For years, I ignored serums.
I had no idea what they were, what they were supposed to do and what the point in buying one was.
But, one day, curiosity got the better of me. I tried one and… have never looked back.
These days, a serum is an essential step in my skincare routine, both at morning and at night. What a change, huh?
So, what happened there? Well, I’ve finally figured out what serums are. Skincare superheroes that are packed with active ingredients, such as antioxidants and skin lighteners.
Serums contain a much higher concentration of these goodies than moisturizers. Their texture is much lighter, too, so they penetrate more easily into the skin. That makes serums work better and faster than any other skincare products out there.
Basically, you’d be mad not to use one.
There’s only one problem. How the heck do you choose the best one for your skin, especially when its needs keep changing as you get older?
Here’s a quick guide to help you out. It’ll tell you what ingredients you should look out for during any decade of your life and where to find them:
Best Serums For 20-Somethings: Anti-Aging Prevention
Your skin looks awesome. Soft, supple, glowy. What the heck do you need a serum for?
Your skin isn’t showing it yet, but sun damage, pollution, an unbalanced diet and plenty of other things are inflicting damage to it every day. If you don’t do something about it now, those wrinkles will turn up sooner than you think.
Enter antioxidants. They fight the free radicals that cause wrinkles and dark spots. The more you add to your skincare routine, the better you’ll age.
- Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum ($80.00/£67.00): available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK
- Paula’s Choice Resist Ultra-Light Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum ($38.00/£35.00): available at Dermstore, Feel Unique, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice
- Paula’s Choice Skin Recovery Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum With Retinol ($34.00/£32.00): available at Paula’s Choice
Related: Common Antioxidants Found In Skincare Products
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Best Serums For 30-Somethings: Retinol
Fine lines are now starting to appear, especially around your eyes. Yes, already.
There’s only one family of actives that can reduce the damage: retinoids. They’re forms of vitamin A, the gold standard for treating antiaging. They reduce the fine lines and wrinkles you already have and prevent new ones from forming. How?
- They fight the free radicals that cause wrinkles
- They stimulate collagen production to firm skin
- They accelerate cellular turnover, helping skin renew itself faster
But, there’s a catch. Retinoids can be irritating if you’ve never used them before. Start with small concentrations once or twice a week and build it up from there.
- Dr Dennis Gross Skincare Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution ($88.00): available at Dermstore, Nordstrom, Sephora and SpaceNK
- Paula’s Choice Resist Intensive Wrinkle-Repair Retinol Serum ($42.00/£39.00): available at Feel Unique, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice
- Peter Thomas Roth Retinol Fusion PM ($65.00/£62.50): available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty, Sephora and Ulta
Related: The Complete Guide To Retinol: What It Is, What It Does & How To Use It
Best Serums For 40-Somethings: Exfoliation & Peptides
Skin is starting to lose its luster. It’s duller, drier and more uneven than it was before.
Getting it its glow back is a job for exfoliation. Glycolic acid is particularly good at this:
- It exfoliates skin, making it smoother and brighter
- Helps reduce wrinkles and dark spots
- Hydrates skin
- Boost collagen production (but only in high concentrations)
There’s no better exfoliant for dry and sun-damaged skin. Oily skin? Stick to salicylic acid. It’s not as brightening, but it still gets the job done.
You may also want to start using peptides. The verdict’s still out there, it’s true. Peptides are too big to penetrate skin, so some derms think they’re useless.
But, enough studies are coming up lately to make me think they do something (like helping to firm skin) even when left on the surface of the skin. I wouldn’t buy a serum just because of peptides, but if it has other goodies + peptides, heck, why not?
- Alpha Skincare Intensive Rejuvenating Serum ($18.99): available at Ulta
- Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00/£76.00): available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK
- Paula’s Choice Peptide Booster ($52.00/£47.00): available at Feel Unique, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice
Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid: What It Is, What It Does & How To Use It
Best Serums For 50+ somethings: Skin-Brighteners
Wrinkles, sagging, dark spots… Your skin is starting to show its real age.
You still need all the goodies that served you well before. Antioxidants. Retinoids. Glycolic acid. Peptides.
But now, it’s time to bring out the big guns to treat dark spots. That usually means hydroquinone, the most powerful skin lightener out there.
Problem is, it’s a bit harsh. There are other gentler alternatives, like arbutin and Niacinamide, but they tend to cost more or work more slowly.
- Alpha Skincare Dual Action Skin Lightener ($10.99): available at Ulta
- Paula’s Choice Resist Pure Radiance Skin Brightening Treatment ($34.00/£34.00): available at Paula’s Choice
- Skinceuticals Phyto Plus ($86.00): available at Blue Mercury and Dermstore
I wish my skin was well hydrated but even in my 20-s, there is a lot damage to fix:( I do love vitamin C serums and definitely can see the difference when using them:)
Helena, I love them too. They do wonders for the skin!
What’s your opinion, Gio, of hydroquinone? Lately in the US, it has fallen out of favor. What have you been hearing?
