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We tell every reader who’ll listen: You need to have a foundational skincare routine, a 3-step baseline that is “cleanse, exfoliate, moisturize.” That’s the bare minimum, and if you do those steps regularly (the bookends twice daily, the middle step twice weekly), then you will already be doing a lot to prevent visual signs of premature aging as well as limiting breakouts and rough/dry skin. We’re here to tell you why adding the best face serum can make things even easier.
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There’s so much more good to be gained if you choose to go beyond the baseline. The next level of skincare centers on face serums — products that can seep into the dermis that offer numerous, targeted benefits based on their formula. Think of serums as proactive skincare, whereas the baseline regimen is a defensive approach.
See, while the baseline regimen does its part to keep skin refreshed and smooth, as well as protect against moisture loss and environmental pollution (smoke, smog, etc), it’s not typically moving the needle on things like brightness, hyperpigmentation mitigation, pore clearing, deep-penetrating moisture, and even overnight recovery. But the best face serums, by working at both superficial and sub-epidermal levels, can do all of this and more thanks to a high concentration of proactive and targeted ingredients.
Read on to find the best face serum to compliment your skincare routine at home. You may not need or want each type, but we’ll pitch each category, and showcase our favorite face serum within each. Note that many face serums are higher in cost than common baseline items, and that cost often correlates to the quality of ingredients used — perhaps even to the efficacy of the product itself. The category has lots of “snake oil” in its rank, so when we find a good one, we stick to it. It’s a smart investment, too. Plus, the best face serum usually lasts for quite a while; a single ounce of most will last you a couple of months or more.
Here are the best face serums we’ve used as of late across five key categories.
Ursa Major Mountain Glow Serum
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$84 at grove
$84 at credo
Best For: Guys seeking a deeply hydrating daytime serum
Why We Chose It: Ursa Major makes one of our favorite face washes for sensitive skin and also makes the best face serum.
Vitamin A: Moisturizes and promotes healing.
Vitamin C: Reduces damage from toxins and UV rays, also promotes brightness.
Vitamin E: Reduces damage from toxins and UV rays, as well as inflammation.
After cleansing each morning, it’s best to start with a hydrating serum of some kind. The most popular ingredient you’ll find in this category is hyaluronic acid, which is known to attract up to 1,000 times its own weight in water. We love these serums, but we encourage you to look past just that single ingredient, toward options that promise to do much more than just moisturize the lower layers of skin.
What we love about Ursa Major’s Mountain Glow Serum is its multi-ingredient formula that targets moisture, yes, but also has the potency of an overnight replenishment serum — one that makes skin simply radiate for the entire day. It is targeted as both an a.m. and p.m. serum, but we relegate it to the daytime as its radiating powers would be wasted on a slumber.
This serum actively makes us want to be seen. And while people with oily or acne-prone skin may shy away from certain facial oils, take it from someone with both conditions — there are no issues with this face serum. Ursa Major basically writes the book on reputable skincare, and this creamy serum absorbs quickly, leaving skin glowing, and still wearing light. This is attributed to those oils from jojoba, coconut, and argan, as well as shea butter. But those things comprise the base; it’s the other ingredients that intrigue us most and earn this serum the top rank of the best face serum.
Extracts of lichen, locust seed, agarikon mushroom, and wild pansy promote collagen growth, boost firmness, and tighten pores — alongside moss stem cells which fortify the skin against environmental deterioration. Fern phytosterols smooth the skin, indigo seed significantly reduces overall skin redness, and Aspen bark extract exfoliates dead skin to magnify that glow.
It feels limiting to merely call this a hydrating serum, but that’s why you ought to look past the one-hit wonders that only promise hydration. You can get so much from a morning serum, like this “superfood” one from the geniuses at Ursa Major.
44 clean, active ingredients work in tandem to nourish and fortify the skin.
In addition to smoothing, brightening, and repairing skin in the long haul, it also delivers instant radiance.
Ursa Major is one of the most reputable and eco-conscious brands, relying primarily on natural, clean, vegan, and sensitive-skin-safe ingredients.
