A solid skin routine contains a few essentials: A great cleanser, a hydrating moisturizer, and, of course, a sunscreen. Those are the basics. The bare bones. The fundamentals, if you will. But then—then there’s the always-expanding world of the best serums. The pool of products that can actually take your skin to the next level, address your concerns, and elevate your entire routine. “Serums absorb into the skin quickly and deeply and are able to effectively deliver active ingredients to the skin,” explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Hadley King. “The active ingredients contained in a serum are concentrated and the thin viscosity of the serum allows for skin penetration of optimum effectiveness in a shorter amount of time.”
Now, the active ingredients are going to vary—extensively. Some serums will be focused on hydration with hyaluronic acid, peptides, and ceramides at the forefront. Others will be laser-focused on specific skin concerns. Think: salicylic acid for acne; niacinamide for skin tone; vitamin C for an antioxidant boost. Even though serums can be game-changing, they can also be confusing. Which one is the best? How many should I use? Which one goes on first? To clear up any confusion and find out which serums reign supreme, keep scrolling.
What to Look For in a Face Serum
Well, it depends. “There are some ingredients that will be helpful for most skin types. For example, hyaluronic acid will hydrate the skin, niacinamide helps improve tone, texture, and moisture, and antioxidants help to protect the skin from damage from free radicals,” says Dr. King. You really can’t go wrong with any of the above. Other serums, however, are going to be much more treatment focused and designed with specific skin types in mind. “Serums for oily skin will have oil-absorbing ingredients like niacinamide, zinc, and lactic acid to minimize pore size and reduce sebum,” explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Karen Hammerman. “Serums for dry skin will have hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and panthenol which draw in moisture. Acne-prone skin serums have salicylic acid, an exfoliant to help unclog the pores, and azelaic acid which eliminates p. acnes bacteria.”
Dr. King adds that in addition to skin type, you may want to take specific concerns into consideration while choosing the best serum for you. “Someone wanting to address skin aging may want a serum that contains retinol; someone wanting to address sun damage by exfoliating may want a serum that contains lactic acid; someone wanting to address dark spots may want a serum that contains niacinamide, antioxidants, kojic acid, licorice root extract, or tranexamic acid,” she says.
How to Layer Serums
Hands down, this is one of the most asked questions in the beauty world. Thankfully, the answer is pretty simple. “Skincare products should be applied thickest to thinnest,” explains Dr. Hammerman. So you’ll cleanse, apply your serum(s)—a watery hyaluronic acid serum would go on before a more creamy lactic acid serum—and then lock it in with a moisturizer. So long as you follow that rule, all the active ingredients should be able to penetrate the skin.
How Many Serums Should I Use?
There’s no hard and fast number to stick to, but it’s probably smart to keep things on the tamer side. “It is okay to use a few serums at a time and I would not say that there is a number as to how many serums you can use, but it is important not to overdo it,” says Dr. Hammerman. “This can happen with serums containing alpha hydroxy acids like lactic acid and glycolic acid and also with retinol serums. Too much of these ingredients can cause irritation, redness, burning, and breakouts.”
You also might have to contend with pilling, a.k.a. little balls of product that roll off the surface of the skin, if you use too many layers of product. “Pilling is one of my pet peeves because it makes me feel like I'm wasting valuable skincare products,” says Dr. King. “Some serums can be layered, but I personally think it's simpler to find one that addresses your concerns.”
The Best Face Serums
- The Best Vitamin C Serum: Skinceuticals CE Ferulic (opens in new tab)
- The Best Acne-Fighting Serum: iS Clinical Active Serum (opens in new tab)
- The Best Anti-Aging Serum: SkinMedica TNS+ Advanced Serum (opens in new tab)
- The Best Hydrating Serum: Trish McEvoy Beauty Booster Serum (opens in new tab)
- The Best Retinol Serum: Sunday Riley A+ High Dose Retinoid Serum (opens in new tab)
The Best Vitamin C Serum
“Considered to be the gold standard vitamin C product, this serum combines vitamin C, ferulic acid, and vitamin E. Vitamin C is used to address hyperpigmentation and dullness,” says Dr. Hammerman. “Ferulic acid is an antioxidant from plants that works synergistically with vitamins C and E. This serum helps protect the skin from environmental damage and softens the appearance of fine lines.” The results are pretty unbelievable, which is why this little guy has achieved cult-favorite status. The catch? There’s a pretty strong smell.
Pros: Stabilized vitamin C; Brightening; Antioxidant Protection
The Best Serum for Anti-Aging
If fine lines, wrinkles, and loss of volume land on your list of skin concerns, I promise you want Formulyst on your radar. The London-based company workshopped a serum that leverages the anti-aging powers of plant-based epidermal growth factor, a protein found naturally in the skin. “This is a hydrating anti-aging serum with a powerful combination of five peptides bio-engineered from plant stem cells,” explains Dr. Hammerman. “Peptides then help with collagen stimulation, which improves the skin’s firmness and elasticity. It helps to make skin softer, smoother, and minimizes the appearance of fine lines.”
