The ten step Korean skincare routine (this is a great guide to a "clean" version) has taken over the beauty blogosphere and K beauty e-commerce sites like Soko Glam and Peach and Lily have popped up recently to fulfill the world’s skincare needs.
One of those ten steps is a facial serum and we believe it’s the most beneficial and important steps in the process.
A serum is a supercharged, super lightweight moisturizer. With heavier ingredients like creams or butters left out of the formula, the active ingredients have a higher concentration and are able to penetrate the skin’s surface easier. The formulas are usually oil-based and penetrate the skin quickly and throughly.
Dermatologists recommend using a serum in conjunction with a heavier, traditional moisturizer (ideally one that also contains SPF); it’s best to use them at night so the serum has time to work its magic while you sleep.
And to truly gauge whether a serum has made a significant impact on your skin’s health and appearance, we suggest giving it a full month of regular use to judge its effectiveness.
The Difference Between Serums, Essences and Ampoules
What’s the difference between a serum, an essence and an ampoule? In short: not much! While Korean beauty followers may beg to differ, we believe choosing one of the three for your pre-moisturizer step is adequate. All three are lightweight, oil-based and concentrated with active ingredients targeting a specific skincare concern.
With that said, serums are often thicker in consistency and more concentrated than an essence, though, again, there is little noticeable differentiation here. Ampoules are not meant for everyday use and are instead high powered serums to use in times of serious skincare stress.
Types of Facial Serums
The number of facial serums on the market today - Korean beauty or otherwise - can be daunting, especially if you’re new to the product. Plus, serums tend toward the pricey side, making it a serious skincare misstep if you choose the wrong one!
Luckily, they’re easily broken down into categories based on their major benefits so you can target your most pressing skincare concern with ease (on both your mind and your wallet).
Additionally, while you can absolutely use a serum all over your face, you can just as easily use it as a spot treatment to target specific concerns (and saving you money).
Free Radical Eliminating Serums (Pomegranate & Vitamin E)
Environmental pollutants like cigarette smoke, smog, radiation and herbicides can cause free radicals to form in your cells. Free radicals oxidize your healthy cells and that oxidization can cause potentially cancer-causing chain reactions of unstable cells to form in your body. Free radicals can also cause premature aging, sun spots and hyper-pigmentation.
Antioxidants are free radical-fighting compounds that are found both in our body and in certain natural substances like pomegranates and Vitamin E. These antioxidant rich serums are skin repairing powerhouses and great for all skin types.
Pomegranate seed oil (Punica granatum)*, rose hip seed oil (Rosa canina),* jojoba oil (Simmondsia chinensis)* Sea buckthorn berry (Hippophae rhamnoides) CO2*, and vitamin E (tocopherol).
Pomegranate is rich with antioxidants and other restorative properties so you’re not only fighting free radicals with this pomegranate serum, you're also helping reduce the appearance of fine lines and reverse sun damage.
This Evan Healy serum has added sea buckthorn oil that contains high levels of “punicic acid, essential fatty acids, carotenes, tocopherols and phytosterols,” which are essential elements in maintaining healthy skin.
Vitamin E serum s another antioxidant-rich option for those of us looking to protect our skin from environmental pollutants. It’s one of the most basic serums you can find which makes it a perfect option for serum newbies. Its purity also makes it a good option as a base to mix with a more targeted, complex serum.
Jojoba Seed Oil*, Rosehip Seed Oil*, Macadamia Nut Oil*, Apricot Kernel Oil*, Orange Oil*, Kukui Nut Oil, Neroli Flower Oil*, Tocopherol (Vitamin-E)*, Jasmine oil*, Evening Primrose Oil*, Zinc Oxide ^
Skin Essence Organic's Vitamin E Serum has been formulated for combination skin types. In addition to being rich in Vitamin E, it's full of Vitamin C which we explain below.
Anti Aging Serums (Vitamin C) & Retinol (Vitamin A)
Collagen is responsible for maintaining plumpness in our skin— so it’s an essential component to maintaining a young looking face! As we age, collagen production naturally slows down thus fine lines and wrinkles start to appear.
Vitamin C helps stimulate collagen production, making a Vitamin C Serum a perfect choice for those of us who are looking to slow down the aging train. L-ascorbic acid is another way you’ll see a Vitamin C serum listed on a skincare product; it’s actually the active antioxidant in the Vitamin C compound.
Go Pure Vitamin C Serum ($16)
Organic Herbal Infusion, Organic Aloe Barbadensis Leaf (Aloe), Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate (Vitamin C), Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), Cassia Angustifolia Seed Polysaccharide (botanical hyaluronic acid), Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel), d-Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate ^ (Vitamin E), Carbomer, (2s)-2-Amino-5-guanidinopentanoic Acid, Ferulic Acid, Kosher Vegetable Glycerin, Organic Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba Oil), Phenoxyethanol ^ , Ethyl Hexyl Glycerin.
