What’s a serum, anyway?

Designed with lighter but more deeply penetrating ingredients than a skin moisturizer, a serum is meant to be highly concentrated, removing as much water and other fillers that you’ll find in moisturizers, like petroleum or mineral oils, as possible. Because serums are packed with hydrating ingredients, you can wear them sans moisturizer (but with sunblock!) if you have normal to oily skin. “However, if you have extremely dry, chapped skin, serums should not be used in place of moisturizers, which are thicker and lock in moisture,” says Adele Haimovic, M.D., a fellowship-trained surgical and cosmetic dermatologist based in New York City.

Our 6 Favorite Face-Saving Ingredients

  1. Hyaluronic acid—aids in hydration.
  2. Peptides—can boost collagen and fight aging of the skin.
  3. Retinol—stimulates collagen and reduces wrinkles and dark circles.
  4. Green tea and caffeine—antioxidants that also constrict blood vessels and reduce dark circles.
  5. Vitamin C and ferulic acid—antioxidants and brightening agents.
  6. Niacinamide—increases production of ceramides (skin lipids) and collagen.

Source: Suzanne J. Friedler, M.D.

How to Find the Right One for You

Facial serums have a big task to fill. Many promise to reverse sun-related damage while also tightening and plumping skin, filling in wrinkles, and giving you a glamorous glow. “The ingredients in serums often work to repair dehydrated skin that has been damaged by daily stressors, such as pollution and UV light. Many have anti-aging properties as well,” says Suzanne J. Friedler, M.D., F.A.A.D., with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York City. But with options ranging from $20 to $200, how do you know which one will be best for you?

Start by heading to beauty stores like Sephora or drugstores with counters that have testers. Dab the serum on the back of your hand and let it sink in to see how you like it. Not able to test one out? Look for key ingredients like hyaluronic acid (HA), which is a research-backed repair agent that can help lessen wrinkle depth and hydrate skin, according to the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. Inside your body, HA is a naturally occurring antioxidant polymer that’s the most versatile macromolecule in our connective tissues. “It also holds a thousand times its weight in water, keeping the skin well-hydrated,” says Haimovic.

Buyer beware: Anything with filler ingredients at the top of the list should be avoided. Serums are meant to be concentrated formulas of the most active ingredients, so if the callout ingredients on the front of the box are actually at the bottom of the list, make another choice.

Here are 13 skin-saving serums we love right now. Also check our our favorite anti-acne products this spring here.