Ask any dermatologist you know, and they’ll tell you that serums are where it’s at when it comes to your skincare routine. More lightweight than moisturizers, they contain higher amounts of active ingredients—meaning they’re legit workhorses that really deliver. Equally noteworthy is the fact that there really is a serum for any and every complexion concern you may have. Want to fade spots? There’s a serum for that. Trying to smooth fine lines? Yep, plenty of formulas for that, too. Want a do-it-all option? There are multitasking serums galore.
Byrdie Researched & Approved
The SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Serum blows the competition out of the water with its triple-threat combination of Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and ferulic acid. As loved as it is by dermatologists and beauty editors alike, we know it's pricey. For a more affordable pick, consider Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum, a great drugstore find that relies on tried-and-true retinol.
We conducted hours of research on the best face serums, and took a couple of top-rated dermatologist picks out for a spin. We considered dozens of face serums for this roundup, evaluating each on its list of active ingredients, texture, how easily the formula absorbs into skin, and value. Combining testing insights with dermatologist picks and third party reviews, we compiled this list of best in show, taking into account all skin types, tones, and concerns.
Ahead, find the best face serums to add to your routine.
Skinceuticals C E Ferulic
Lightweight formula absorbs easily
Vitamins C and E and ferulic acid repair free-radical damage and fade discoloration
This is the GOAT of all serums, truly, boasting fan-favorite status among consumers, beauty editors, and dermatologists alike. Credit is due to the synergistic combo and a specially formulated ratio of three heavy-hitting antioxidants—vitamin C, ferulic acid, and vitamin E—to protect your skin from free radical damage. It’s preventative and protective, yes, but can also help improve existing signs of aging and/or sun damage, making it a solid option for pretty much anyone and everyone.
Price at time of publish: $169
Benefits: Firms, smooths, evens skin tone, protects against free radicals | Skin Type: Dry, sensitive | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
What Our Testers Say
"I've been obsessed with CE Ferulic since my career as a beauty editor began, and it's one of the only products I've stuck with for that long. It's a dermatologist and editor favorite for good reason—it evens skin tone and discoloration and protects your skin from free radicals like sun damage and pollution. It's one of the greats." — Hallie Gould, Editorial Director
Rosen Skincare Paloma Serum
AHAs and BHAs target uneven texture
Vitamin C helps to fade dark spots
Possibly unsuitable for sensitive skin
Sure, this is affordable in its own right, but add to that the fact that it is a true multi-tasker—tackling uneven texture, tone, and preventing future breakouts—and you’ve really got yourself a steal of a deal. It touts both alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy acids (in the form of glycolic acid and white willow bark, respectively), as well as grapefruit extract for a dose of vitamin C. The fruity scent is just a bonus.
Price at time of publish: $14
Benefits: Exfoliates, unclogs pores, evens skin tone, prevents breakouts | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum
Leaves no facial residue
Retinol targets fine lines and wrinkles
Possibly unsuitable for sensitive skin
This well-reviewed formula is inexpensive and effective, a real drugstore staple. The star of the show is a unique type of retinol, accelerated retinol SA, that helps to combat wrinkles, boosts radiance, and improve skin texture—in a matter of weeks. There are also two humectants (ingredients that attract water to the skin), hyaluronic acid and glycerin, that help keep skin plump, hydrated, and supple.
Price at time of publish: $20
Benefits: Smooths lines, evens skin tone, boosts radiance | Skin Type: Dry, aging | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Dr. Barbara Sturm Calming Serum
Botanical extracts soothe skin
No matter whether it’s a chemical peel, a little too much sun, an international flight, or just day-to-day stress that’s making your skin freak out, this serum is the solution. (True story: Hailey Baldwin uses it whenever she travels.) Along with the brand’s hero ingredient, purslane, which hydrates and protects cell membranes from free radicals, it also has a plant-based complex of Cardiospermum, echium, and sunflower oil—a trio that helps quickly calm and soothe redness and irritation.
Price at time of publish: $255
Benefits: Reduces redness, soothes irritation, hydrates, protects against free radicals | Skin Type: All | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Discoloration
SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense
Niacinamide targets discoloration
AHAs promote exfoliation
Improvements might be too slow for some
Yep, that’s another SkinCeuticals product on the list. There are all kinds of radiance-boosting and spot-fading ingredients in this effective formula, namely 1% percent kojic acid, 5% niacinamide, 3% tranexamic acid, plus 5% HEPES, an ingredient that promotes exfoliation. It’s so effective that in a 12-week clinical study, participants show an average improvement of 60% in brown spots and patches. Color us impressed.