Pros: Hydrating; Anti-aging
The Best Serum for a Dewy Glow
“It contains glycerin, lactic acid, hyaluronic acid, and polyglutamic acid—all humectants that help create an immediate plumping effect that makes the skin look younger and smoother. Hyaluronic acid gets absorbed deeper than polyglutamic acid because polyglutamic acid has a larger molecule size—so the result is hydration at different levels,” says Dr. King. “And it also contains shea oil, which helps to lock in moisture, but it doesn't overall feel oily. It has a very subtle iridescence, not enough to look shiny or glittery, but enough to make the skin look luminous.”
Pros: Multi-benefit; Glowy finish; Plumping
Cons: Some reviewers say it made them break out
The Best Serum for Dark Spots
“For dark spots, I recommend this serum, which is formulated for melanin-rich skin. It contains pro-retinol to help reduce dark spots, as well as niacinamide, which helps to even skin tone and smooth skin texture,” explains Dr. King. “It also contains hexylresorcinol, which helps to brighten skin, as well as vitamin E.” While you might think that a serum with so many powerful actives would be drying, I promise this is just the opposite. It leaves skin supple and hydrated.
Pros: Brightens dark spots; Evens skin tone and texture
Cons: Can feel oily
The Best Serum Overall
“This dermatologist favorite is formulated with a potent blend of growth factors to help smooth and reduce appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Tiffany Libby. While it is ideal for more mature skin types, I’m a firm believer that it’s a worthwhile addition for anyone’s skincare routine. With continued use, it’s brightened my overall complexion, created a firmer appearance, and given my skin a smoother, more even texture. Everything just looks better.
Pros: Anti-aging; Smoother; Brightening
The Best Brightening Serum
“This lightweight, elegant vitamin C serum combines three effective forms of vitamin C: L-ascorbic acid, tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, and sodium ascorbyl phosphate. Together, they deliver antioxidant protection, brighten skin, and help support collagen production for smooth and radiant skin,” explains Dr. Libby. The serum, in addition to having Ciara’s stamp of approval, manages to side-swipe the tacky texture and intense smell traditionally associated with vitamin C serums. Instead, it absorbs quickly and leaves a glowy veil on the skin. Another pro? This highly active brightening serum is buffered by a hydrating and soothing peptide complex, making it a great option for sensitive skin types.
Pros: Brightening; Silky Texture
Cons: Some dislike the orange scent
The Best Azelaic Acid Serum
In my humble opinion, azelaic acid is one of the most underrated ingredients in existence. It’s a miracle worker for rosacea (it helps with inflammation and redness), balances oil production (it’s great for dry and oily skin), gently exfoliates, fights melasma—I could go on. While some OTC and prescription products can be irritating, this Naturium product uses a derivative that plays down the negative side effects and amps up the benefits. And the price point quite literally can’t be beat.
Pros: Multi-benefit; Oil control; Affordable
Cons: Might cause redness or sensitivity at the start
The Best Serum for Dehydrated Skin
Can’t get your skin to cooperate? Be it redness, irritation, or breakouts, it’s a safe bet that your skin barrier is on the struggle bus. In addition to keeping your routine simple and using a great moisturizer, give this serum a go. It’s designed to target irritation, fine lines, and uneven tone in an uber-gentle, no-frills manner. In addition to a slew of powerful peptide complexes and soothing ingredients, the serum also features four percent niacinamide, which helps even out skin texture.
Pros: Calming; Good for irritated skin
Cons: Bottle doesn’t last long
The Best Retinol Serum
I’ve gone on and on and on about the importance of using a retinoid. The anti-aging benefits! The acne prevention! The even skin tone! If you’re looking for an over-the-counter option that delivers on its promises, try this Sunday Riley option. It features a blend of different retinoids and retinol alternatives to speed up cellular turnover and keep pores clear of acne-causing gunk. Then, because retinol can be drying, the serum is buffered with a range of soothing and calming ingredients such as ginger and cactus extract.
Pros: Smoothing; Brightening; Anti-aging; Good for acne
Cons: Has a smell; Might be drying
The Best Neck Serum
Some words of wisdom: Don’t forget to treat your neck. That skin is much more fragile and thin than the skin on your face, and as a result, is going to be one of the first places you’ll spot signs of aging. To counteract the effects of time (and gravity), incorporate this powerful and wildly effective serum into your daily routine. Powered by firming peptides, a tightening complex, and a CoQ10 delivery system, this luxe serum will tighten, lift, and boost collagen around the neck area. The results are wild—but you will have to wait eight weeks to see the full effect.
Pros: Lifting; Firming; Hydrating
Cons: Some report pilling
The Best Luxe Serum
Cult-favorite and holy grail accurately describe this highly effective serum, which is ideal for irritated skin. It leverages the brand’s infamous Miracle Broth, which puts the skin in a state ripe for repair, with an antioxidant-rich compound and soothing agents. In return, the skin is more hydrated, more balanced, and generally calmer and happier. It’s recommended to use this product twice a day, but the results are pretty fast-acting. If you don’t plan on keeping this as an integral part of your routine, toss it in a few weeks before a big event.
