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What is a facial serum and should you add one to your skincare routine?

You moisturize your face in the morning, and use night cream and eye cream before you go to bed. That’s enough to keep skin looking it’s best, right? Hold on a sec. Have you thought about adding a serum to your beauty arsenal? Like a supplement for your skin, these ultra-concentrated gels and creams can be your secret weapon to stave off fine lines and wrinkles, make tired skin look alive and counter discoloration, all on a molecular level.

But before you go down the rabbit hole of products, read on as local makeup artists explain what they are, how they differ, how to use them and the best ones for your particular skin challenges.

What exactly is a serum?

A serum is a type of skincare product that delivers specific ingredients and supplements right into the skin, including those to fight the effects of aging, wrinkles, discoloration, acne and dryness, notes master makeup artist Carola Myers, founder of Carola Myers Makeup & Hair Artists in Fairfax.

They tend to be lumped into the same category as moisturizers and other face creams,, but that’s not exactly accurate. “A serum is more deep and direct in its composition delivery, whereas moisturizers focus more on the upper layers,” she explains. “This is because at a molecular level serums have smaller particles allowing them to seep directly into your skin.” She likes to use an exercise metaphor to get clients to understand the difference: moisturizers are like going to the gym, while serums are like taking your vitamins, giving a boost to your overall skin health and making all the other products you use more effective.

What kinds of components are found in a serum?

Though they come in many different combinations of ingredients, says Kim Reyes, a professional makeup and SFX makeup artist and owner of Kim Reyes Makeup, LLC in Silver Spring, more often than not they are water-based and in gel form. “[They] penetrate the skin deeper through a higher concentration of active ingredients (anti-oxidants, hyaluronic acids, Vitamin A, C, D, E, etc.)”

Can I use a serum in place of my moisturizer?

Generally, no, Reyes says. “Because serums are thinner and more easily absorbed, additional moisturizers may be needed depending on your skin.” It’s also not recommended to use serums around the eyes, so a separate eye cream should be used in that delicate area. While serums can be hydrating--binding and increasing water in the skin--and seal in moisture, they are not considered traditional moisturizers, concurs Teresa Foss-Del Rosso, owner and makeup artist at DC Elite Image and resident makeup artist at Moshe Zusman Photography Studio, both in Washington, D.C. That means that those with oiler skin types in warm, humid climates may find them to be enough, but those with normal or drier skin may need to add on a thicker, richer lotion or cream. “When used on top of a serum, the moisturizer creates a barrier to lock in the powerful cocktail of ingredients from a serum,” she says.

How do I know which serum is right for me?

Ask yourself what you main skin concerns are, Foss-Del Rosso suggests. (Sephora.com has a checklist with a series of questions that will help you find the right brand and type of serum for your skin issues.) “Familiarize yourself with the correct ingredients for your skincare concern,” she adds. “For example, oily or acne-prone skin can greatly benefit from salicylic acid which exfoliates and unclogs pores, [while] drier skin needs vitamin E and hyaluronic acid to protect and retain moisture.” Reyes points out that sensitive skin may be more easily irritated by certain serums, and caution should be taken when using them in conjunction with retinoid products.

How much should I use?

Serums typically come in smaller bottles than other creams--but luckily, a little goes a long way. Myers says you’ll want to use enough to get thin but full coverage. “Usually a small pump or two should be plenty--And don’t forget your neck, which is so commonly overlooked!”

So should I use a serum in the morning or evening, and at what point in my daily skincare routine?

Though it may vary a bit depending on the individual product, Reyes says a serum should generally be the first product used on the skin after cleansing. As far as day versus evening, “serums that are protective and preventative are often used in the daytime because they are loaded with antioxidants,” Foss-Del Rosso explains. “[Those] that are repairing or exfoliating are usually used in the evening to restore the skin while you sleep.”

When should I start using a serum?

While you may associate serums with mature skin, Reyes says it’s never too early to add one to your regimen. And while some can be super pricey (The JK7 Rejuvenating Serum tops out at $1,800 per fluid ounce...yikes), there are many others on the market in the $40-$50 range. And after all, isn’t gorgeous skin priceless?

Here are some serums to try:

IT Cosmetics Feel the Moment Skin-Rejuvenating Hydrating Primer Serum ($38): I’ve been using this in the morning underneath my makeup. It really seems to “wake up” my skin, and the aromatic essential oils give my sense of smell a boost, too.

IT Cosmetics No. 50 Serum Anti-Aging Collagen Veil Primer ($48): Another great product to use under makeup, it touts more than 50 ingredients to nurture skin and lock in moisture, and diffuses the appearance of larger pores.

Wilde Gatherings Rejuvenating Oil ($42): A combination of seabuckthorn and borage seed oil renews skin cells and repair environmental damage, while jasmine and lemon oils wake up skin.

Beautycounter Facial Oils ($63-$68): Foss Del-Rosso uses these on her oily skin as they aren’t pore-clogging like products with a mineral oil or petroleum base. “They contain a proprietary blend of seven natural oils that moisturize hydrate, nourish, protect, and replenish, and they leave my skin silky smooth and glowing.”

Drunk Elephant TLC Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90) is perfect for all skin types, and resurfaces the skin’s texture to make it smoother and more radiant.

Vernal Hydra-Glow Multi-Benefit Serum ($46). This serum is hydrating, plumping and firming, and also fights the signs of aging.

Murad Rapid Age Spot and Pigment Lightening Serum ($65) targets damage caused by pollution, smog, and sun that can accelerate the appearance of hyperpigmentation, uneven tone and texture, and lines and wrinkles.

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