There have been loads of questions recently about serums; people wanting to know what they are, what to do with them and – this seems to be the most frequently asked question – whether they are worth the money. Are they just another marketing ploy to get us to add a step to our beauty routine? Or do they actually serve a purpose? Well the quick answer to this would be yes, they do serve a purpose. They are actually very useful indeed. There are always exceptions to the rule, and there are rubbish examples of every type of beauty product, but in general I would say that serums tend to be some of the most hardworking and effective skincare products out there. They are concentrated, potent little workhorses that take mere seconds to apply but can have really quite spectacular effects on your skin.
A serum will usually be very lightweight and very fast-acting. It will have (hopefully!) been formulated to penetrate the skin and deliver potent active ingredients, which makes it a completely different kettle of fish to a moisturiser. A moisturiser might also contain active ingredients, and most good ones do, but it is primarily designed to form a sort of barrier between the skin and the outside world, helping the skin to retain moisture. I think of it all as a bit like some kind of army task-force; you’ve got the super-stealth ninja-marine SAS fighters who are dressed all in black, with balaclavas on, holding knives in their teeth and carrying sniper rifles on their backs. (Military details – not my strong point.) They are like the serum – straight into the enemy building, running silently down the dark corridors and taking out the baddies with a quick elbow to the throat or snap to the neck. (Sorry, totally getting carried away with this analogy.) The moisturisers, on the other hand, the army footmen, have surrounded the baddies’ building. Some of them are super-stealth ninja-fighter people, but they won’t ever go very far in to the building; their main job is to protect the outside perimeter. Stop people getting in or out. Forming a barrier. It’s your Ninja SAS Taskforce (aka Serum Squad) who are doing the most active work and, though the operation could survive with just the footmen, the Ninjas definitely make things happen faster and better.
The wonderful thing about a Ninja squad – I mean a serum – is that it takes absolutely no time to apply. It’s a quicker step than cleansing, most definitely, and it’s even quicker than slapping on a moisturiser because it has been formulated to be so lightweight and to
storm the building penetrate the skin so fast. And it’s weightless, usually, so you won’t even know that it’s there. For people with oily, combi or acne-prone skin, people who maybe panic about things clogging pores and triggering breakouts, it’s the skincare texture of dreams; no heaviness, no residue – quite often a serum is so light that it’s just like applying water.
Light, but so powerful; good serums carry the most active and effective of ingredients. Again, many of these ingredients can and will be in a moisturiser too, but it’s the serum (the Ninja Taskforce, remember) that really gets stuck in there. It’s not bulked out with filler ingredients or weighed down by heavy emollients, it’s just free to get on with its job. Delivering things like salicylic acid (brilliant for clearing blackheads and keeping spotty skin clear), glycolic and lactic acids (great for exfoliation to reveal fresh, brighter skin), antioxidants such as Vitamin C (help to protect the skin against things like UV damage and pollution) and potent moisturisers like hyaluronic acid. And it’s easy to be confused by all of these ingredients, but really it’s as simple as identifying your skincare concern. If indeed you have one. If you don’t, then there are plenty of great all-rounder serums that tackle dehydration, dullness and general wear-and-tear – I’m currently in the middle of doing a proper test of Lancome’s Genefique, which addresses firmness, wrinkles, radiance and a whole load of other stuff, and I would definitely add an antioxidant serum into my morning routine, whatever my general skin concerns. Here are a few serum suggestions to get you started – I’ve tried to include a few different price-points, but it’s well worth investing in the best you can afford.
Antioxidant Serums (apply in the morning before moisturiser/SPF – if you want more info on antioxidants and what they could do for your skin, click here)
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic – just the absolute Don of antioxidant treatments. You need the teeniest bit, so this little bottle lasts an age, but it’s still quite the investment. £97, or £82 at The Skinshop via Amazon.
Caudalie Polyphenol [C15]; lush and really quite reasonably priced. It’s £32 here.
Exfoliating Serums (I use these overnight a few times a week to get a really good glow)
Alpha-H Liquid Gold Intensive Night Repair Serum – uses glycolic acid to slough away dead skin cells and make your skin brighter and clearer, but a whole load of other ingredients to help hydrate and firm and even out skintone. An all-in-one wonderstuff, it’s £49 here.
