A basic skincare routine is all about maintenance. A cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen. You really don’t need much else. But what really makes a difference lies beyond the basics. The answer to any and all of your skincare woes? Serums—specifically the best serums that can transform your skin.
Whether you’re looking to prevent aging, fade hyperpigmentation, shrink your pores, or transform your overall complexion, there’s a serum for you. But this important step can be intimidating to add to your routine. Where do you start? What serum is best for you? Adding the right one to your line-up is simpler than it seems. Serums are not all inaccessible or unaffordable. In fact, the best serums are simple, effective, and come at a great price point. With a little research, you can find the best serums for your budget and your skin.
Feature image by Michelle Nash.
My favorite part of my skincare routine is applying my serums. Other parts of my routine are pretty set in stone. I stick to the same cleanser, toner, moisturizer, and sunscreen basically every day. Serums are the part I get to mix up depending on my skin concerns or mood. Occasionally I’ll opt for something soothing, or maybe I’ll choose something intense. When I feel a breakout coming on, I focus on exfoliating and reparative serums. And some days I just want something that smells good. But it can get a little pricey to curate an expansive serum routine. The solution: stocking up on specific serums to target specific concerns. The good news? This can be affordable and accessible.
To discover what makes an actually good serum, I tapped Natalia Vardugina, the Head Esthetician of Katini Skin. As a licensed esthetician with over five years of experience, Vardugina works with her clientele to develop curated skincare routines and educate them about proper skincare formulations and ingredients. If you’re spring cleaning your routine, looking for new products to take your skin to the next level, or targeting new concerns, there are exciting solutions that won’t break the bank. Keep reading to discover some of Vardugina’s favorite serums—plus a few of my own, beauty editor-approved, tried-and-true picks.
What is a face serum?
Just so we’re all on the same page: a serum is a product that contains a high concentration of active ingredients to address specific skin concerns. “Serums are packed with low-molecule-sized active ingredients that help to penetrate deeper into the skin,” Vardugina told me.
They can be water-based or oil-based. In your routine, serums should go before moisturizers. If you’re layering serums, “apply your skincare products from thinnest to heaviest,” says Vardugina. “Start with a lighter, water-based serum and then layer any additional thicker, oil-based serums or moisturizers.”
How do serums support glowing skin?
According to Vardugina, serums are a great way to boost your skin’s glow. “I always say to my clients that serum is a must-have in any skincare routine—it’s like a boost for your skin.” Every serum is unique, just like your skin. So they’re usually not one-size-fits-all products. “It is important to pay attention to a serum’s formulation in order to find the one that is the best fit for you.”
What ingredients make the best serums?
According to Vardugina: “Serums can contain a variety of nourishing ingredients, some of the most popular ones being hyaluronic acid, lactic acid, and vitamin C. There are also many plant-based ingredients that beautifully hydrate the skin and support a glowing complexion such as quandong, apricot oil, and wheat germ.”
Finding the right one for you means understanding what your skin concerns are, what your skin goals are, and how they work in your overall routine. If you’re battling pigmentation, opt for ingredients like vitamin C, azelaic acid, niacinamide, and more. If you’re addressing dryness, try a mix of hydrating and exfoliating ingredients.
Can you use a serum every day?
Vardugina offers up an enthusiastic, yes! “I’d suggest using a serum twice a day,” she says. “You can have different serums for your morning and night routines. In the morning, I recommend using a serum that is targeting hydrating and will brighten the skin so that you have a beautiful glow throughout the day. A serum that includes vitamin C or hyaluronic acid would be good for this. At nighttime, use a serum that focuses on repairing and nourishing the skin – for nighttime serums, I love products that contain plant-based ingredients like Kakadu Plum and Macadamia as these are full of anti-inflammatory elements that protect and renew the skin from environmental damage.”
This combination of daytime active ingredients and nighttime soothing ingredients is the perfect combination to get started. It makes sure you’re protecting and replenishing your skin as the actives work their magic.
How do serums and moisturizers work together?
One thing to remember: serums are not moisturizers. They’re a separate, extra step that works with moisturizers to give you your best skin.
“Serums are great for targeting a specific skin concern such as dullness, redness, or irritation,” Vardugina defines. “Moisturizers help to protect the outer layer of the skin from UV rays and pollutants, while also working to reduce transepidermal water loss to keep your skin hydrated. The best way to layer these products in your everyday skincare routine are to make sure your serum goes on first, then apply moisturizer to give your skin the opportunity to absorb the active ingredients.”
The best serums are the ones that work for you. Luckily, this can include affordable serums, too. Just make sure to shop for your skin type. Here are some of the best serums out there for every skin type and skin concern—all for $75 or less.