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The Essence of Serums; It’s Not Science, It’s Sales

skincare routine serum

By Fayne Frey, Board Certified Dermatologist

Our society values youth…

Many people remain committed to their skincare routines even in the midst of a recession. Personal appearance remains a priority. Since people still spend a lot of money on skincare regardless, cosmetic companies continue to aggressively market their products that promise brighter, younger and firmer skin.

“The message I hear when I see these ads is, You aren’t acceptable the way you are. Well…let me let you in on a little secret. You are.”

An advertisement for a clear liquid called “serum” caught my attention recently. The ad promised the product would “revolutionize” skin in a few short weeks. Ridiculous.

What are facial serums?

Serums are the latest and greatest skincare products that promise a fountain of youth. Here’s the truth: a serum is the clear liquid obtained from blood that remains when you remove the cells and clotting factors. Perhaps a clever marketing expert in the skincare industry decided one day to formulate a clear liquid, bottle it, tell us to add it to our daily skincare regimen, and yes, call it a serum.

These products claim to contain a higher concentration of certain ingredients than moisturizers. They may. Or they may not. We don’t know the concentration of any ingredient in a serum, or any other skincare product for that matter. That information is proprietary and not required on the label.

Does a “standard” exist for facial serums?

Cosmetic chemists don’t have a standard definition or formulation for a serum. Dermatologists don’t either. Even the federal government doesn’t define the meaning of the word.

It’s like the word soup, which is a bowl or cup filled with anything that consists primarily of liquid. Soups contain many different ingredients depending on the recipe. Perhaps it is made with meat, fish, chicken and/or vegetables. It can be smooth or chunky. Who defines the meaning of the word soup? I feel the same way about serums, which are formulated many different ways. They can be water or oil based. They might contain ingredients such as glycolic acid, Vitamin C, caffeine or peptides. Some companies add other ingredients too, anything from essential oils to bee propolis.

How effective are facial serums?

Who knows? No scientific exists to show us their efficacy. Claims of their performance are just as varied as their formulations. They promise to brighten and tighten skin, decrease wrinkles, make your skin glow and improve pigmentation. These varied claims alone make me a skeptic.

Additionally, serums can’t change the skin structure as they claim. If that were the case, they would be classified as drugs and, by law, require FDA approval. Serums are cosmetics. Period.

Ingredients NOT included in facial serums

My concern about serums is actually not about the ingredients that they contain, but rather the type of ingredients they don’t contain. Well-formulated moisturizers, products objectively tested, generally contain occlusives, ingredients that prevent water from evaporating from the skin into the environment. In other words, studies show moisturizers increase water content of skin. Serums do not contain occlusives such as petrolatum or mineral oil. As a result, they are unable to effectively increase the water content of skin.

So…as cosmetics, serums can’t change the structure of skin, they are poorly designed moisturizers, and little evidence exists to show their ingredients have any effect on the skin. Still not convinced?

How and when to use serums?

Suggestions for how to fit these serums into your daily skincare regimen are arbitrary. Some serums say to apply after cleansing. Others, after moisturizing. And still others, after both cleansing and moisturizing. Is there any science to any of this advice?

Many different types of serums are now sold in stores and online. The first was the basic serum. Then combination serums arose, for example, a serum with a primer (another unnecessary skincare product).  Double serums became popular next. Finally, day serums hit the market followed by night serums. How do the ingredients know the time of day?

Is an “essence” just another serum?

To add insult to injury, another skincare product appeared in stores less than a decade ago. Called an “essence”, this latest item is a clear liquid with a concentrated formula specifically created to reduce wrinkles and improve the tone and texture of the skin. Sounds a lot like serum to me, just marketed with a different name.

It’s not science, it’s sales.

Forget the serums, you don’t need them. Forget the essences, you’re perfectly fine without those as well. My advice? Before you purchase any skincare product, ask yourself, “Do I really need this?”

And tell yourself, “I’m already awesome.”


fayne freyFayne Frey, M.D., is a board-certified clinical and surgical dermatologist practicing in West Nyack, New York, where she specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer. She is a nationally recognized expert in the effectiveness and formulation of over-the-counter skincare products, and, as a speaker, has captivated audiences with her wry observations regarding the skincare industry. She has consulted for numerous media outlets, including NBC, USA Today, and, the Huffington Post, and has shared her expertise on both cable and major TV outlets. Dr. Frey is the Founder of, an educational skincare information and product selection service website that clarifies and simplifies the overwhelming choice of effective, safe and affordable products encountered in the skincare aisles. Dr. Frey is a fellow of both the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.



photo credit: Charisse Kenion from unsplash


originally published 4/23/2020
Updated 6/1/2022

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