The Harvard Medical School Guide on Serums

Updated 08/29/19

The world of skincare can get quite confusing. Too many products to possibly count, so many directions, and endless ingredients. Whether you're a beauty junkie or not, every now and then we all need a straightforward refresher to clear things up and bring us back to the basics. For starters, what exactly is serum?

Harvard Medical School recently published an informative guide on serum and everything you need to know. You've probably seen so many serums perusing while websites and beauty aisles, and you may or may not have found the right one for you. Believe me, it takes time. As a beauty editor, it wasn't until this year that I finally found my holy grail serum. I've had to break up with bottle after bottle, so you're not alone if you share the same struggle.

Abigail Waldman, MD, instructor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School shares in the article the difference between serum from a typical lotion, moisturizer, or cream. Serums are concentrated ingredients made to instantly seep and absorb into the skin. "I definitely recommend serums for anyone who is concerned about aging," Waldman told Harvard. "It's a really good way to get extra anti-aging effects, more than your typical moisturizer and sunscreen," says Waldman.

Below is the serum guide you've been looking for.

How to Pick a Serum

You should typically use a serum after cleansing and before moisturizing. Your reason for picking a serum should be based on your personal skin concern. "I use and recommend serums that have a combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, and ferulic acid," Waldman told Harvard. "There is good literature that shows that vitamin C, in particular, can prevent brown spots, reverse damage from ultraviolet rays, and stimulate the growth of new collagen.”

All in all, it's important to educate yourself on ingredients that combat certain skin concerns. As the article mentions, for things like inflammation it's better to lean on retinol and niacinamide. Ingredients like kojic acid and glycolic acid fight uneven skin tones and hyperpigmentation.

All Serums Are Not Created Equal

In the article, Maryam M. Asgari, MD, associate professor in the department of dermatology at Harvard Medical School says, "Not all serums work the same. How well they work depends on the active ingredients, the formulation, the vehicle, and the stability of the compound."

"To be honest, I don't think price makes a difference,” Waldman tells Harvard. Ingredients trump all. Be sure to research and carefully read labels before applying serum to make sure that serum is right for you. 

Be Careful When Testing New Serums

“Powerful ingredients can irritate sensitive skin,” Asgari tells Harvard. “Always test a small area before you apply a skin serum widely.” I take this suggestion to heart, as one with extremely sensitive skin. Patch-testing has saved my skin many times from unwanted breakouts. 

Now that you're well equipped with information on serums, we rounded up some of Byrdie editor's favorites.

Women's Serum Repair
Dr Sebagh Serum Repair $97
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Hydraphase Intense Face Serum
La Roche-Posay Hydraphase Intense Face Serum $37
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Hydrating B5 Gel
SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel $83
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Luminizing Skin Essence
NYDG Skincare Luminizing Skin Essence $105
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Pro-Heal Serum Advance
iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance $148
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C.E.O. Rapid Flash Brightening Serum
Sunday Riley C.E.O. Rapid Flash Brightening Serum $85
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C-Quench Antioxidant Serum
PCA Skin C-Quench Antioxidant Serum $87
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