No matter what skin issue that you're looking to treat—whether it's dryness, dullness or the signs of aging—there's a face serum for that.
As lightweight liquids, face serums are the best way to get active ingredients into your skin. Not only are they highly concentrated, but they also sink in quickly, since they're not weighed down by heavy emollients. That also makes them easy to layer underneath a cream, oil, sunscreen or foundation.
All you need to do is decide which one(s) will be best for your skin—and this guide can help.
Here's how to navigate the hundreds of serums out there, plus my top product picks for every skin concern and skin type.
What to Look for in a Face Serum
While each formula will vary, face serums that are packed with beneficial actives—and are free of potentially irritating, comedogenic and unstable ingredients—are going to be the best for your skin.
Here's what I look for:
- High in key ingredients: As you're reading labels, make sure the serum contains the key ingredients that will deliver the results you're after. For example, if it's hydration, you'll want to see humectants such as aloe, glycerin and hyaluronic acid. If it's brightening, there should be actives like vitamin C and niacinamide. Use my list below as a guide for which ingredients offer which benefits—and remember that the first five typically represent about 80% of a product.
- Low in fragrance: It's the number one skin irritant, so it should be listed at the end of the ingredients list, or even better, not in the formula at all.
- Low in silicone: As an occlusive, film-forming ingredient, silicone can impede the absorption of active ingredients from your serum. It can also trap acne-causing debris, slow down cell renewal and cause pilling under other products.
- Low in oil: Rather than penetrating, oil tends to sit on top of your skin and form a barrier, which can prevent other ingredients from getting in. Plus, if it is unsaturated, it can oxidize quickly and generate free radicals that age your skin.
- Has a preservative: All water-based products need a preservative system to prevent bacterial growth.
The Best Face Serums of 2021
For Hydrating and Plumping: ClarityRx Daily Dose of Water Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Serum
- Details: ClarityRx Daily Dose of Water Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Serum is one of the best hyaluronic acid-based serums on the market. With only four ingredients—and no fragrance, oils or silicones—it binds moisture to your skin for instant plumping and hydration. The texture is light and fluid, and it feels completely weightless on your skin.
- Key ingredient: Hyaluronic acid.
- Best for: Hydrating, plumping.
For Hydrating: Consonant HydrExtreme
- Details: Consonant HydrExtreme is another hydrating serum I recommend, and it's powered not by hyaluronic acid but a naturally-derived sugar. In a double-blind clinical study, it actually outperformed the leading hyaluronic acid serum both immediately and after 24 hours. It goes on light and watery, is made with just two ingredients, and is fragrance-free, oil-free and silicone-free.
- Key ingredients: Cassia angustifolia seed polysaccharide, glycerin.
- Best for: Hydrating.
For Antioxidant Protection, Anti-Aging and Brightening: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic
- Details: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is the gold standard vitamin C serum, made with active L-ascorbic acid. What makes it so special? It's backed by a patent as well as extensive peer-reviewed studies that attest to its stability and efficacy. As an antioxidant, not only does it protect your skin from aging free radicals, it also helps to repair sun damage, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and brighten dullness.
- Key ingredients: 15% L-ascorbic acid, 1% vitamin E, 0.5% ferulic acid.
- Best for: Antioxidant protection, anti-aging, brightening.
For Brightening and Hydrating: Summer Fridays CC Me Serum
- Details: Summer Fridays CC Me Serum is all about brightening your skin and evening out tone with three gentle but effective vitamins. They include two vitamin C derivatives—which are more stable and less irritating than L-ascorbic acid—plus vitamin B3 (niacinamide). With its slightly thicker texture, it's more hydrating than most serums, and is also free of silicones.
- Key ingredients: Niacinamide, vitamin C (ethyl ascorbic acid and ascorbyl glucoside), squalane, peptides.
- Best for: Brightening, hydrating.
For Fading Pigmentation: SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense
- Details: SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense is your best bet for stubborn dark spots, brown patches and post-acne marks. It contains not just one but four active ingredients that are clinically proven to fight discolourations. It's also fragrance-free, silicone-free, non-greasy and non-irritating.
