Facial Serum vs. Facial Moisturizer — What's the Difference?

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Serums and moisturizers help the skin in different ways. Sometimes a serum alone will be enough for what your skin needs, and other times you're going to find that you need both a serum and a moisturizer. Serums are typically thinner and lighter than moisturizers, and have a wide variety of functions. Typically, serums have active ingredients in them that you want to penetrate deeply as possible into your skin. For this reason, you should always apply a serum directly to your skin after cleansing or toning and before your moisturizer and sunscreen. They absorb quickly, and can be used both morning and night. They're not meant to replace your moisturizer, but can be used to boost its hydrating effects.

Serums are used to address a variety of skincare issues. For example, there are anti-aging serums, skin brightening serums, and acne prevention serums. Serums tend to be more expensive than other skin care products, but being that they're full of potent ingredients, a little goes a long way.

Moisturizers are thicker and creamier than serums. They're meant to hydrate the skin and prevent water loss. Some moisturizers have added anti-aging ingredients, so they do double duty for your skin. But in order to really address a difficult skin care problem, like sun damage, you'll want to combine your moisturizer with a quality serum. 

Serums to Try

Origins Plantscription Anti-Aging Power Serum
Origins Plantscription Anti-Aging Power Serum $78

This Origins serum helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It's on the pricier side, but a bottle lasts a long time and will keep your skin well hydrated, along with providing the anti-aging benefits it's lauded for.

Violet C Serum
Tatcha Violet C Brightening Serum $88

Key Ingredients

Alpha-hydroxy acids are a group of acid compounds, most often derived from plant-based sources. There are a variety of different ones out there, some of which include glycolic (derived from sugarcane) and lactic (derived from sour milk). While they all act on the surface of the skin as chemical exfoliants, they differ in size, and subsequently penetration and potency.

There are plenty of serums with brightening effects, but we recommend checking out Tatcha's Violet-C Brightening Serum ($88). It has thousands of positive reviews for a reason, and the AHAs combined with their 20% Vitamin C Blend make for a potent but not overwhelming brightening formula.

Anti-Acne Serum
Mario Badescu Anti-Acne Serum $20

There are also a variety of acne preventative serums on the market today. We recommend checking out the Mario Badescu Anti-Acne Serum ($20). This serum is a salicylic acid-based gel that you apply directly to any acne-prone areas of your face to clear up existing pimples and prevent new ones from forming. 

Moisturizers to Try

A moisturizer has larger molecules than a serum. This means that a moisturizer usually won't penetrate the skin as deeply, or as quickly, as a serum will. This is a double-edged sword: if you're looking for strong effects you should be relying on your serum, but if you're looking for continuous hydration, that's your moisturizer's job.

Supergoop Superscreen Daily Moisturizer
Supergoop Superscreen Daily Moisturizer SPF 40 $38

If you're looking for a daily moisturizer, we recommend checking out Supergoop's Superscreen Daily Moisturizer ($38). It's been formulated for all skin types, and provides all-day hydration to your skin along with SPF 40, which is necessary to protect your skin from the sun's harmful rays.

Stem Cellular Anti-Wrinkle Moisturizer
Juice Beauty Stem Cellular Anti-Wrinkle Moisturizer $70

Check out Juice Beauty's Stem Cellular Anti-Wrinkle Moisturizer ($70) if you are looking to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while getting your skin to ideal moisture levels. This moisturizer has been around for a while and it's a fan-favorite because it's made with antioxidant-rich ingredients and ideal for all skin types. 

Hyaluronic Gel Moisturizer
Tata Harper Hyaluronic Gel Moisturizer $116

Key Ingredients

Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring polysaccharide found in the human body. It acts as a cushioning and lubrication agent for our joints, nerves, hair, skin, and eyes. When used in skincare, it acts as a moisture binder, which means that it will attach itself to the water in the cells (while also attracting and holding water from the air) making them plump.

If your concern is oily and breakout-prone skin, we recommend trying Tata Harper's Hyaluronic Gel Moisturizer ($116). It's formulated to be light so as to not cause excess oil, but the hyaluronic acid soaks in easily. Thankfully, it's also all-natural, so you don't have to worry about any of the ingredients.

Bottom Line

If you have a problem with your skin that you'd like to improve, such as dark spots or early signs of skin aging, adding a serum to your daily skin care routine can help improve the appearance of your skin. And if your skin is super oily, a serum may give you enough hydration that you won't even need a moisturizer. However, for those suffering from dry skin, the right serum and moisturizer combo can make all the difference.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skinMolecules. 2018;23(4):863. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863

  2. Werschler WP, Trookman NS, Rizer RL, Ho ET, Mehta R. Enhanced efficacy of a facial hydrating serum in subjects with normal or self-perceived dry skinJ Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2011;4(2):51-55.

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