Price at time of publish: $102
Benefits: Fades dark spots, smooths, boosts radiance, exfoliates | Skin Type: All | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Large Pores
Renée Rouleau Pore + Wrinkle Perfecting Serum
Glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acid target the appearance of pores
Possibly unsuitable for sensitive skin
Fact: There’s nothing you can do (and no product you can use) to actually change the size of your pores. But you can do things (read: use serums) that will help make them appear less prominent, like this one, from one of Byrdie’s most beloved estheticians, Renée Rouleau. At work is a potent combo of glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acids that help to clear clogged pores, making them appear smaller. And, per the name, this blend also helps exfoliate to help fade hyperpigmentation and smooth fine lines.
Price at time of publish: $50
Benefits: Exfoliates, clears pores, fades dark spots, smooth fine lines | Skin Type: Acne-prone | Dosage: 1 to 2 pumps | Size: 0.5 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"Even though it’s pretty potent, it’s one of the only serums I’ve tried in which I notice an actual difference in the brightness, clarity, and tone of my skin. I use it for three nights straight and then swap in another one for three nights, but this one always keeps my skin glowy while keeping my small (easily clogged pores) in check." — Erin Jahns, Former Associate Editor
Best for Scars
Biologique Recherche Serum Placenta
Hydrolyzed placental protein expedites healing
A little goes a long way
Pump functionality needs work
Acne scars are infamous for being tough to treat, but this healing and reparative formula can help in a big way. It contains only four ingredients—water, hydrolyzed placental protein, phenoxyethanol, ethylhexylglycerin—and works by expediting your skin’s natural healing process. To that point, we’ve found it helps fade dark circles and other pigment spots, too.
Price at time of publish: $189
Benefits: Fades scars and dark under-eye circles | Skin Type: All | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Vintner's Daughter Active Botanical Serum
All-natural blend of 22 active botanicals
Richly moisturizing formula
Another option that has fan-favorite status, this formula is all about harnessing the power of plants. More specifically, it touts 22 active, organic, and wild-crafted botanicals that are chock-full of everything from antioxidants to vitamins to essential fatty acids. In short, it moisturizes, nourishes, and protects, a universally good pick for anyone looking to improve the overall health and quality of their skin. It’s so good and effective that the brand only makes one other product.
Price at time of publish: $195
Benefits: Hydrates, nourishes | Skin Type: All | Dosage: 5 to 6 drops | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"I’ve been using this beloved serum for years after a fellow beauty editor recommended it to me, and it’s been a staple in my routine ever since. Even though it feels more like an oil than a serum, it doesn’t break my skin out the way other face oils do. Instead, it leaves my skin looking smooth and glowy every time. I like to dispense a few drops into my hands and rub them together to activate the serum, as the brand suggests, before I press it into my face. I can’t say for sure if this application method actually makes the product more effective, but it does make me feel fancy." — Karli Bendlin, Senior Editor
SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum
Amino acid complex helps regenerate cells
Pump functionality needs work
Yes, the price tag on this is pretty shocking… but so are its astounding anti-aging results. Another long-time staple of beauty editors and derms alike, it relies on growth factors and a protein and amino acid complex to regenerate skin cells, reduce inflammation, strengthen the skin, and more. (FYI, those growth factors are human-derived though, which may be off-putting to some.) Use it regularly, and you’ll absolutely see a difference.
Price at time of publish: $165
Benefits: Smooths, firms, boosts radiance, soothes irritation | Skin Type: Aging | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best With Retinol
Dr. Dennis Gross Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Texture Serum
Contains a potent blend of retinol, ferulic acid, and bakuchiol to resurface skin
True story: Our mega sensitive skin could never tolerate a retinol product… until we tried this serum. We’re not quite sure how the magic formula works so well, with not even a trace of irritation, but you better believe it does. The first of its two namesake ingredients supports collagen production and minimizes the production of sebum, and the latter offers powerful antioxidant protection. It also contains bakuchiol, a plant-based ingredient that provides similar effects to retinol. The product also works super fast; we noticed an improvement in our skin’s texture, tone, and overall smoothness after a week or so.
Price at time of publish: $72
Benefits: Targets pores, uneven texture, blemishes | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone, aging | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Retinol Alternative
Boots Ingredients Bakuchiol Face Serum
Bakuchiol delivers non-irritating turnover
Only relies on one active ingredient
If you're sensitive to retinol, but after its turnover effects, consider adding bakuchiol to your routine. It’s the star of the show here, offering similar effects to retinol when it comes to collagen stimulation and improvement in texture and tone, but with no irritation.
