Anti-Aging Serums: Which One Should You Use?

7 years ago

Trying to keep up with advances in anti-aging skincare is like trying to tell time by looking at the second hand of a watch. Too many products are introduced featuring too many miracle ingredients. And when you find a product you like, chances are it will be discontinued. And then you're right back where you started.

I write a beauty and skincare blog, and I get a lot of emails asking for recommendations. People are looking for specific product recommendations, but I find it’s more helpful in the long run to tell my readers about the active ingredients in anti-aging skincare. That way, if a product is discontinued, they know what to look for to find a replacement.

Which brings me to serums. They’ve been around since 1983, which is when Esteé Lauder introduced Advanced Night Repair -- the iconic brown bottle with an eye dropper that dispensed a couple of drops of fluid to layer under your night cream.

There are now dozens of serums on the market, all making extravagant claims for their efficacy. You can pay anywhere from $20 to $200 for a serum. The question is, are they worth it?

Here’s my dirty little secret about serums: you don't have to use them as part of an elaborate skin care regimen. If your skin is extremely dry, you might need to use a heavier cream on top of your serum, but I find that a lot of serums have a silky, lotion-like texture and work fine as moisturizers.

So what’s the difference between a serum and a moisturizer? Mostly it’s the concentration of active ingredients. Moisturizers have proportionally more water and inert ingredients such as mineral oil and glycerine. Serums tend to be much more potent. A good serum is packed with skin superstars: antioxidants and exfoliaters, as well as moisture-binding, skin soothing, and skin communicating ingredients.


Research suggests that antioxidants can reduce the damage your skin receives from sun exposure and free radicals. A state-of-the-art serum should contain a lot of antioxidants. Antioxidants commonly used in skincare include Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and a wide variety of fruit, vegetable, herb, and plant extracts. The most expensive serums tend to contain an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink variety of antioxidants.


Exfoliation sloughs off dead skin cells, freshens the skin, and reduces the size of the pores. In their strongest form, exfoliaters increase cellular turnover and encourage the production of collagen in the skin. Retinols, derived from Vitamin A, are the most potent exfoliators available.

Moisture-binders, Skin-communicators, Soothers

The rest of a serum’s active ingredients tend to be ingredients that calm the skin, mimic the structure of healthy skin, and attract and bind moisture to it. Ingredients like lecithin, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin protect the skin barrier and help retain moisture. Niacinamide helps aging, damaged skin cells look and act younger.

My current recommendations:

Olay Regenerist Daily Regenerating Serum, Fragrance-Free ($18.99 for 1.7 ounces)

This is a silicone-based serum with peptides, niacin, Vitamin E, and green tea extract. In addition to its anti-aging uses, this serum can be used as a light moisturizer, eye cream, and a makeup primer. To use it as a makeup primer, apply it on top of your day time moisturizer and under your foundation.

Clinique Repairwear Deep Wrinkle Concentrate for Face and Eyes ($55 for 1.4 ounces)

This serum contains every skin goodie I can imagine: antioxidants, skin-identical ingredients, cell communicating ingredients, potent anti-irritants, fatty acids, and plant oils.

Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Concentrate Recovery Boosting Treatment ($85 for 1 ounce)

An upgrade to Lauder’s original Advanced Night Repair, this water- and silicone-based serum contains more antioxidants than the original, plus an active bacteria culture that is purported to have beneficial antibacterial effects.

MD Skincare Hydra-Pure Vitamin C Serum ($90/1 ounce)

A more moisturizing silicone-based serum containing Vitamin C, quercerin, Vitamin E, willow bark, kudzu, cell-communicating ingredients, and salicylic acid.

Cellex-C Serum for Sensitive Skin ($90/1 ounce)

This fragrance-free serum is unusual in that instead of being a cocktail of skin-supporting ingredients, it is mostly stabilized Vitamin C, which is a potent antioxidant. Vitamin C also reduces skin discolorations -- definitely something to look into if you have age spots.

MD Skincare Hydra-Pure Antioxidant Firming Serum ($95 for 1 ounce)

This serum has more of a lotion texture, and contains lactic acid, water binding agents, antioxidants, retinol, and cell-communicating ingredients.

If you think your skin care regimen needs a boost, I strongly recommend you use a serum to deliver the highest possible concentration of skin helpers to your complexion. And even though serums can be expensive, they're tough act to follow. Truth be told, if my serum is Superman, the other creams I use are more like Jimmy Olson and Lois Lane.

For more on antioxidants, check out the posts on Ask an Aesthetician.

Poppy hands out unsolicited beauty and style advice at The Beauty Boomer when she isn't making fun of celebrities on Mamarazzi.

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