Face serums 101

Face serums: what they are, if you need them, and some of our favorites

5 minute read

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We’re here to tell you what we know, but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider about your specific health concerns.

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So what are face serums?

Face serums are having a moment. But what exactly are they? And with all the options to choose from nowadays, where do you start? 

Face serums are lightweight, topical skincare products made to deliver powerful ingredients straight into the skin. They’re typically concentrated with active ingredients, so they’re often intended to target specific skin concerns. 

As for where to start—you can start right here! This guide will take you through the ins and outs of face serums and help you decide if you really need one in your skincare routine.

Do you really need a face serum?

Short answer: no. But serums can be a great supplement in your routine, depending on what ingredients they contain. Shelf space is precious—so here’s what to keep in mind when deciding if serums have a place on yours.

Serums won’t replace your heavier moisturizer. Serums can hydrate your skin, but probably not enough to completely replace your thicker, richer moisturizers. They’re great for layering, though—so if you have super dry skin, using a hydrating serum in addition to a heavy moisturizer might help.

Some serums might not play well with others. Don’t go filling up your shopping cart just yet. Make sure you pay attention to the ingredients in each product; adding too many active ingredients to your routine at the same time can lead to irritation.

Face serums are great, but they won’t replace your whole routine. They’re meant to be supplemental, so it’s still important to stick with your core routine (including your Custom Formula). Serums and other products can be added to your routine depending on your skin goals, but they aren’t necessary.

Face Serums Guide

Popular face serums and what they do

Vitamin C

Not to be confused with the type you consume, vitamin C (aka ascorbic acid) is actually quite a popular topical skincare ingredient. It has some cool benefits, like stimulating collagen production (which boosts firmness and reduces fine lines), decreasing hyperpigmentation, and neutralizing free radicals. Antioxidant serums with vitamin C are especially popular for protecting from and helping improve the effects of sun damage. Say hello to glow!

Hyaluronic acid

How do you dew? Hyaluronic acid is one of the best ingredients for deep, deep hydration. It’s a humectant, which means it draws moisture from both the air and deeper layers of the skin, helping your skin absorb that moisture more effectively. And it helps all skin types, not just dry skin! Since it’s so deeply hydrating, it’s especially popular for helping improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.


While ingredients like tretinoin are only accessible with a prescription from a medical provider, you can find their gentler retinoid cousins in some over-the-counter serums. Retinoid ingredients (like retinol, retinyl palmitate, and retinal) aren’t quite as powerful as their prescription counterparts, but they can still provide anti-aging effects. Much like tretinoin, over-the-counter retinoids work by helping clear your old skin cells to make way for new ones. Over time, they can help fade dark spots, even out skin tone, and improve fine lines.


If you’re looking for a heavy skincare lifter, niacinamide is your ingredient. Niacinamide—a form of vitamin B3—is an extensively researched ingredient that both heals and fortifies the skin, thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s been shown to fight fine lines and wrinkles, redness, and especially dark spots, which makes it a top pick for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, sun damage, and mild forms of acne. It also helps boost skin elasticity, which means plumper and more supple skin. And as if this résumé wasn’t amazing enough already, there’s also some evidence that suggests topical niacinamide may decrease sebum, or oil—so if you’re concerned about excess oil on some parts of your face, this might be a great pick for you!

Where do face serums fit into a skincare routine?

The consistency of a serum is on the thinner side, so your best bet is to apply your serum after washing your face and before any thicker moisturizers. Most serums can be applied both day and night, but that can vary depending on what active ingredients they contain. Retinol, for example, may cause sun sensitivity and should only be used at nighttime. 

Since serums tend to have a non-greasy finish, most skin types can find ones that work for them. But some contain active ingredients that can cause sensitivity, so it’s best to start slowly! (We know—hard to do when you’re excited about a shiny new product.) You can start using your serums more and more as your skin tolerates them, but a good rule of thumb is to use your best judgment and give your skin time to adjust.

5 Curology-approved serums

1. e.l.f. Beauty Shield Vitamin C Pollution Prevention Serum

A lightly hydrating serum with pomegranate extract, hyaluronic acid, and antioxidants.  Layer it with your sunscreen in the morning for a boost of protection against UV rays.

$16.00 (0.95 oz) via e.l.f.

2. SkinCeuticals C+ AHA

A two-in-one daytime serum that exfoliates skin and helps neutralize free radicals. It combines the effects of pure vitamin C with glycolic acid to improve overall glow and help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

$136.00 (1 oz) via SkinCeuticals

3. The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA

A hydrating serum with hyaluronic acid in the form of sodium hyaluronate, plus other lightly moisturizing ingredients like glycerin and allantoin. It’s a non-greasy, non-comedogenic formula—perfect for oily skin.

$5.80 (1 oz) via The Ordinary

4. The Inkey List Hyaluronic Acid Serum

One of the best hyaluronic acid serums for the price, formulated with glycerin and butylene glycol for extra moisture. A great option for aging skin that will leave skin looking plump and hydrated.

$7.99 (1 oz) via The Inkey List

5. No7 Protect & Perfect Intense Advanced Serum

If you’re looking for a great anti-aging serum for sensitive skin, this one contains vitamin C (in the form of sodium ascorbyl phosphate) and hyaluronic acid (in the form of sodium hyaluronate), plus retinyl palmitate, which can also help with anti-aging concerns like fine lines and dark spots.

$29.99 (1 oz) via No7 Beauty 

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to your Curology provider. If you’re not already a Curology member, you can get your first month of custom prescription skincare for free* (just pay $4.95 to cover shipping and handling).

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.

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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