facial oils and serums, how do i choose?

Read our comprehensive guide on how to use facial oils and serums and the difference between the two!


If you’re caught up on the basics of skincare you’ve probably heard all about face serums by now (and even use one on the regular), but what about facial oils? Thanks to the rise of this popular Korean beauty trend, facial oils have become mainstream enough to deserve a spot in every beauty bag.

But do you need both facial oils and serums? And what exactly is the difference between these two skin treatments?

Good question. Traditional serums are water-based. Though, as the face oil trend grows (and there are more and more oils on the market), more oils are marketed as ‘serums’.

You have the water-based serums and the oil-based serums. Both are designed to nourish the skin, but in different ways. Face serums and facial oils each have their own advantages and can be used separately or layered to work together. The fundamental difference between a facial oil and serum comes down to the composition of their formulas.

Here’s everything you need to know about facial oils and serums for skin care. What is a Facial Serum?

Serums are essentially supplements for your skin. With their lightweight texture and smaller molecular structure – much smaller than those found in oils, moisturizers and lotions – they are able to deeply penetrate the skin. This allows them to deposit powerful active ingredients like peptidesantioxidant-rich vitamins or glycolic acids in the deeper layers of skin for more targeted results. So it is no wonder serums are considered to be a vital step in correcting a variety of different skin issues.


Is a Serum a Moisturizer?

Yes and no.
Serums can be chock-full of moisturizing ingredients (hyaluronic acid, ceramides) to help skin retain moisture. But, that doesn’t make them moisturizers in the traditional sense. Face lotions and creams are richer and create a barrier on top of the skin to keep all that good stuff in.

Following with a moisturizer is an important step after using a serum. Since the key purpose of a serum is to deliver active ingredients deep within the skin, most are not formulated to also provide intense hydration. One of the only exceptions would be a serum formulated with hydrating Hyaluronic acid.

How Often Should I Use My Serum?

Well, this all depends on the serum. Read the label, but once a day will probably cover your bases. With serums, less is more, so a pea-size amount of a serum will be enough for your skin.

For the most effective results, be mindful of when you use them. Always apply them on dry, cool skin to optimize absorption and avoid any over-layering. Ideally, they should be applied after washing and toning your face – or after you apply your essence if you use one. Lightly tap the serum into your skin and wait until it is absorbed to proceed with the application of a moisturizer.

Thanks to the variety of boosters available on the market, ranging from antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, hydrating and purifying, they make it easy to customize your skincare routine.

A word of caution: because serums are super potent, more is not always better. Be careful before piling it on. Powerful ingredients can irritate sensitive skin. Always patch-test accordingly.

What About Essence? Is Essence Serum?

Based on where they come in the routine (after cleansing, before moisturizing) and what function they serve (targeted skincare needs besides simple hydration) serums and essences are very similar. If anything, they differ in texture. Serums are gooier and more concentrated, while essences are watered-down with a more fluid texture.


What is a Facial Oil?

Facial oils have taken over the spotlight. While many people are still skeptical about their use, these oils promise to treat different concerns while giving you your healthy glow back.

With a rich, emollient texture – typically heavier than water-based serums – they provide a boost of nutrition and hydration. Thanks to the essential oils and plant extracts they contain, facial oils provide the skin with lipids which fortify the skin barrier. They are usually composed of one or more oils extracted from fruits, nuts and seeds. Depending on the type of formula, facial oils may have additional benefits besides nourishing and strengthening the skin barrier, such as anti-inflammatory or antioxidant properties.

To ensure you get all the benefits of facial oils, and none of the side effects, it’s important to select the most appropriate one for your skin type.

Take Jojoba Oil as an example: it is known to work well with acne-prone skin because it doesn’t clog pores and cause blemishes. While Jojoba is great for acne-prone skin, someone with extremely dry skin would benefit from choosing a richer, more nourishing oil.

Even though most oils only serve as a source of moisture and hydration, they are just as important as serums in your skincare routine. Increasing the moisture in your skin and providing it with essential oils is fundamental for a healthy, glowing complexion. Because facial oils have a rich texture and heavy molecular weight, they should be applied as the last step of your skincare routine to seal in lighter-textured products.


When to Apply a Face Serum vs. a Face Oil

The main difference between using a serum and a facial oil is that oil molecules are much larger and can only penetrate the outermost layers of the skin. In fact, an oil blend can contain hundreds of different sized molecules so this makes them more suitable as moisturizers rather than as serums.

Serums help to repair or protect your skin from a variety of concerns, such as aging, hyperpigmentation, and acne. Serums come in an array of different consistencies, from thin and watery to thick and gel-like.

These differences in viscosity and formula make certain serums more appropriate for particular skin types or concerns. However, for the most part, everyone can benefit from some type of serum. While people with dry and normal skin types might benefit from using a serum in combination with an anti-aging face moisturizer, people with oily and combination skin types might find that a serum on its own is all they need.

Serums contain up to 70 percent active ingredients, which makes them highly potent and result-oriented (depending on the skin issue that they have been formulated) without clogging pores, and they are meant to provide a mega dose of hydration.

Both serums and facial oils can serve a purpose in your routine, but ultimately it’s all about choosing one that will work for your skin type and skin goals. If you want brighter, more even skin, you could use a vitamin c booster or if you want to deeply moisturize the skin while smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles, you can reach for a hydrating serum with hyaluronic acid for the added X-factor!

Just keep in mind that you should layer them appropriately from lightest to thickest consistency, to ensure your products have a chance to absorb and work effectively.

Choosing the Right Serum or Facial Oil for Your Skin Type

If your skin is acne-prone, look for a serum or oil with Vitamin C (increases collagen production, enhances skin’s repair process and reduces inflammation), retinol (also an antioxidant, reduces inflammation), zinc (soothes irritation, regulates oil production), and salicylic acid (unclogs pores).

If your skin is dry look for a serum or oil with vitamin E (an antioxidant, protects cells from oxidative damage), niacinamide (improves skin elasticity, increases ceramide levels in skin), glycolic acid (gently exfoliates and lightens discoloration), and hyaluronic acid (retains moisture).

If you’re skin is feeling dull, look for antioxidants like green tea extractresveratrolferulic acid (these combat free radicals, increase effectiveness of sunscreen by day, and promote cellular repair and healing by night).


Less is Always More

While a moisturizer that suits your skin type is a must-have in your kit, pick a serum that targets your immediate skin needs (e.g., reduce dullness, tackle blemishes, fight fine lines etc). Use a face oil when you experience extreme dryness or when you are in need of additional moisture, due to internal or external factors.

It’s easy for face serums and oils to blur together and leave us confused about which products to use and how and when to apply them. A good rule of thumb is less is more.

Whether using a face serum or oil, both should be applied in small quantities in the correct order to lock in all the nutrients for a gorgeous, glowing complexion.

by Jaclyn LaBadia – feature contributor