Can You Use Serum As Makeup Primer?

by Gio

serum as makeup primer

I am a Paula’s Choice fan girl. When she speaks skincare, I usually listen.

But when I came across this video by her Skincare Team, I did a double take. The lovely Desiree was talking serums and mentioned you can use them as primers, too.

Serums as primers? Sure, a serum can double up as a moisturizer if you have super oily skin, but a primer? I am not so sure. In theory, the idea makes sense. In practice, not so much. Here’s why:

Why Using A Serum As Makeup Primer Makes Sense

Makeup primers are key to longlasting, flawless makeup. They:

  • Smoothen out imperfections, allowing foundation to glide on more smoothly
  • Fill in fine lines and wrinkles, making them look smaller
  • Create a barrier on the skin that prevents the pigments in your foundations from comind in contact with your natural oils, so your face doesn’t turn orange

A lot of silicones-based serums, like Paula’s Choice Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum and Paula’s Choice Resist Intensive Wrinkle-Repair Retinol Serum, can do the same.

And more. A good serum can fight wrinkles, fade dark spots and hydrate your skin to boot. A lot of primers make you the same sweet promises, too but they don’t have enough skincare goodies to deliver.

So, in theory, using a serum as a primer seems to make a lot of sense. You’re saving money and time in the morning, but getting double benefits, right? Not so fast.

Related: Why A Serum Is The Most Important Product In Your Skincare Routine

Serums = workhorses of skincare. You lose their antiaging benefits when you use them as primers.Click to Tweet

The Problem With Using Serum As Makeup Primer

There’s a reason why your serum goes on BEFORE your moisturizer. Moisturizers create a barrier on the skin that locks moisture (and everything else that’s on the skin) in.

If you do serum first and moisturizer second, your serum won’t have any chance to evaporate into thin air. But do it the other way around and that lightweight serum will find it really hard to pass through your moisturizer.

You can put primer on top of moisturizer because that’s supposed to stay on the top of your skin. How can it create a smooth canva for your makeup if it’s absorbed deep into your skin?

Serums, on the other hand, are supposed to be absorbed into the skin. They work better and faster when their active ingredients can penetrate through to the deepest layers where they can boost collagen, inhibit melanin production and do all those things that keep your skin young and healthy.

If you take Desiree’s advice and use your serum as a primer, you can forget about its antiaging benefits. It will smoothen out your skin and make your makeup look better indeed but it won’t be able to fight dark spots and wrinkles as well as it should.

I think I’ll stick to a separate makeup primer, thank you very much.

The Bottom Line

I usually agree with the advice dished out by Paula Begoun and her team, but I guess there’s always an exception. Serums are the workhorses of skincare and you’re losing most of their antiaging properties when you use them as primers. No, thank you!

Have you ever used a serum as makeup primer?



Allison May 12, 2015 - 8:32 pm

I guess it must depend on the serum, Gio. I use Lindi Skin Face Serum and DermaMD Pink Silk as primers. Both have a ton of ‘cones and they work perfectly!

Gio May 13, 2015 - 3:54 pm

Allison, I’m glad they work for you. Serums with silicones make great bases for makeup. My problem is that, if you apply your serum after your moisturizer, all the other goodies in it, like antioxidants, won’t be able to get through to the skin and do their job properly.

Allison May 13, 2015 - 4:12 pm

I still apply my serum first onto clean skin and moisturizer and then foundation on top and it works fine for me.

Gio May 15, 2015 - 8:28 pm

That’s the perfect order. 😉 But I heard some people apply serum last, and I just don’t think that’ll work as well.

tirurit May 12, 2015 - 9:57 pm

Makes sense! Specially once you take into account the physical effect some ingredients have on others.

The thing is that sometimes when I apply my make up during the day, I simply moisturize/prime with a lightweight serum and then add foundation (oily skin representative here). So in that case my serum is acting as a primer

Gio May 13, 2015 - 3:57 pm

Tirurit, oh yes, in that case, a serum can work well as a primer. It’s when you start adding moisturizer, and even sunscreen, that things get trickier.

Kiss & Make-up May 13, 2015 - 8:41 am

I actually do this: serum, moisturizer, face make-up and THEN primer.

Gio May 13, 2015 - 9:04 am

Melissa, primer after foundation? I heard that works well too but I find it so weird. I guess I’m too used to applying it before foundation. But if it does the trick, why not?

