Skin serum: What it can and can’t do

Many things improve with age; unfortunately, your skin is not one of them. Wrinkles, brown spots, and general dullness often start to creep in as the years tick by. To reverse these problems many women are turning to a skin serum. Serums are light, easily absorbed oil- or water-based liquids that you spread on your skin. They typically come in small bottles with a dropper, and you only need a few drops to treat your whole face.

A skin serum is not a moisturizer, like a lotion or cream, says Dr. Abigail Waldman, instructor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. Rather, they are highly concentrated formulations that are designed to sink into the skin quickly, delivering an intensive dose of ingredients that can address common skin complaints. “I definitely recommend serums for anyone who is concerned about aging. It’s a really good way to get extra anti-aging effects, more than your typical moisturizer and sunscreen,” says Dr. Waldman.

How do you choose and use a skin serum?

Serums are typically applied to skin after cleansing but before moisturizing, says Dr. Maryam M. Asgari, associate professor in the department of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. Some serums have one main ingredient, while others, including those that target the signs of aging, are combination formulas. “I use and recommend serums that have a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, and ferulic acid,” says Dr. Waldman. “There is good literature that shows that vitamin C in particular can prevent brown spots, reverse damage from ultraviolet rays, and stimulate the growth of new collagen.”

Other good skin serum options to target wrinkles are those with antioxidants including tea polyphenols and resveratrol. Retinol, which reduces inflammation, is another good option, as is niacinamide.

If you are looking to fight blotchiness and discoloration, look for formulas that can brighten and lighten dark patches, including kojic acid and glycolic acid. If your skin is dry, tight, and flaky, find a skin serum that contains vitamin E, niacinamide, and glycolic acid. Also look for ceramides, which are fatty molecules that help hold the skin together and keep moisture from escaping. Other good options are serums that contain hyaluronic acid, or those with collagen peptides, epidermal growth factors, or stem cells.

Are all skin serums created equal?

Not all serums work the same. How well they work depends on the active ingredients, the formulation, the vehicle, and the stability of the compound, says Dr. Asgari. The prices of serums vary from less than $20 to hundreds of dollars. “To be honest, I don’t think price makes a difference,” says Dr. Waldman. More important than price are the ingredients in the serum — so the best practice is to read labels to find the best formulation for your needs.

Caveats when using a skin serum

“Powerful ingredients can irritate sensitive skin,” says Dr. Asgari. “Always test a small area before you apply a skin serum widely.” And use caution when combining acid-containing serums with other products that also contain acids. For example, your skin may get irritated if you use a serum with vitamin C (which is acidic) and as well as a retinol cream, or if you use a retinol serum along with a prescription retinol cream.

Related Information: Skin Care and Repair


  1. Luffina

    Can Niacinamide and Vitamin C Be Used Together?

  2. David

    A serum should not contain “stem cells”. What is the author thinking?

  3. Mary Dawes

    Excellent information; I will pass on to my trainees. Thanks, highly appreciated.

  4. Suely Guimaraes

    Thanks so much for this post. It is very helpful!! Of course I would love to know about brand names, but I understand it is not possible. Thanks again and, please, keep posting this kind of information!

  5. Julia

    Dr. Beckett makes a good point. But “serum” does seem to be the term used to market these kinds of products. If it means “watery fluid” in Latin, it is not a complete misnomer.

  6. Johanna Lenneberg

    Please email names of recommended serums for dry, aging, brown/spotted face skin. Thank you.

  7. Joshua Miller

    We all run behind having a skin that looks gorgeous. We religiously follow a skin care routine, which includes cleansing, toning and moisturizing. But sometimes, we forget to include a very important component – serum. I have found an informative article regarding this with entitled “Anti-aging Serums for Oily and Sensitive Skin — Their Working and Impact” at zovon.

  8. Elizabeth. vey

    How do these serums work? How long does it take to see results? Lots of questions that were not explained in article. Recommended brand names???

  9. Eva SantAngelo

    what foods contain vt.C or do pills with C do the same?

