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What Exactly Is a Serum and How Can I Find a Cheap One?

One serum does not fit all faces — or budgets.

Photo: John Akehurst/Trunk Archive

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Skincare has become downright confusing. There are so many potions and categories, not to mention labels brimming with ingredient names like “osilift,” which are totally made up by marketing teams. And out of all the categories — of which there are a lot — none is more confusing than serums.

Serums theoretically contain a highly concentrated mixture of active skincare ingredients. Generally, they’re sold in small bottles, often with droppers, and have a texture that’s thicker than a toner but not as gooey as a lotion, though some are oil-based and some actually feel like thinner, watery lotions. (You should apply a lighter product like a serum before a thicker moisturizer.)

They’re meant to address specific skincare concerns as opposed to something like a moisturizer, whose purpose is inherent in the name. To shop for a good one, you have to do some label reading and be a little bit ingredient savvy.

Because serums are so concentrated, the story goes, they tend to skew to the pricey side. A lot of that is marketing and packaging, though, and while serums can run up into the hundreds of dollars (yeesh), there are plenty that are under $30. Figure out your biggest issues, figure out a budget, then read this.


Fine Lines/Firming/Anti-Aging

There are a lot of ingredients to look for here — retinol and its derivatives being the most studied and most effective by far. Peptides are also a plus. No. 7 Protect and Perfect Advanced Serum ($24.99) had a waiting list in 2009 after the BBC did a documentary on the scientist whose study showed that this serum actually can reduce wrinkles. It features a retinol derivative, peptides, and vitamin C derivatives.

Photo: No. 7

Then there’s CeraVe Renewing Cream Serum ($14.57), which looks utilitarian but packs a surprising ingredient punch. It contains retinol, ceramides to strengthen the skin barrier, and niacinamide, which can brighten and improve the appearance of pores.

Dark Spots/Acne Scars

Niacinamide, retinol, acids, arbutin, and vitamin C are all your friends in the fight against dark spots and acne scars, though these are very difficult to treat topically. Dark spot serums also tend to be weirdly expensive, but some reasonably-priced ones do exist. If you’re willing to give it a try but want a natural-skewing product, Burt’s Bees Brightening Dark Spot Corrector ($17.99) is a good place to start; it’s loaded with plant extracts if you’re into that. Garnier SkinActive Clearly Brighter Dark Spot Corrector ($16.99) contains more traditional ingredients like vitamin C and an acid for some gentle exfoliation.

Acne

Many acne treatments come in spot-treatment form, usually featuring benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or sulfur. But acne serums are meant to be adjuncts to your harsher acne treatment meds. Look for serums with zinc, acids, and salicylic acid. A bonus is that the retinol in your anti-ager can also tackle acne.

Photo: Juice Beauty

I’ve written about the cool things that the Canadian beauty company Deciem is doing, and its The Ordinary line is ridiculously cheap and perfect for serum newbies since each product features only one or two active ingredients. The Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% serum ($5.90) is a lightweight option for acne-prone skin.

Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum ($29) is a “natural” product that contains fruit acids to unclog pores and salicylic acid derived from willow bark. If you’re not used to acids, it can be a little tingly. (This is the company that makes Goop’s pricey skincare.)

Moisture

Sometimes you don’t want a heavy cream for moisture, and yes, there’s a serum for that. Look for hyaluronic acid, which absorbs water to keep skin moisturized, with the nice side effect of plumping up fine lines. Nip + Fab Dragon Blood Fix Plumping Serum ($19.99) is loaded with hyaluronic acid. Skinfix’s Moisture Boost Serum ($29.99) contains hyaluronic acid as well as squalane, another moisturizer, and some plant extracts. Neither feel greasy or goopy like a cream can.

Brightening/Texture/Radiance

This is the most confusing skin concept, but trust me, you want it. It’s that glow that everyone talks about. Look for products that contain acids for exfoliating and vitamin C, which is an antioxidant that helps to even skin tone as well as protect from skin damage caused by pollutants and other things in the environment. Retinol, skincare’s super hero, also can help with brightening. Pixi Overnight Glow Serum ($24) has been very buzzy in the skincare community lately, and is a good starter glycolic acid. The Ordinary also has a combo lactic acid plus hyaluronic blend ($6.50) that isn’t harsh.