Allison, hydroquinone is one of the most effective skin.lighteners available today. Unfortunately, like a lot of good ingredients, it has gained a largely undeserved bad reputation. It’s true it can cause irritations in some people, but rumours it causes cancer are false. You can check out my post on hydroquinone for more information: http://beautifulwithbrains.com/2013/10/15/spotlight-on-hydroquinone/ 🙂
I agree that there is no worry with hydroquinone! I am not getting much improvement with over the counter products (Up to 4%) and yes I use sunscreen. Is prescription the way to go? Do you know if it is very expensive? (Canada).
Maureen, if over the counter doesn’t work, prescription is definitely something to consider. Unfortunately, I have no idea how much that would cost in Canada, sorry.
This is great, Gio! I’ve been wondering lately if I’m using the best serum for my age (42). This really helps me research a good one.
I have a question about acids in skin care (AHAs, BHAs, etc.). Some beauty bloggers seem to be of the opinion that, while they work beautifully at first, they can thin the skin over time and thus should be avoided. What’s your take on this?
Laurie, I’m glad you find it helpful. 🙂
I don’t think these acids should be avoided, just used in moderation or they can irritate skin. AHAs do thin the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin. After all, they remove the layers of dead cells that are accumulating on the surface of the skin. But use of Glycolic Acid increases the overall thickness of the skin because it boosts collagen production . But with lactic acid, there is no change in dermal thickness. If you’re curious to know more, check out this post at Futurederm: https://www.futurederm.com/2007/10/08/spotlight-on-alpha-hydroxy-acids/
Great. Thanks so much!
My pleasure! 🙂
very informative 🙂 Thanks for suggesting options dear 🙂
Anubhuti, you’re welcome. I’m glad you found it useful. 🙂
May have to go for the 30’s reccomendations, even in my 20’s I’m starting to get wrinkles at the corners of my eyes 🙁
Katie, it’s annoying, isn’t it? Definitely start using retinoids then. 🙂
i am mid thirties and after having pallid dull lifeless skin my life i found serums and have fallen madly in love with them. where have they been all my life!
thanks for this article to give better direction about serums!
i have serums of hyaluronic acid, vitamin c, niacyanamide, and a cerum that has vitamin c with e complex, i also have a herbal serum that i like it , it has wild daisy flower and white tea extracts.
after reading about your reasearch on copper peptides i really really want a serum of those kind, but they are soooooo out of my league right now.
Julina, copper peptides can be so expensive! But you’re doing so well already. Hyaluronic acid, vitamins c and e, and niacinamide are all wonderful ingredients that will help you achieve clear and glowing skin. And it’s great that you’re getting your fix in serum form, as they’re more powerful that way.
So happy to have found you! Haven’t finished reading everything but I’m hooked. I’d like to ask for some guidance. I’m 40 have and due to my sun avoidance, genes, no smoking /alcohol I’m only now getting a laugh line (just one) on my left side. I think from sleeping on that side. No fine lines anywhere else but a couple of milia seeds. I’ve never had a skin care routine and now clearly I need to exfoliate. Is it ok for me to start with retinoids and aha’s all at once?
Mami, first of all, well done! A healthy lifestyle does pay off, doesn’t it?
That depends. Some people can start such a heavy duty regime all at once without their skin complaining, others end up with irritations. You really won’t know until you try it. To stay on the safe side, I’d recommend you work them in slowly. Maybe you can start using retinol twice a week and AHAs once a week and build up frequency gradually?
I know in this article you said peptide serum is best for 40-somethings. I’m in mid-20s but I have sensitive skin so most retinols and vitamin C suspensions scare me because of the tingling etc. Do you think peptide serum will be good for someone with sensitive skin?
Audrey, peptides are usually fine for sensitive skin. My only concern is that the verdict’s still out there on whether they work or not. Some critics say they’re too big to penetrate the skin while others think they work even when left on the surface. I’m inclined to believe the second thesis but peptides are expensive. That’s why I recommend getting a serum with antioxidants AND peptides. Paula’s Choice makes some great antioxidant serums that anyone can use. Have you checked those out?
So glad to hear that it’s okay for sensitive skin. I also read that they are quite new and therefore do not have a lot of proofs that they work (or not). I agree that most of the times they are very expensive ($100ish or more), so I’m just gonna try The Ordinary’s $15 Buffet Serum, I’m pretty sure you have heard of its Matrixyl 3000 & Syn-Ake. What do you think about their Buffet product in term of ingredient?
I have looked at Paula’s Choice serums but unfortantely haven’t been able to find a supplier for Paula’s Choice products here in Indonesia, I’m still trying to find one 🙂
If you’re looking for a peptide serum, it’s a good option to try. It’s chock full with them and so cheap. I also like that it has plenty of hyaluronic acid, so it should be able to hydrate your skin as well.
Thank you for such an informative blog. I have a 10 year old granddaughter who is starting to get spots on her forehead. I would like to help her as I suffered from acne in my teenage years. What cleansers would you recommend and should she use any serums or moisturisers. Hope you can help.
Lynnette, I’m sorry to hear your granddaughter is suffering from spots already. I’d recommend she uses an exfoliant with salicylic acid (also called BHA) once a day. That should help.