  10. Laurie Hoagland

    also Dermadoctor Kakadu C. at Costco, Walmart $56, and Amazon. results in one week of use.

  11. Alexandra King

    I agree with previous comments that express concern about which serums accomplish what and what scientific evidence supports these claims. I, for one am interested in serums that support the development of collagen. What are the proportions of which ingredients have been shown in clinical trials to accomplish this?

    Thank you,
    Alexandra King, Ed. D.

  12. Caroline

    Looking for recommendations? I have used 2 different C serums over the last 20 years — Cellex C (one of the first, a product made in Canada) and Obagi C serum. I get compliments from many people about my skin. It looks 20 years younger than me!

    The Obagi comes in 3 strengths; start with the mildest. Tretinoin is also great! Obagi alo has this. (I think you canget it on the internet now). I just saw that Dior makes a “lifting”serum. I plan to try it.

  13. Cassi Janzek

    I agree with all of the comments posted. The article was like a teaser.

  14. Audrey McCarthy

    Phytoceuticals is a reputable serum line. Owned by chemist Dr Mustapher Omar. Dr Omar holds that patent on stabilizing L ascorbic acid(vitamin C).

  15. Taphy Asava

    What does a cream containing quinones do for the skin and what are the dangers of using it? I have been using serums for years and to tell the truth I bought this hell made from berries and what a difference it made to my skin! I use it in conjunction with a serum has caviar, torricellum and gold. An anyone comment?

  16. Martha Sachs

    I too would like to learn brand names that have close to the formulations you discuss. For the article to be helpful, I would need more specific direction, would not expect only one specific brand to be recommended but certainly a list of possibilities. The idea of the reader checking formulations with all the product out there is not really practical. You could make a disclaimer to cover liability. Otherwise your good information is not really helpful.


    Please recommend some good serums. We don’t know which one to buy.

  18. Judith Spiegelman

    Dear Nurse Patricia Quigley:
    How kind of you to mention that you’d heard high praise about one serum brand via a nurse in a plastic surgeon’s office and had even gotten samples for the serum!
    I would be SO SO grateful if you would share the name of the serum and how to get samples of it. My email is

    With many thanks and warm appreciation, wishing you much success in your own good efforts,

    Judith Spiegelman

  19. Brian Simblist

    Some time ago, I read that tretinoin and l ascorbic acid are the only two ingredients in skin products that are evidence proven. What evidence is there for any other ingredients?

  20. Isabel Leonard

    This article would have been much more helpful if it had pointed to brand names that follow the recommendations. My next stop is to see whether Consumer Reports has an article on skin serums. I too wish they’d come up with a better term than “serum.”

  21. Vina Richards

    It would be nice to see a list of name brands that work for each condition. Serums with the right ingredients may not have the correct proportions to be effective. Trial and error can be both time and cost consuming.

  22. Dr. Suzanne Marshall

    I would like to see specific brand recommendations but maybe that’s advertising!

  23. Kenbob

    What the doc said. This was no help. Where was the what it will and won’t do part?

  24. Patricia Quigley, PhD RN

    I support the comment made by Dr. Beckett as I have been hearing accolades for a serum brand from a nurse who worked in a plastic surgeon’s office. I have received samples of the products. I have no interest in plastic surgery but would like to trust the products that I buy for my aging skin.

  25. James Limber

    Dr. Beckett is correct in requesting specific scientific documentation for claims of beneficial therapies. In today’s society, many informational propositions are without verifiable references. Not only does this promote chaos in the cultural memetic going forward, but when infiltrated into actionable medical praxis, poses a potential danger to individual well-being- and thus to society at large.

  26. William Beckett

    1. it would seem a good idea to note that the term “serum” here is a bit of a misnomer as a serum is defined as an animal or human protein derived material.

    2. It would be helpful to cite blinded controlled clinical trials showing efficacy for even one of these products, and in fairness citing studies which have failed to show a beneficial effect.

    thank you,

    William S. Beckett MD MPH
    Associate Professor of Medicine, HMS

Commenting has been closed for this post.