Health & Beauty

Serums 101: What Serums Are For & How To Use Them

March 1, 2022

Remember the days when you just washed your face, slapped on some moisturizer and went about your day? Perhaps swiped a little toner after the cleanser because the lady at The Bay told you to? That’s all changed because of serum, now considered a mainstay of the beauty regimen, and the beauty industry. Search Sephora’s website for it and you’ll find 650-plus options—more than cleanser, sunscreen or face moisturizer. It’s pretty impressive for a product that literally didn’t exist until the 1980s.

“Back then everyone was so concerned with moisturizing and hydrating and no one was interesting in repairing,” explains Jason Hadikin, field executive training manager, Estée Lauder, Western Canada. “It was Estée Lauder that started to talk about repair and moisture together, back in 1982, and that’s when she introduced Night Repair [now Advanced Night Repair, or ANR]. It gave people such great results that the floodgates opened up and every other brand started following suit.”

Night Repair, the first skincare to use hyaluronic acid, was designed as a concentrated product to target a specific problem (visible signs of aging). It was lighter in consistency and more easily absorbed than a moisturizer. That’s essentially the definition of a serum still. As Kevin Truong, Sephora’s national beauty educator, explains, “With a typically thinner texture than moisturizer and packed with active ingredients, serums play an important role in a skincare routine by penetrating the skin’s surface to deliver optimal benefits. I would consider a serum as a daily treatment, one that is applied after your cleanser and sealed in by your moisturizer.”

Advanced Night Repair is now in its fifth incarnation (Advanced Night Repair Synchronized Multi-Recovery Complex) and Estee Lauder has another six serums. And now there are hundreds of options jostling for your attention. Serums have also evolved over the years. “They’re more cosmetically appealing while also combining ingredients such as antioxidants towards best outcomes,” explains Dr. Mark Lupin, medical director of Cosmedica Laser Centre in Victoria. “Early serums would often stain or go brown with oxidation; while this can sometimes occur with the newer products, it is much less common. Serum bottles have also improved to be more elegant while also protecting and optimizing the life of the serum.”

So how do you even think about starting to choose one? “First determine what is important to you. Is it discolouration, dullness, fine lines or acne that you are having challenges with? Once you determine your priority it will be much easier to pick your serum,” advises Truong.

But wait! I have multiple skin concerns and I want to address them all at the same time! “You have to be ingredient savvy,” says Acacia Slingerland, who is beauty manager at the Shoppers Drug Mart in Sechelt, B.C., and a pro at helping customers find the products that work for them. “Finding a serum that contains the right actives to treat multiple concerns is key. Serums can be layered, but whatever you apply first will penetrate deepest, and it’s important to know which active ingredients should not be applied at the same time.”

Ingredients to look out for include retinol—an all-round anti-ager—and vitamin C, which offers some protection against UV rays when applied in the morning, is an antioxidant, can help boost collagen production and can treat hyperpigmentation. Other ingredients common in serums include peptides (they’re supposed to fight wrinkles), alpha- beta- and poly-hydroxy acids (AHAs, BHAS and PHAS that exfoliate, clarify and give you glow), antioxidants including CoQ10, vitamin E (along with C, it counteracts environmental and sun damage) and humectants, such as hyaluronic acid or glycerin (these help skin hold on to moisture).

If you do want to address lots of problems, does that mean you need lots of serums? You can; brands like The Ordinary and The Inkey List offer low-priced products with high concentrations of ingredients that are specifically designed to be layered if you want to tailor something, and fancy yourself a chemist. However the majority of serums these days are formulated with multiple concerns in mind so you don’t have to double or triple up if you don’t want to.

There are also products that can be categorized as “pre-serums,” including Lancôme’s Genifique, Shiseido’s Ultimune, ANR and Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum. These will all deliver benefits on their own, but they’re also designed to repair skin so it generally functions better. That means if you apply a second serum over the top, it will be more effective. And on the other side of things, there are serum foundations, where they have added skincare ingredients to your makeup.

