This Article was written by: Jessie Quinn , Instyle
Let’s face it, the term “serum” is a loaded one. There are hundreds — if not thousands — of different types on the market, which can make choosing a single dropper for your skincare routine quite a daunting task. But it doesn’t have to be.
We conducted hours of research to find the best face serums based on specific needs and ingredient superstars. We considered the formula’s benefits, texture, ingredients, and value to determine which serums are good for all skin types and concerns from dryness to dullness to acne. SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Serum claimed our top spot because the hardworking blend of actives is dermatologist-loved.
Without further ado, here are the best face serums to add to your skincare routine.
Our Top Picks
BEST FOR LINES & WRINKLES:
BEST FOR ACNE:
BEST FOR DARK SPOTS:
BEST FOR DRY SKIN:
BEST FOR OILY SKIN:
Best Overall: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic (1 fl. oz.)
What We Love: SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is clinically proven to reduce oxidative damage, and boasts a combination of potent ingredients beyond vitamin C.
What We Don’t Love: It has a very distinct smell and is pricey.
There’s a reason why SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic tends to land at the top of most lists (including our very own Best Beauty Buys list) — it works. Albeit pricey, beauty editors, dermatologists, and skincare enthusiasts alike have deemed it worthy of investment. We love it because it is a vitamin C serum that also taps the powers of vitamin E and 0.5% ferulic acid to brighten and reverse premature signs of aging, while also protecting the complexion against further environmental damage. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this serum (and what sets it apart from other vitamin C serums) is that it is effective for up to 72 hours.
Benefits: Environmental protection, brightening, reduces oxidative damage | Skin Type: Dry, sensitive, normal, mature, combination | Size: 1 oz
Best Value: The INKEY List Retinol Anti-Aging Serum
What We Love: It’s an affordable and effective slow release retinol serum that’s suitable for use on even sensitive skin.
What We Don’t Love: It has a strong smell.
We love affordable beauty products that actually work as well as their pricey counterparts. And, this retinol serum from The Inkey List is the real deal (okay, nearly everything from The Inkey List is the real deal). In addition to its value, the anti-aging formula features a slow release retinol that makes it suitable for sensitive skin types, and provides deep, soothing hydration. It’s a great retinol product in general, but especially great as an introduction to the ingredient. If you’ve never tried a retinol serum before, this is the one you want to check out. But fair warning, some customers have complained about the scent.
Benefits: Anti-aging, promotes smoother skin, hydrating, brightening | Skin Type: Normal, mature, dry, combination, oily | Size: 1 oz
Best Drugstore: No7 Protect & Perfect Intense Advanced Serum
What We Love: This hyaluronic acid-enhanced formula is effective at reducing wrinkles and fine lines and protects a complexion against further environmental damage.
What We Don’t Love: The price is higher compared to other drugstore serums.
This serum from No7 is one of the most high-quality facial serums at the drugstore (which explains why its price tag doesn’t exactly align with other drugstore products). It has great efficacy for reducing the look of fine lines and wrinkles, while also providing a burst of hydration with its hyaluronic acid-infused formula. It’s also worth mentioning that it is sensitive skin friendly as it has a hypoallergenic formula and soothes the complexion with each application.
Benefits: Reduces wrinkles and fine lines, hydrating | Skin Type: Mature, dry, combination, normal, sensitive | Size: 1 oz
Best Splurge: LA MER The Revitalizing Hydrating Serum
What We Love: This serum’s potent algae blend really sets it apart from the competition.
What We Don’t Love: It’s not ideal for use on sensitive skin.
This is one of those products that you’ll use to the last drop — and is worth every single penny spent. The lightweight formula is elevated by a potent algae blend that provides the skin with deep nourishment, helping to target dryness, fine lines and wrinkles, dull skin, and uneven texture. We only recommend staying away from it if you have sensitive skin as it can cause irritation for some with a more sensitive skin type.
Benefits: Hydrating | Skin Type: Dry, normal, oily, combination | Size: 1 oz
Best Exfoliating: Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One AHA Lactic Acid Treatment
What We Love: This celebrity-favorite serum addresses major anti-aging concerns, exfoliates, and brightens the skin’s tone.
What We Don’t Love: It’s not ideal for use on sensitive skin.
We tried this serum years ago and have loved it ever since for its amazing anti-aging benefits. No wonder it has celebrities like Oprah, Drew Barrymore, Helen Mirren, and Jourdan Dunn as fans. In addition to the usual targeting of fine lines, wrinkles, and dull skin, this anti-aging face serum also exfoliates the skin for a smoother complexion and targets dark circles, helping you achieve a more bright eyed and bushy tail effect.