With added aloe, jojoba oil and hyaluronic acid, you’re getting quite the impactful product for a seriously sweet price. Your skin will look younger, stay hydrated and even out with a single swipe!
A common ingredient in a number of serums is Retinol. Retinol serums are much like Vitamin C serums in that they help increase cell turnover and helps slow down collagen loss. It also evens skin tone and is hydrating so you’re getting the added benefit of plumper, healthier looking skin too.
The problem? There is some evidence that Retinol reacts with UV rays forming harmful free radicals that may be toxic to our skin  .
The studies primarily focus on Vitamin A in sunscreens and the potential harm caused by exposing Vitamin A to UV rays. To stay on the safe side, I always use Vitamin A serums at night to limit any UV exposure.
Deionized Water, Carthamus Tinctorious (Safflower) Seed Oil, Potassium Cetyl Phosphate, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Phenethyl Alcohol, Caprylyl Glycol, Ethylhexyl Glycerin, Sodium Hyaluronate (Hyaluronic Acid), Retinyl Retinoate ^, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Xanthan Gum, Coffea Arabica (Coffee) Fruit Extract, Fragaria Ananassa (Pineberry) Extract, Oat Beta Glucan, Phytoceramide, Steam Distilled Aurantifolia (Lime) Essential Oil, Alpha Lipoic acid, N Acetyl D Glucosamine
Mad Hippie claims their Vitamin A serum helps increase collagen production, reverse sun damage and even skin tone— and their reviewers seem to agree!
We like Mad Hippie because they don’t pack their products full of unnecessary (or harsh) ingredients; you know each ingredient in this serum is natural and necessary.
Anti Inflammatory Serums (Aloe and Green Tea Serums)
In the same way we use aloe vera to soothe our angry skin after a wicked sunburn, we can also use aloe vera serums regularly as part of our skincare routine to help calm irritated skin and reduce redness.
Organic Herbal Infusion, Organic Aloe Barbadensis Leaf (Aloe), Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate (Vitamin C), Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), Cassia Angustifolia Seed Polysaccharide (botanical hyaluronic acid), Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel), Carbomer, (2s)-2-Amino-5-guanidinopentanoic Acid, Kosher Vegetable Glycerin, Organic Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba Oil), Phenoxyethanol ^, Ethyl Hexyl Glycerin.
Not only is aloe vera a major ingredient in this natural serum it also contains Vitamin C and Hyaluronic Acid. It's recommended for all skin types and can be used in the evening or the morning.
A green tea serum is another gentle, soothing skincare ingredient that works to fight inflammation and calm skin.
Green Tea, Guava Juice, Honey, Natural Moisturizing Factor, Tara Tree Extract, Aloe Juice, Biocomplex (Vitamin A, Vitamin C Ester, Vitamin E, Coenzyme Q10, Alpha Lipoic Acid), Vegetable Glycerin, Xanthan Gum, Guava Essence, Lemon Oil, Sodium Salicylate, Sodium Benzoate ^, Potassium Sorbate^.
With green tea listed as the first ingredient of this serum, you know you’re getting the highest concentration of the best ingredient. It also contains aloe, Vitamin E and Vitamin C so it’s almost like you’re getting four serums in one.
Hydrating Serums (Hyaluronic Acid, Argan Oil and Rose Oil Serums)
Hyaluronic acid serum may sound scary but fear not! It’s actually incredibly moisturizing. The acid helps your skin retain moisture over a long period and gets deep down, hydrating your skin from within. A pump of this will keep your skin looking plump and fresh all day. Mix with your favorite anti-aging or brightening serum to make this skincare step pull double duty.
Aloe Vera, Hyaluronic Acid, Potassium Sorbate^, Citric Acid
Passport to Organic’s serum contains 1% of pure Hyaluronic Acid. It's also made up of 98% organic ingredients which is impressive as far as serums go. It is only made up of four ingredients; Aloe Vera, Hyaluronic Acid, Potassium Sorbate and Citric Acid.
Argan oil is probably the most common hydrating serum on the market today. It’s gentle, non-comedogenic and perfect for all skin types. Argan oil comes from the kernels of a Moroccan tree and is often referred to as “liquid gold” for its skin nourishing properties. If you’re new to the facial serum world and want to dip your toe, an Argan serum is definitely the way to go.
This is the OG of Argan oils: only a few years ago, Argan oil was reserved for dusty natural food stores shelves, Josie Maran brought it into major beauty shops, thus anointing the oil mainstream. It’s pure, it’s organic, it works.
Rose serums are yet another option that delivers major moisture benefits to the skin.
Organic Rosehip Seed Fruit Oil, Organic Jojoba Seed Oil, Organic Rose Geranium Oil,Organic Carrot Fruit Oil, Organic Sandalwood Wood Oil, Organic Lavender Flower Oil,Organic Rose Otto Flower Oil, Vitamin E (Tocopherol).