Pros: Hydrating; Anti-Aging; Calming
The Best Serum for Skin Texture
An essence-serum hybrid, this product is famed for being a transformative skincare step. The water-like, J-Beauty solution is loaded with upwards of 50 micronutrients, including a range of minerals, vitamins, proteins, and gentle acids. Its most notable ingredient is called PITERA (yes, the capitalization is necessary), which is essentially a derivative of fermented yeast. While it doesn’t necessarily sound like the sexiest technology, I promise the results will put your jaw on the floor. Your pores will look tighter, your skin brighter, and your complexion will feel so much smoother.
Pros: Multi-Benefit; Skin softening; Pore shrinking
Cons: Watery texture can be difficult to apply
The Best Hydrating Serum
I’ve tried a lot of serums in my day, but I continuously find myself going back to this Trish McEvoy one. I shout its praises from the rooftops and am a firm believer in its fast-acting abilities. In just two weeks time, my skin feels more hydrated and looks plumper, more radiant, and overwhelmingly better. A quick scan of the ingredient list and it becomes clear why. This water-like, lightweight serum contains the obvious hyaluronic acid, in addition to a slew of peptides, and a handful of antioxidants.
Pros: Hydrating; Plumping; Nourishing
Cons: Only last a few weeks
The Best Serum for Textured Skin
This Dr. Sturm serum is one of the best do-it-all serums out there, in part because it delivers a nice dose of niacinamide. It’s a superpowered, multi-beneficial ingredient that works across all skin types. And while it hosts a multitude of benefits (Evens out texture! Minimizes redness! Reduces hyperpigmentation!), it’s most loved for its pore-shrinking and oil-regulating abilities. Because niacinamide can be irritating, it’s buffered by soothing and hydrating panthenol. You may want to toss a hyaluronic acid serum into your routine for extra moisture, but other than that you should be good to go.
Pros: Shrinks pores; Improves rough and bumpy texture
Cons: Might be irritating to some
The Best Serum for Uneven Texture
Waiting six to eight weeks is the standard time it’ll take to see results from a skincare product. But with this highly efficacious serum, you’ll see results in just about 14 days. The retexturizing serum, which is powered by lactic acid, is going to smooth out rough and bumpy texture, plump up fine lines, and give you an overall more radiant complexion. Irritating effects that typically accompany exfoliating serums are counteracted by hydrating squalane.
Pros: Resurfacing; Smoothing; Brightening
Cons: Has a slight scent
The Best Exfoliating Serum
Great for oily skin or anyone dealing with breakouts, this derm-developed serum might be the missing piece in your acne-fighting routine. Powered by both lactic and glycolic acids, it’s going to exfoliate away dead skin cells, which in turn will help prevent pores from getting clogged. While it’s best used as an all-over product, it can be used to spot treat certain problem areas like the nose or chin. Just be warned: You will feel a slight tingling sensation upon application—it’s totally normal.
Pros: Addresses acne, Reveals brighter skin
Cons: Drying for some; Not advised for sensitive skin
The Best Serum for Acne
While you want to be extra mindful not to overdo it on the exfoliation front, a careful selection of one or two products can work wonders for your skin. And trust me, there’s a good chance this Drunk Elephant serum deserves a spot in your routine. With a blend of acids, including glycolic, lactic, and salicylic, this tacky gel-like serum will help control excess oil, minimize future breakouts, and leave your skin fresh and ready to absorb the benefits of all your other products.
Pros: Good for acne; Exfoliating
Cons: Might be drying to some
The Best Serum-Highlighter Hybrid
This pretty pink bottle isn’t so much a treatment serum as something extra-extra that you’re going to want in your routine. It’s going to play nicely with all your other products, while giving a glassy glow to the skin. Use it as an all-over serum, or, if you’re feeling a little adventurous, dab some on top of your foundation and let the glossy serum double as a highlighter. Need more convincing? It’s also going to lighten hyperpigmentation over time.
Pros: Glowy; Lightens hyperpigmentation
Cons: A little tacky
The Best Serum for Firming
If skin sagging and volume loss are some of your skin concerns, it might be worthwhile to invest in this Lancôme serum, the newest addition to the L’Absolue range. It’s complete with grand rose extract, a crazy strong antioxidant that’s able to protect, soothe, and moisturize. Other ingredients in the mix are focused on smoothing out fine lines, evening skin tone, and most notably, firming the skin. The serum smells like rose petals and has a creamy, smooth texture.
Pros: Firming; Packed with antioxidants
The Best Eye Serum
Yes, serums for your eyes are a thing. This one in particular, which is formulated with caffeine and green tea, is specifically designed to brighten dark under eye circles and reduce puffiness. And trust me—it works much better than a lot of its pricier counterparts. While this can be used alone, it might be worthwhile to layer it underneath a more hydrating eye cream if you’re on the drier side.
Pros: Decreases puffiness, Helps with dark circles
Cons: Not very hydrating