Benefits: Plumping, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, minimizes dark spots, exfoliating, targets dark circles | Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, oily | Size: 1.7 ounce
Best for Lines & Wrinkles: Ole Henriksen Truth Serum
What We Love: The combination of vitamin C and hyaluronic acid brightens and hydrates skin in one product.
What We Don’t Love: The texture is a bit stickier than other vitamin C serums.
The Truth Serum by Ole Henriksen lives up to the hype, not just because it is designed to target fine lines and wrinkles, but also because it supports collagen production, which helps prevent further signs of aging. The serum is formulated with vitamin C, which also brightens the skin, as well as softening aloe juice. Its only downfall is that it can have a bit of a sticky residue when you first apply it.
Benefits: Brightening, firming, and hydrating with collagen support | Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, oily | Size: 1 ounce
Best for Acne: iS Clinical Active Serum
What We Love: Natural ingredients target breakouts without extra harsh additives.
What We Don’t Love: This hardworking formula isn’t gentle enough for sensitive skin.
For those who are acne-prone, this is the best face serum for acne, as its ingredients — which include mushroom extract, white willow bark extract, and bilberry extract — can do everything from deep clean pores to brighten skin to exfoliate the complexion. You can even use it as a little spot treatment. With that said, this product does work really hard, making it not gentle enough for sensitive skin types.
Benefits: Reduces fine lines and wrinkles, evens skin texture, reduces acne, hydrating | Skin Type: Acne, combination, dry, mature | Size: 1 ounces
Best for Dark Spots: SkinMedica Lytera 2.0 Pigment Correcting Serum 2 oz.
What We Love: Pesky, hard-to-fade dark spots are no match for this supercharged formula.
What We Don’t Love: While this serum targets hyperpigmentation, it may not be a good fit for melasma.
Dark spots — especially the deeper, peskier ones — are typically best targets with in-office treatments. But, there are some high-quality face serums for dark spots that do some heavy lifting. This Pigment Correcting Serum treats stubborn pigmentation, age spots, and acne scars, and is also a great preventative against further damage. That said, if you struggle with melasma, this isn’t the product for you. We recommend speaking with a dermatologist about your melasma and coming up with a game plan (which can involve prescription formulas).
Benefits: Evens skin tone, brightening, promotes a healthy skin barrier, smoothing | Skin Type: Mature, dry, combination, normal | Size: 2 ounces
Best for Dry Skin: Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Hyaluronic Liquid Gel Cloud Serum
What We Love: Silk proteins and hyaluronic acid work together to smooth and hydrate your skin.
What We Don’t Love: This serum takes a while to absorb before you can put other products on top.
The best face serums for dry skin typically have hyaluronic acid in it, a humectant ingredient known for being a hydration powerhouse. This HA-infused serum has a potent dose, which helps promote natural skin hydration in dry skin types. On top of that, the formula is enhanced by silk proteins, which help create a smoother complexion.
Benefits: Hydrates and plumps, softens and smooths, reduces lines and wrinkles | Skin Type: Dry, mature | Size: 1 ounce
Best for Oily Skin: The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% Oil Control Serum
What We Love: This oil-free serum has a blend of actives that targets congestion and blemishes.
What We Don’t Love: Due to its texture and mix of ingredients, this product does not layer well with other serums.
If you have oily skin, you want a face serum that is oil-free in order to prevent potential breakouts. This oil-free face serum from The Ordinary has a blend of niacinamide and zinc to target signs of congestion and keep sebum in control.
Benefits: Reduces redness, controls oil, minimizes pores, acne prevention | Skin Type: Oily, acne, dry, combination, normal | Size: 1 ounce
Best Vitamin C: Drunk Elephant C-Firma Fresh Vitamin-C Day Serum
What We Love: The high percentage of vitamin C makes this an effective formula for brightening skin.
What We Don’t Love: The two-part packaging can be difficult to work with.
Vitamin C is a strong antioxidant that protects the skin against environmental aggressors and helps target signs of aging. We love this formula because, in addition to being made up of 15% vitamin C, Drunk Elephant also added ingredients like fruit enzymes that firm and brighten the skin.
The two-part system ensures the vitamin C stays potent until you’re ready to use it. While the packaging is cute, it can be harder to tell if you still have product left once you get closer to the bottom of the bottle.
Benefits: Improves signs of photoaging, protecs against environment aggressors, brightening, firming | Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, oily | Size: 0.94 ounces
Best for Sensitive Skin: Caudalie Vinosource S.O.S. Thirst Quenching Serum
What We Love: The ultra-hydrating formula is great for sensitive skin.