Price at time of publish: $9
Benefits: Targets pores, uneven texture, wrinkles | Skin Type: Aging | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator
Proprietary blend of hyaluronic acid
Pairs well with other products
When moisturizer alone just won’t cut it, layer this super hydrating serum underneath. The name refers to a proprietary mix of five types of hyaluronic acid; that combo works to deliver both instant and long-lasting hydration, up to eight hours worth, to be exact. The point is, your skin will instantly be more hydrated (as well as smoother, plumper, and more supple), and will stay that way all day long. The primer-like texture layers beautifully under makeup, too.
Price at time of publish: $184
Benefits: Hydrates | Skin Type: Dry, aging | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Augustinus Bader The Serum
TFC8 patented blend of ingredients
This cult-favorite serum uses the brand’s TFC8 patented technology, a combo of over 40 ingredients, and the result of over 30 years of research. In short, it works by basically helping your skin act younger, which is why this formula is ideal for tackling everything from dryness to hyperpigmentation to wrinkles to redness.
Price at time of publish: $375
Benefits: Hydrates, boosts radiance, smooths fine lines | Skin Type: All | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for a Compromised Skin Barrier
BYOMA Hydrating Serum
Ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids strengthen skin barrier
Only hydrates and provides barrier repair
At the risk of greatly oversimplifying matters, the key to healthy (and beautiful) skin is a strong and healthy skin barrier. Essentially, the very outermost layer of the skin is responsible for keeping moisture in and irritants out. And there are three primary components that ensure this: ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids. They are the stars of this new brand’s tri-ceramide complex. All of their products contain it and docs on barrier repair, but this serum really boosts your barrier. Alongside that complex, there are also hydrating squalane and glycerin in the mix, all of which leave your skin feeling softer, smoother, and generally healthier.
Price at time of publish: $16
Benefits: Hydrates, barrier repair | Skin Type: All | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment
Lactic acid resurfaces and brightens
Lactic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid, is one of the more gentle acids out there. This makes it a choice pick for either sensitive skin types or for those looking for a product they can use every day sans irritation. It’s the key player in this serum, which helps to dissolve dead skin cells to improve the look of lines and wrinkles, and generally leave skin looking smooth and glowing. Fun fact: Lactic acid is also innately hydrating, so you get a little bit of that benefit, too.
Price at time of publish: $85
Benefits: Improves texture, evens skin tone, hydrates | Skin Type: All | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
ILIA Super Serum Skin Tint With SPF 40
Hyaluronic and plant-based squalane deliver moisture
Niacinamide targets discoloration
Color can change slightly as it settles
Can be a little liquid-y for some
For anyone who wants to speed up their morning skincare routine and/or just wants to minimize the number of bottles in their bathroom, this one-stop shop is ideal. It really is all you need to apply to your skin in the a.m. First and foremost, you get that important dose of (mineral-based) sun protection. It also imparts a beautiful wash of color, available in 32 shades. The formula contains hydrating hyaluronic acid and plant-based squalane, plus niacinamide, to combat inflammation to even out skin tone.
Price at time of publish: $48
Benefits: Sun protection, color, hydrates, evens skin tone | Skin Type: All | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Acne-Prone Skin
Dermalogica AGE Bright Clearing Serum
Salicylic acid unclogs pores
Lightweight formula absorbs quickly
Clear your complexion with this blemish bluster. It relies on salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid that’s oil-soluble, meaning it can penetrate into pores to break up excess oil and unclog them. That’d be good enough for us, but the benefits don’t stop there. It combines salicylic acid with niacinamide, which is both anti-inflammatory (good for minimizing the redness and discomfort of current pimples) and boosting radiance, helping to ward off any of the discoloration that can occur after a breakout.
Price at time of publish: $69
Benefits: Clears breakouts, boosts radiance, fades dark spots, reduces redness | Skin Type: Oily, combination, acne-prone | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Rose Ingleton MD Complexion Brightening Booster
Lactic acid addresses dullness
Hyaluronic acid delivers moisture
Glycolic acid corrects dark spots
Collagen peptides re-texturize skin
Best suited to oily/combination skin
This dermatologist brand is results-driven, and touts a clean, nutrient-rich product line, infused with Dr. Ingleton's Jamaican SuperFruit Blend featuring hyaluronic acid and sugarcane, as well as citrus fruit extracts. Active ingredients also include some major complexion brighteners. A potent blend of AHAs, glycolic acid, and lactic acid target dullness and hyperpigmentation. Collagen peptides aid with discoloration and help repair skin and improving texture.
Price at time of publish: $70
Benefits: Fades dark spots, brightens dull skin | Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, and oily | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Hyperpigmentation
Eadem Milk Marvel Dark Spot Serum with Niacinamide and Vitamin C
Niacinamide, encapsulated vitamin C, and amber algae fade dark spots
Formula preserves melanated skin’s natural tone as it treats dark spots
Some reviewers note it's hard to get product out
This fragrance-free formula is specifically calibrated for skin of color to reduce visible dark spots, hyperpigmentation, and post-acne marks with niacinamide, encapsulated vitamin C, and amber algae. The texture is silky and absorbs easily into skin, with reviewers noting it works rapidly to diminish the appearance of blemishes from cystic acne.
