An Intro Guide to Serums (If You're Still Not Sure What They Are)

You likely own a bottle of serum (or three), already but do you really know what it does? And what’s the deal with essences—aren’t they serums, too? OK, deep breath. Let’s go back to basics for a minute here to clear some confusion.

What is a serum? It’s a skin-care product that is used after cleansing but before moisturizing to target specific concerns like acne, fine lines, dark spots and overall tone.

How are they different from oils? Serums typically have a higher concentration of active ingredients (like vitamin C or glycolic acid) and are formulated specifically for the delivery of these ingredients. Meaning they’re made up of smaller molecular structures so they’re able to go deeper into the skin. Conversely, oils and creams have larger molecular structures that sit on top of your skin (which is why they’re recommended as the last step of your routine to seal in moisture and keep all the good stuff you just applied from evaporating).

That all sounds great, but do I really need a serum in my life? Ah, only you can answer that question, but we’ll say this: If you’re not seeing results with your current regimen or feel like you could use a little boost (of moisture or glow or all of the above), we would recommend giving it a try.

Wait! One more thing! Are essences different from serums? From our experience (and many conversations with derms and chemists), they are very similar. You can think of them as watered-down versions of serums. Quite honestly, the consensus is that it’s mostly clever marketing and if you’re looking for the most bang for your buck, our money is on serum. But hey, if you’re the sort of gal who believes there’s no such thing as too much moisture, then by all means, slap on your essence. Just make sure to do so before your serum.

Some of our favorites For brightening CosRx Triple C Lightning Liquid ($27); for protection MaeLove The Glow Maker Antioxidant Serum ($28); for hydrating Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Cloud Serum ($65); for congestionDrunk Elephant T.L.C Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90)

Guys, This Serum Is Saving My Sensitive Skin This Winter

Jenny Jin Headshot Vertical 2023

Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...