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Face oils vs. face serum: what's the difference?

From hyaluronic acid formulas that soften the appearance of wrinkles to vitamin C that helps cultivate a more even skin tone, serums have become a mainstay of most skin care routines. Facial oil, on the other hand, is a new category of skincare, but one that is quickly gaining popularity. Years ago, many skincare enthusiasts balked at the idea of add oil on their faces. Today, marula oil and jojoba oil are among the most popular ingredients sought after by those seeking smoother skin.

In this article, we'll review the difference between facial serums and oils and when (and why) to include them in your skin care routine.

Meet the expert

Elysée LoveMD, is a board certified dermatologist who practices medical and cosmetic dermatology at Gramercy Laser and Medical Dermatology in New York City.

Face oil vs. face water 

Oil and water are essential to the proper functioning of the skin. The dermis contains collagen, elastin and skin water to give the skin a plump, youthful appearance. The epidermis (skin barrier) contains important skin oils in the form of lipids, fatty acids and ceramides. These oils form a barrier that prevents the loss of essential water from the skin. These oils, also known as sebum, also help lubricate skin cells to give the skin a soft, smooth feel.

What are facial oils?

Facial oils are liquid topicals that do not contain water. The exact composition of facial oil can vary, but as a general rule, facial oils are designed to mimic and supplement the skin's natural sebum production. Since facial oils tend to include larger molecules, their effects are generally limited to supporting the skin barrier. Linoleic acid and squalane are popular face oil ingredients because they mimic and support the natural oil function of the skin barrier.

The benefits of facial oils

Facial oils are designed to provide a unique balance of fatty acids and lipids to soothe and support the skin barrier. The barrier function is the number one function of the skin. The skin barrier prevents transepidermal water loss and protects the interior of the body from UV rays, pollution, viruses, fungi and bacteria. Damage to the skin barrier can lead to skin infections and a dull appearance, as well as irritation and dehydration.

The skin barrier naturally contains lipids, ceramides and fatty acids. The production of these natural occlusives slows down with age and is further worn down by environmental factors such as high winds and harsh cleansers. In addition, people with dry skin, eczema and/or rosacea have genetic defects in their skin barrier function.

Note: not everyone needs to repair the barrier. Those with oily skin tend to produce excess oil as it is, and a facial oil can further exacerbate the problem of clogged pores and acne breakouts.

What are serums?

A serum is a concentrated, lightweight formula that is typically applied after cleansing and toning and before moisturizing. While facial oils deliver their results physically by providing structural support, serums are classically designed to penetrate the skin and regulate its internal functions.

The benefits of serums

Serums have a variety of benefits depending on the specific ingredients contained in the formula.

Moisturizing serums typically contain humectants, such as glycerin and hyaluronic acid, to draw water into the skin and increase skin hydration. Antioxidant serums, such as niacinamide and vitamin C, provide antioxidant support to the skin's DNA. Pigmentation regulating serums, such as tranexamic acid and glycolic acid, help normalize melanocyte activity and brighten skin tone.

There is significant variability in the feel and function of serums and they should be chosen based on skin concerns. They can be mixed and matched to create a personalized and individual skin care routine.

Which one to use (and when)

A facial oil can be beneficial for people with dry skin and/or irritated skin, either seasonally or year-round. This includes those with eczema and rosacea. Since facial oils are occlusive, they should be applied as the last step in the skin care routine after moisturizer. The goal is to lock in the good stuff and lock out the bad stuff. People with acne or perioral dermatitis should be cautious about adding facial oil to their routine, as facial oils can potentially trigger a flare-up of these conditions.

Serums can be a great addition to any routine. The right face serum for you will depend on your specific skincare needs and desires. Since serums are lightweight, they are designed to be used before moisturizers. They can also be paired with a facial oil, if necessary, with the moisturizer sandwiched between the serum and facial oil.

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Gabriela is the creator of the blog, a platform dedicated to natural cosmetics and skin care. Her blog is an invaluable source of information and advice on how to achieve perfect, glowing skin. Gabriela passionately shares her in-depth knowledge of natural products, emerging trends and practical tips for an effective skincare routine.

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