Some acne-prone people will avoid it due to the inclusion of coconut oil; prone to breakouts, we haven’t had issues, but not everyone will have the same experience.
Herbivore Prism AHA + BHA Exfoliating Serum
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$54 at Sephora
$54 at Nordstrom
Best For: Herbivore’s exfoliating serum is a great fit for both oily and dry skin types.
Why We Chose It: We’re calling this the best face serum for nighttime exfoliation — you’ll wake up with a whole new face. Well, one without dead skin.
Naturally derived AHAs: A list of alpha hydroxy acids, including glycolic acid from sugar cane, lactic acid from bilberry, malic acid, and more. These lift dead skin from the surface of the skin.
BHA: Naturally derived salicylic acid from willow bark extract clears pores of oil and trapped skin cells.
Most guys exfoliate with a physical face scrub, or maybe even a washcloth. These physical options are often gentle enough for daily use, but when it comes to twice-weekly exfoliation as part of a baseline regimen, guys need to step things up. Try a targeted face serum. That’s where you’ll really get the most benefits, and where your skin will get much more of a workout, too.
The best ones use a combination of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acid (BHA). AHAs more or less stay on the surface of the skin, breaking down dead skin cells to keep skin smooth and prevent clogged pores. BHA, on the other hand, will do that to a lesser degree, but will also penetrate into the skin, where it’ll temper overactive sebum levels, while simultaneously clearing pores of any trapped oil, skin cells, and grime.
Herbivore’s Prism face serum isn’t just the most beautiful product you’ve ever seen, it will also have your skin glowing with regular usage. The brand recommends every-other-night usage at most, but we find the twice-weekly route (or every third night) works perfectly well for us. And again — acne prone over here, meaning we need help clearing out our pores, and twice weekly works just fine.
The reason we err on the conservative side with this one is that it’s a much higher grade than most baseline exfoliation serums. Those ones might stick with a 10% AHA and 2% BHA balance while this one turns things up a notch to 12% AHA and 3% BHA. What that means for you, is that you’ll feel it tingle on your skin, and you should absolutely only apply it in the evening, between your pre-bedtime face wash and your night moisturizer. If you experience any redness from the active exfoliation, you’ll wake up without any qualms and with a brighter, smoother mug no less.
If you’re wondering what it uses as AHAs, it is primarily glycolic acid, as well as malic acid. Of course, as is the case with all BHA products, salicylic acid (willow bark extract) is behind the pore-clearing efforts.
Great on dry and oily skin alike; the former for smoothing and the latter for oil mitigation—as well as pore clearance for acne-prone skin.
An aloe vera base keeps the formula from being too biting.
A terrific spot treatment for problematic one-off blemishes or even a blackhead-prone nose.
High-grade formula might not cooperate with sensitive-skin types.
BEST OF 2022 AWARD WINNER
Caldera + Lab The Good Multifunctional Serum
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$97 at Caldera + Lab
Best For: Guys who really care about stellar ingredients and corporate transparency.
Why We Chose It: Caldera + Lab’s The Good has been hot on our radar and has been only growing since the first time we reviewed it. It works.
Jojoba Oil: Reparative and nourishing anti-inflammatory agent.
Prickly Pear: Improves skin tone while simultaneously smoothing and tightening.
Midnight is the hour for your hardest-hitting face serum. This anti-ading serum product can make a huge difference in your preventative efforts and daily presentation. Remember, your entire body replenishes itself while you sleep, including your skin cells. So, by syncing a proactive serum with this process, you magnify the benefits.
Caldera + Lab’s The Good Serum is a multitasking powerhouse. After working through a single vial — roughly two to three months — you’ll notice things like firmer and tighter skin as well as less defined wrinkles, fewer fine lines, and a significant reduction in preexisting dark spots (plus the assurance that you’re fending off additional hyperpigmentation).
