If there's one product I'm in a long-term relationship with, it's my all-time favourite hydrating serum, Consonant HydrExtreme. Believe it or not, it's been a consistent staple in my skincare routine since 2012!
Back then, there weren't many hydrating serums to choose from, let alone ones with clean ingredients.
But times have changed. In the last couple of years, a bunch of very viable alternatives have landed on the market, and at all price points—even the drugstore!
What to Look for in a Hydrating Serum and Who Should Try One
Before I share my favourite face serums, I want to give you my criteria (you can read more about how I check skincare ingredients here).
These are the key things I think a formula should include and not include:
- Silicone-free: Silicones only give the illusion of hydration, and may exacerbate acne and dehydration. More reasons I avoid them here.
- Petroleum-free: Similar to silicone, petroleum derivatives don't absorb or hydrate.
- Fragrance-free or low fragrance: Fragrance can irritate, so it should either be near the end of an ingredients list or not there at all.
- Humectants: Ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid draw water from the environment into the skin (except in dry weather—see the "application note" below!).
- Oil-free or low oil content: Oils can not only make your formulation less stable (if they're unsaturated), but some can also prevent moisture from reaching your skin, due to their occlusive properties. (Squalane is one exception.)
- Preservative: Anything with water needs to have one!
I think everyone can benefit from having a serum in their skincare wardrobe. They're ideal to apply when your skin is normal to oily, especially in humid weather. For example, I'll often just wear a serum under my sunscreen (during the day) or foundation (at night) in the summer months, skipping creams and oils altogether. If you're dry, serums are great for layering underneath a moisturizer or face oil, to bring more water to the skin.
Application note: No matter what your "skin type", I do suggest wearing your serum under something more emollient or occlusive. It could be your SPF, skin makeup or even just a half drop of face oil. Why? Because humectants on their own can keep the skin too "wet," weakening skin barrier function. In dry climates, humectants' action is actually reversed, so adding an oil will help seal in the moisture instead of letting it escape.
With that in mind, here are the best hydrating serums I've found!
Consonant HydrExtreme is an all-natural, silicone-free hydrating serum with just two ingredients. I've always said that it works better than hyaluronic acid... and I was right! It is now clinically proven to outperform hyaluronic acid, as well as the leading hydration serum on the market.
I recommend it to everyone, and with such a minimal formula, it's especially perfect for reactive skin (the fewer ingredients, the fewer things that can cause a problem).
It has a clear, watery, non-greasy texture that absorbs fast.
Ingredients: Cassia Angustifolia Seed Polysaccharide, Vegetable Glycerin.
Indie Lee Swiss Apple Facial Serum
Indie Lee Swiss Apple Facial Serum is a natural hydrating and anti-aging serum in one. The star ingredient is the "Malus domestica fruit cell culture," a.k.a. apple stem cells, which show promise for treating pigmentation and wrinkles (see study here).
Even if that's not a proven ingredient like retinol, I figure it can't hurt to have it in my daily serum! The rest of this minimal, silicone-free formula includes hyaluronic acid, propanediol and a seaweed extract to hydrate.
It has a thin, clear, fast-absorbing texture that is similar to HydrExtreme.
Ingredients: Chondrus Crispus Extract, Water/Aqua/Eau, Hyaluronic Acid, Malus Domestica Fruit Cell Culture, Xanthan Gum, Lecithin, Propanediol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Potassium Sorbate.
Omorovicza Instant Perfection Serum
Omorovicza Instant Perfection Serum is a unique, silicone-free serum that hydrates with xylitol and hyaluronic acid. It's in a base of mineral-rich Hungarian thermal water, and the yeast ferment (the saccharomyces ferment extract, seen in many K-beauty products) helps with absorption.
There are stem cells in here, too. These ones are from daffodils, and are said to help with brightening, although I can't find any evidence for that. Nevertheless, this is a lovely serum (as are all the Omorovicza products I've tried). Note that they only use naturally-derived fragrance.
As for the texture, it is a clear gel. You think it's going to be sticky, but give it a minute, and it absorbs completely with no residue.
Ingredients: Aqua (Hungarian Thermal Water), Polysorbate 20, Xylitylglucoside, Anhydroxylitol, Saccharomyces Ferment Extract, Phenoxyethanol, Pullulan, Sodium Hyaluronan, Narcissus Poeticus Callus Extract, Carbomer, Xylitol, Parfum (Fragrance), Sodium Hydroxide, Ethylhexylglycerin, Disodium EDTA, Glucose, Phospholipids.
Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Gel
Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Gel is a gel serum that is free of silicones, fragrance and essential oils. Note: Shown here is the mini size from the Rise + Glow Duo; the regular bottle is much bigger!
It's named for vitamin B5 (panthenol), which attracts and holds moisture to the skin. Interestingly, there's actually a higher concentration of glycerin, fruit extracts and marula oil, among other ingredients. (I would still consider it low oil, though, and marula is fairly stable.)
What I like most about this product is its texture. The gel becomes more watery as you spread it on, absorbing with no stickiness. I will be buying the bigger bottle!
Ingredients: Water, Butylene Glycol, Glycerin, Ammonium Acryloyldimethyltaurate/VP Copolymer, Pentylene Glycol, Ananas Sativus (Pineapple) Fruit Extract, Berberis Vulgaris Root Extract, Citrullus Lanatus (Watermelon) Fruit Extract, Lens Esculenta (Lentil) Fruit Extract, Pyrus Malus (Apple) Fruit Extract, Sclerocarya Birrea Seed Oil, Coconut Alkanes, Panthenol, Sodium PCA, Sodium Hyaluronate Crosspolymer, Sodium Lactate, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Coco-Caprylate/Caprate, Cyclodextrin, Trisodium Ethylenediamine Disuccinate, Citric Acid, Chlorphenesin, Caprylyl Glycol, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin.
CyberDerm Nu-Shroom Hydrafill Serum
CyberDerm Nu-Shroom Hydrafill Serum is a new serum from my favourite sunscreen company, combining botanical ingredients into a high-tech delivery system. The "shroom" is silver ear mushroom extract, a natural form of hyaluronic acid that holds up to 500 times its weight in water!
Although it looks white in the bottle, I think that's just the packaging, as it dispenses as a clear gel.
Ingredients: Aqua, Propanediol, Glycerin, Tremella Funciform Sporocarp (Silver Ear Mushroom) Extract, Cetearyl Ethylhexanoate, Sorbitan Isostearate, Portulaca Pilosa Extract, Sucrose Cocoate, Palmitoyl Tripeptide-38, Chondrus Crispus Extract, Sodium Hyaluronate, Acrylates Copolymer, VP/Polycarbamyl Polyglycol Ester, Hydrolyzed Sesame Protein PG-Propyl Methlysilanediol, Caprylhydroxamic Acid, Caprylyl Glycol, Hydroxethylcellulose, Xanthan Gum, Lactic Acid.
Derma E Purifying Youth Serum
Derma E Purifying Youth Serum is an anti-aging, hydrating serum with antioxidants and minerals to protect from pollution and free radicals. Since it is oil-free with allergy-tested ingredients, it would be ideal for oily and acne-prone skin, especially if you live in an urban environment.
I'm a huge fan of this brand's natural formulas. Rather than water, the main ingredient is aloe vera, along with glycerin and two coconut oil derivatives. Bladderwrack and green tea extracts are the main antioxidants.
The texture is a white lotion, and a little goes a long way. It absorbs beautifully and doesn't feel greasy on the skin at all.
Ingredients: Organic Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Gel Extract*, Glycerin (Vegetable Derived), Coco-Caprylate (Coconut Derived), Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride (Vegetable Derived), Undaria Pinnatifida (Wakame, Kimarine®) Extract, Glyceryl Stearate (Vegetable Derived), Diheptyl Succinate, Capryloyl Glycerin/Sebacic Acid Copolymer, Glyceryl Stearate Citrate (Vegetable Derived), Fucus Vesiculosus (Bladderwrack) Extract, Epilobium Angustifolium (Canadian Willowherb™) Extract, Panthenol (Provitamin B5), Organic Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract*, Xanthan Gum, Cetearyl Glucoside (Plant Derived), Potassium Cetyl Phosphate, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin. *Certified organic
Derma E Even Tone Brightening Serum
Derma E Even Tone Brightening Serum is technically for pigmentation, but it's also a great natural, oil-free hydrating serum for normal to oily skin. That's because its main ingredients, like so many of the serums on this list, include propanediol, seaweed and glycerin.
Bonus: There's niacinamide in here, too, which not only helps with brightening but also strengthens the skin barrier and fights wrinkles. Plus loads of other discolouration-fighters, including ascorbyl palmitate and alpha-arbutin.
Although it has a slight tint in the bottle, you won't see that on your skin. The texture is jelly-like and non-greasy.