You’ll notice a major difference in your skin’s plumpness, brightness and overall health almost immediately with this one. Rosehip, Jojoba, Rose Geranium and Carrot are all extremely potent oils. Everything with the exception of the Vitamin E is organic, a big plus in our books.
Acne Fighting Serums (Salicylic Acid)
Salicylic acid serums are the grown up version of Clean and Clear face wash. The well-known and super effective ingredient is many people’s first defense when it comes to clearing up the occasional pimple or preventing acne breakouts. You can find salicylic acid in so many products, from face wash to spot treatments.
While Salicylic acid is a powerful ingredient (and effective) it's a synthetic one which has some warning flags, which is why we choose not to highlight a Salicylic Acid Serum in this list.
DIY Facial Serums
Because serums are meant to be hyper-focused on targeting a specific skincare concern and free of unnecessary ingredients, making a DIY facial serum at home is actually quite simple. And can honestly be as easy as buying a bottle of Vitamin E oil and Vitamin C oil adding a few drops of each to your regular daily moisturizer.
*be sure to use amber colored glass bottles when you make your serums as many of the active ingredients can become unstable if exposed to direct sunlight.
Simple DIY Argan Oil Facial Serum
Because it only includes Argan oil, jojoba oil and lavender essential oil, this DIY serum is light on your skin, time and your wallet. If you’re not ready to commit to an expensive store-bought serum and need to experiment a bit first, try this one. It smells good, is super hydrating and won’t break the bank.
Anti Aging Serum
This guest post from Jenni Raincloud contains macadamia nut oil, meadow foam seed oil, frankincense essential oil, lavender and myrtle essential oil— lots of potent and healing oils we’ve not yet discussed (and not readily found in store bought serums) but effective nonetheless.
Macadamia nut oil contains Palmitoleic Acid which is a compound that is naturally found in our skin, though it diminishes over time. It helps decrease how quickly the skin ages and is also full of natural antioxidants (which we’ve already waxed poetic about more than once here!)
Meadowfoam seed oil creates a natural barrier between your skin and the sun, decreasing your chance for sun damage and fine lines and wrinkles.
DIY Serum for Acne
This serum is so gentle and nourishing, you don’t even need to follow up with a traditional moisturizer. It’s especially nice in the summer months when your skin is craving something lightweight.
Squalane oil is the main ingredient in this one, which is true for many store bought serums as well. The nourishing oil was first discovered in shark liver (stay with us) but has since been found naturally occurring in olives as well. It’s antibacterial, an antioxidant and helps reduce inflammation. It has also been found to penetrate the skin better than many other popular oils (almond, coconut, jojoba) that simply sit on top of the skin.
It also includes bergamot oil and tea tree oil, both of which are antibacterial and tone the skin— two key components of keeping your skin clear. Balanced with nourishing Argan oil, this serum works as a simple spot treatment or an all over serum for those days when you’re feeling extra oily.
For an everyday, nourishing facial serum, we love this simple formula from Hello Glow. Aloe vera calms while Vitamin E moisturizes— and with a few drops of an essential oil, the custom options are endless! Lavender, chamomile and rose help calm your skin and reduce redness and irritation.
DIY Hydrating Serum
Our DIY beauty expert created this DIY Hydrating Night Time Serum. It contains Pomegranate oil, Jojoba oil, Castor oil, Rosehip oil and Vitamin E which helps to repair and moisturize while you sleep.
Serums: Your First Foray into K Beauty?
So, have we convinced you to try a serum yet?! We hope now that you’re equipped with the knowledge of what specific serums and ingredients can do to transform your skin, you’ll either make your first foray into the Korean beauty skincare step or decide to branch out buying trying new ones.
We've placed a ^ beside certain ingredients.
This doesn't mean an ingredient is unhealthy or by any means unsafe. While we personally believe in using organic and naturally derived ingredients, we also understand why certain synthetics are in beauty products. It's also the reason we always try to include DIY options in all of our posts.
If an ingredient has a ^ it means it's received a 3 or worse in EWG Skin Deep database. We encourage you to do your own research and formulate your own opinion about that particular ingredient.
Skin Essence Organics: Zinc Oxide (Non-Nano)
Go Pure Vitamin C Serum: Phenoxyethanol, Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E)
Mad Hippie Vitamin A Serum: Retinyl Retinoate
Eminence Green Tea and Guava Serum : Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate
Dose of C Serum with Aloe Vera: Phenoxyethanol
What Scientists Say About Vitamin Suncreen. September 22, 2016.
What Is Face Serum. September 19, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/03/what-is-face-serum_n_6761412.html
New Serums to Brighten Protect and Nurture Your Skin. September 19, 2016.
Keys to Unlocking the Benefits of Vitamin C September 19, 2016.
Understanding Free Radicals and . September 19, 2016.