Judging by the number of flat lays and rave reviews they’ve been getting from your favorite Instagram influencers, it’s safe to say that serums have finally arrived (and are here to stay). Face serums have long been a part of Japanese women’s straightforward approach to skin care, but in recent years, the obsession with these hardworking skin care wonders has spread to beauty enthusiasts everywhere. And for good reason.
Lightweight and efficient, serums contain a potent blend of targeted active ingredients formulated for a specific purpose, says facial plastic surgeon Kay Durairaj. “They’re great for anyone who wants a quick and easy product that absorbs quickly into the skin, has a high concentration of ingredients and is non-greasy,” she adds.
Given the wide variety of serum treatments available and the fact that there is a serum for just about every skin concern you may have, it almost feels like a disservice to choose just one—not to mention, nearly impossible. Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be the case. It is, however, important to understand how to layer serums and oils in order to get the most out of them.
To help you get started, here are a few tips to keep in mind when applying serums and oils.
As a rule, serums should be the first products that touch your skin after cleansing and exfoliating in order to get the best results. Never apply them after your moisturizer as thicker creams and oils create a protective layer over your skin and hinder absorption.
The great thing about serums and oils is that they are team players. They can be mixed and work well together, especially if you have a number of skin care woes that need addressing, says board-certified dermatologist Craig Austin, creator of medical-grade skin care line Cane + Austin. “For example, you can layer a vitamin C serum for dark spots with a squalene serum for hydration,” he explains.
While there is no limit to how many serums you can add to your regimen, esthetician Enrique Ramirez, founder of Face to Face NYC, suggests stopping at three. Piling on more products than that is not only time-consuming, it also reduces the chances of each ingredient getting properly absorbed by your skin. If you’re trying to target several concerns, opt for a multitasking serum to address general problems (like dryness or oiliness) and add one or two that targets more pressing concerns like fine lines and wrinkles.
When it comes to deciding which serum goes first, Dr. Austin says the rule of thumb is to always start light. “Always layer by consistency. Lighter serums will be easily and quickly absorbed while the heavier hydration serums/oils seal in the ingredients and leave your skin soft,” explains Dr. Austin.
For serums that have more or less the same consistency, go with the ingredient that you want your skin to get the most of. If your biggest concerns are dark spots and signs of aging, apply your vitamin C or retinol serum first.
If you feel that layering multiple serums takes up too much of your time, then “cocktailing” may be the solution, says beauty chemist and skin care expert David Pollock. “That’s when you mix a few items to create your favorite combination and save time,” he explains.
But that doesn’t mean you can throw your 10-step regimen out the window and just concoct your own skin care potion with everything in the mix. “I wouldn’t suggest mixing peels, retinol or acne-treatment products. You want to use those products on their own or in layers, applying them first,” says Pollock.
Gently massaging your face as you apply your serums can help improve circulation, says Ramirez. Not only that, it also delivers a fresh dose of oxygen to the skin, which Ramirez says is the “best serum or oil out there.”
Some experts would argue that your skin can effectively absorb the products you apply whether or not you wait, but it still pays to be thorough. Waiting a minute or two will not only ensure that your serums have fully seeped into your skin, it also prevents pilling (that’s when products start to ball up or rub off) when you apply your moisturizer or sunscreen.
As long as you’re choosing the right products for your skin type, Dr. Austin says everyone can benefit from using and layering serums. “You’re treating the skin with a targeted ingredient and then sealing it in with a barrier that will help to heal and hydrate your skin,” explains Dr. Austin.
In particular, Ramirez recommends using multiple serums especially for those with mature skin as it requires stronger and more potent ingredients to repair and strengthen the skin after collagen starts to break down.
Certain ingredients in your serums—like retinol and hydroquinone—may cause some sensitivity to your skin when exposed to ultraviolet rays, so it’s best to do your layers and cocktails in the PM, says Dr. Austin. Not only that, you’re also allowing your skin care products to work more effectively as your body repairs itself in your sleep. But if you want to layer serums in the morning, make sure your skin is well-protected with a broad-spectrum sunscreen.
It’s always exciting to try something new, says Pollock, and experimenting allows you to discover what really works best for your skin. “Otherwise, you may only use one item and rotate it, limiting the benefit your skin might receive from other ingredients,” he adds.
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