Believe it or not there’s more to just applying face serum then slathering it all over your face before you go to sleep. Sure, that may work, but the difference between “good technique” and “bad technique” can make a major difference.
Face serum applied poorly results in lower absorption, lower efficacy and reduced levels of skin cell turnover.
When you’re paying jaw dropping prices for a tiny vial of the world’s best serum brands it pays to know the right way to apply face serum. The good news is that if you pay attention to a few important application techniques, you can almost double the effect of each bottle. Stick to these basic tips and you’ll get significantly more bang for your buck out of every face serum application.
Let’s start with the most important steps:
Wash your face before applying serum
It may seem obvious, but the first step is probably the most important one: Cleanse before applying your serum. The natural build-up of oils and dirt in your pores can create an impenetrable barrier to many components of your serum formulation. If you’re not cleansing your skin before application, you might reducing the efficacy of the serum by as much as 50%.
Exfoliate your face before applying serum
The dead skin cells that line the surface of your epidermis act like another impenetrable barrier against your serum. One of the best tricks to maximize serum absorption is to use a microdermabrasion scrub to strip away that barrier just prior to applying your face serum. We like the Microdermabrasion Scrub from DRMTLGY. It’s inexpensive and excellent quality. It leaves the skin glowing and healthy looking, and best of all it sets up your serum for maximal absorption into your skin.
Don’t dry your face thoroughly before applying serum
Lightly towel your face dry after rinsing. Try using a patting / blotting motion rather than a scrubbing motion on your skin. When your skin is damp (not wet) it’s more absorbent. There’s a golden window of opportunity right after you’ve cleansed, exfoliated and towel dried your face which shouldn’t be wasted. For about 5 minutes, your skin will be at its maximum level of absorption. Wait longer than that and your chance to supercharge your serum application starts to fade away.
What time is it? It matters…
The next step is to apply your serum. It’s important to keep in mind that some serums work better when they’re applied before going to sleep, and some work better during the day. Retinols in particular are extremely light sensitive. Some skincare experts would go so far as to say that putting them on during the day is an instant waste of serum. Studies have shown that within just 3 minutes of exposure to daylight, retinols can break down to a fraction of the maximum potency.
Another light sensitive serum is Vitamin C serum. As you’ve probably noticed, C serums almost always come in opaque or dark glass bottles. (At least they should). That dark bottle isn’t just for an old-timey look. It’s an important preservation strategy to keep your serum safe from the harmful effects of light. (On a side note, you should always keep your C serum in a dark place. Even though that glass bottle keeps out most of the light, your serum will retain its potency even better if you keep it in a drawer or a medicine cabinet).
Good serums for daytime are hyaluronic acid based serums which are far less light sensitive than others.
Stay away from that breeze
Fans and air-conditioners can accelerate the drying of serum on your face. Once the serum dries out on your face it’s less likely to absorb into your skin. (It does happen by the way, but not at nearly the same rate). Want to maximize the peak absorption-time of your serum? Stay out of any direct breeze from a fan or air conditioner for the next few minutes.
Likewise, if you’re going to blow dry your hair with a hair dryer — do that first before exfoliating and applying your serum. The hot air of your hair dryer can excessively dry the skin on your face and reduce the absorptive capacity of your skin.
That squeeze dropper is potentially bad for your serum
It’s a sad fact of life that the minute you open your bottle of serum, it starts to lose potency. The enemy of all skin serums is oxygen. As soon as air enters the bottle, the serum inside begins to oxidize.
Unless you’re using a pump bottle (which is a good idea, by the way) you’re going to need to open the bottle to use the dropper. There’s no way around it.
Looking for a good face serum that comes in a pump bottle to keep it from oxidizing too quickly? We like this one from Le Vea.
If you aren’t using a pump bottle, just make sure you squeeze the air out of the dropper before putting the dropper back into the bottle.
Squeezing the dropper into the bottle mixes micro bubbles of oxygen-rich air into your serum which accelerates the oxidization process and reduces the potency of your face serum. It’s a small rule to remember but it’s an important one: That eye dropper is actually bad for your serum if you don’t use it the right way.
How much face serum should you use?
The question of how much serum to use on your face is always a difficult one. For starters it depends on how easily your serum spreads. Serums with a natural viscosity or glycerin content tend to spread more easily over the face. In general, you want coverage, but no dripping. If your serum is running, you’re using too much. You want to make sure that the skin is wet, not soaked.
Rub in small circles
If you look at a super-magnified image of human skin under a microscope, it can be surprising how rough it looks. Our skin is naturally filled with peaks and valleys. When you apply facial serum, rub in small, tight circles. The circular motion ensures that the serum is being worked into every microscopic contour as much as possible.
Even if it’s a daytime serum, stay out of direct sunlight
As mentioned above, many serums like vitamin C serums and retinols are light sensitive. Those shouldn’t even be worn in the presence of artificial light. But even light-friendlier serums like hyaluronic acid don’t hold up under direct UV rays.
More importantly, removing the outer layer of the epidermis (which is what serums do best) can increase sensitivity to the sun and raise the risk of sunburn. If you actively use serum as part of your skincare routine (and even if you don’t) it’s a good idea to stay out of direct sunshine.
Leave your facial serum on as long as you can
If your serum is a nighttime serum you’re probably going to leave it on until morning anyway. But how long should you leave a daytime serum on before washing and rinsing? The answer depends on the type of serum you’re using. Generally speaking, the larger the molecule the slower it absorbs (if it absorbs at all).
Retinol for example, has poor absorption compared to its prescription cousin Retin-A which absorbs into the skin in a matter of minutes. Some Vitamin C preparations absorb in under 30 minutes, while others may not absorb at all.
Hyaluronic acid generally doesn’t get absorbed into the skin at all and its effect is entirely topical.
In most cases, the best practice is simply to leave the serum on as long as possible — which is until your next normal face washing.
Skin serum with moisturizer?
You may be tempted to use a moisturizer with your serum in order to prevent your skin from drying out. In most cases we recommend against this practice as the serum can become suspended in the moisturizer and slow absorption. It also shouldn’t be necessary with serums that contain moisturizer already. Also, keep in mind that hyaluronic acid is itself a powerful moisturizing agent which leaves skin soft and supple.
If you do need to add a moisturizer because you have very dry skin, it’s advisable to apply your serum first, and then your moisturizer within 10 to 15 minutes of your serum application.