The Best Face Serums for (Literally) Every Single Skin Concern

Brightening serums, calming serums, and acne acne serums, oh my.

skinceauticals
(Image credit: Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty)

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 face 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 serums 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 to find the 20 best face serums, from brightening serums to antioxidant serums and everything in between, broken down by your specific skin concerns. These have been hand-picked, tested, and approved by our team of editors, so consider these the best of the best. 

The Best Face Serums

Samantha Holender

Beauty Editor Samantha Holender credits Dr. Sturm's Calming Serum for her soothed complexion.

(Image credit: Samantha Holender)

deena campbell

Beauty Director Deena Campbell wearing Vitner's Daughter's Active Botanical Serum.

(Image credit: Deena Campbell)

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What Serum Is Best for Me?

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.

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 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.” 

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. 

Meet the Dermatologists

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Karen Hammerman, M.D., F.A.A.D.

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.

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Hadley King, MD

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.

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Dr. Tiffany J. Libby

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.