Potent Potions

Target your skin's imbalances naturally with these turbo-charged serums.
By Kate Hanley

You wash your face every day and slather on moisturizer and sunscreen. But instead of seeing radiant skin when you gaze in the mirror, fine lines, pimples, or an overall dullness clouds your view. To project a fresher look, it may be time to add the extra oomph of serums to your skincare regimen.

“Serum is a term the cosmetic industry uses to indicate that a product contains a higher concentration of active ingredients, such as vitamin C or an herbal extract, and has been formulated to achieve a specific effect,” explains Alan M. Dattner, MD, a holistic dermatologist with private practices in New York City and New Rochelle, New York. These high-potency cocktails typically target a particular need, such as countering the effects of aging, calming redness and irritation, moisturizing, or fighting blemishes. Many serums also work as overall skin tonics—the way a multivitamin is designed to promote overall health.

Whatever their purpose, serums have a much different consistency than most moisturizers. “Serums are generally water-based and therefore much lighter than creams and lotions,” Dattner says. The skin absorbs this unique formulation more easily than it does moisturizers, which typically contain emollients that coat just the outer surface of the skin. In contrast, most serums claim to deliver a high-octane dose of nutrients deep into the skin, yet they still feel refreshingly light.

When and why
If you are treating one pressing concern, such as a profusion of sunspots, an uptick in rosacea, or an acne out-break, use a serum targeted to your particular problem morning and night. If you have more than one problem, such as fine lines and broken capillaries, use one serum in the morning and the other at night. And if you simply want to nudge your skin back toward balance, use your chosen serum only before bed. (See “Five Sumptuous Serums” below for products and ingredients to suit your needs.) “Most serums work best at night, when your skin has eight hours to take in the ingredients and rebuild itself,” says Melissa Jochim, cofounder and head of product development for Juice Beauty.

Apply serum after cleansing and toning but before moisturizing. Read the product label for the correct amount—because serums are highly concentrated, most suggest using only a few drops. Then let the serum soak in before applying your moisturizer. Dattner recommends storing your se- rum in the refrigerator and taking care to keep the product as sterile as possible to maintain ultimate freshness. (Use the dropper or pump to squeeze the product onto your finger—don’t dip your finger into the product.) “Because serums tend not to contain alcohol,” says Dattner, “you should take precautions to prevent microbial contamination.”

Ingredient matters
Since serums penetrate more deeply than other types of products, pay special attention to the list of ingredients. “Many preservatives commonly used in skincare products have been proven to cause contact allergies or worse,” Dattner says. In particular, Dattner cautions against using any serum that lists parabens, which are known hormone disrupters, and imidazolidinyl urea or diazolidinyl urea, both of which release formaldehyde—a substance the Environmental Protection Agency considers a probable carcinogen. The bottom line: Read the label before you buy to make sure the serum will deliver desirable results and not leave you with a face saturated in problematic ingredients.

Five Sumptuous Serums

All-purpose nourishment
Evan Healy Sea Algae Serum
The nutrient-rich sea algae in this lightweight serum gives your skin the equivalent of a shot of detoxifying wheatgrass. ($31.95, 0.5 oz; evanhealy.com)

Skin brightening
Juice Beauty Green Apple Antioxidant Serum
This fruit-juice-based product contains naturally occurring alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids to exfoliate and vitamin C to repair damage at the cellular level—making it a good choice to lighten sunspots or revitalize a dull complexion. ($45, 1 oz; juicebeauty.com)

Healing Anthropology Rejuvenating Vitamin C Solution
An antioxidant-rich multitasking potion, this serum combines green tea, seaweed, and vitamins C and E with the soothing essential oils of lavender, ylang-ylang, and geranium in an easily absorbed base of springwater and aloe vera juice. It targets the fine lines and under-eye puffiness associated with aging but also works on blemishes. ($55, 1 oz; healinganthropology.com)

Mundo Rose Attar Facial Serum
Richer than other serums, this anti-inflammatory product combines rice bran oil and evening primrose oil with natural vitamin E and rose attar to cool any irritation, neutralize free radicals, and hydrate the skin. ($22, 1 oz; mundoproducts.com)

Talulah Oma Face Serum No. 2
Borage and evening primrose oil deliver a healing mix of calendula, antioxidant-rich green tea, and moisturizing seaweed for a high dose of hydration without a heavy residue. Particularly well-suited for mature skin. ($24, 1 oz; talulahskincare.com)

Kate Hanley is a Brooklyn-based writer and founder of msmindbody.com.