What We Don’t Love: With daily use, the small bottle will be used up quickly.
Sensitive skin is hard to shop for. But, while we do have some good options on this list, the Thirst Quenching Serum from Caudalie is our top pick for the best serum for sensitive skin. It’s packed with hydration to maximize a soothing sensation upon application, doesn’t leave a residue, and is even great for keeping skin soft and supple in low-humidity climates.
Benefits: Restores balance, hydrating, anti-aging | Skin Type: All types | Size: 1 ounce
Best for Nighttime: SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum
What We Love: A powerful blend of peptides and antioxidants deliver anti-aging benefits minus any peeling or redness.
What We Don’t Love: The texture causes pilling under makeup or layered with too many other products.
This is a skincare product that works overtime to revitalize your complexion while you sleep. It has a powerful anti-aging formula that works to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, address dark skin, and more. And it’s so effective that many customers discovered it through dermatologist recommendations. It’s not the best for daytime or under makeup, so relegate this one to nighttime use.
Benefits: Reduces fine lines and wrinkles, improves skin texture and tone, firming, supports natural regeneration | Skin Type: Dry and mature | Size: 1 ounce
Best for Brightening: Herbivore Nova 15% Vitamin C + Turmeric Brightening Serum
What We Love: A potent dose of vitamin C in a clean formula delivers brightening benefits to hyperpigmentation and discoloration.
What We Don’t Love: The formula is super thick compared to other serums.
Herbivore’s vitamin C serum is our go-to for brightening. It’s formulated with ingredients that are naturally potent, like kakadu plum and turmeric, that can not only brighten the skin, but also promote collagen production and smooth complexions. Plus, it is an ultra-clean formula. The formula is a bit thicker for a serum and some customers have complained about the scent. We found that it has a strong turmeric scent, which is pleasant, but might not be everyone’s preference.
Benefits: Minimizes dark spots, smooths skin texture | Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, oily | Size: 1 ounce
Best Retinol: Shiseido Benefiance Wrinkle Smoothing Retinol Serum
What We Love: The gentle-release retinol is ideal for anti-aging serum beginners or those with more sensitive skin.
What We Don’t Love: The packaging is thick and pretty bulky.
The best retinol serum on our list is the Benefiance Wrinkle Soothing Retinol Serum from Shiseido because it has gentle release, making it a great option for first time users or those who have more sensitive skin. It also is made to improve the skin’s reaction to the retinol overtime, helping to build a tolerance for the potent ingredient (meaning you’ll likely have less sensitivity the longer you use it). But, the most impressive thing about this product is that it can show visible improvement in wrinkles in just one week.
Benefits: Supports skin restoration, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, improves skin resilience | Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, oily, sensitive | Size: 1 ounce
Best Niacinamide: Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Sunscreen SPF 50
What We Love: The deeply hydrating formula targets hyperpigmentation while leaving skin looking dewy.
What We Don’t Love: While the pink gel looks beautiful, it can feel a bit sticky on the skin.
The Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops from Glow Recipe is our go-to for a niacinamide face serum because it provides deep and nourishing hydration, isn’t super greasy after application, and can also target concerns such as hyperpigmentation. Additionally, it’s a great skincare for under makeup because it doesn’t ball up and preps your skin for foundation, which is easier said than done.
Benefits: Hydrating, reduces hyperpigmentation, promotes glowing and dewy skin | Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, oily | Size: 1.35 ounces
Best Anti-Aging: Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum
What We Love: This serum targets the signs of aging with a plant-based gentler ingredient, similar to retinol.
What We Don’t Love: It does have a fairly strong herbal scent.
We have been using this serum for years—even Reese Witherspoon is a fan—and it has stood the test of time and a revolving door of new products. We love it for its amazing anti-aging benefits. It targets fine lines, wrinkles, and dull skin, with a retinol-alternative called bakuchiol, which is plant-derived and far gentler. Using it regularly will help you achieve a more bright eyes and bushy tail effect.
Benefits: Reduces fine lines and wrinkles, brightens full complexion, targets firmness and elasticity| Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, oily | Size: 1 ounce
Best Peptide: Youth To The People Triple Peptide + Cactus Hydrating + Firming Oasis Serum
What We Love: The clean, fragrance-free formula comes in an eco-friendly glass bottle.
What We Don’t Love: The serum feels a bit tacky when you first apply it.