- Key ingredients: 5% niacinamide, 5% HEPES (sulfonic acid), 3% tranexamic acid, 1% kojic acid.
- Best for: Fading pigmentation, brightening.
For Resurfacing: Biossance Squalane + Lactic Acid Resurfacing Night Serum
- Details: Biossance Squalane + Lactic Acid Resurfacing Night Serum is a leave-on exfoliating serum that's gentle enough to use every night. It uses a high concentration of lactic acid to dissolve dead skin cells and smooth rough texture, while squalane (not silicone) soothes and prevents irritation. No wonder it's the brand's number one bestseller.
- Key ingredients: 10% lactic acid, squalane, glycerin.
- Best for: Resurfacing, brightening.
For Clarifying: Versed Just Breathe Clarifying Serum
- Details: Versed Just Breathe Clarifying Serum helps to keep pores clean, soothe redness and control excess oil for a clear and calm complexion. Gentle enough to use day and night, it contains a cocktail of the best clarifying ingredients (like BHAs and zinc) in a light and watery serum. And it won't irritate or congest your skin, since it's made without fragrance and silicone.
- Key ingredients: Niacinamide, willow bark extract, zinc, salicylic acid.
- Best for: Clarifying, controlling oil, calming.
For Clarifying, Brightening and Anti-Aging: iS Clinical Active Serum
- Details: iS Clinical Active Serum is a cult-favourite serum that's loaded with active botanicals to help with an array of skin concerns. It's got natural sources of glycolic, lactic and salicylic acids to gently exfoliate, soften wrinkles and deep-clean pores. Plus there's arbutin and mushroom for brightening and evening out tone. Although it's free of fragrance, oil and silicone, it does contain alcohol to enhance penetration, which may be drying—so be sure to follow up with your favourite hydrator(s).
- Key ingredients: Sugarcane extract, bilberry extract, willow bark extract, arbutin, mushroom extract.
- Best for: Clarifying, brightening, anti-aging.
For Clearing and Preventing Acne: Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum
- Details: Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum is a gel-like serum that both treats active acne as well as prevents future breakouts. It does so with salicylic acid, the most effective acne-fighting ingredient, which unclogs pores and reduces inflammation. At a 0.75% concentration, it's gentler than most acne products on the market, and is packed with moisturizing humectants (not silicones).
- Key ingredients: 0.75% salicylic acid, aloe, willow bark extract, vitamin B5 (panthenol).
- Best for: Clearing and preventing acne.
For Controlling Oil: The Inkey List Niacinamide
- Details: The Inkey List Niacinamide isn't your typical mattifying serum. Instead of just absorbing excess oil, it actually helps to reduce the amount of sebum your skin excretes, using a high dose of niacinamide. I can attest that it really does work, while simultaneously hydrating with lightweight humectants. It's also fragrance-free and silicone-free, with a silky texture.
- Key ingredients: 10% niacinamide, 1% hyaluronic acid, glycerin, squalane.
- Best for: Controlling oil, brightening, hydrating.
For Minimizing Pores: Paula’s Choice Niacinamide 20% Treatment
- Details: Paula's Choice Niacinamide 20% Treatment is a total game-changer if you struggle with large, stretched-out pores; hardened, under-the-skin clogs; or rough, orange-peel texture. It boasts the highest-ever concentration of niacinamide to normalize pore function and restore smoothness. Plus, it's fragrance-free, oil-free and silicone-free.
- Key ingredients: 20% niacinamide, glycerin, acetyl glucosamine, vitamin C (ascorbyl glucoside).
- Best for: Minimizing pores, brightening, controlling oil.
For Anti-Aging: Osmosis MD Renew Advanced Retinal Serum
- Details: Osmosis MD Renew Advanced Retinal Serum is ideal if you're looking to treat fine lines and wrinkles without experiencing the harsh side effects associated with most retinoids. It's formulated with retinaldehyde, which is more potent than retinol but less likely to irritate. I love its non-greasy gel-cream texture, and the fact that it's silicone-free.