Ingredients: Purified Water, Propanediol (Vegetable Derived), Carrageenan (Seaweed Derived), Glycerin (Vegetable Derived), Niacinamide (Vitamin B3), Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Ascorbyl Palmitate (Vitamin C Ester), Lilium Candidum (Madonna Lily) Leaf Cell Extract, Arctostaphylos Uva Ursi (Bearberry) Leaf Extract, Alpha-Arbutin, Organic Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract*, Achillea Millefolium (Yarrow) Extract, Caffeine, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Extract, Arnica Montana Flower Extract, Prunus Persica (Peach) Kernel Extract, Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A), Salix Alba (White Willow) Bark Extract, Epilobium Angustifolium (Canadian Willowherb™) Extract, Hydroxypropyl Starch Phosphate (Sugar Starch), Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Oil, Potassium Sorbate, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin. *Certified organic
Schaf Radiance Firming Serum
Schaf Radiance Firming Serum is a natural face serum for hydrating, brightening and fighting wrinkles. Despite the minimal ingredients list, it contains some of the most important skincare ingredients, including niacinamide, hyaluronic acid and ethyl ascorbic acid (a stable vitamin C).
It also features two peptides for stimulating collagen production, something I haven't seen in any other natural hydrator. Note: One of them is Matrixyl, which is associated with inflammatory scar-forming proteins, but I don't think it's in a high enough concentration here to be too concerned about.
The texture is clear and runny—very refreshing.
Ingredients: Deionized Water, Sodium Hyaluronate, Propanediol**, Niacinamide, Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate**, Glycerin, Ethyl Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Palmitoyl Oligopeptide (and) Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-7, Pisum Sativum Peptide, Hydroxyethyl Cellulose. *Organic **Ecocert
Caudalie Vinoperfect Radiance Serum
Caudalie Vinoperfect Radiance Serum is an anti-dark spot serum with hydrating properties. I love that it's high in squalane, my number one favourite oil, which penetrates beautifully thanks to its smaller molecular structure. (Weirdly, this is described as "oil-free," but squalane is an oil!)
The main ingredient that fights pigmentation is a patented grapevine sap extract, which they claim is more effective than vitamin C and kojic acid. I'm not sure about that, but I do appreciate the mostly natural formula, which is free of silicones, parabens and phenoxyethanol. The one caution is the synthetic fragrance, however, the brand's position is that it is less sensitizing than essential oils. Wish they'd just left it out!
It has a creamy white but thin and spreadable texture.
Ingredients: Aqua (Water), Butylene Glycol, Glycerin*, Squalane*, Tocopheryl Acetate*, Ceteareth-20*, Palmitoyl Grapevine Shoot Extract*, Glyceryl Stearate Se*, Parfum (Fragrance), Caprylyl Glycol, Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Potassium Sorbate, Xanthan Gum, Carbomer, Sodium Hydroxide, Sodium Phytate*. *Plant origin
SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel
SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel was one of the first hydrating serums on the market (it was the first one I ever tried, more than 10 years ago!). Like Drunk Elephant, it is named for vitamin B5, which it contains along with hyaluronic acid.
In fact, there are just four ingredients in here—no silicones, alcohol or fragrance, which I wouldn't have expected from this brand. However, one strange thing is that phenoxyethanol (the preservative) is listed second, before both the B5 and the hyaluronic acid! Although it's limited to a one percent concentration, this may be a problem for sensitive skin.
It is clear, with a thin texture that absorbs quickly.
Ingredients: Aqua / Water / Eau, Phenoxyethanol, Calcium Pantothenate, Sodium Hyaluronate.
The Ordinary Marine Hyaluronics
The Ordinary Marine Hyaluronics is a new and lighter alternative to the brand's popular Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 (which I talk about below). Rather than hyaluronic acid, it uses what they call "marine derivatives" to draw moisture to the skin, along with glycerin and amino acids.
Specifically, it is high in algae, polysaccharides and proteins derived from marine bacteria (think: mud, etc., all sustainably sourced). Silicone- and oil-free, this is a great option at a super-low price point.
It's clear with a watery texture, less sticky than the Hyaluronic Acid 2%, and sinks in fast. (So yes, I like it better!)
Ingredients: Aqua (Water), Glycerin, Algae Extract, Pseudoalteromonas Exopolysaccharides, Pseudoalteromonas Ferment Extract, Ahnfeltia Concinna Extract, Arginine, Glycine, Alanine, Serine, Valine, Isoleucine, Proline, Threonine, Histidine, Phenylalanine, Aspartic Acid, PCA, Sodium PCA, Sodium Lactate, Salicylic Acid, Citric Acid, Propanediol, Dimethyl Isosorbide, Ethoxydiglycol, Polysorbate 20, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Salicylate, Sodium Benzoate, Hexylene Glycol, 1,2-Hexanediol, Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol.
