Whatever your approach to skincare, there are likely a few steps in your routine that you wouldn’t be without. Your cleanser, moisturiser and SPF are non-negotiable, but what about a serum? Skincare experts often wax lyrical about the benefits of serums, but what actually is a serum, and do you really need one in your life? We’re here to provide some clarity on this high-tech skin booster.
What is face serum?
Think of a serum as the powerhouse of a skin care regime. "A serum is highly concentrated and has biologically active substances to help accomplish specific goals," says Catherine Orentreich, M.D., a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist who serves as a guiding dermatologist for Clinique. Packed with potent and targeted active ingredients, serums are generally on a single mission, whether it's to reduce dark spots, boost your glow, smooth fine lines or tighten everything up a bit. That being said, some serums target multiple skin concerns in one power-packed formula, like our retinoid and peptide serum – Clinique Smart Clinical Repair™ Wrinkle Correcting Serum. In terms of texture, a serum is also lighter and thinner than most moisturisers, which allows it to quickly penetrate into the skin and work on a deeper level.
Do you need a moisturiser and a serum?
If your sole skincare concern is hydration, then a great moisturiser should suffice. However, if you have any specific skin concerns, such as dark spots, fine lines or dullness, then adding a serum to your routine is a good call. Using a serum and a moisturiser that contain complementary ingredients to tackle an issue is like delivering a one-two punch: you'll see results faster. Together, they're the ideal support group for your skin.
If a serum is more powerful than a moisturiser, do you even need a moisturiser?
In addition to all the potent problem-solving active ingredients in your serum, it may provide a certain level of hydration thanks to ingredients like hyaluronic acid, however it’s still a good idea to use a moisturiser too. Moisturisers help to round out your skincare routine, containing other healthy ingredients that your skin needs beyond battling your primary concern. Lastly, serums don't contain SPF because they are designed to go deep into your skin, while sun protection ingredients are supposed to stay on the upper layers to deal with those harmful UV rays.
Which do you apply first?
If you're wondering how to apply serum or how to use face serum, follow the rule of thumb when it comes to layering skin care: go from thinnest to thickest. Serum first, moisturiser second. You can use the same serum morning and night, but use a day cream with SPF and a night cream with more intensely hydrating, repairing ingredients.
When should you start using a serum?
It's not actually about age, it’s more about the condition of your skin. A serum is a targeted solution for a specific skin concern, so if there’s something you’d like to tackle, it’s a no-brainer. Face serum benefits depend on the active ingredients in the formula – for example, a vitamin C serum for face helps to brighten and even skin, whereas a retinol face serum helps to tackle signs of ageing. Thinking you need a power pair? Here are a few Clinique serum and moisturiser combos tailored to specific skin goals.
If your concern is: dark spots, dullness and uneven skin tone.
Start with Even Better Clinical™ Radical Dark Spot Corrector + Interrupter, a vitamin C serum which also features yeast extract and salicylic acid to help break up dark spots and reduce discolouration, while soothing gyokuro green tea extract, a potent antioxidant, quells irritation. "Salicylic acid is wonderful for promoting exfoliation," says Dr. Orentreich. Pair it with the NEW Even Better Clinical™ Brightening Moisturizer, which also contains salicylic acid, vitamin C and gyokuro green tea extract, alongside hyaluronic acid to hydrate, refine and improve the look of discoloration, dullness and redness. One more thing? Make sure you follow your moisturiser with a SPF in the daytime, as vitamin C and salicylic acid can make skin more sensitive to UV rays.
If your concern is: lines and wrinkles.
If you’re looking for something to address signs of ageing, try a retinol serum or a peptide serum – or find a multi-tasker like Clinique Smart Clinical Repair™ Wrinkle Correcting Serum which ticks both boxes, and then some. Our most advanced anti-ageing innnovative yet is packed with a peptide-rich complex to help boost skin's natural collagen production, plus a potent yet gentle retinoid to repair, resurface and smooth the skin (learn more in our guide to peptides in skincare and beginner's guide to retinoids). When your skin goal is to tackle signs of ageing, the right moisturiser plays a uniquely important role as hydration helps to plump up the look of lines and wrinkles. Combine our powerful anti-ageing serum with Clinique Smart Clinical Repair™ Wrinkle Correcting Cream morning and night to double down on the hydrating, strengthening goodness of hyaluronic acid and peptides. Always follow your morning moisturiser with SPF 50 when using retinoids, as they can make skin more sensitive to sun damage.
If your concern is: dehydration and lack of radiance.
It’s time to make this refreshing duo part of your routine. Start with the antioxidant-infused Moisture Surge™ Hydrating Supercharged Concentrate. This hydrating hyaluronic acid serum for the face also contains encapsulated vitamins C & E and activated aloe vera water to help quench dehydrated skin with an intense boost of moisture. This is a great face serum for glowing skin, even more so when layered with oil-free Moisture Surge™ 100H Auto-Replenishing Hydrator. Powered by moisture-binding hyaluronic acid, aloe vera bio-ferment and vitamins C & E, Moisture Surge helps skin create its own internal water source to continually rehydrate itself, locking in moisture for a plump, healthy-looking glow.
If your concern is: breakouts and blackheads.
You need something gentle yet powerful to help clear, treat and prevent those pesky breakouts. Anti-Blemish Solutions Blemish + Line Correcting Serum is a hydrating formula with salicylic acid that clears and treats without drying skin. Plus, it has potent anti-ageing ingredients like whey protein and peptides to help target the look of lines and wrinkles. Clearer, smoother, younger-looking skin? It’s a win-win. The lightweight, oil-free formula also makes this a great serum for oily skin. Follow up with Anti-Blemish Solutions All-Over Clearing Treatment, a lightweight hydrator with salicylic acid, witch hazel and green-tea extract to help treat blemishes, soothe skin and reduce redness.
Want to learn more about the benefits of serums? Join us at an expert-led Skin School session where you’ll get a customised routine to help you meet your skin goals. Enjoy a 1:1 session or invite your friends.
Words: Kristen Bateman with Dr. Catherine Orentreich M.D., board-certified dermatologist.