Should you be concerned about reactions to serums because they’re more concentrated than other products? We can react to almost anything, points out Dr. Lupin. “There is likely less chance of reaction to a medical-grade serum than to an over-the-counter serum, as there tends to be less additives and only the essential ingredients in a medical-grade product,” he says (Dr. Lupin is a fan of SkinCeuticals). “I commonly recommend that my patients apply any new product, including serums, on a small area of the forearm, twice a day for three days, to help gauge tolerance and sensitivity. It is still possible to develop reaction to skincare products even after prolonged use. Speak with your physician or health care provider and inform them of any allergies that you do have; this may help to select a product that you are less likely to be sensitive to.”

If you’re still perplexed, you can ask your dermatologist or a beauty adviser on counter or in stores like Sephora or Shoppers that offer multiple brands. Both retailers also offer online services so you can live chat with experts and get tips and product recommendations.

Now you’ve found your serum or serums, how can you tell if they’re working? You need to give it about three weeks, says Hadikin. “You should notice that your skin feels more hydrated and bouncier. People often don’t give serum the time it needs; it’s just like if you’re taking medication, you need to have it in your system for a few weeks.”

If you’ve used a product for a while and want to check its effectiveness, Truong says you have to “listen” to your skin, by tracking results (taking photos if necessary) against what you wanted to achieve in the first place. And if you feel like it’s no longer working, it may still be worth persevering. “That serum has gotten your skin from point A to point B and you may lose all that progress if you stop using it,” he explains. “However, there may be times when you notice different concerns, perhaps as your skin matures, or simply because your skin requires additional help to improve its appearance. If this is the case, re-evaluate your skincare routine and change your serum to address your current wants and needs.” At specific times of life such as pregnancy your skin needs might change (hello, unexpected adult acne) and you may also want to hold off on certain ingredients like retinol. Serums also can’t fix everything—prevention is always better than cure so don’t skip sunscreen, and for some issues, cosmetic procedures like injectables and lasers might just work better.  

And what about price point? Will an expensive serum always be better than an affordable one? Slingerland says no, it’s really all about the ingredients. But Hadikin opines there is some benefit in spending a little more. “The biggest thing is that you pay more for the technology and ingredients that deliver the fastest results possible,” he explains. “It’s that and also the sensorial experience and the look of it. I have all my designer serums on display! That’s a lot of why people spend more—that little point of luxury.” —Aileen Lalor

Serums For All

for all-over healthier skin. The relatively new category of preserums promises generally healthier looking and more vibrant skin and will also boost the effects of any subsequent skincare you use. Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair Serum Synchronized Multi-Recovery Complex locks in moisture for 72 hours and helps boost skin’s own natural ability to repair. Shiseido Ultimune Power Infusing Concentrate promises to help skin retain moisture, and reactivate its own defences against external aggressors. Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Perfecting Serum reinforces the skin’s moisture barrier and boosts overall radiance.

for acne-prone folk. Acneic skin isn’t necessarily oily, but many products aimed at it are drying. The Other Skincare Plant Voodoo is a made-in-Canada serum that claims to visibly improve breakouts within a week as well as brightening and smoothing skin, and helping reduce pain caused by cystic acne. Peace Out Salicylic Acid Serum has salicylic acid, a BHA to help clear up pimples, plus vitamin C and niacinamide to brighten. SkinCeuticals Silymarin CF is an oil-free medical-grade serum that includes vitamin C, salicylic acid, ferulic acid and milk thistle extract to prevent and address breakouts and reduce the appearance of fine lines at the same time.

for a brightening boost. If you’re not yet experiencing wrinkles or fine lines, but have noticed dullness or lack of glow, there’s Valmont Luminosity LumiSence, a water-light serum that uses plant ingredients to boost cellular turnover, refine pores and diffuse light—the brand claims it’s like retouching your selfie IRL. Givenchy Le Soin Noir contains microalgae that are said to smooth, plump, firm and give glow to the skin, revealing “the original light of youth.”

