Youtime’s beauty expert Gemma Watts delivers your ultimate guide to serums: A glossary of ingredients, what to use and when, and how to layer actives to achieve your skin goals.
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Published: December 2022
Once you have the basics of your skincare routine mastered, your serums will allow you to truly tailor your skincare to your own needs, concerns and overall skin goals.
Learning to listen to and understand your skin is what makes serums such an important skincare step. When you take a moment each morning and evening to really look at your skin and notice how it’s feeling, you’ll learn to reach for specific serums to cater to those needs.
Building a simple, effective serum wardrobe will give you the ability to adapt your basic skincare routine to your skin. Here’s how to ensure your serums are really working for you.
Nothing, other than SPF is truly a “must” when it comes to skincare- however, if you are using skincare with hope of seeing visible change and addressing specific skin concerns (as opposed to using skincare for very basic skin health maintenance, in which case a great cleanser and moisturiser may just do the trick), serums are the step that will take you there.
Why should you seriously consider working a serum into your skincare routine? Serums deliver a concentrated dose of active ingredients to the skin and, depending on which actives and hero ingredients your chosen serum contains, they can target even the most specific of skin concerns.
While it’s true that your cleanser and moisturiser can address those concerns too, the concentration of actives in those products is significantly lower and therefore the results may be less noticeable and will take longer to physically see.
One of the benefits of building up a serum wardrobe of sorts is that it allows you to keep your moisturiser nice and simple. If you’re using your serum step to address specific skin concerns, then your moisturiser only really needs to do what it’s designed to do: moisturise!
If you are new to serums and are looking to learn more about what your skin does and doesn’t like, we recommend beginning with a serum with a single active or hero ingredient. There are many incredible serums available with multiple benefits that combine several active ingredients, however while you are still learning to listen to and read your skin, choosing a single ingredient serum will allow you to isolate any changes you see in your skin.
Not sure where to begin? Here are some of the most common active ingredients found in serums and what they can potentially do for your skin.
Vitamin B3, also known as niacinamide, is a bit of a skincare all-rounder. It generally doesn’t cause any sensitivity or irritation in more sensitive skin types, it addresses multiple skin concerns, it plays well with other ingredients and it can be applied both morning and night.
The most widely documented benefits of niacinamide are its ability to hydrate the skin, even out the overall tone of the skin and reduce the appearance of pores. However more recent research has shown that niacinamide is also an effective ingredient for acne-prone skin.
Consider B your “booster,” working to increase and boost the abilities of the rest of your skincare.
Panthenol, the stable form of vitamin B5, is celebrated for its ability to heal irritated skin and increase the skin’s ability to hold onto moisture. Vitamin B5 is loved by those with sensitive skin, rosacea, or anyone who is dealing with sensitised skin as a result of acidic skincare, laser treatments or peels given its ability to calm and soothe irritations and reduce redness.
A great B5 serum is always worth having on hand in case the skin requires intense soothing and healing, and fast. Medik8’s Intense option is wonderful for those with skin that is particularly prone to irritation, while the original formula is a great all-rounder.
Retinol is another skincare all-rounder, however it is a particularly potent ingredient so it’s important to add it into your routine slowly to avoid over-sensitising the skin, drying it out or causing excessive purging (more on that shortly).
Retinol is touted as an anti-ageing powerhouse due its ability to increase cell turnover, therefore evening out the skin tone, plumping up fine lines and firming the skin, boosting collagen production and smoothing the surface of the skin. Retinol has also been shown to reduce the appearance of acne.
Ascorbic acid, a form of vitamin C, is known for its brightening properties. Vitamin C is an antioxidant, which makes it great for protecting the skin from free radical damage and environmental stressors, however its most noticeable benefit comes in the form of its skin-brightening, complexion-evening, pigmentation fading properties.
If you suffer from sun damage, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or are just longing for a brighter complexion, a vitamin C serum may be the right choice for you.
Hyaluronic acid, available in multiple molecular weights, is the hydrator of the serum spectrum. Hyaluronic acid boasts the ability to hold up to 1000 times its own weight in moisture and, when applied topically, can increase the skin’s ability to lock in hydration too. Low molecular weight hyaluronic acids work to penetrate the skin, while high molecular weights work on the skin barrier.
If you have multiple skin concerns that you wish to address, you have a couple of options.
The first is to choose a serum with multiple active ingredients. A multi-benefit serum takes the majority of the guesswork out of the application process. On that note, your other option is to pick and choose your serums depending on your skin’s needs each day, layering them or using them at different times of day to address multiple concerns at once.
The benefit of the latter option is that you can really, deeply tailor your routine to suit your skin’s needs, as our skin often wants different things from day to day!
This approach, however, requires a little bit of practise, as there are a few serum rules of thumb that should be adhered to in order to see lasting results and to ensure you don’t sensitise the skin. To simplify things, here are a few serum guidelines we recommend following.
Most skincare professionals recommend avoiding topical vitamin A while pregnant, as there is simply not enough evidence surrounding its safety for pregnant women- which is, of course, an area that should not be left to chance! As per anything related to pregnancy, it is worth speaking to a medical professional if you have any questions surrounding the suitability of your skincare products throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Given how powerful an active vitamin A is, it’s worth starting small. Where a hyaluronic acid serum, for example, can be applied morning and evening without hesitation, it’s a good idea to begin using your retinol serum once or twice a week at first to allow your skin time to adjust - gradually working up to every second evening and, if you wish, nightly use.
Purging (acne lingering beneath the skin’s surface becoming visible) and dry, flakey skin are both common side effects when strong retinol is first worked into a routine, but “buffering” is a technique that you can use to help your skin build up a tolerance. Buffering involves applying a basic moisturiser around 20 minutes before applying your retinol, creating a slight barrier between your skin and the actives.
If you are also using an exfoliant, be it physical or chemical, it’s recommended that you do not use your retinol on the same night as both products are working to increase skin cell turnover and can leave the skin feeling irritated and sensitive.
Whether or not your serum should be applied morning or evening depends entirely on the
formula itself and the concentration of active ingredients, however as a general rule of thumb, it’s worth only using your vitamin A serums in the evening, due to their photosensitising properties (meaning you are left more susceptible to sun damage, even with your daily SPF50+ use).
Many people insist that vitamin C serums should be reserved for the morning, this is a myth. Vitamin C can be applied in the morning or the evening (or, depending on the particular serum, both!) and the results won’t change. Many people do prefer to use their vitamin C in the morning as it can protect the skin from environmental stressors, while others prefer to use it in the evening as it’s acidic.
As a rule of thumb, it’s best to never cocktail your serums together and to layer them instead, as cocktailing them will lower their potency and, in turn, their efficacy. You’ll often read of ingredients that shouldn’t be applied in quick succession or layered, however the reality is that this comes down entirely to skin type and the formulas themselves.
A lot of the “rules” surrounding what can and cannot be combined is the result of outdated research that doesn’t take a formula’s stability into account. The idea that vitamin C and A should not be used together, for example, is a misconception.
This actually depends entirely on your skin type and the formulas themselves. Some people will find this particular combination too irritating for the skin, which is why so many people choose vitamin A in the evening and C in the morning, however many people love the brightening properties of vitamin A and C when used in unison.
This in mind, ease into your new products and always undergo a patch test when trying a new combination.