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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. (We could go on, but you get the picture.)
Since there’s no shortage of serums out there, consider below the ultimate cheat sheet of the best of the best.
Keep reading for the best face serums to add to your routine.
Best Overall: Skinceuticals C E Ferulic
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.
Benefits: Firms, smooths, evens skin tone, protects against free radicals | Skin Type: Dry, sensitive | Dosage: 4 to 5 drops | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
What Our Editors 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
Best Budget: Rosen Skincare Paloma Serum
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.
Benefits: Exfoliates, unclogs pores, evens skin tone, prevents breakouts | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone | Dosage: 1 to 2 pumps | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Drugstore: Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum
Leaves no facial residue
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.
Benefits: Smooths lines, evens skin tone, boosts radiance | Skin Type: Dry, aging | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Calming: Dr. Barbara Sturm Calming Serum
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—a trio that helps quickly calm and soothe redness and irritation.
Benefits: Reduces redness, soothes irritation, hydrates, protects against free radicals | Skin Type: All | Dosage: One dropper-full of serum | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Discoloration: SkinCeuticals Discoloration Defense
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.
Benefits: Fades dark spots, smooths, boosts radiance, exfoliates | Skin Type: All | Dosage: 3 to 5 drops | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Large Pores: Renée Rouleau Pore + Wrinkle Perfecting Serum
Works on more than just the face
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.
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
Pairs well with other products
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.
Benefits: Fades scars and dark under-eye circles | Skin Type: All | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Organic: Vintner's Daughter Active Botanical Serum
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.
Benefits: Hydrates, nourishes | Skin Type: All | Dosage: 5 to 6 drops | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
What Our Editor's 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
Best Anti-Aging: SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum
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.
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 tried-and-true ingredients
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.
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
Only relies on one active ingredient
Speaking of bakuchiol, this is a great choice to try if you want to avoid retinol for whatever reason (e.g., if you’re pregnant). 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. And can we talk about the super affordable price?
Benefits: Targets pores, uneven texture, wrinkles | Skin Type: Aging | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Hydrating: SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator
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.
Benefits: Hydrates | Skin Type: Dry, aging | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Splurge: Augustinus Bader The Serum
Everyone goes gaga for the moisturizer from this brand, so it’s no surprise that the beauty industry went wild when they launched a serum version. Both contain the brand’s TFC8 patented technology (the serum is just more lightweight and faster-absorbing), 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.
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
Explanation of ingredients on the packaging
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.
Benefits: Hydrates, barrier repair | Skin Type: All | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Exfoliating: Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment
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.
Benefits: Improves texture, evens skin tone, hydrates | Skin Type: All | Size: 1 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Multi-Tasking: ILIA Beauty Super Serum Skin Tint with SPF 40
Wide range of shades
Streamlines your routine
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 oh-so-important dose of (mineral-based) sun protection. It also imparts a beautiful wash of color, and, to that point, comes in a whopping array of 32 shades. As for the serum part of things, it contains hydrating hyaluronic acid and plant-based squalane, plus niacinamide, a wunderkind of the skincare world that does everything from combat inflammation to even out skin tone. What more could you ask for?
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
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.
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
There are tons (and tons) of great serums out there, but the SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic really is unmatched when it comes to offering amazing results, both treating existing and preventing future skin damage from free radicals. Both the SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum and Augustinus Bader The Serum are very pricey, but worth the splurge, thanks to their unparalleled anti-aging powers.
On the flip side, the affordable Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum is a great drugstore find that relies on tried-and-true retinol. Speaking of, the Dr. Dennis Gross Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Texture Renewal Serum is another retinol-based fave, one that earns our vote for being super gentle and non-irritating, though still highly effective.
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. A skincare enthusiast, a serum was one of the first products she ever started using regularly when she started working in the beauty industry. She’s currently rotating through many of the ones featured on this list.
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.
According to our Diversity Pledge, 15% of products in our newly-published market roundups will feature Black-owned and/or Black-founded brands. At the time of publishing, we were not able to find enough face serums from a Black-owned and/or Black-founded business to meet this percentage. If you know of one we should consider, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will evaluate the product ASAP.
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