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 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)
Shop The Best Face Serums, By Skin Type
Best Brightening Serums
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 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-Highlighter Hybrid
“During the pandemic I turned to Glow Recipe to combat the common conditions that stress can have on the skin. The Watermelon Glow AHA Night Treatment (opens in new tab) has since kept a permanent spot in my evening skincare regimen. As for the morning, I’ve started using the brand’s Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops as a primer for those light makeup days. On makeup-free days I apply 2-3 pumps onto a freshly cleansed face to enjoy a subtle, moisturized, dewy look. I find Glow Recipe’s watermelon-based formulas are lightweight and multi-purposeful—yet powerful and effective, especially when it comes to minimizing pores. If you’re seeking a serum that is free of harsh chemicals (which I need because my little ones have sensitive skin and I never want to worry about kissing and cuddling them!), incorporate Glow Recipe into your regimen at least once a day. After a few weeks you should notice a general improvement in skin tone and texture.” — Tanya Benedicto Klich, Senior Editor of Money & Career
Pros: Glowy; Lightens hyperpigmentation
Cons: A little tacky
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
Best Lightweight Vitamin C Serum
“I've tried a ton of vitamin C serums over the years. Either they made no difference at all or they were so strong, they made my skin break out in tiny rough bumps. So annoying! But then I came across this brightening serum from Origins that solved all of my previous woes. This lightweight serum has brightened my skin like crazy over the last couple of months and I've noticed my skin is smoother. It absorbs fairly quickly too, with the subtlest citrus smell. I genuinely look forward to putting this on every morning!” — Brooke Knappenberger, Editorial Fellow
Best Vitamin C Serum for Sensitive Skin
“Vitamin C has always been pretty tricky for me. A lot of times, it leads to rashes, breakouts, redness, and irritation. But this no-frills formula from Naturium agrees with my skin so damn well. There's no smell, no stickiness, and no stinging. It just sinks right in and gives me a great glow. Plus, I swear it's faded my post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation quicker than I ever thought possible.” — Samantha Holender, Beauty Editor
Best Hydrating Serums
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 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 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
Best Hyaluronic Acid Serum
“Simply put, this is one of my all-time favorite steps in my routine. You know when you apply something and you notice a difference immediately? That’s how using this serum from COSRX went. My skin is dry and dehydrated to a fault—a fact I’ve waxed poetic about on many occasions on this site—and this makes it feel normal again. I apply it every night and again in the morning if I know I’m going to have a heavier makeup day. It’s one of those simple, accessible, non-confusing serums that just does what it says it will do on the tin, and you can’t beat that.” — Julia Marzovilla, E-Commerce Editor
Best Bi-Phase Hydrating Serum
“This is one of those fun little serums where you shake the two separated levels into one juicy-skin-guaranteeing concoction. It’s chock-full of lots of good-for-skin hydrating ingredients like squalene, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid to boot. This is another serum where I noticed an immediate change. My skin was dewier-looking instantly, and I loved it so much that I just ran out of my third (!) bottle. I try so many new products all the time, but this is one of the ones that hangs around. If my skin is freaking out, this calms it. If it’s feeling dry, this is an instant fix. If I want a glowy base under my makeup for that lit-from-within, well–hydrated, glass-skin finish, this is the one I use.” — Julia Marzovilla, E-Commerce Editor
Best Hydrating Serum for Sensitive Skin
“I have all the skin issues: Rosacea-prone, rash-prone, irritation-prone. You name it, I have it. All of that indicates that my skin barrier is compromised, but I swear this serum is single handedly responsible for doing a major repair. Formulated with seven different molecular weights of hyaluronic acid and a ceramide complex, the silky serum has given my skin unmatched hydration. Within just a few weeks of using this morning and night, my skin stopped burning, tingling, and itching. Now? I'm on bottle number two.” — Samantha Holender, Beauty Editor
Best Calming Serum
“My skin is the epitome of sensitive—so much so that I used to joke that if someone even looked at me the wrong way, my cheeks would instantly flush red in a massive discolored blotch. Fragrances and harsh ingredients are my worst enemy, and I'm prone to uncomfortably hot patches of redness—you name it, and with my volatile skin, I've dealt with it. Paula's Choice Repairing Serum, however, is my secret weapon to all of these concerns and more. With its formula of ceramides and antioxidant-enriched plant extracts, the product soothes my angry skin without fail.” — Emma Childs, Style Editor
Best Retinol Serums
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
Best Retinol for Sensitive Skin
“My skin does not react well to acids and retinols, but this one is one of the only ones that doesn't leave my skin looking irritated. It’s all in the name: It’s a gentle exfoliator that sloughs away dead skin. I use it twice a week and I’ve found that it’s the perfect product rotation to leave my dry skin looking invigorated. If you have sensitive skin or skin that reacts easily, this is the best retinol serum for you.” — Julia Marzovilla, E-Commerce Editor