for dry skin. Humectants are what you need. RoC’s Hydrate & Plump Serum Capsules come in single-dose biodegradable capsules packed with hyaluronic acid for hydration and plumping. Clayton Shagal Hyaluronic Acid Serum has three different sizes of hyaluronic acid that can each penetrate to different layers of skin to hydrate deeply and superficially.

for lines, wrinkles and sagging. Ingredients like retinol and peptides are top of most people’s lists, plus vitamin C for brightening. Bliss Youth Got This Prevent-4 Pure Retinol Advanced Skin Smoothing Serum has stabilized retinol, peptides, amino acids, squalane and antioxidants, is vegan, cruelty free, and affordable. Nuxe Super Serum tackles problems with botanical ingredients like natural hyaluronic acid and botanical oils. Biossance Squalane + Copper Peptide includes (you guessed it) hyaluronic acid and squalane for moisture, plus copper peptides that encourage collagen and elastin production for firming and wrinkle reduction.

for hyperpigmentation and dark spots. Dark spots from sun exposure or hormone shifts in pregnancy can be really tricky to treat, and traditionally the products that addressed them were very drying. Caudalie Vinoperfect Radiance Serum Complexion Enhancing has a proprietary ingredient called viniferine to reduce the appearance of spots, plus olive squalane for moisture. Lancôme Rénergie HCF Triple Serum has vitamin C and niacinamide for the pigmentation, plus hyaluronic acid and ferulic acid (an antioxidant). Those powerhouse ingredients have previously never been combined, a problem that Lancôme gets round with a special triple-chamber packaging that mixes the serum when you pump it.

for makeup with extra oomph. If you want to amp up your beauty regimen at every stage, you could try a serum foundation. Ilia True Skin Serum Foundation contains niacinamide and allantoin to brighten skin over time, and has a light texture so it melts into skin. Trinny London BFF Rebalance has blemish fighting ingredients, while the brand’s BFF De-Stress contains hyaluronic acid and neurophroline, said to fight stress.

new launches. Keen to switch up your serum? There are some interesting new launches to consider. Givenchy Le Soin Noir Serum, made with two algae, has fascinating, bold and shimmery black gem-like texture and claims to make skin seem “bouncier”. Shiseido White Lucent Illuminating Micro-Spot Serum targets dark spots with sakura, white sand lily and more. Composed of hyaluronic acid and infused with thousands of botanical golden pearls, Nuxe Super Serum Face Oil is said to soften, plump and restores radiance to skin of all ages. Vegan Retinol Berry 3 in 1 Super Smooth Serum Cream by Garnier combines retinol serum, night cream and eye care in one, and boasts a super berry blend to soothe and protect. Youth To The People Adaptogen Soothe + Hydrate Activated Mist is like a serum in a mist, and hydrates, calms visible redness and evens the look of skin tone with antioxidant-rich adaptogens including Reishi mushrooms, hyaluronic acid and soothing peptides. Juice Beauty’s new Prebiotix Freshly Squeezed Glow Vitamin C Serum boasts the most powerful form and concentration of stabilized C to even and brighten while Canadian brand Glow Jar has launched its Radiance Brightening Serum with 3 per cent tranexamic acid to help manage melasma, dark spots and hyperpigmentation. For winter skin woes, Neutrogena’s skin-quenching Hydro Boost Hyaluronic Acid Serum, with glycerin, vitamin B5 and hyaluronic acid, locks in your skin’s moisture to protect it from dryness, while NeoStrata calls its Tri-Therapy Lifting Serum a cold-weather superhero. From winter to Summer Fridays, the beauty brand has released a Dream Oasis Deep Hydration Serum with squalane, glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which are all recognized for their moisture-binding effect, drenching skin with intense hydration. And, finally, from Ilia, new True Skin Serum Foundation is packed with active levels of niacinamide and allantoin and, apparently, boasted more than 5,000 people on a waiting list at press time. Talk about taking a serum queue!


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