Face Oils vs. Serums: How They Differ and When (and How) to Use Them

Close up of a skincare liquid on a pink background

Liz DeSousa / Byrdie

From hyaluronic acid formulas that soften the appearance of wrinkles to vitamin Cs that help to cultivate a more even skin tone, serums have become a mainstay in most skincare routines. Face oil, on the other hand, is a newer category of skincare—but one that is quickly gaining in popularity. Years ago, many skincare enthusiasts would balk at the idea of adding oil to their faces. Today, marula oil and jojoba oil are among the buzziest ingredients, sought out by those looking for smoother skin.

In this article, we’ll review the difference between serums and face oils and when (and why) to include each in your skincare routine. 

Meet the Expert

Elyse Love, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist practicing medical and cosmetic dermatology at Gramercy Laser and Medical Dermatology in New York City. 

Skin Oil vs. Skin Water

Both oil and water are essential for the skin’s proper function. The dermis holds collagen, elastin, and skin water to give the skin a plump and youthful appearance. The epidermis (skin barrier) contains important skin oils in the form of lipids, fatty acids, and ceramides. These oils form a barrier that prevents loss of the essential skin water. These oils, also called sebum, also help to lubricate the skin cells to give the skin a soft, smooth feel.

What Are Face Oils?

Face oils are liquid topicals that do not contain water. The exact composition of the face oil may vary, but as a rule, face oils are designed to mimic and supplement the skin’s natural sebum production. Because face oils tend to include larger molecules, their effects are typically limited to supporting the skin barrier. Linoleic acid and squalane are popular face oil ingredients as they mimic and support the skin barrier’s natural oil function.

The Benefits of Face Oils

Face oils are designed to deliver a unique balance of fatty acids and lipids to soothe and support the skin barrier. Barrier function is the skin’s number one function. The skin barrier prevents transepidermal water loss and protects the internal body from UV radiation, pollution, viruses, fungi, and bacteria. Damage to the skin barrier can lead to skin infections and a dull appearance, as well as irritation and dehydration.

The skin barrier naturally contains lipids, ceramides, and fatty acids. The production of these natural occlusives slows with age and is further worn away by environmental factors such as high wind and harsh cleansers. In addition, those with dry skin, eczema, and/or rosacea have genetic defects in their skin barrier function.

Of note: Not everyone needs barrier repair. Those with oily skin tend to produce excess oil as is, and a face oil may further compound the problem of clogged pores and acne breakouts. 

What Are Serums?

A serum is a concentrated, lightweight formula that is typically applied after cleansing and toning and before moisturizing. While face oils deliver their results physically by providing structural support, serums are classically designed to penetrate into the skin and regulate its internal functions.

The Benefits of Serums

Serums have a variety of benefits depending on the specific ingredients contained in the formula. 

Hydrating serums typically contain humectants, such as glycerin and hyaluronic acid, to draw water into the skin and increase skin hydration. Antioxidant serums, such as niacinamide and vitamin C, provide antioxidant support to skin DNA. Pigment-regulating serums, such as tranexamic acid and glycolic acid, help to normalize melanocyte activity and brighten the skin tone. 

There is significant variability in the feel and function of serums and they should be chosen based on skin concerns. They can be mixed and matched to create a personalized, individual skincare routine.

Which to Use (and When)

A face oil may be beneficial to those with dry and/or irritated skin, either seasonally or year-round. This includes those with eczema and rosacea. Since face oils are occlusive, they should be applied as the last step of the skincare routine after moisturizer. The goal is to lock in the good stuff and lock out the bad stuff. Those with acne or peri-oral dermatitis should exercise caution when adding a face oil to their routine, as face oils may potentially trigger a flare of these conditions. 

Serums can be a great addition to any routine. The right serum for you will depend on your specific skincare needs and desires. Since serums are lightweight, they are designed to be used before moisturizers. They can also be paired with a face oil, if needed, with the moisturizer sandwiched between the serum and the face oil. 

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