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Serums vs. Creams

serums versus creams
June 26, 2014 Reviewed by Marta 3 Comments

I still get quizzical looks when I mention serums, as if to convey: “Hmm, are they for real?” or “Isn’t a serum just a cream dolled up to justify a bigger price tag?” There are, in fact, significant differences between serums and creams. Although, it also pays to know that you don’t always need both. Here’s what you really need to know about serums and creams.

The Truth About Serums

Serums are our secret anti-aging weapons. The original meaning of the word “serum” is body fluid or the liquid part of blood. I’m not sure how it got appropriated by the beauty industry, but a clue might be that topical serums tend to be thick-ish liquids and are usually clear or milky. They are always water-based so that they are lightweight and easily absorbed into the skin.

The whole point to a serum is that it should effectively deliver active ingredients into the skin. Some formulators would argue that the delivery system is more important that what is delivered. There’s no point in spending money on a high dose of topical vitamin C if it just isn’t going to penetrate very well.

That’s why you’ll increasingly see serums that refer to things like liposomes (microscopic spherical particles that deliver ingredients into the skin). A good example would be E'shee Clinical Esthetic Vitalizing C Serum ($119), which uses liposomes as the delivery system for a hefty 20% concentration of vitamin C.  Medik8 Pretox 20 ($100) is “a Botox alternative,” acetyl hexapeptide, that is contained in a liposome delivery system. Meanwhile, suki Healthy Aging Serum + Vitamin Peptide Complex ($50.95) uses phospholipids to wrap up the vitamin C.

Serums worth their salt focus on wrinkle repairers and collagen boosters. Epidermal growth factors have been heavily researched for their wound healing capabilities, and what is a wrinkle if it is not skin in need of repair? Medik8 Growth Factor ($160) is a great example of a no-frills serum that is laser focused on its key active ingredient, the epidermal growth factor, Sh-Oligopeptide-1.

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Skinfinite formulated its Peptide Repair Serum ($69 in the shop) to be a deeply-penetrating serum that contains plant-based stem cells, peptides and growth factors. Proving that you don’t have to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, Prana Active Vitamin Lift Serum ($75 in the shop) uses apple stem cells and a balanced formula of peptides

Serums should be lightweight enough to be layered under other products without interfering with them. They can go over toner and under moisturizer. Because serums tend to be light and water-based, most skin types can use them.  Note that for oilier skins, a serum may be enough and there is no need for an additional layer of moisturizer. I rarely use anything but a serum. However, if your skin is dry, then you might want to read on.

The Truth About Creams

Creams are basically moisturizers. They may have anti-aging actives included, but their MO is to help maintain hydration and protect the skin from drying out. A moisturizer has larger molecules than a serum. This means that it will not penetrate the skin as far as a serum will. While serums deposit nutrients, moisturizers are primarily on duty for the moisture and hydration of your skin.

Moisturizers can be (and often are) water-based. But they also usually have oils and butters. The oils are mostly there to help hydrate the skin, but good botanical ones will also nourish with vitamins and antioxidants.

If your skin is dry and your serum is not enough for you, then look for creams that are based on hydrating actives such as hyaluronic acid (sodium hyaluronate), which draws in moisture from the atmosphere and helps the skin retain it, or oils made from argan or avocado, or butters made from shea. A good example of a cream that harnesses argan oil and shea butter is La Vie Celeste’s Extra Rich Face Cream ($75 in the shop), and it has some very useful antioxidants and peptides, as well. VOYA Me Time Moisturiser ($102), which we recently found in Ireland, has sodium hyaluronate as well as seaweed and land plant extracts. Hyalogic Episilk Premium Facial Cream ($36.95) with hyaluronic acid is specifically formulated to combat moisture loss in mature skin.

Sometimes unfairly dismissed in the beauty world, glycerin is actually a very useful ingredient for hydration that works by balancing moisture levels in the skin. Glycerin has been shown to provide a protective barrier, help the skin cells mature properly and aid bruised and swollen skin. Check out Snowberry Bright Defence Day Cream No. 2 ($63) with glycerin, tremella (a moisture retaining active from a mushroom) and brightening ingredients.

Marta Wohrle is an anti-aging skin care and beauty expert and the founder/CEO of Truth In Aging. Marta is dedicated to uncovering the truth behind anti-aging product claims.

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  • June 27, 2014

    by Marta

    Hi Genny
    Facial oils are really in a category of their own, but they could replace either - if there are enough antioxidant oils, it would replace an antioxidant serum; if there are enough nourishing hydrating oils, it could replace a cream. More on oils here:

  • June 27, 2014

    by Genny

    Interesting and helpful, knowing that it is not always necessary purchasing both a serum and a cream.
    However, what about OIL's, are they in a category all their own or be somewhere in the middle?
    Can a OIL take the place of a serum and a moisturizer?

  • June 27, 2014

    by Carole Rains

    I use a serum at night that contains emu oil, apricot oil and argan oil. (Montana Super A and E Serum that I get on Amazon) It's the emu oil that allows it to penetrate so deeply into the skin, because the chemical composition of emu oil is nearly identical to our own skin. Plus it's a hydrator. So as you said, the serum delivers the active ingredients into the skin. I also apply retinol cream to an age spot on my cheek before applying the Super A and E serum so that the emu oil will carry it further into my skin.

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