Miriam Soughley January 8, 2016 - 2:06 pm

Doesn’t make sense to put a primer on last. You wouldn’t put fresh paint on a wall and then cover it with primer. Surely the primer is to give an even surface to your foundation.

Gio January 9, 2016 - 3:51 pm

Miriam, that’s their job indeed. But, depending on the formula, some products can be used in alternative ways.

Natashia B. March 24, 2016 - 10:34 pm

In my experience, I feel it’s all in the intention of the user. For example, if you want to just use the serum as a great hydrating product, (at night, along with moisturizer is ideal) then the standard order of primer/moisturizer will be just fine. However, if you decide to use a serum as a primer, it works great on top of a light moisturizer. It”s all in how the user wants to use the product. There is no definite wrong or right way.

Gio March 26, 2016 - 10:31 pm

Natashia, I suppose that, if all you want from a serum is a nice base for makeup, then yes, I agree with you. But, some people use an anti-aging serum as a primer and still expect to get all the anti-wrinkle benefits. That’s unlikely to happen if you use it after moisturizer.

Amber December 15, 2016 - 10:19 pm

“There is no definite wrong or right way” – Yes there is, if you want to get all the benefits of each product. Like Gio has said, if you want the full anti-aging benefits of a serum, then applying it after a moisturizer won’t allow you to. And you certainly won’t get anything besides a base from a serum if you wear it over other layers of products (sunscreen, foundation, etc)

Anti-aging or break-out control skincare products should be applied first, onto bare skin (that is if you want your skin to absorb their ingredients). Then moisturizer (or you can skip this if your sunscreen or foundation has moisturizer, and if you have oily skin and wearing moisturizer along with other products with moisturizer makes it oilier). Then here’s where you try what looks best: you can apply sunscreen either before or after primer – all depends on how it looks best with the makeup and sunscreen you’re using. If your moisturizer has broad spectrum sunscreen, then of course you don’t need to apply sunscreen (remember to reapply every 2 hours). If you skincare serum has priming benefits then you can try depending on the previous serum application asking the primer step. Or you can try reapplying the serum before makeup as a primer. But whether either of those works might hinge on how many layers of other products you’ve applied before makeup. So, after the skincare, and moisturizer (if you’re using it), you’d have to find what order works best with the makeup products you use. Sunscreen is normally the product that is hardest to mix well with makeup, particularly mineral-based filters (which should be used over chemical filters).

Gio December 17, 2016 - 11:22 am

Amber, well said! I agree, you can’t use serum as primer if you want to enjoy all of its benefits. But I’d apply a separate sunscreen even if your moisturizer has SPF. That’s because you’d have to apply several layers to get the level of SPF stated on the bottle and no one does that.

Laurel December 31, 2016 - 1:42 pm

If the serum is silicone based and you apply it first, it will prevent anti aging ingredients in the moisturizer from being absorbed. If the serum isn’t moisturizing enough on its own, it seems the best order is moisturizer, serum, makeup as stated. I sometimes use a “cone” free serum, and in that case it goes on first. Silicones should go on last before make up imho, due the strong barrier created by those products. Cost wise Paula’s serums are on par with many primers, so why not?

Gio December 31, 2016 - 4:03 pm

Laurel, silicones don’t completely prevent the absorption of active ingredients. They have a particular molecular structure with wide molecules between each other so they don’t create an impenetrable layer. Your moisturizer, on the other hand, contains silicones as well, plus occlusive emollients that aren’t always used in serums. Those do create an even barrier, especially if they’re oil-based. So, if you want to reap the antiaging benefits of a serum, always apply it before moisturizer. Hope this helps.

Laurel January 1, 2017 - 9:02 pm

Thanks for the reply. Although silicones are extremely common they are not in all moisturizers and not in mine. It does have some oils in it. It just seems that everything goes on smoother when I apply moisturizer before the silicone based serum, but I did wonder what good it would do. It seems texture wise that my particular order for my particular products is fine, as long as I don’t expect big things from the serum going on last?

Gio January 1, 2017 - 9:42 pm

Laurel, yes, moisturizers also smoothen out the skin’s texture and that would make your serum go on more smoothly. You’re not harming your skin by applying your products in this order, but you are making your serum less effective. As long as you’re ok with it, that’s fine.

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