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Serum is a skin care product used after cleansing and toning, and before a moisturizer. The gel-like or liquid product is usually found in a tincture bottle and it delivers high levels of certain ingredients like hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid, alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), or vitamin C, into the skin.
“Serums that contain hyaluronic acid are hydrating but great for oily skin as they leave minimal emollient residue. Avoid serums that are heavy, oil-based, or contain many botanical seed oils. Serums that contain AHA can be helpful for oily or acne-prone skin,” Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, dermatologist and author of “Beyond Soap” says.
Sometimes skin is oily because it’s actually lacking its own natural oil (maybe from frequent cleansing or exfoliating) and the body is overcompensating. Sometimes oily skin is genetic or a result of living in a warm or humid climate.
We chose these serums based on criteria we think are good indicators of quality and safety, and for varying price points.
We looked for ingredients shown to reduce oil and balance skin that’s prone to acne, like salicylic acid, rosemary, and thyme.
We considered products that have earned awards, certificates, and are preferred by dermatologists and our medical review team.
Like many beauty products, serums come in at a range of price points varying from under $10 to over $200. We kept our picks on the lower to mid-range of the spectrum to make this list accessible to most people, though you will find the occasional splurge.
- $ = under $30
- $$ = $30–$60
- $$$ = over $60
Botanical serums highlight plant-based ingredients in their formulas. Below are some of our top picks.
Key features: This serum is made with ingredients including turmeric, marula oil, and green tea which are known for their antimicrobial and skin-calming properties. It’s designed to control oil and balance skin. And it has a light and earthy scent.
Considerations: This product doesn’t contain added fragrance, but it does have a scent which some people may want to avoid.
Key features: This splurge product has been touted by magazines as the best face oil and skin product out there. It contains 22 active botanical ingredients including avocado, bergamot, evening primrose (which can help reduce sebum), and tamanu which may reduce the look of acne scars. The serum contains a Phyto Radiance Infusion made using whole plants.
This serum has an extensive ingredient list and if you’re sensitive to any botanical ingredients or essential oils, you’ll want to skip it.
Key features: This serum has a silky texture that absorbs quickly and easily. It contains glacial water which can help even out skin’s pH, thyme extract which is rich in antioxidants to protect against free radicals, and ginger root which can slow the loss of collagen. It’s designed to minimize the look of pores.
Considerations: This serum does not contain 100-percent botanical ingredients and has added fragrance.
Key features: This balancing serum uses both niacinamide (which is a form of vitamin B) and zinc to control oil and shrink pore size. It has a neutral pH.
Considerations: The product shouldn’t be used if your routine has pure or ethylated vitamin C, per Ulta’s website.
Key features: This serum promotes glowy skin and it includes a gentle form of vitamin C, which is an antioxidant that can improve the look of all skin types and fight acne. It can also help lighten dark spots. Sea grape caviar extract is an algae that’s hydrating.
Considerations: This product contains citric acid, which some people like to avoid, though it is beneficial for shrinking pore size.
Key features: This salicylic acid-based gel serum is lightweight and fast absorbing, plus it contains antibacterial thyme extract.
Considerations: This product contains yellow 5 and yellow 6 dyes which may be harmful to cells over time.
Key features: This liquidy serum is lightweight and fast to absorb, plus it contains antioxidants and salicylic acid to fight acne and blackheads. It has azelaic acid and vitamin C which help skin protect itself and bounce back from pollution and other daily stressors.
This product has a long ingredient list and some people may prefer to keep their ingredients to under ten.
Key features: This serum is Leaping Bunny–certified cruelty-free. Instead of added water, it uses botanical juices, and it contains salicylic acid naturally derived from willow bark to help reduce acne. It also includes soothing aloe and green and white tea.
Considerations: This product contains mineral oil, which some people find causes breakouts, though
Key features: This Leaping Bunny–certified serum contains a high dose of vitamin C, plus resveratrol, grapeseed extract, and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate to help protect against free radicals and help slow wrinkles and signs of aging.
Considerations: This serum should be used in the morning because it helps protect against outdoor elements like sun and pollution, so make sure it will fit in with your routine.
Key features: This brand comes recommended by our medical reviewer team. It’s oil-free, which is a plus for extremely oily or acne-prone skin, plus it contains acids and kombucha to gently exfoliate, revealing brighter, younger looking skin.
Considerations: Using too many oil-free products can actually make skin more prone to oil because it overcompensates and starts producing more.
Key features: This serum is designed for combination or oily skin and it contains salicylic acid derived from wintergreen. It also contains a blend of essential oils known for antiseptic and balancing including spearmint, geranium, lemongrass, lavender, rosemary, and lemon balm.
Considerations: If you are sensitive to essential oils, this isn’t the right serum for you.
- Avoid pore-clogging ingredients. When choosing a serum for oily or sensitive skin, look at the ingredients list and avoid any comedogenic ingredients, like coconut oil, apricot oil, or avocado oil. Look for noncomedogenic oils and ingredients.
- Translate ingredients so you know what they are. You can research ingredients you’re unfamiliar with in the EWG’s Skin Deep database.
- Use search filters and tools focused on certified ingredients. If you’re interested only in certified non-toxic ingredients, you can filter to products on some shopping sites using a tool like “Clean At Sephora.”
Here are a few suggested steps for when to add serum into a daily skin care routine.
- After cleansing or washing your face, use a toner if that’s part of your routine.
- Apply serum to slightly damp skin and gently pat it in.
- Follow with moisturizer or face oil which can help the serum penetrate the skin.
You can use it in the morning or night, though if using during the day, be sure to follow with a mineral sunscreen. If you use chemical sunscreen, apply the sunscreen first before serum or moisturizer.
You can also use your serum as a spot treatment, applying it only to areas prone to oiliness or to acne.
Oily skin is often acne-prone and may involve larger pores. A serum designed specifically for oily skin can help balance the skin and make acne more manageable.
Look for a serum without comedogenic ingredients, which may exacerbate acne. Consult with a dermatologist if you’re not sure a product is right for you.