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What’s the difference between facial serum and facial moisturizer

Find out what face serums actually do and choose one to add to your skincare routine!

Written by: 100% PURE ®

With 10-step skincare routines, essences, exfoliants, toners, and everything in between, it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed when it comes to skincare.

So let’s backtrack a bit, and talk about two skincare products that tend to blur together: face serums and moisturizers.

Both moisturizer and face serum benefit the skin in a number of ways, and sometimes those benefits can overlap; for example, both moisturizers and serums can be hydrating. Today, we’re clearing up the differences between moisturizers and serums, and why you should use both!

What Is a Facial Serum?

Face serums benefit the skin with lightweight formulas, which are packed with active skincare ingredients. With their thin, highly absorbent consistency, serums are known to sink into the skin, leaving little to no trace behind.

It is also worth noting that serums do not have an official definition, so you may often find them in the form of a gel, oil, or lightweight cream. Typically, serums benefit the skin by addressing a plethora of concerns, like brightening, anti-aging, acne-fighting, and sometimes a combination. And while they tend to cost a little more compared to other skincare products, a little is sure to go a long way–all you need is a few drops!

You will typically find face serums to contain the following ingredients:

  • Retinol, which is a popular and highly researched ingredient in skin. As a vitamin A derivative, retinol is known to promote collagen and elastin production in the cells, which reinforces the firmness and elasticity of your skin
  • Lactic acid, which helps diminish hyperpigmentation in the skin
  • Antioxidants, which counteract free radicals. Free radicals are known to passively damage your skin cells and diminish their regenerative properties
  • Hyaluronic acid, which is a fantastic moisturizing agent known for sealing in moisture while preventing your skin cells from drying out
  • Niacinamide, which is a compound known to help reduce the appearance of pores, making it a particularly popular ingredient for those with larger pores
  • Glycolic acid, which is helpful for boosting your natural glow while fighting hyperpigmentation
  • Vitamin C, which is known to encourage the production of collagen, which is a key compound in the skin, which helps your cells regenerate at a faster pace while signaling new cells to replace ones that die on the skin’s surface

What Is a Facial Moisturizer?

Face moisturizers are made in a thicker formulation, which creates a type of physical barrier that seals in hydration while preventing the skin from becoming dehydrated. Moisturizers can also fortify the skin’s stratum corneum, or outer layer, to help retain moisture.

Sometimes, anti-aging ingredients are incorporated into moisturizers, giving them a double-whammy of benefits.

Moisturizers are also made with ingredients you might often see in serums, including vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, as well as moisturizing factors like aloe vera and hyaluronic acid. Moisturizers are especially beneficial for those with a dry skin type, or for those in drier, more arid climates. Moisturizers are especially helpful for people who live in climates associated with cold weather, as you’re more likely to have dry skin if that’s the case.

Key Differences Between a Facial Serum and Facial Moisturizer

As we’ve covered above, serums are typically lighter and thinner, while moisturizers tend to have a thicker, creamier texture. But how do their benefits differ from each other?

Serums benefit the skin by plunging deep into inner skin layers, where they deliver active ingredients meant to target certain issues. Moisturizers, on the other hand, help fortify the outer skin layer while providing moisture. It has also been suggested that moisturizers have larger molecules than serums, indicating that a moisturizer won’t penetrate as deeply into the skin as a serum.

Do I Need a Moisturizer if I Use a Serum?

If you’re using a hydrating facial serum–perhaps one of our best sellers, the Rose Hyaluronic Acid Serum – your skin is sure to benefit. Facial serums are advanced, highly concentrated skin care products that are formulated to deliver the benefits of high-performance ingredients like humectants, antioxidants, and other cell-communicating ingredients to the skin.

While a serum can do the skin wonders, don’t take that as a sign to put your trusty moisturizer on the sidelines—especially if the consistency of the serum has a creamy, lotion-like texture.

It is important to note that your skin plays a crucial role: it protects the entire body! Moisturizers work by shielding your skin from the elements while replenishing hydration and moisture. And while some serums contain hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, you’ll need that lightweight formula in with a moisturizer so it doesn’t evaporate.

Should I Use Serums During the Day or at Night?

In order to get the benefits of face serum and moisturizer, it’s important to use them at the right time.