Price at time of publish: $68
Benefits: Fades dark spots including hyperpigmentation, brightens dull skin, resurfaces acne blemishes | Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, and oily | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Vieve's Leaves Restorative Serum
E-CANN Proprietary Blend of fruit stem cells and peptides repair skin
Hyaluronic acid and organic aloe deliver moisture
Lightweight formula absorbs quickly and easily
This ultra-lightweight serum melts into skin without any sticky skin feel, and visibly reduces redness and inflammation quickly. A proprietary botanical formula made from fruit stem cell technology and CBD also features broad-spectrum vitamins and antioxidants and leaves skin soft to the touch. Hyaluronic acid and organic aloe make the formula ideal for people with sensitive skin who enjoy botanical products.
Price at time of publish: $85
Benefits: Calms inflammation, reduces redness, clears acne | Skin Type: Normal, dry, sensitive, combination, and oily | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
What Our Editors Say
"Serums don't typically sink into skin like this formula, which absorbs in seconds. I'm obsessed with the instant velvety skin-feel I experience as soon as I apply." — Jill Di Donato, Senior Commerce Editor
Best for Dewy Skin
Tatcha The Dewy Serum
Lactic acid exfoliates gently
Hadasei-3 Complex includes fermented blend of antioxidants
Creates dewy complexion when worn under makeup
This top-rated serum has a milky texture and leaves dry skin feeling spongey with just one application. Tatcha's Hadasei-3 complex includes a fermented blend of antioxidants, lactic acid, algae and green tea extract to effectively exfoliate without irritation. The formula is ultra-hydrating and excellent under makeup, especially if you're trying to create a dewy, glass skin look.
Price at time of publish: $89
Our best overall pick is SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Serum, an unmatched formula when it comes to treating existing and preventing future skin damage from free radicals. For a more affordable pick, consider Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum, a great drugstore find that relies on tried-and-true retinol.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Barbara Sturm is a German aesthetics doctor and the founder of the fan-favorite Dr. Barbara Sturm skincare range. She began her career in orthopedics before bringing her clinical research and knowledge into the skincare world.
What to Look for in a Face Serum
This will really depend on your skin concerns and goals. You can buy a serum that focuses on a single ingredient or combines a few. Another option is to use one formulation in the morning and something different before bed. Nourishing, hydrating, protective ingredients are great during the day (think hyaluronic acid and antioxidants like vitamin C), whereas resurfacing or super nourishing options work a treat at night (vitamin A, AHAs, BHAs, and peptides are all great).
To help you get started, Dr. Barbara Sturm, aesthetics doctor and founder of her eponymous skincare line, recommends hyaluronic acid as a great ingredient for almost all skin types, especially those prone to dehydration. For skin types that are prone to congestion, zinc, niacinamide, and salicylic acid (a form of BHA) are all great options. For uneven skin tone, vitamin C, vitamin E, ferulic acid, and niacinamide will help. Finally, for those concerned with lines and wrinkles, vitamin A and its many derivatives (retinol, retinoic acid, retinoids) will be your best friend. You can also try peptides and amino acids for an extra boost.
Serums that contain higher concentrations of active ingredients are generally more expensive. That’s not to say you have to fork out an arm and a leg for a quality product, but they tend to sit higher than a cleanser or sunscreen.
What is a face serum?
Serums, which are thinner in texture, are results-driven and formulated so that they can penetrate the deeper layers of the skin to target certain skin concerns. They often contain a combination of efficacious ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin B3 (AKA niacinamide), or hydroxy acids.
How do you apply face serum?
According to Dr. Sturm, you should apply serums onto “cleansed skin immediately after drying to avoid trans-epidermal water loss, and before a day or night cream.” Sturm explains that serums precede but do not replace a moisturizer. (A moisturizer or face cream should be applied over the top to seal everything in.)
How often should you use face serum?
“As often as your skin requires it,” explains Sturm, who layers her Hyaluronic Serum twice daily, plus the Super Anti-Aging Serum and Night Serum additionally before bed. A good rule of thumb is to use a serum both morning and night as part of your skincare routine.
Do I even need a face serum?
No one really needs a face serum, but if you’re hoping to achieve a certain skincare goal or improve skin health, a potent, targeted serum is probably your best bet.
Why Trust Byrdie
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. She considered dozens of top-rated dermatologist recommended serums for this roundup, evaluating each on its formula of active ingredients, targeted skin concerns, and value.
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