Now, you should still apply a nighttime moisturizer on top of this serum, though you can invest a lot less in that type of product given that your secret weapon is this serum. Dial back on the recommended number of drops used; they suggest four to six drops on oily skin, and as many as 10-12 on dry skin, but you can aim for half that amount and layer it with a moisturizer to trap the ingredients inside your skin. That way, the serum lasts twice as long too.
Note that it does have numerous oil ingredients, like jojoba, safflower, and apricot, which is also why we like to err on the conservative side of application. It’s also probably why the brand treats it like a standalone evening product; many people who use face oils swap out the moisturizer. With our advice, though — and considering that it’s not overtly an oil, but rather serum harnessing various oils — we think you’ll sleep well knowing The Good is helping your skin replenish and firm up exponentially.
Can replace the need for a multi-step bedtime regimen. (Don’t forget to keep cleansing prior to application, though.)
Hydrates, firms, smooths, tones, and heals skin.
Caldera + Lab is certified by Ecocert, MADE SAFE, Leaping Bunny, and B Corporation.
Wears a little heavily on oily skin, but it’s still effective in that it doesn’t suffocate or clog pores either way.
BEST VITAMIN C
Murad Environmental Shield Vitamin C Glycolic Brightening Serum
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$88 at Murad
$88 at ulta
Best For: Anybody looking for the best face serum for brightening with very light exfoliating powers.
Why We Chose It: From the product packaging design to the formula itself, this Murad face serum is just very, very impressive.
Vitamin C Complex: High-potency brightening abilities that also neutralize UV rays and environmental pollution.
Glycolic Acid: An AHA that buffs dead surface cells to keep skin smooth and bright.
Vitamin C is known for its skin-brightening abilities, but it’s also notorious for its volatility. If you want to benefit from the antioxidant-rich ingredient, then aim high and choose a serum from a reputable brand. This super ingredient counters damage from UV rays and environmental pollution, in turn preserving collagen levels and firmness in the skin. It moisturizes skin and helps prevent hyperpigmentation while also reducing signs of the condition. It can even reinforce the delicate skin around the eyes and prevent dark under-eyes due to the blood vessels appearing through the thin layers.
One of our favorite Vitamin C face serums is the Murad Environmental Shield Vitamin C Glycolic Brightening Serum, which also has ever-so-gentle glycolic smoothing powers (though we don’t consider it an exfoliating serum since the effect isn’t comparable to one like the aforementioned Herbivore Prism). The glycolic acid here plays a supporting role in the brightening efforts of the Vitamin C. And in terms of the Vitamin C volatility, Murad has devised a storage and delivery method that isolates their proprietary brightening blend from the glycolic acid and additional ingredients. It even shields the formula from light exposure and subsequent efficacy reduction.
When both halves of this serum are pumped into one collective liquid, you can then apply them to your face for the dual brightening action. It even boosts overall radiance on the skin thanks to a phyto-luminescent extract, which neutralizes and converts UV energy into a skin-brightening light source. We’re writing this in the dregs of winter when there is barely a drop of sun in the sky, and yet our skin beams like it’s the middle of June… sans tan, of course.
Dual-action brightening/exfoliating product elevates this above other dedicated complexion toners.
Product design ensures that the volatile Vitamin C complex retains its potency and efficacy.
Neutralizes UV rays while also converting them into a skin-brightening light source.
Can be abrasive on freshly shaved or sensitive skin.
Kiehl’s Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution
Buy Now at Sephora
$65 at Nordstrom
$65 at Ulta
Best For: This is the best face serum for anyone experiencing hyperpigmentation who needs a miraculous spot corrector.
Why We Chose It: This Kiehl’s face serum is so gentle to use and gave incredibly visible results.
Activated C: A highly potent form of Vitamin C that works to counter and prevent hyperpigmentation.
Salicylic Acid: Unclogs pores and tempers oil production to prevent additional blemishes. Helps exfoliate dead surface-level cells, too.
While a Vitamin C serum targets your entire face and collectively reduces your chances of experiencing hyperpigmentation, it might not be your best line of defense against big one-off blemishes. You know the kind — those dark marks that appear more and more with each passing year, and which remain in the wake of any acne blemish for months on end.