The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5
Besides a longer ingredients list (and a much lower price tag!), the key difference is that it contains high-, medium- and low-molecular weight hyaluronic acid. Most hyaluronic acid is high-molecular weight, which stays on the skin surface, whereas the smaller sizes penetrate more deeply. However, I do have some concerns about these tiny hyaluronic acid fragments being linked to inflammation and scarring.
The texture is more viscous than their Marine Hyaluronics, and a little bit sticky before drying down.
Ingredients: Aqua (Water), Sodium Hyaluronate, Pentylene Glycol, Propanediol, Sodium Hyaluronate Crosspolymer, Panthenol, Ahnfeltia Concinna Extract, Glycerin, Trisodium Ethylenediamine Disuccinate, Citric Acid, Isoceteth-20, Ethoxydiglycol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Hexylene Glycol, 1,2-Hexanediol, Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol.
Vichy Minéral 89
Vichy Minéral 89 is a silicone-free, oil-free, fragrance-free hydrating serum and definitely your best bet if you're looking for something at the drugstore. Honestly, I'm so impressed that they released something like this!
The "89" stands for its 89 percent thermal water content—the same mineral-rich water they sell as a Spray. The rest of the formula includes glycerin and hyaluronic acid, and they promise 24 hours of hydration.
This is a clear gel; if you give it a minute, it absorbs completely, leaving your skin supple and dry to the touch.
Ingredients: Aqua/Water/Eau, PEG/PPG/Polybutylene Glycol-8/5/3 Glycerin, Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Methyl Gluceth-20, Carbomer, Sodium Hyaluronate, Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol, Citric Acid, Biosaccharide Gum-1.
Avène Hydrance Intense Rehydrating Serum
Avène Hydrance Intense Rehydrating Serum is another good drugstore option (although not quite as minimal as Vichy Minéral 89). It, too, is free of oil and silicones, contains mineral-rich thermal water, and promises 24-hour hydration.
Instead of hyaluronic acid, however, this formula contains a patented complex called "Cohederm," which helps restore the skin barrier. I couldn't figure out which specific ingredients that includes, but whatever it is, it hydrates effectively. Note that there is a bit of fragrance in here.
This is a white cream-gel serum that becomes thin and clear as you spread it. It's a little sticky, but does feel more hydrating than the typical clear, watery serums.
Ingredients: Spring Water (Avene Aqua), Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Isocetyl Stearoyl Stearate, Triethylhexanoin, Glycerin, 1,2-Hexanediol, Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysate, Methyl Gluceth-20, Benzoic Acid, Beta-Sitosterol, C12-20 Alkyl Glucoside, C14-22 Alcohols, Carbomer, Disodium EDTA, Fragrance (Parfum), Polyglyceryl-10 Myristate, Sodium Hydroxide, Tocopheryl Acetate, Water (Aqua).
Indeed Labs Hydraluron Serum
Indeed Labs Hydraluron Serum is a hyaluronic acid serum that, like the SkinCeuticals B5 Gel, has been around for a long time! The two star ingredients in here are the hyaluronic acid, obviously, and an algae extract that helps it penetrate more deeply.
I appreciate that it has such a short ingredients list, and is silicone-free (unlike other products from this brand). One thing to be aware of is that they exclusively use low-molecular weight hyaluronic acid, which may be a concern for the reasons outlined here. Also, the phenoxyethanol content is a bit high (it's the fifth ingredient, and it actually appears twice for some reason).
This product has the thickest gel texture of all, so you only need a pea-sized amount. There's no stickiness, and it dries with zero residue.
Ingredients: Water, Propanediol, Sodium Hyaluronate, Carbomer, Phenoxyethanol, Butylene Glycol, Sodium Hydroxide, Ahnfeltia Concinna Extract, Disodium Edta, Phenoxyethanol.
Now you're up to date on all the face serums I think are worth buying.
Again, some are more natural than others, but I wanted this guide to provide a full range of options, from drugstore to department store, based on my core criteria. Whether you choose to further prioritize or avoid other ingredients is completely up to you, your skin and your budget!
I'd love to hear which serums are working (or not working) in your routine right now. And if you've discovered any others I should check out, let me know!
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