This peptide face serum is top-shelf quality, providing deep and long-lasting hydration, which is a must for anyone with dry skin (as well as mature skin types). It’s also fragrance-free, which makes it a great candidate for sensitive skin types, too. However, it can leave behind a sticky residue so we recommend using this in your nighttime regimen and letting it really sink in before adding the next layer in your routine.
Benefits: Deep hydration, plumping, firming, improves elasticity, reduces fine lines and wrinkles | Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, oily, sensitive | Size: 1 ounce
Best with SPF: Supergoop! Daily Dose Hydra-Ceramide Boost + SPF 40 Sunscreen Oil
What We Love: It combines a deeply hydrating formula with sun protection for a one-and-done skincare step.
What We Don’t Love: This serum is best for dry skin types or it feels too greasy.
A face serum that doubles as sunscreen? Yes, please. This Supergoop! Serum is all about hydrating the complexion and protecting against future damage with the addition of SPF 40. The formula features ceramides, which promotes long-lasting hydration, squalene for firming, and hyaluronic acid for an additional boost of moisture. Because it is packed with hydration, this is a formula best suited for dry skin as other skin types might find it feels a little too greasy upon application.
Benefits: Nourishing and hydrating, protects against sun damage | Skin Type: Dry | Size: 1 ounce
Best for Glowing Skin: Glossier Futuredew
What We Love: The nourishing, lightweight oils make this a great under-makeup step for added glow.
What We Don’t Love: The scent of this can be overwhelming for some.
We’re calling this one a makeup serum because it’s a perfect cross between skincare and makeup. Great on its own or under foundation, this Glossier favorite is enhanced with lightweight skin oils to maximize glow potential (while remaining non-comedogenic). It’s nourishing, moisturizing, and the perfect primer for everyday use. With that said, it’s important to note that some customers aren’t big fans of the scent (we tried it and personally don’t mind it, but everyone is different).
Benefits: Promotes glowing skin, nourishing, brightening | Skin Type: All skin types | Size: 1 ounce
What to Keep in Mind
While we love a multi-tasking product, serums with too many actives or promises might do more harm than good. “Veer away from serums that try to do too much or solve too many skin issues,” says Karen Fernandez, a Lead Aesthetician at SkinSpirit. When a product is too complicated, it can “irritate skin and work against you,” she explains. Identify your primary skin concern, like acne or brightening or anti-aging, and find a serum for your routine that targets that.
With something that gets washed off like a cleanser or makeup remover, you can choose a more budget-friendly option and still reap the benefits of the product. However, when it comes to skincare serums, “you get what you pay for,” Fernandez notes. Serums are where you want to invest a little more to get the powerful active ingredients at efficacious levels and formulas with nice textures. “Get the best you can afford,” Fernandez says.
AM vs. PM
As mentioned above, choosing a serum that targets your specific concerns is important. One way to maximize your skin’s potential is to pick a serum for day and night. “The most important serum is your antioxidant, such as vitamin C, which should be applied every morning on clean, dry skin,” says Fernandez. “You could do a hydrating serum after that, followed by your moisturizer,” she adds. And never skip SPF as the final step in your morning routine.
Fernandez also says to be mindful of what you apply to your complexion at night, adding that your nighttime regimen should include a serum that “feeds” the skin “so that while you are sleeping your skin can be replenished and you wake up to fresh skin.” Retinol or other powerful anti-aging serums are a good choice, but be warned that they can take some time for your skin to adjust, so ease in to daily use.
Your Questions, Answered
Do face serums really work?
In short, yes, serums do really work. “They are typically concentrated active ingredients in a delivery system appropriate for that product,” says Fernandez. “They tend to be pricier than other steps in your regimen because they are designed to really penetrate the skin,” she adds. There is a lot of research and development that goes into serums to develop potent formulas that can deliver the benefits they promise.
When should you apply a face serum?
You can apply serums in the morning and at night (just be sure to make note of any ingredients that are recommended for nighttime use only, like retinol). And, they are best applied “before your moisturizers or SPF,” says Fernandez. “In general, apply products thinnest to thickest, so your more water or light products go first, then thicker ones after that, and SPF [is] always last,” she explains. Often serums are your most hardworking step and should be applied directly to the skin after any cleansing or toning steps.
What’s the difference between a serum and a moisturizer?
“A moisturizer is typically designed to replenish the lipids in your skin and provide a barrier to lock in your own moisture and hydration,” Fernandez explains. She says moisturizers will be thicker “and deliver ingredients to more of the superficial layers of the skin, where serums can go to deeper layers.” Serums and moisturizers work together to achieve your skin goals—serums often deliver the hardworking ingredients to transform the skin and moisturizers lock in that goodness and protect it against the elements, like sun and pollution.