When it comes to hydration, everyone's skin is different. But there's one product we're ALL better off using...
If you've never tried one, know that they fit into your skincare routine after cleansing and exfoliating, but before moisturizer or sunscreen. Typically, they have a liquid texture, although some serums can be lightweight gels or lotions, too. And they tend to suit every skin type, thanks to their thin, usually water-based consistency.
What's more, hydrating serums are packed with a high concentration of active ingredients (like hyaluronic acid) that readily absorb into your skin. All you need are a few drops to boost your skin's moisture levels, whether you're dry, oily or in between!
Here's what to look for in a face serum, plus the top products to try now.
What to Look for in a Face Serum
For best results, choose a serum that is low in potentially irritating, dehydrating or pore-clogging ingredients. These are the key things I scan for on labels:
- Low in silicones: They only give the illusion of hydration, and may interfere with your skin's absorption of active ingredients. Over time, they can even dehydrate you and exacerbate acne.
- Low in fragrance: It's the number one skin irritant, so it should be near the end of an ingredients list, or not present at all.
- High in humectants: Ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid and aloe vera are desirable in a serum because they draw moisture from the environment into your skin. Just be sure to seal them in with a cream, oil or sunscreen, especially if you live in a dry climate (otherwise their action will reverse!).
- Low in oils: Oil-based serums may not hydrate your skin well, due to their occlusive properties that prevent moisture from getting in. I suggest using them like you would a face oil, to seal in your water-based serum and/or moisturizer. You also want to limit oils if they are unsaturated, as they can quickly oxidize (go rancid).
- Low in alcohol: Due to its drying effects, it shouldn't be present in high amounts (although it is sometimes appropriate in other products as a penetration enhancer).
- Low in witch hazel: It's sometimes substituted for water, but can be too harsh and irritating for sensitive skin.
- Has a preservative: Any product with water in it needs one, to prevent bacterial growth.
With these points in mind, here are the face serums that measure up!
The Best Face Serums
Consonant HydrExtreme is an all-natural, silicone-free hydrating serum with the most minimal formula around. It has just two ingredients, cassia angustifolia seed extract (a polysaccharide) and glycerin. For me, it has always hydrated better than hyaluronic acid... and now, there's clinical proof! In an independent, double-blind study, it outperformed hyaluronic acid as well as the leading hydration serum on the market. The texture is light, fast-absorbing and non-greasy. See my full review here!
Indie Lee Stem Cell Serum
Indie Lee Stem Cell Serum is a natural hydrating serum that may deliver anti-aging benefits as well. The star ingredients are glycerin, hyaluronic acid and stem cells derived from Echinacea. While plant stem cells aren't a proven ingredient like retinol, they have shown some promise for firming and improving texture (see study here). This serum has a watery feel and sinks in quickly. You can also mix it with the brand's Squalane Facial Oil. For more on their products, see my brand review here!
Omorovicza Instant Perfection Serum
Omorovicza Instant Perfection Serum is an oil-free and silicone-free serum that hydrates with xylitol and hyaluronic acid. The base is the brand's signature Hungarian thermal water, which is rich in minerals to help calm and soothe. There's also yeast ferment (seen in many K-beauty products) to help with absorption. This is a clear gel that penetrates completely; there is a light scent, but it is naturally-derived.
Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum
Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum is named for its pro-vitamin B5 (panthenol), a humectant that hydrates and improves the skin's barrier function. This serum also features glycerin, pineapple ceramides, marula oil and coconut alkanes (just be aware that the latter two might be comedogenic if you're acne-prone). The gel texture becomes more watery as you spread it on, and absorbs with zero stickiness. For more on this brand, see my complete review here!
Vivier Hydragel Advanced B5+ Complex
Vivier Hydragel Advanced B5+ Complex also contains pro-vitamin B5, along with humectants like hyaluronic acid to bring water to the skin. There's no oil, silicone or fragrance in here, and unlike most serums, this formula is a clear gel. It's non-sticky, and oilier skin types could even use it in place of moisturizer.
Timeless Hyaluronic Acid Pure
Timeless Hyaluronic Acid Pure is not only one of the most affordable hydrating serums, it's also one of the simplest—with just four ingredients. The main two are water and a high one percent concentration of hyaluronic acid, which gives it a slightly thicker, gel-like texture. It sinks in completely with no residue, and makes your skin feel super soft!
Truly Glass Skin Facial Serum
Truly Glass Skin Facial Serum has the texture of a face cream (hence its jar packaging), similar to the "pressed serums" you'll find in K-beauty lines. It also has an unusual ingredients list, which includes soy lethicin, xanthan gum, aloe vera and coconut oil, and no silicones or other chemicals. Once you apply it to your skin, the texture becomes more fluid, leaving skin nourished and dewy.
Caudalie Vinoperfect Radiance Serum
Caudalie Vinoperfect Radiance Serum has been the brand's bestselling product at French pharmacies since 2008! This is a 98 percent natural, silicone-free and oil-free hydrating serum with brightening benefits. Ingredients include water, glycerin, squalane, vitamin E and a patented grapevine extract (plus less than one percent synthetic fragrance). The texture is light and milky.
Glossier Super Bounce Hyaluronic Acid + Vitamin B5 Serum
Glossier Super Bounce Hyaluronic Acid + Vitamin B5 Serum is a newly reformulated serum that moisturizes with a two percent hyaluronic acid complex and pro-vitamin B5. It's also got glycerin, coconut fatty acids and propanediol. Plus, the brand has now removed the silicones that were in the previous version. Similar to Caudalie, this has a milky feel, and penetrates quickly.