I’m also quite a fan of Olay’s glycolic serum, the Night Renewal Elixir. It’s not quite as potent, I don’t think, but you can often get it at Boots with some kind of amazing discount and on Amazon at the moment it’s £8.89! (See here.) I find that it’s a little gentler than the Alpha-H, so perhaps a good one to start with.
Hydrating Serums (use night or day, before your moisturiser, if you feel as though you need a bit of an extra hydration boost)
If you need serious hydration, like, you’re going to the desert for a month, then try Skin 111’s Theorem Repair Serum. I had a sample sachet of this and applied a tiny amount one night; I didn’t moisturise for two days afterwards. Even after washing, my skin just was ridiculously plump and moisturised, it was like I couldn’t get rid of it! You can find it at Harrods – very pricey, be warned!
Deep Wrinkle Serums (Retinol treatments for full-on action. Careful with these, they don’t suit everyone and many get redness and peeling. Tread lightly!)
My assistant Rach has something of an addiction to Redermic [R] from La Roche-Posay. The deep line on her forehead has, over the course of a few months, all but disappeared. Well worth a look, and it’s not pricey at all – £25 with delivery here.
Time Release Retinol Treatment from Murad also comes very highly recommended. I haven’t tried any Retinol (waiting for the serious lines before I bring the big guns out) but an extensive ask-around revealed that this was a favourite. It’s £58.50 at FeelUnique.com here.
Serums for Oily and Acne-Prone Skin (targeted treatments for blemishes)
La Roche-Posay’s Efflaclar Duo+ is one of my favourite spot treatments. It’s not exactly a serum, but it’s lightweight and easily absorbed and for most people does require some kind of additional moisturiser on top. You can find it at Escentual.com here, it’s £13.15
Manuka Doctor Apiclear Skin Treatment Serum. I love this serum, but can’t find a whole lot of reviews online, so it’s more of an obscure one! It’s lightweight, fresh and when I was having my Dark Days of adult acne, it really helped to keep things clear and calm. It’s well-priced at just under £20, but Manuka Doctor are currently selling it for a tenner through Amazon here. (Amazon is literally going to destroy the world. But good for bargain beauty… Cripes.)
Serums for Brightness and Even Skintone (tackling those dark spots and any general lacklustre)
Philosophy’s Miracle Worker Dark Spot Corrector did actually work miracles on my acne scars. I see mixed reviews on it, but I stand by my opinion on this. It really worked for me. It’s fifty quid-ish but I’ve found it on Death of the Retail World for £28. (Amazon)
Also see SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic, above – excellent for brightness and dark spots.
Serums for Firmness
Filorga’s Skin Structure serum is brilliant. Even if you don’t have a whole lot to lift, it’s a great anti-fatigue treatment and works wonders if you’re regularly burning the candle at both ends, so to speak. It’s £54 at M&S here.
I also really like Lierac’s Mesolift serum. I used to use this when I was travelling a lot for modelling jobs, it seemed to do a good job of keeping my face looking fresh and tight. I pick this up when I’m in Paris because I don’t think you can easily get it in the UK or elsewhere, but I have sourced a few on – yes, you’ve guessed it – Amazon. It’s thirty pounds.
No7 Lift and Luminate serums for day and night – I tried these last year and liked them a lot. They are formulated for skin 45+ but hey, I like to live close to the edge. They cost £24.96 for the pair here at Boots. I found them to work well at brightening, and there was a definite tightness and firmness too.
I hope that’s given you a few ideas if you’re looking to get started with a serum. I think that serums are the most brilliant things; I love that you can get that “hit” of active ingredients without adding another layer of stuff to your skin. They are especially great if you want to apply something beneath your SPF, BB Cream, Tinted Moisturiser or what have you and don’t want another cream layered up. Just swipe on the serum and get on with the final step. People with dry skin will no doubt still need a moisturiser, but for those who are on the oily or combination side, it’s just straight in with the multipurpose makeup/moisturiser/SPF/whatever it is you’re finishing with.
There’s a whole serum category here on the site, so have a browse of that if you’d like to read more reviews, and feel free to leave your own favourites and suggestions in the comments box below. I’ll be reporting back on the Genefique in a few weeks, so keep an eye out for that.