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Image: Face serum on a table with a shadow.

Why, When, and How to Apply Face Serum

Is your skincare regimen deliberate and organized, or is it more of an afterthought?

Maybe sometimes a bit of both? Part of winning at skincare is knowing what to apply, why it matters, and when it’s best to do it.

One of the most misunderstood and often overlooked skincare steps: serums. Just what exactly are they? Here’s what you need to know about them (including how to apply them) for healthier skin.

Okay, but what are serums, anyway?

Let’s start with the basics. You want healthy skin. Or maybe you have healthy skin already and want to keep it that way. Serums can play a role in this pursuit.

In simplest terms, serums are your skin’s daily vitamins. They are not oils (read more about that here). They are typically gel or liquid-based, and are thinner than moisturizers or oils, but not as thin as toners.

Typically, serums contain a combination of active botanicals designed to deliver targeted nutrients to your skin. While oils and moisturizers are primarily intended to lock in moisture and keep skin hydrated, serums feed skin an array of ingredients that can help to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, slough off dead skin cells, reduce the risk of acne flare-ups, and help to even skin tone. (If skin products overwhelm you, read this.)

Sometimes, these serums can be focused around a single active ingredient. So let’s take a look at the various types of serums you may come across and which is best for your skin.

Types of skin serums

Since serums are so targeted, the number of options can be confusing. Do you need a hydrating or anti-aging serum? One rich in vitamin C or retinol? Let’s break them down.

While there are all manner of targeted serums, they will generally fall into a few key categories: anti-aging, hydrating, brightening, and eyes. 

Anti-aging serums

We all want healthier-looking skin and, unfortunately, the skincare industry still largely categorizes healthy with terms like "younger-looking" and "anti-aging." We’re here to tell you that growing old is indeed a privilege—everyone gets to be young, but not everyone gets to grow old, after all.

And we should embrace aging skin as perfectly beautiful and worthy. (That’s perhaps another blog post on its own, though.) But wanting to keep it healthy and vibrant is perfectly acceptable. So, for now, we’ll look at products marketed as anti-aging and how they can simply help your skin be its best self.

This category’s primary serums are vitamin C, retinol, and hyaluronic-based.

Vitamin C serum can be used daily to help brighten and even skin tone, boost the skin’s natural collagen, and help remove dead skin cells. Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant and depending on the strength of vitamin C, it may be irritating to sensitive skin types—so go lower, if that’s you.

Retinol is a vitamin A-based ingredient touted for its ability to encourage cellular growth and collagen production and is used to fade pigmentation, treat and prevent acne, and reduce the appearance of acne. All of those skin benefits though come with some risks, namely, sensitivity to sunlight. 

Hyaluronic serum is touted for its ability to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. There are studies that back up this claim. When applied topically, this serum plumps and hydrates skin, which makes wrinkles and lines less visible. 

Hydrating serums

Everyone experiences dry skin from time to time, and for some of us, it’s more frequent, especially at certain times of the year. This can be a particular struggle during colder winter months when the combination of cold and windy outdoor weather and heated indoor temperatures can leave your skin irritated, confused, and most certainly dry. A cold weather-appropriate serum can help.

Hydrating serums aren’t a stand-in for a good moisturizer, but they can help to soften, plump, and bring moisture to the skin. These can be heavy on glycerin as well as hyaluronic acid, or contain hydrating botanicals—think water-rich foods like melon. 

Brightening serums

Another candidate for a skincare industry re-naming, brightening serums won’t electrify your skin or make you look like you’re a real-life Instagram filter. What they can do, though, is even skin tone and help reduce hyperpigmentation or the appearance of acne scars and sunspots. These serums are also typically vitamin C-based, but can contain a number of botanicals like peony or birch to help fade discolorations.

Eye serums

What’s good for your cheeks and forehead may not be so great for the delicate skin around your eyes. Incidental contact from your all-over serum isn’t going to be an issue, but if you deal with dark under-eye bags, crow’s feet, or other eye-specific issues, eye serums are more targeted to that area.

The eyes are typically the first area of the face to show aging, with fine lines and wrinkles, so using a targeted serum can help. These are typically hyaluronic-based as well to help reduce the crow’s feet. They can also contain peptides and alpha-hydroxy acids to help keep skin balanced.