Pai Back To Life Hydration Serum
Pai Back To Life Hydration Serum is a nourishing serum specifically formulated for sensitive, reactive skin. In a base of water and glycerin, it contains a skin-conditioning probiotic, coconut extract, jojoba oil and hyaluronic acid. I'd describe the texture as a thin, non-greasy lotion—all you need are a couple of drops.
SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel
SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel is one of the OG hydrating serums, launched more than a decade ago. Like so many other serums, it is named for pro-vitamin B5, which it contains along with hyaluronic acid. There are just four ingredients in here, and no silicones, alcohol or fragrance, which you might not expect from this brand. The texture is a gel, which can feel slightly sticky initially, but this goes away once it absorbs.
The Ordinary Marine Hyaluronics
The Ordinary Marine Hyaluronics isn't your typical hyaluronic acid face serum. Instead, it uses what the brand calls "marine derivatives" to draw moisture into the skin, along with glycerin and amino acids. Specifically, it is high in algae, polysaccharides and proteins that are sustainably sourced from marine bacteria. It's clear with a watery texture, and sinks in fast without stickiness. For more on this brand, see my review of every product here!
Dr Roebuck’s True Blue Ultimate Hydrating Serum
Dr Roebuck's True Blue Ultimate Hydrating Serum is a lightweight serum with moisturizing and plumping benefits. This clean formulation includes hyaluronic acid and niacinamide for hydration, and co-enzyme Q10 and creatine peptides for firming. I also spotted vitamins C and E for antioxidant protection. This has a slightly golden hue and a gel-like texture.
Benton Snail Bee Ultimate Serum
Benton Snail Bee Ultimate Serum is a great K-beauty option for normal to oily or acne-prone skin. This concentrated serum has a base of snail secretion filtrate, an ingredient with humectant and emollient properties that may also help with pigmentation. It's spiked with bee venom, which has calming properties, and niacinamide, which helps strengthen the skin barrier. The texture is a bit gooey (blame the snails for that!), but it penetrates fast.
StackedSkincare HA Hydrating Serum
StackedSkincare HA Hydrating Serum is a silky serum for all skin types, and features three active ingredients. It uses hyaluronic acid to plump and hydrate; niacinamide to prevent water loss; and lactic acid to both hydrate and gently exfoliate. The texture is lightweight and non-greasy.
Derma E Ultra Hydrating Serum
Derma E Ultra Hydrating Serum is a good choice if you're seeking out natural or vegan ingredients. This serum uses hyaluronic acid, glycerin and pro-vitamin B5 to restore hydration to the skin. Emollients like fatty alcohol (which is non-drying) give it a lotion-like texture while helping to seal in the moisture. It absorbs beautifully and doesn't feel greasy at all.
This Works Morning Expert Hyaluronic Serum
This Works Morning Expert Hyaluronic Serum is a combination hyaluronic acid and vitamin C serum for plumping and brightening the skin. It delivers two percent hyaluronic acid and 10 percent ascorbyl glucoside, a gentle vitamin C derivative, in a base of water and glycerin. The consistency is slightly watery, and it has a subtle scent (thanks to less than one percent synthetic fragrance).
OSEA Hyaluronic Sea Serum
OSEA Hyaluronic Sea Serum combines the moisture magnet hyaluronic acid with three types of seaweed extracts. The latter are rich in minerals, vitamins and antioxidants to help condition, calm and protect the skin without the need for heavy oils or silicones. It's super light, with the initial tacky feel dissipating as it sinks in.
Vichy Minéral 89
Vichy Minéral 89 is your best bet at the drugstore. Unlike most products you find there, this serum is silicone-free, fragrance-free and oil-free! The "89" stands for its 89 percent thermal water content—the same mineral-rich water the brand uses in its face mist. The rest of the formula includes hyaluronic acid and glycerin, and promises 24 hours of hydration. This is a clear and fast-absorbing gel that leaves your skin feeling supple.
Dr. Barbara Sturm Hyaluronic Serum
Dr. Barbara Sturm Hyaluronic Serum is a concentrated hyaluronic acid serum for those who feel like splurging! Hyaluronic acid and purslane (an antioxidant-rich plant extract) are the workhorse ingredients. There's also a version for Darker Skin Tones with lumincol (micro algae) to help even out skin tone. This has a fluid but moisturizing texture, and a little goes a long way. See my interview with Dr. Sturm herself here!
Moon Juice Beauty Shroom Plumping Jelly Serum
Moon Juice Beauty Shroom Plumping Jelly Serum harnesses the adaptogenic properties of reishi mushrooms to improve skin hydration, firmness and texture. It also uses hyaluronic acid and silver ear mushrooms, which work similarly to attract and hold onto water. This one has a gel texture and is scented with essential oils (so you may want to avoid it if you are sensitive).
The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5
The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 is a budget alternative to pricier serums with the same ingredients: hyaluronic acid (in a two percent concentration) and pro-vitamin B5. It's free of silicones, fragrance, oil and alcohol, although be cautious if you are sensitive. The higher hyaluronic acid content gives it a gel texture; just give it a moment to dry and you'll avoid problems with pilling. See my complete review of this brand here!
Susanne Kaufman Hyaluron Serum
Susanne Kaufman Hyaluron Serum is a concentrated serum for hydrating and plumping the skin. Hyaluronic acid does most of the heavy lifting, in a solution of water, pentylene glycol (another humectant), citric acid (a pH adjuster) and natural fragrance. The texture is non-sticky and non-greasy.
ILIA True Skin Radiant Priming Serum
ILIA True Skin Radiant Priming Serum is a face serum that doubles as a silicone-free primer. Rather than water, its main ingredient is aloe; there's also skin-conditioning gluconolactone, glycerin, coconut fatty acids and propandeiol. Not only does it hydrate, it also creates a smooth base for makeup application without the usual silicones. The texture is a light fluid; you just need to give it a couple minutes to set.
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