That being said, some serums are best applied in the evening, and some will provide the most benefits during the day.

For instance, take retinol, the anti-aging powerhouse we all know and love. Beloved for its versatility and effectiveness, this vitamin A derivative boosts skin cell turnover to encourage new cells to the surface, eliminating blemishes, hyperpigmentation, and even fine lines and wrinkles.

With all of its skincare benefits, retinol is not recommended for daytime use, as it can make your skin especially sensitive to sun damage.

A great example of a retinol serum that should absolutely be worn at night is our Multi-Vitamin + Antioxidants Potent PM Serum.This product contains not only retinol but also a retinol booster, so it has quite a bit of power behind it. It’s a super product, but only for bedtime.

On the other hand, there are also serums that benefit the skin the most during the day. Typically, “day serums” are formulas which feature skin-protecting ingredients like antioxidants and peptides, such as our Vitamin C Boost, which offset the free radical damage caused by pollution and UV light. However, other serums benefit skin during the day as well. For instance, a mattifying or water-locking serum could enhance the wear of your makeup while promoting all-day hydration.

If you ever feel unsure about which serums benefit your skin during the day and which are best at night, always use as directed on the product’s packaging.

Should I Use a Face Serum Every Day?

Technically, this depends on the serum. Assuming that the formula is gentle and recommended for daytime use, serums can be worn daily. In fact, we encourage you to do so!

It may feel a little overwhelming to think of a new everyday task–especially if you tend to have a hectic morning schedule. Luckily, one of the beauties about daily serums is that they only take a few seconds to apply. Plus, your skin will thank you for taking the time to show it some love.

Which is Better, Serum or Moisturizer?

At the end of the day, your moisturizer is a slightly more essential skincare step than serums, since they do a better job at locking moisture and protecting your skin.

However, it’s important to note that a facial serum is going to do things a moisturizer can’t. Serums are far more concentrated in actives than your average moisturizer, and they’re highly lightweight and absorbent.

That’s why we recommend using a serum and a moisturizer together!

Frequently Asked Questions About Facial Serum and Moisturizer

What are the main differences between facial serums and moisturizers?

Facial serums and moisturizers differ primarily in their formulation and purpose. Serums are typically lighter, more liquid-like, and contain a higher concentration of active ingredients. They are designed to penetrate deeply into the skin to deliver targeted treatments like anti-aging, brightening, or hydrating benefits. Moisturizers, on the other hand, are thicker and creamier. Their main role is to hydrate the skin by forming a barrier on the skin's surface, which helps to lock in moisture and protect the skin from environmental factors. While serums address specific skin concerns, moisturizers are more about overall skin hydration and protection.

Can serums replace moisturizers in a skincare routine?

Generally, serums cannot replace moisturizers as they serve different purposes. Serums provide targeted treatment and deeper penetration of active ingredients, while moisturizers are essential for locking in those ingredients and maintaining the skin's hydration levels. It's beneficial to use both in tandem for optimal skin health. However, some serums with hydrating properties might be sufficient for those with very oily skin, but this is more of an exception than the rule.

Should I apply serum or moisturizer first?

Serum should be applied before moisturizer. The rule of thumb in skincare is to apply products from thinnest to thickest consistency. As serums are usually lighter and designed to deliver active ingredients deep into the skin, they should go on first, followed by a moisturizer to lock in the serum’s benefits and hydrate the skin.

How do moisturizers help in skincare besides hydration?

Besides hydration, moisturizers help to strengthen the skin’s barrier function, protect against environmental damage, and can even deliver active ingredients like SPF, antioxidants, and skin-repairing substances. They play a crucial role in maintaining the skin's overall health and preventing issues like dryness, irritation, and premature aging.

Can serums be used under the eyes?

Certain serums can be used under the eyes, but it’s important to choose the right type. Serums formulated specifically for the delicate eye area can help address concerns like dark circles, puffiness, and fine lines. However, be cautious with potent active ingredients like retinol or high-strength vitamin C around the eyes, as the skin here is more sensitive.

We carefully hand-select products based on strict purity standards, and only recommend products we feel meet this criteria. 100% PURE™ may earn a small commission for products purchased through affiliate links.

The information in this article is for educational use, and not intended to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should not be used as such.

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