Best Anti-Aging Serums
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 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 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 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
Best Acne Serums
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
Best Serum for Under-The-Skin Acne
“The minute I turned 27, my acne flared up. I never used to struggle with acne a pre-teen, but as my dermatologist pointed out to me, it’s super common for women my age to experience a fresh bout of acne thanks to a change in my hormones. I picked up this Tower 28 serum on recommendation from our Beauty Editor, Samantha, as well as tons of videos on BeautyTok. I apply it specifically to the areas of my skin where acne flares up, which is normally around my mouth and sometimes on my cheeks, where my headphones sit. Not only does it calm redness, but I’ve noticed that it makes them come to a head just a little faster, which means that I can use a pimple patch. It’s now a forever product in my routine.” — Julia Marzovilla, E-Commerce Editor
Best Serums for Textured Skin
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 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 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
Meet the Dermatologists
Dr. Hammerman is a native New Yorker who was raised on Long Island. She attended Barnard College, where she majored in environmental biology and graduated with honors. She received her M.D. degree from SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, where she then completed a preliminary year in general surgery followed by a two year research fellowship in skin regeneration and wound repair at NYU Medical Center. She completed her dermatology residency at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Dr. Hammerman's research has been published in several peer-reviewed journals. She has authored and co-authored wound healing book chapters, and has written NIH research grants in the fields of wound healing and regeneration, stem cells, and the management of chronic wounds. She is a voluntary house staff dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, where she teaches residents and medical students.
Hadley King, MD is a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology. She is also a Clinical Instructor of Dermatology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Dr. King graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College with a degree in biochemistry. She received her MD from Columbia University. She trained in medicine at Greenwich Hospital, affiliated with the Yale University School of Medicine, and completed her dermatology residency at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. After residency, Dr. King worked as an attending physician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She also has a background in immunology and her research has been published in a variety of medical journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association. Dr. King is a highly sought after dermatologist in New York City and has won numerous awards including Castle Connolly Regional Top Doctor, Top Doctors New York Metro Area, New Beauty Top Beauty Doctor, and RealSelf Top Doctor.
Dr. Tiffany J. Libby is a board-certified dermatologist and dual-fellowship trained Mohs surgeon and cosmetic surgeon. She is the Director of Mohs Micrographic and Dermatologic Surgery and an Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the Brown University Warren Alpert School of Medicine. Dr. Libby graduated from an accelerated 7-year B.S./M.D. program on a merit-based scholarship from Rutgers University-New Jersey Medical School, where she was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society. Dr. Libby completed her Internship in Internal Medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. She served as Chief Resident during her dermatology residency at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center, and completely a dual fellowship program, receiving accreditation in both Mohs Surgery and Dermatologic Oncology as well as Cosmetic Dermatologic Surgery. Dr. Libby specializes in skin cancer surgery, including Mohs surgery and facial reconstruction for the treatment of basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, and has performed over 4,000 Mohs surgeries and reconstructions. Her other clinical training include cutaneous oncology as well as laser and cosmetic treatments which she practiced in New York CIty, including Botox, fillers/injectables, sclerotherapy, chemical peels, scar revision, body contouring, laser liposuction, and laser surgery. Dr. Libby has authored numerous peer-reviewed publications and regularly instructs medical students and residents dermatologic surgery and cosmetic procedures at Brown. She is an active member of several professional organizations, including the American Academy of Dermatology, the American College of Mohs Surgery, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, and the Women’s Dermatologic Society.
Samantha Holender is the Beauty Editor at Marie Claire, where she reports on the best new launches, dives into the science behind skincare, and keeps up with the latest trends in the beauty space. She has previously written for Us Weekly, Popsugar, Makeup.com, Skincare.com, and Philadelphia Wedding. Follow her on Instagram @samholender.
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