How To Find The Right Serum To Transform Your Skin


Like booster supplements in smoothies and freshly pressed green-drink orders, the use of serums in skin care can at first seem like a superfluous, if not costly indulgence. Sure, these shots of concentrated nutrients might add extra oomph to our complexions, but if we’re already keeping our skin clean and hydrated, can adding a serum to the mix make that much of a difference?

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According to Dr. Alexander Rivkin, a Los Angeles-based cosmetic surgeon, and Dr. Mary Lupo, a New Orleans-based dermatologist, just like with those shots of bee pollen or maca we might add to our juices for better health, serums can deliver a concentrated level of nutrients to the skin that can penetrate better than many moisturizers.

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Whereas creams sit on top of the skin to form a protective barrier of hydration, serums are typically made from active ingredients that contain molecules small enough to penetrate the outer layer of the skin and deliver intensive doses of collagen builders, antioxidants, and other anti-aging ingredients deeper in the epidermis. And, as Lupo points out, because many formulations are water based, serums can also serve as great vehicles to deliver water-soluble ingredients, like vitamin C, beyond the skin’s surface for deeper absorption and to provide a brightening effect.

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In fact, serums can be such heavy hitters, Rivkin doesn’t just see them as an added bonus to a skin-care routine, but as being “very essential.” Which isn’t to say that a serum should replace your moisturizer. Rivkin notes that after delivering such concentrated active ingredients, a moisturizer is needed to lock in hydration and provide a protective barrier. To really maximize these complexion boosters, he recommends cleansing with warm water (to maximize the products’ absorption), applying a serum to a slightly damp face, and following with a moisturizer a few minutes later.

So, now that we know that serums should be an integral part of our skin-care regimen, how do we find our skin-boosting soul mate? Ahead, we asked Rivkin to identify the best active ingredients for each of the nine most common skin types. Read on to find out which one you should be adding to your daily routine.

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The easiest way to make sure you’re getting enough SPF? Slather it on with your serum. This bottle from Supergoop! delivers an SPF of 30. Just make sure to carry some extra protection to reapply throughout the day if you’re going to be active.

Supergoop! City Sunscreen Serum SPF 30, $42, available at Sephora.

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For those fighting shine, adding an oil-based serum to their skin-care routine can result in a finish so slick, makeup can’t hold on. Luckily, the silicone derivatives in this vitamin-, and yes, oil-rich formula (it counts 10 plant oils among its ingredients) take the shine right out of the equation and help keep your makeup in place, making this serum/primer hybrid the perfect thing for summer skin.

Hourglass No 28 Primer Serum, $65, available at Sephora.


The beauty of Kiehl’s concentrate is that it does its work overnight. A heady mix of oils work to improve the look of your skin while you snooze, so you wake up to a glowing face.

Kiehl’s Midnight Recovery Concentrate, $70, available at Nordstrom.

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Sure, it’s stocked with humectants designed to mimic the body’s natural ability to moisturize. And, it boasts lipids like ceramides, which can improve texture by penetrating beneath the skin’s surface. But, this pricey serum won us over with its ability to hydrate — and heal — skin so freakishly dry, it’s practically peeling.

La Prairie Cellular Hydrating Serum, $210, available at Nordstrom.



Rivkin points to calming ingredients — like the arnica and green, white and red teas found in this preservative-free formula — as helpful anti-inflammatories for those with rosacea. But, this serum does reddened complexions one better by packing mulberry root and bearberry extracts, thought to further reduce redness, while also wielding a free radical-fighting triple-threat, thanks to goji berry, pomegranate, and grapeseed extracts.

June Jacobs Redness Diffusing Serum, $60, available at Birchbox.



“Drying out acne-prone skin will only make your skin produce more oil,” Rivkin warns. So, he suggests those with blemish-prone skin seek a serum that both exfoliates and hydrates — like this one, which contains glycolic and salicylic acid, plus glycerin to moisturize.

H20+ Calming Corrector, $25, available at H20+


Another great option for breakout control comes from aesthetician Renée Rouleau. Instead of drying ingredients — which, again, can make things worse in the long run — this light, oil-free formula can be used daily to help hydrate and balance the skin, thanks to ingredients like phospholipids and antioxidants.

Renée Rouleau
Skin Correcting Serum, $42.50, available at Renée Rouleau.



Those with sensitive skin are generally instructed to ease up on the retinol so as not to agitate their already delicate complexions. But, this dry oil — comprised of nine cold-pressed superfood seed oils, and free of allergen-inducing essential oils — boasts natural retinol by way of broccoli oil, to help soothe skin and minimize the look of pores. Plus, it’s packed with anti-inflammatories, which Lupo recommends.

Sunday Riley Juno Hydroactive Cellular Face Oil, $125, available at Net-A-Porter.



We can’t totally undo skin damage caused by SPF-free afternoons spent as kids, but as Rivkin and Lupo note, vitamin C can help lighten discoloration, while brightening the overall complexion as well. This C-stocked formula also includes moisturizing glycerin, and retinol, another Rivkin favorite, to help exfoliate dead skin cells.

DermaQuest C Infusion Serum, $88, available at DermaQuest



Rivkin suggests those fighting the visible effects of time seek a serum with retinol, as it “reduces pore size, smoothes texture, and lightens brown spots, and vitamin C to strengthen the skin and protect it from further damage.” This organic, all plant-based serum boasts vitamin C via coconut water and retinol by way of tara tree and chicory root.

Eminence Bamboo Firming Fluid, $58, available at Dermstore.


If most retinol-infused serums are too drying for you, try out this formula from Pestle & Mortar. The retinol is balanced with cold-pressed grapeseed oil to coddle your skin while it goes to work.

Pestle & Mortar Superstar Retinol Night Oil, $109, available at Pestle & Mortar.



“Serums are designed to go underneath a moisturizer, but for someone with very oily skin, a serum alone may be enough to hydrate,” Rivkin says. We found this quick-absorbing, oil-based serum actually helped regulate our own oil production and negated the need for a moisturizer, allowing us to skip straight to an SPF.

Osmia Organics
Face Calibration Serum, $50, available at Osmia Organics.


This formula contains a peptide inspired by the muscle-freezing effect of snake venom, so it claims to tighten skin and smooth fine lines over time. Plus, it has blurring capabilities and dries quickly, making it a perfect primer.

Rodial Snake Serum O2, $162, available at Rodial.



The French may not get facelifts, but they certainly indulge in mesotherapy — vitamin and mineral injections that are believed to brighten and lift the skin. This serum acts as an echo-meso, delivering calcium, copper, and zinc, along with brightening vitamin C and hydrating hyaluronic acid, which Rivkin notes, “draws moisture to the skin.”

Lierac Concentré Mésolift Toning Radiance Serum, $60, available at Lierac.


The serum contains a potent blend of exfoliating acids (glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric, and salicylic) along with hydrators like raspberry extract and horse chestnut. And yet, it’s still gentle enough to use every night. One beauty editor recently finished the bottle and noticed that the dark spots that had developed after a bad reaction to a facial months prior had almost completely disappeared.

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, $90, available at Sephora.

By: Erika Stalder.