I don’t know who exactly is to credit for the seemingly overnight obsession that we all have with skincare — even my little sister who is a freshman in high school is layering on essences and daily SPF (does anyone else remember setting your makeup with aerosol hairspray and cleansing with only baby wipes at that age, or just me?).
However we got to this point, I’m incredibly grateful. Skincare brands are more transparent about what goes into their products, and we’re all-around more educated about the importance of certain steps and active ingredients.
Serums, while relatively new to American skincare, have been a focal point for Korean and Japanese women for decades. What type of serums you need and when they’re the most effectively used can be tricky to understand, so we’re giving you a list of our absolute favorites and when to apply them.
The must unconventional option on the list, this serum comes formulated as a super-fine mist administered from a spray can — weird, but it allows the serum to be absorbed effectively with minimal effort on your part. This has niacinamide and vitamin C, all in a gentle formula that can be applied over makeup throughout the day when you need a little boost!
When to apply: twice a day after cleansing, or whenever you’d like!
The hyaluronic acid in this serum helps to plump fine lines and holds 1,000 times its weight in water, which allows it to effectively moisturize throughout the day. Vitamin B5 also goes to work restoring and reinforcing your skin’s natural moisture barrier.
When to apply: in the morning after cleansing.
An excellent starter product for beginners, Peach & Lily sought to bring the “glass skin” fad from Korean skincare onto the American market with this ingredient rich “buffet” style serum — a little bit of everything! Peptides, fatty acids, hyaluronic acid complex, niacinamide, and a plethora of extracts help fight dullness, redness, and dehydration.
When to apply: in the morning after cleansing.
Fermented ingredients are showing up more and more in Korean skincare, and the science behind it is pretty exciting — fermentation allows for higher concentrations of antioxidants and other active ingredients. This one focuses on betula alba juice and rice enzymes, which work with skin to brighten, tone, and firm.
When to apply: twice a day after cleansing, while skin is still damp.
Tiger grass has been used in Eastern medicine for its healing and soothing properties since the beginning of time; if you suffer from inflamed breakouts, intense sensitivity, redness, or flakiness — this product might be your missing link. Alongside the centella asiatica complex (tiger grass), Cicapair features a long list of soothing herbs and plant extracts that aim to calm down stressed out complexions.
When to apply: twice a day when experiencing breakouts or sensitivity.
A gentle formulation of naturally occurring salicylic acid, the only beta hydroxy acid in skincare, paired with hydrating rose water and antioxidant polyphenols derived from grape seeds make this serum ideal for combating excessive oiliness, blackheads, and enlarged pores.
Best time to apply: twice a day, but skip the night time application if you are also using retinol.
A pH balanced serum enriched with vitamin B5 and a blend of antioxidants and ceramides suitable for all skin types, this gel-like serum from Drunk Elephant allows your skin to feel like it's chugging from a bottle of SmartWater. Gentle enough for multiple uses throughout the day and impossibly soothing and hydrating, it’s damn near addictive.
When to apply: literally whenever you want.
Retinoic acid is the gold standard of youth preserving ingredients — so if slight signs of aging are starting to bother you, it’s time for retinol. This serum combines a 3% concentrated retinoid with caffeine for deeper penetration and a blend of calming plant extracts to combat the discomfort and irritation one can expect when first starting a retinol product.
When to apply: at night once skin is completely dry after cleansing. Do not mix with other serums or acids, use alone with a gentle moisturizer, and always wear SPF during the day.
Vitamin C in skincare is pretty much the ultimate diva — she’s expensive, high maintenance, volatile, and unpredictable. We need her to look our very best, but finding a product with a stable formulation of this super important ingredient paired with packaging that keeps it safe from air and light exposure is difficult. Luckily, we have C-Firma to take the guesswork out of it.
When to apply: in the morning after cleansing and applying any other hydrating serums, right before applying SPF.
You don’t actually have to be born with good genes to delay aging and have radiant skin — you just need a little overnight exfoliation. Sunday Riley’s cult-status lactic acid treatment has been one of Sephora’s best-selling skincare products for a long time, and with good reason. This AHA serum knocks out hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and uneven tone after a few weeks of use.
When to apply: on nights when you are not using retinol. If your skin seems sensitized or irritated when first starting use, scale back to using twice a week until you can slowly build up to every other night.