin News. (2018, November 16).

  4. Harwood, A., et al. Moisturizers. StatPearls. (2022, August 21).

  5. Tang, S.C., et al. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. (April 2018).

  6. Tang, S.C., et al. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. Ibid.

  7. Zasada, M., et al. Retinoids: Active Molecules Influencing Skin Structure Formation in Cosmetic and Dermatological Treatments. Advances in Dermatology and Allergology. (August 2019).

  8. Oliveira, L.M., et al. Impact of Retinoic Acid on Immune Cells and Inflammatory Diseases. Mediators of Inflammation. (2018).

  9. Skin Cancer Foundation. When Beauty Products Cause Sun Sensitivity. Sun & Skin News. Ibid.

  10. Levin, J., et al. How Much Do We Really Know about Our Favorite Cosmeceutical Ingredients? Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (February 2010).

  11. Levin, J., et al. How Much Do We Really Know about Our Favorite Cosmeceutical Ingredients? Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. Ibid.

  12. Al-Niamimi, F., et al. Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (July 2017).

  13. Al-Niamimi, F., et al. Topical Vitamin C and the Skin: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Applications. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. Ibid.

  14. Pullar, J.M., et al. The Roles of Vitamin C in Skin Health. Nutrients. (August 2017).

  15. Jegasothy, S.M., et al. Efficacy of a New Topical Nano-hyaluronic Acid in Humans. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (March 2014).

  16. Jegasothy, S.M., et al. Efficacy of a New Topical Nano-hyaluronic Acid in Humans. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. Ibid.

  17. Skin Cancer Foundation. When Beauty Products Cause Sun Sensitivity.Sun & Skin News. Ibid.

  18. Tang, S.C., et al. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. Ibid.

  19. American Academy of Dermatology. Retinoid or Retinol?. (May 2021).

  20. Harwood, A., et al. Moisturizers. StatPearls. Ibid.

  21. Harwood, A., et al. Moisturizers. StatPearls. Ibid.

  22. Harwood, A., et al. Moisturizers. StatPearls. Ibid.

Maria Borowiec is a certified Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She received her Master in Nursing from University of California, Los Angeles in Los Angeles, CA.

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• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
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Curology Team

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Maria Borowiec, NB-BC

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