- Key ingredients: 0.15% retinaldehyde, niacinamide, peptides, hyaluronic acid.
- Best for: Anti-aging.
For Anti-Aging and Clearing Acne: Shani Darden Retinol Reform
- Details: Shani Darden Retinol Reform gives you the benefits of retinol without the usual dryness, irritation or questionable ingredients (it's fragrance-free, oil-free and silicone-free). That makes it ideal for retinoid beginners as well as anyone who is experiencing the first signs of aging. It also helps with breakouts by speeding up cell turnover, and is bolstered by lactic acid, which gently exfoliates. See my in-depth review here.
- Key ingredients: 2.2% encapsulated retinol, 2% lactic acid.
- Best for: Anti-aging, clearing and preventing acne.
For Calming and Hydrating: COSRX Propolis Light Ampoule
- Details: COSRX Propolis Light Ampoule harnesses the power of propolis (also known as bee glue) to soothe sensitivity, reduce redness, calm inflammation and promote skin repair. But that's not all—it's also mega-hydrating, with a viscous texture that doesn't feel sticky or greasy. (When I wear it, I can easily skip moisturizer.) This serum is free of fragrance, oil and silicone as well.
- Key ingredients: 83% propolis extract, glycerin, hyaluronic acid.
- Best for: Calming, hydrating.
For Barrier Repair: Skin Inc Supplement Bar Ceramide Serum
- Details: Skin Inc Supplement Bar Ceramide Serum rescues skin that has become dry and sensitized due to a damaged barrier. It repairs with four different types of ceramides in a base of lightweight humectants (instead of the rich emollients they're normally combined with). It's non-greasy, silicone-free and fragrance-free, and you can either wear it alone or mix it with other serums.
- Key ingredients: Glycerin, ceramides.
- Best for: Barrier repair.
For Sun Protection: EleVen by Venus Unrivaled Sun Serum SPF 35
- Details: EleVen by Venus Unrivaled Sun Serum SPF 35 is unlike any sunscreen you've tried before. This breakthrough innovation gives your skin the highest possible broad-spectrum protection with only mineral ingredients, but in a silky serum that looks and feels invisible on your skin. That means there's no white cast, even on dark skin tones. It's also fragrance-free and silicone-free.
- Key ingredient: 25% zinc oxide.
- Best for: Sun protection.
For Priming: ILIA True Skin Radiant Priming Serum
- Details: ILIA True Skin Radiant Priming Serum is a light, fluid serum that doubles as a silicone-free makeup primer. Not only does it create a smooth base for makeup application—without the usual silicones—it mattifies, tightens and blurs imperfections, too. It's also oil-free and fragrance-free, and made with only clean ingredients. You just need need to give it two minutes to set before applying makeup on top.
- Key ingredients: Aloe, gluconolactone, glycerin, fractionated coconut oil, mastic gum.
- Best for: Priming.
For a Splurge: Victoria Beckham by Augustinus Bader Cell Rejuvenating Power Serum
- Details: Victoria Beckham by Augustinus Bader Cell Rejuvenating Power Serum offers the most potent dose of TFC-8, the cocktail of amino acids, vitamins and anti-aging molecules found in Augustinus Bader's sought-after skincare range. As such, it strengthens the skin barrier, protects from pollution and blue light, brightens and hydrates—all without fragrance, oils or silicones. If you're looking for a real multitasker and are willing to splurge, this could be right up your alley.
- Key ingredients: Niacinamide, TFC-8, vitamin B5 (panthenol), hyaluronic acid.
- Best for: Anti-aging, brightening, hydrating.
For a Bargain: Timeless Hyaluronic Acid
- Details: Timeless Hyaluronic Acid is one of the most budget-friendly serums on the market—and yet, it's also one of the most effective. With just four ingredients in total, it contains a high concentration of hyaluronic acid to hydrate all skin types. It's also fragrance-free, oil-free and silicone-free. Because it is so minimalistic and of high molecular weight, it's my go-to serum after microneedling.
- Key ingredients: 1% hyaluronic acid.
- Best for: Hydrating, plumping.
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