• Dawn Naylor BS, RN, MSN, ACNP

What is a face serum? Do I need one? This will be a several part series. Part 1.

There is so much misinformation out there I wanted to create a resource for you that has research-based information on skincare and health topics. I often see clients wasting their money on products that either does not work or they are layering them incorrectly which leads to ineffectiveness. My goal is to break down skincare products in separate blogs then tie it all together in the end with basic recommendations. We have now created a service at Skin Esteem Med Spa called Skin Care Regime in which you can bring in all your products and a licensed derm nurse/nurse practitioner or physician assistant will assess your skin and review if you are using correct products/layering correctly.


Serums: What are they and do I need one? This is a question that I get asked frequently so I thought I'd help demystify the topic.

The biggest difference between a serum and a cream or lotion is what the formulation doesn't include. Serums leave out occlusive, or airtight, moisturizing ingredients such as petrolatum or mineral oil that keep water from evaporating. They also contain fewer lubricating and thickening agents, like nut or seed oils. Most serums are water-based, eliminating oils altogether.


If you think of your nightly skincare routine as a three-course meal, the serum is kind of like the main course. After kicking things off with an appetizer (e.g. cleansing your face), and before treating yourself to dessert (e.g. a nourishing moisturizer), you fill up on all the important nutrients (e.g. serum). Ok, it's close to dinner time and I'm clearly getting hungry :). Serums in general are NOT moisturizers.


"Serums are skin care products that are designed to deliver high concentrations of specific active ingredients to the skin. There are many different types of serums on the market that perform different jobs, ranging from hydration to skin brightening."

Reference: Dr. Joshua Zeichner, board-certified dermatologist, and director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital's department of dermatology.


Most often, serums are clear, gel-based, or liquid, and they tend to be less thick than a moisturizer. They are typically applied before moisturizers to help lock in moisture.


Hydrating serums do not necessarily replace your moisturizer but can boost the hydrating effects of your moisturizer. A serum will typically contain topical antioxidants including vitamins A, C, and E. They may also contain growth factors, peptides, and or stem cells (see earlier blog). Another popular serum is hyaluronic acid. My favorite serums combine most of these ingredients. They are pricier; however, you don't need to layer several products.


“Often, a serum is able to hydrate more effectively than even the heaviest creams. The molecules are able to truly penetrate the skin and hydrate on the deepest level, while the heavier creams more so sit on those top layers."

The key is to look for serums that deliver growth factors and or peptides (or both), antioxidants, and hydration (hyaluronic acid). They can deliver a concentrated dose of nutrients, and when applied on just-cleaned skin, the serum will penetrate more deeply. You should use a serum all over your face and neck twice daily. Use once in the morning and then again in the evening. Be sure to use BEFORE your moisturizer! Certain brands recommend your serum goes on last if they have a larger molecule size (i.e ZO growth factor, Neocutis Reactive Vitamin C).


Everyone's skin is different, but on average, you should give it about seven weeks to see how your skin responds to a new serum routine.


Most popular serums (all carried at Skin Esteem in spa/online store):

  • Anti-aging serum-Neocutis Bio Serum Firm, Skin Medica TNS advanced (My top pick is Bio Serum Firm: the Holy Grail, anyone over 40 should be on)

  • Antioxidant serum-Vit C E Ferulic, Retinol/Retinoid (anyone over 30 should be on this and anti-aging serum, stay tuned for Retinol/Retinoid blog).

  • Hydrating serums-Neocutis Hyalis, Skincueticlas HA intensifier (best for dry skin. More affordable option for those that can't afford the "Holy Grail" serums).

So how do I use a serum?


Don't be intimidated, this is the easy part. After cleansing your face, use a toner if you have oily skin (stay tuned for a blog on toners). You can apply when the skin is dry or moist. If your skin is moist it may dilute product a bit; however, it makes product go a bit farther. It is really expensive so I typically recommend putting on moist on nights you are NOT using retinol. On retinol nights I put on dry after my retinol dries. Apply a pea-sized amount of serum, patting it evenly on your skin with your fingers to face and neck. For medical-grade products, you only need a tiny amount because it is abundant with active ingredients. Note, on nights you are using your retinol (put on while skin is dry to avoid irritation) this typically goes on first followed by your serum.

However, if you have sensitive skin dermatologists often recommend you mix the retinol with either your serum or moisturizer. At night, I like to apply retinol first, then serum, then moisturizer.


Vitamin C-in in most cases you will use during daytime only. CE ferulic is applied after you cleanse, and tone. Then add moisturizer, then SPF. Note, Neocutis Reactive and ZO vitamin c go on last as it contains SPF and anti pollutants (seals skin). So, you may need to check with your skincare specialist as to the proper order of product application. ***We do use Vit C twice daily for some but we work patients up to this.


But wait! I have sensitive skin...


If you have sensitive skin, wait for 10 to 15 minutes after washing your face before using the serum. This will give your skin the time it needs to dry and rest from the cleansing it just received.

"When your skin is damp, applying a water-based product is more likely to lead to irritation. Allowing your skin to dry can help."

You don't need to skip the moisturizer you love! Just be sure to pat on your serum first, so it isn't blocked from penetrating your skin.


Is your serum too pricey for twice-a-day use?


Many serums can be expensive so here's a trick to get some of the benefits but keep the cost down. Use the serum as a booster either in the morning or evening by adding a couple of drops to your moisturizer. Put on moist as noted above (exception retinol and sensitive skin).


The bottom line, a serum is really important to incorporate into your skincare plan especially for those thirty years old and over. Still, confused? There is a lot of information out there and a lot of different product options. I like to personally develop an individualized skin care regime for each patient. I try to make the plan affordable, easy to use, and address key skincare concerns. My regime for someone with acne and rosacea will be different than someone who has melasma and is pregnant. You can book a Skin Care Regime consult or email/dm me with questions. We like to write down your regime and have you keep it on your counter near your products. This stuff is expensive and it is so common that clients don't see results because they are layering products incorrectly or using the wrong products for their particular skincare concerns.


In my upcoming blogs, I will further describe antioxidants and hyaluronic acids, retinoids/retinol, and how to layer the most common products. I will eventually do a separate blog post on moisturizers. Other upcoming topics include melasma, rosacea, acne, and pregnancy skincare tips. I hope this was helpful and please let me know if you have any questions.


Ready to get started on a skin care plan?

If you want to establish a skin care plan or need help addressing your skincare goals, we'd love to hear from you! Book a complimentary teleconsult or book a Skin Care Regime consult (Bring your products with you to your appointment).


Everyone is unique. We believe taking the time to understand your goals and conducting an assessment will help establish a realistic and achievable skincare plan for our clients.



We also have some fall specials taking place so be sure to take advantage of some amazing treatments at a special discount! Until my next blog post, stay healthy and safe everyone!


All appointments can be booked online on our website. Book Appointment


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