Shop Serums

The difference between skin serums and skin toners

Is skin toner serum? Are serums toners? No and no. So, what’s the difference between these two?

It’s easy to see why they’re confusing. Both toners and serums are water-like and marketed as an after-cleaning treatment. 

Think of toners though as an extension of your cleanser, and think of serums as precursors to your moisturizer.

Toners can help “finish” what your cleanser may have missed by removing built-up dirt and oil or makeup residue. They also help to restore the skin’s pH balance and prime the skin for heavier products like serums and moisturizers.

Serums, as mentioned earlier, are like the skin’s daily vitamin, filled with active ingredients targeted at your skincare goals—be that hydrating, anti-aging, or brightening. These are what your moisturizer helps to lock into the skin. The toner helps to ready the skin to fully absorb the serum’s ingredients.

When to apply serums

So you’ve found a serum that works for your skin needs. When exactly do you use them? How often is safe? 

A few key tips for applying serums:

Vitamin C can be used once a day. If you’re using a retinol serum at night, only use vitamin C in the morning. 

Hyaluronic acid can be used both morning and evening.

Retinol-based serums can cause sensitivities to sunlight, so should only be used in the evening. You most likely want to start with the smallest amount of retinol serums and see how your skin reacts. Because it can cause a cellular turnover, it can temporarily increase dryness.

Some experts recommend using it just once a week to start and slowly increase usage over time. You should always use an SPF moisturizer in the morning, but be extra sure you do this if you’re using a retinol-based serum at night.

How to apply serum

Earth Harbor's Luna Rain serum pictured in a bathroom setting

Let’s look at how to apply serum for maximum benefit and minimal risk. Generally, the rule of thumb is skincare is applied from the thinnest consistency to the thickest. Serums are right in the middle of a full skincare regimen.

Step One: Be sure you have clean hands!

Step Two: Gently cleanse and pat dry your face. Cooler water is less damaging to the skin than warmer water. And, of course, you want to use a high-quality skin cleanser.

Just like serums, there are all manner of skin cleansers targeted at your skincare goals. Look for cleansers that won’t strip the skin of its natural oils and that are free from parabens and sulfates.

Step Three: Tone the skin using a gentle skin toner such as a witch hazel-based product. Toners are an often-overlooked skincare step but they’re really helpful in achieving your skincare goals. Many of these or sprays, making it easy to give the skin a quick spritz or two before you apply your serum. These are also targeted to skincare conditions and goals, so be sure to match your toner to your skin needs.

Step Four: Using a pea-sized amount of serum, gently pat onto skin, targeting cheeks, chin, and forehead. Then gently massage into the areas until absorbed. Remember to only use your retinol-based serums at night! Let the skin dry before moving on to the next step.

Step Five: Apply eye serum. If using a targeted eye serum, apply it after your facial serum. Be extra gentle with the eye skin, tapping the serum around the sides, top lids, and under-eye areas. Avoid rubbing the eyes.

Step Six: Apply your moisturizer. Like serum, start with a pea-sized amount of moisturizer cream and tap it into the skin before massaging in.

If using an oil instead of a cream, rub the oil into the hands and then tap onto your face first, before massaging it in. Be sure to swipe up and back toward the top of the head and toward the ears. Let it dry.

Step Seven: Apply SPF (daytime only). Follow your skincare regimen with sun protection. An SPF of 25 is recommended for normal outside exposure.

But if you’re planning to spend more time outside, you may opt for a higher SPF. Apply similarly to the moisture step.

Extra serum notes!

A woman's hand holding a glass bottle of face serum.

If a seven-step skincare routine is, well, seven steps too many, you can pare it down to essentials: cleanse, serum, moisturize. Remember the best practices on key ingredients: if using vitamin C, this can be harsh on some skin types, so reduce the C percentage or reduce your usage if too harsh. 

Retinols only at night and be sure you use an SPF when using retinol!

Skin is always changing—certainly as the seasons shift, but also as we age. So that means you can and should experiment with different serums to see what works best for you. Be gentle on your skin and remember it’s an organ! It needs vitamins and water just like the rest of your body. 

And remember, subscribing to a vegan beauty box like Kinder Beauty is the perfect way to sample already-curated, top-notch, vegan face serum.


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Jill Ettinger is an LA-based writer and editor focused on vegan and cruelty-free living. She is a regular contributor to the vegan skincare blog you are reading now. 

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