For this, we like a face serum that gets a lot less mileage on a daily basis, but a lot more mileage when it’s actively needed. One of those ingredients might even be a potent, activated form of Vitamin C, for supercharged brightening at the site of dark spots.
Kiehl’s Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Solution is one of our favorite and the best face serum these days for targeted efforts. It’s got that coveted activated C, plus extracts of white birch and peony to even out skin tone and reduce oxidative damage, effectively promoting cellular turnover which helps disappear the spot. We pair this one with our twice-weekly exfoliation serum, too, though we often turn up the exfoliation efforts when trying to reduce a stubborn blemish.
This one is gentle enough to use uniformly across the face if you are experiencing an uptick in hyperpigmentation of late. As mentioned, though, we recommend saving it for targeted use so the aforementioned exfoliation and brightening serums can all work in tandem to keep skin as clear and bright as possible.
Great spot treatment for existing blemishes and problem areas.
Gentle on sensitive skin. Works on all skin types.
Noticeably improves skin texture.
Despite its inclusion of Activated C, we wouldn’t consider this a Vitamin C serum. Use this in the evening as a defense against dark spots and hyperpigmentation, instead of a Vitamin C serum in the morning as a more active line of defense against future formation.
How We Determined the Best Face Serum
No two serums are the same, and that’s by design. The best face serums hone in on key problem areas — even if that area is as all-encompassing as “overnight replenishment” or “anti-aging.” So, the serums in this list shouldn’t be considered as competition for one another. Rather, they’re each best in their respective classes. We have used each of them to completion, most of them multiple times over, and can vouch for their long-term efficacy since few products can have their efficacy measured after just two or three uses. These are the things we kept in mind in terms of choosing the best serum across each category:
Effective Formula: Do the ingredients deliver on the serum’s promise? And do they use a smart formula, be it simple or complex, in order to achieve the results? Some face serums are simple (in that they use but a few ingredients) and are no less out of contention because of their simplicity.
Value: We’d be lying if we said that many of our favorite serums weren’t $300. Because we love an expensive, top-shelf product. But we believe the “best in category” should be more accessible than that. Still, we don’t believe serums should be too cheap, either, as that makes us question why the product would be any more effective for a person’s skincare regimen. Great serums should feel like a mild investment in your regimen, and we wanted to land on products that felt equal parts accessible and high quality.
Non-Comedogenic: We don’t want to give you any more problems by recommending serums that will only lead to breakouts and blemishes. These five products have proven effective even on our acne-prone, oily skin. Sure, one has coconut oil and multiple ones use multiple oily ingredients. But across the board, they have given us no problems in terms of clogged pores, excessive oil, or suffocated skin.
Why Trust SPY When Shopping for the Best Face Serum?
Whether you’ve been sticking to the same grooming regimen for years or are building a new one, SPY is on top of men’s grooming product recommendations across all categories. We love trying new products and retesting our ol’ favorites to see how they compare to each other to refine our reviews.
Other than finding the best face serum for different types of situations, we’ve been busy at work in front of the mirror testing and reviewing dozens of other products. Recently, we’ve discovered the best men’s shampoo, the best Aesop products, and also the best shave butter. We’ve also got one of the best stories on bald head shavers.
If you’re interested, you can read more about How We Test Products at SPY.
About the Author
Adam Hurly has been covering the grooming industry for a decade after getting his start at Birchbox in 2013. Since becoming a freelance journalist in 2016, he has written for nearly every men’s title. In addition to SPY, his frequent clients include GQ, Men’s Journal, Robb Report, Forbes, and more. Hurly is a South Dakota native, a University of Kansas graduate, a New Yorker at heart, and has resided in Berlin for 5 years.
Recently at SPY, Hurly has shared what he learned after receiving a hair transplant as well as what his favorite products are after quitting oral finasteride and even how to pack the perfect Dopp kit for traveling.
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